Nancy Jo Sales
September 26, 2013
This year, 81 percent of Internet-using teenagers in America reported that they are active on social-networking sites, more than ever before. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and new dating apps like Tinder, Grindr, and Blendr have increasingly become key players in social interactions, both online and IRL (in real life). Combined with unprecedented easy access to the unreal world of Internet porn, the result is a situation that has drastically affected gender roles for young people. Speaking to a variety of teenaged boys and girls across the country, Nancy Jo Sales uncovers a world where boys are taught they have the right to expect everything from social submission to outright sex from their female peers. What is this doing to America’s young women?
NOTE: Some of the names and identifying details in this story have been changed.
THE TINDER GUY
She wanted it to be like the scene in the Lana Del Rey video for “Blue Jeans”—“hot and slow and epic.” The scene where strangers meet and fall into an easy intimacy, making love in a pool—“and they look so hot and it’s just, like, totally epic.” A boy at her school—she didn’t want to talk about him now; he’d broken her heart; but “like, whatever.” She’d “deleted him” from her phone. “I was stalking him too much, seeing him doing fun things on Instagram, and it hurt.”
They’d been instant-messaging on Facebook, and one night he told her he loved her. And then “I found out he was talking to, like, four other girls.” And now she wanted to do something to get over it, maybe to get back at him. “I mean, I should have known. All men are basically whores.” When he didn’t turn out to be her “true love”—“like Bella and Edward, or Bella and Jacob, you know?”—she decided she had to “lose it to someone,” so why not with someone she would never have to see again? And yet, she hoped it would somehow be like the Lana Del Rey song. “I will love you till the end of time,” it goes.
The guy she was supposed to meet that day—the guy from Tinder, the dating app kids were using to hook up—“I know, like, five guys who’ve done it; girls use it too, but they pretend like they don’t”—he was cute and had tattoos on his arms. He looked “James Franco–ish,” but younger. On Tinder you could meet people in your age group. She was 16; he was 17.
Alone in her room, the night before, reading her friends’ Twitter feeds and watching YouTube videos (Selena Gomez and “baby animals being cute”), she’d started feeling lonely, restless, and bored. “Sometimes I just want to talk to a guy so bad.” So she downloaded the app and started swiping through the pictures of boys in her area. She “hearted” his picture, and within a few minutes he had hearted hers, and then they were instantly texting.
“Ur hot,” he wrote. “U wanna meet?”
They arranged to rendezvous at a shopping mall in Los Angeles not far from the neighborhood where they lived. “Of course it was going to be a public place. And if it turned out he was really some gross old man, I’d just run away.” But there he was, standing by his car, looking almost like his picture. . . . Almost. There was something different about his face—it was “squishier. Like, he was almost fat.” But now here they were, and she didn’t know quite how to get out of it.
He smiled and kissed her on the cheek. He smelled of Axe Body Spray. She was sorry she’d spent so much time getting ready for this. “I even waxed,” she said. He wanted her to get in his car, but she knew she shouldn’t. They started walking around the mall, “talking about nothing, nothing. It was awkward, totally weird.” He asked if she wanted to sit down, but there was nowhere to sit except in restaurants, so they wound up going inside a Pottery Barn and making out on a couch. Later she posted something on her Tumblr blog about the difficulty of finding love.
WHEELING IN THE BITCHES
“Gotta wheel the bitches in. Gotta wheel the bitches in,” said the teenage boy on a city bus in New York. “Nowadays you can do it so easy. There are so many apps and shit that just, like, hand you the girls. They don’t even know that’s what they’re doing, but really they’re just giving teenagers ways to have sex.”
This year, 81 percent of Internet-using teenagers in America reported that they're active on social-networking sites, one of which is Tinder, a mobile dating app that teens use to hook up.
SEX, LIES, AND SOCIAL MEDIA
If you’re between 8 and 18, you spend more than 11 hours a day plugged into an electronic device. The average American teen now spends nearly every waking moment on a smart phone or computer or watching TV. This seismic shift in how kids spend their time is having a profound effect on the way they make friends, the way they date, and their introduction to the world of sex.
Kids have always been interested in sex, of course; but there have never been more ways for them to express that to one another, at any moment of the day, no matter where they are. They don’t even have to be together, and often they are not. “You can be sitting in class getting a boner ’cause some girl is texting you that she wants to suck your dick,” said a boy in L.A. “It’s kind of distracting.”
As quickly as new social media appears, teens seem to find ways to use it to have sex, often sex devoid of even any pretense of emotional intimacy. There’s sexting, and there’s Snapchat, where teenagers share pictures of their bodies or body parts; on Skype, sometimes they strip for each other or masturbate together. On Omegle, they can talk to strangers, and sometimes the talk turns sexual. A boy in L.A. told me about a boy he knew who had a PayPal account where he accepted payment for being sexual online with “random guys . . . Two hundred bucks.” And then there is Tinder, where kids can meet each other on their phones. “It’s like Grindr used to be for gay guys, but now kids are doing it,” said a girl in L.A. “No one cares about anything but how you look.”
“We don’t date; we just hook up,” another girl in L.A. told me. “Even people who get in a relationship, it usually starts with a hookup.” Which can mean anything from making out to having sex. “When you have sex with a guy, they want it to be like a porno,” said a 19-year-old girl in New York. “They want anal and oral right away. Oral is, like, the new kissing.” “The cum shot in the face is a big thing,” said another girl.
And then there are “texting relationships,” a disembodied coupling that takes place solely on a screen. It can still become very sexual, often very quickly. “Guys you know from just, like, having one class together will be like, ‘Do you like to suck dick?’” said a 17-year-old girl in New York. “And if you say no, they just move on to the next person.”
THE GIRLS AT THE GROVE
“Social media is destroying our lives,” said the girl at the Grove.
“So why don’t you go off it?” I asked.
“Because then we would have no life,” said her friend.
The girls had been celebrating a birthday at the busy L.A. mall, and now they were on their way home; they carried bags of leftovers from the Cheesecake Factory. There were four of them: Melissa, Zoe, Padma, and Greta.* They stopped to sit down and talk awhile at an outdoor table.
They were pretty girls with long straight hair—two blonde, two brunette, all aged 16. They wore sleeveless summer dresses and looked fresh and sweet. They went to a magnet high school in L.A.
Greta, they said, was famous—or Instafamous, having thousands of followers on Instagram. She showed me a gallery of her Instapics; some were of her dog and some were of Greta pouting and wearing “the duck face.” Some of her followers, she said, were “random dudes in Italy and Arabia.”
Melissa said, “I have Facebook, a YouTube account. I’ve used Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine . . . ”
Blendr, another geosocial dating network like Tinder, describes itself as a “free, socially flirtatious chat-to-meet app.”
“Path, Skype,” Zoe said.
“Tumblr,” said Padma.
“I have a Twitter, but I don’t use it except for stalking other people,” said Greta.
They all laughed knowingly.
“I think everyone does it,” Greta said. “Everyone looks through other people’s profiles, but especially being teenage girls, we look at the profiles of the males we find attractive and we stalk the females the males find attractive.”
“It’s a way to get to know them without the awkward ‘Oh, what do you like to do?’ You already know,” said Padma.
“You can know their likes and dislikes,” Greta said. “‘Oh, they like this band.’ So you can, like, casually wear that band’s T-shirt and have them, like, fall in love with you or something. Or you can be like, ‘Oh, they listen to that music? Ew. Go away.’”
I asked them how they knew when a boy liked them.
“When a boy likes your [Facebook] profile pic or almost anything you post, it means that they’re stalking you, too. Which means they have interest in you,” said Zoe.
I asked them how they made the transition from social-media interaction to real-world interaction.
“You talk to them on Facebook; you do chat with them,” Melissa said.
I asked if they had boyfriends.
“There’s this boy Seth,” said Greta, “and when he liked my profile picture, I knew it was like, ‘Hey, ’sup, you cute.’ Then we held hands at a party. We were cute. But the one thing I didn’t like about him was he didn’t follow me back on Instagram. Social media causes soooooo much anxiety.”
They all agreed on that.
“The thing with social media is, if a guy doesn’t respond to you or doesn’t, like, stalk you back, then you’re gonna feel rejected,” said Melissa.
“And rejection hurts,” said Padma.
“And then you’re gonna go, like, look for another person to fill that void and you’re gonna move on to stalking someone else,” Melissa said.
“That’s how men become such whores,” said Greta.
“Guys actually take the Facebook-talking situation way too far,” meaning sexually, said Zoe.
They were nodding their heads.
“Like, when guys start a Facebook thing, they want too much,” said Padma. “They want to get some. They try with different girls to see who would give more of themselves.”
“It leads to major man-whoring,” Greta said.
“They’re definitely more forward to us online than in person,” said Zoe. “Because they’re not saying it to our faces.”
“This guy Seth, who is normally timid in real life,” said Greta, “sends girls messages asking for nudes.”
She showed me a text exchange in which Seth had asked her to “send pics”—meaning nude pics, a request Seth had punctuated with a smiley face. Greta had responded “Lololol” and “Hahahaha” and “Nope.” “It wasn’t THAT funny,” Seth had texted back.
“He isn’t my boyfriend,” clarified Greta.
“My friend, she was VC-ing,” or video chatting, “this guy she was kind of dating,” Melissa said. “He sent so many nudes to her, but she wasn’t trusting that he wouldn’t show the pictures to other people. So she Skyped him and showed him nudes that way. He took a screenshot without her knowing it. He sent it to so many people and the entire baseball team. She was whispered about and called names. It’s never gone away. He still has it and won’t delete it.”
I asked if they knew girls who posted provocative pictures of themselves. They all said yes.
“More provocative equals more likes,” said Greta.
“It attracts more guys and then it makes other girls think about doing it just for the attention. They’re attention whores,” said Padma, frowning.
“My father thinks all my photos are provocative,” Greta mused.
“I think some girls post slutty pictures of themselves to show guys the side to them that guys want to see,” said Zoe. “It’s annoying.”
“Girls call them sluts. Boys call it hot,” said Padma.
Greta shrugged. “I call it hilarious.”