Alair is wearing a tight white tank top cut off above the hem to show her midriff. Her black cargo pants graze the top of her combat boots, and her black leather belt is studded with metal chains that drape down at intervals across her hips. She has long blonde curls that at various times have been dyed green, blue, red, purple, and orange. (“A mistake,” she says. “Even if you mean to dye your hair orange, it’s still a mistake.”) Despite the fact that she’s fully clothed, she seems somehow exposed, her baby fat lingering in all the right places. Walking down the sterile, white halls of Stuyvesant High School, she creates a wave of attention. She’s not the most popular girl in school, but she is well known. “People like me,” she wrote in an instant message. “Well, most of them.”
Alair is headed for the section of the second-floor hallway where her friends gather every day during their free tenth period for the “cuddle puddle,” as she calls it. There are girls petting girls and girls petting guys and guys petting guys. She dives into the undulating heap of backpacks and blue jeans and emerges between her two best friends, Jane and Elle, whose names have been changed at their request. They are all 16, juniors at Stuyvesant. Alair slips into Jane’s lap, and Elle reclines next to them, watching, cat-eyed. All three have hooked up with each other. All three have hooked up with boys—sometimes the same boys. But it’s not that they’re gay or bisexual, not exactly. Not always.
Their friend Nathan, a senior with John Lennon hair and glasses, is there with his guitar, strumming softly under the conversation. “So many of the girls here are lesbian or have experimented or are confused,” he says.
Ilia, another senior boy, frowns at Nathan’s use of labels. “It’s not lesbian or bisexual. It’s just, whatever . . . ”
Since the school day is winding down, things in the hallway are starting to get rowdy. Jane disappears for a while and comes back carrying a pint-size girl over her shoulder. “Now I take her off and we have gay sex!” she says gleefully, as she parades back and forth in front of the cuddle puddle. “And it’s awesome!” The hijacked girl hangs limply, a smile creeping to her lips. Ilia has stuffed papers up the front of his shirt and prances around on tiptoe, batting his eyes and sticking out his chest. Elle is watching, enthralled, as two boys lock lips across the hall. “Oh, my,” she murmurs. “Homoerotica. There’s nothing more exciting than watching two men make out.” And everyone is talking to another girl in the puddle who just “came out,” meaning she announced that she’s now open to sexual overtures from both boys and girls, which makes her a minor celebrity, for a little while.
When asked how many of her female friends have had same-sex experiences, Alair answers, “All of them.” Then she stops to think about it. “All right, maybe 80 percent. At least 80 percent of them have experimented. And they still are. It’s either to please a man, or to try it out, or just to be fun, or ’cause you’re bored, or just ’cause you like it . . . whatever.”
With teenagers there is always a fair amount of posturing when it comes to sex, a tendency to exaggerate or trivialize, innocence mixed with swagger. It’s also true that the “puddle” is just one clique at Stuyvesant, and that Stuyvesant can hardly be considered a typical high school. It attracts the brightest public-school students in New York, and that may be an environment conducive to fewer sexual inhibitions. “In our school,” Elle says, “people are getting a better education, so they’re more open-minded.”
That said, the Stuyvesant cuddle puddle is emblematic of the changing landscape of high-school sexuality across the country. This past September, when the National Center for Health Statistics released its first survey in which teens were questioned about their sexual behavior, 11 percent of American girls polled in the 15-to-19 demographic claimed to have had same-sex encounters—the same percentage of all women ages 15 to 44 who reported same-sex experiences, even though the teenagers have much shorter sexual histories. It doesn’t take a Stuyvesant education to see what this means: More girls are experimenting with each other, and they’re starting younger. And this is a conservative estimate, according to Ritch Savin-Williams, a professor of human development at Cornell who has been conducting research on same-sex-attracted adolescents for over twenty years. Depending on how you phrase the questions and how you define sex between women, he believes that “it’s possible to get up to 20 percent of teenage girls.”