Of course, what can’t be expressed in statistical terms is how teenagers think about their same-sex interactions. Go to the schools, talk to the kids, and you’ll see that somewhere along the line this generation has started to conceive of sexuality differently. Ten years ago in the halls of Stuyvesant you might have found a few goth girls kissing goth girls, kids on the fringes defiantly bucking the system. Now you find a group of vaguely progressive but generally mainstream kids for whom same-sex intimacy is standard operating procedure. “It’s not like, Oh, I’m going to hit on her now. It’s just kind of like, you come up to a friend, you grab their ass,” Alair explains. “It’s just, like, our way of saying hello.” These teenagers don’t feel as though their sexuality has to define them, or that they have to define it, which has led some psychologists and child-development specialists to label them the “post-gay” generation. But kids like Alair and her friends are in the process of working up their own language to describe their behavior. Along with gay, straight, and bisexual, they’ll drop in new words, some of which they’ve coined themselves: polysexual, ambisexual, pansexual, pansensual, polyfide, bi-curious, bi-queer, fluid, metroflexible, heteroflexible, heterosexual with lesbian tendencies—or, as Alair puts it, “just sexual.” The terms are designed less to achieve specificity than to leave all options open.
To some it may sound like a sexual Utopia, where labels have been banned and traditional gender roles surpassed, but it’s a complicated place to be. Anyone who has ever been a girl in high school knows the vicissitudes of female friendships. Add to that a sexual component and, well, things get interesting. Take Alair and her friend Jane, for example. “We’ve been dancing around each other for, like, three years now,” says Alair. “I’d hop into bed with her in a second.” Jane is tall and curvy with green eyes and faint dimples. She thinks Alair is “amazing,” but she’s already had a female friendship ruined when it turned into a romantic relationship, so she’s reluctant to let it happen again. Still, they pet each other in the hall, flirt, kiss, but that’s it, so far. “Alair,” Jane explains, “is literally in love with everyone and in love with no one.”
Relationships are a bitch, dude.”
Alair is having lunch with Jane, Elle, and their friend Nathan at a little Indian place near Jane’s Upper West Side apartment. Jane has been telling the story of her first lesbian relationship: She fell for a girl who got arrested while protesting the Republican National Convention (very cool), but the girl stopped calling after they spent the night together (very uncool).
“We should all be single for the rest of our lives,” Alair continues. “And we should all have sugar daddies.” As the only child of divorced parents, Alair learned early that love doesn’t always end in happily ever after and that sex doesn’t always end in love.
Nathan looks across the table at her and nods knowingly. He recently broke up with a girl he still can’t get off his mind, even though he wasn’t entirely faithful when they were together. “I agree. I wholeheartedly agree,” he says.
“I disagree,” says Elle, alarmed. She’s the romantic of the group, a bit naïve, if you ask the others.
“Well,” says Nathan. “You’re, like, the only one in a happy relationship right now, so . . . ”
Alair cracks up. “Happy? Her man is gayer than I am!” (Jane, the sarcastic one, has a joke about this boy: “He’s got one finger left in the closet, and it’s in Elle, depending on what time it is.”)
“But at least she’s happy,” argues Nathan.
“When I’m single, I say I’m happy I’m single, and when I’m in a relationship I seem happy in the relationship. Really, I’m filled with angst!” says Elle.
Nathan rolls his eyes. “Anyone who says they’re filled with angst is definitely not filled with angst.”
He’s got a point. In her brand-new sneakers and her sparkly barrettes, Elle is hardly a poster child for teenage anxiety. She makes A’s at Stuyvesant, babysits her cousins, and is engaging in a way that will go over well in college interviews.
Then again, none of them are bad kids. Sure, they drink and smoke and party, but in a couple of years, they’ll be drinking and smoking and partying at Princeton or MIT. They had to be pretty serious students to even get into Stuyvesant, which accepts only about 3 percent of its applicants. And when they’re not studying, they’re going to music lessons, SAT prep, debate practice, Japanese class, theater rehearsal, or some other résumé-building extracurricular activity.