It’s 1:32 a.m., and I’m on my computer, clicking through pictures of a young girl named Cristal. There she is lounging on a bed in short shorts, her knees drawn up to show the undersides of her thighs, her hot-pink bra peeking out from behind a low-cut tank top. Here’s a close-up of cleavage. And the money shot: Cristal in a teeny, tiny skintight dress posing like a Vargas girl with back arched and leg raised and bust swiveled to face the camera. Her waist is narrow. Her lips are full. She’s a pretty thing, and from the number of provocative images and Cristal’s pout in each of them, it appears that she knows it. In any case, whatever lingering self-doubts she may have had on the matter are surely dispelled by the comments: “VERY SEXY…..I LIKEY”; “god Damm Cristal! That’s some Booty you got there!”; “im smashing lol”; “OMG OMG OMG OMG CAN WE PLEASE GET MARRIED!!!”; “INBOX ME UR #”; “looking hella good ma”; “IM NOT GONNA LIE…………U R SEXY AS HELL.”
When I meet Cristal at a McDonald’s on East 14th Street, a few blocks from the high school where she is a freshman, she’s bundled up and buttoned up and decidedly more demure than she appears online. I learn that she’s 14, that she has a boyfriend, and that she would never consider posting a photo where she’s nude. “Like, naked?” she asks, aghast. “That’s completely out of the question. I don’t do that, not even with my boyfriend.” But she has no qualms about getting the juices flowing, or reveling in the secondhand sexual validation Facebook allows. She pulls the money shot up on her phone and studies it for a moment. “All it really showed was my thighs,” she says before giving in to a little frisson of pride in her developing looks. “But like, no cocky shit, but I have a body, so when I take a picture, it shows. Everything is, like, out there.”
It makes sense that Cristal would feel out her sexual potential online: The kids who are just now beginning to have romantic entanglements were born right around the time many of us got our first e-mail addresses—their whole lives have unspooled in the ambient glow of a computer screen. Their sexual maturation is inextricably bound up with technology. But Cristal didn’t just post this picture to see how boys would respond; she also posted it to see how her boyfriend would respond to those responses. And respond he did. “He hit me up over text, and he was like, ‘Um, could we talk about that picture? Don’t you think it’s a little bit too much?’ And I was like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the picture. Calm down.’ And he was like, ‘Look at the comments.’ And I was like, ‘The comments are bad, but the picture isn’t, so …’ ”
He wanted her to remove the picture from Facebook. In the end, she decided to leave it posted: “No boyfriend is gonna make me do something I don’t want to do.” But even while talking about her boyfriend’s reaction now, Cristal gets a little giddy. The fact that he was protective of her online meant something to her in terms of their relationship. She grins broadly at the thought. “I was like, Awwwww!”
If eighth-graders today are spared the indignity of having to first learn about sex by watching a middle-aged health teacher roll a condom over a banana, having the web for a teacher comes with drawbacks, too. Consider that a single Google search of the term “sex ed” turns up, among other—more useful—information, a picture of a naked woman, the areolae of her nipples barely obscured by what appear to be Skittles, which run in a single-file line down to her nether region.
“One time I searched up ‘hermaphrodite,’ ” 16-year-old Tricey tells her friends from school in the back room of a Williamsburg pizzeria one December afternoon. “They called Lady Gaga a hermaphrodite, and I was like, ‘What is that?’ And then I saw this photo.” Her eyes widen in mock alarm as giggles crescendo up the table.
Samantha, 16, flashes her dimples. “You can learn a lot of things about sex. You don’t have to use, like, your parents sitting down with you and telling you. The Internet’s where kids learn it from, most of the time.”
Tricey begins to giggle again. “They had this thing where you typed in ‘naughty toilet stick people,’ and the toilet-stick people were having sex, doing positions. That was really …” She trails off, unable to come up with an apt description of what that really was.