“I wouldn’t mind if they said, ‘Send me a picture of you,’ just a regular picture, with everything on,” says Samantha on that December afternoon. “But it’s like the way they ask for it? Naked?”
Tricey nods. “It affects them, the Internet. The guys expect to just chat girls up online, but when y’all see each other and y’all go out or whatever, the only thing that they want to do is get in the bed.”
Star, who’s 14, rolls her eyes. “Yeah, that’s the only thing they talk about.”
“I think they’re pressured by the Internet,” says Tricey. “When you see some of those things, you actually get a negative mind.”
Samantha frowns. “They see a pretty girl on the computer, big boobs or whatever, so they’ll be like, ‘Okay, I want a girl like that.’ ”
“I can’t stand that. The subject about the big boobs and all of that other stuff.”
“I don’t want big boobs!” Samantha wails. “I have small boobs. I have a small booty.”
“Porn,” she adds, slumping down in her chair. “That really teaches kids a lot. A lot more than they should be knowing. And that goes through the mind, I guess. And it’s, like, that’s how some girls get raped or something crazy.”
That happened to a friend, Star says softly. Suddenly the table gets very, very quiet.
This is the paradoxical fear of many heterosexual 14-year-old girls: that the Internet is making boys more aggressive sexually—more accepting of graphic images or violence toward women, brasher, more demanding—but it is also making them less so, or at least less interested in the standard-issue, flesh-and-bone girls they encounter in real life who may not exactly have Penthouse proportions and porn-star inclinations. (“If you see something online, and the girls in your neighborhood are totally different, then it’s, um … different,” one 14-year-old boy tells me.) This puts young women in the sometimes uncomfortable position of trying to bridge the gap.
Tania, a shy sixth-grader who goes to school near Gramercy Park, hardly even acts like she and her boyfriend are dating when they are face-to-face but warms to him over the Internet. “Like, at the end of the day we’ll see each other, but I still ignore him,” she says. “I don’t say hi to him. It’s as if we don’t go out, like we’re just friends. On AIM, I don’t see him, so I get more comfortable.” In fact, her AIM conversations are adult enough that when her mom stumbled across a page she accidentally left open, Tania got in trouble. She’s too young, her mother thinks, to have a boyfriend, online or otherwise. But Tania’s main problem with the disjointed nature of her relationship is that she realizes that her boyfriend could be carrying on the same Internet flirtations with other girls—and from what she’s heard, he probably is. “It bothers me, ’cause, like, he says he likes me, but he talks to another girl. He goes around.”
This is particularly troublesome because she knows that other girls at her school are using the Internet to try to lure male attention their way. Just this afternoon, Tania got in a fight with a fellow sixth-grader who had taken topless pictures and sent them to some of the boys.
“Me and my friend confronted her and said that if you want to do it, you can do it, but I’m trying to help you.”
“Lots of girls are mad at her because she messes with their boyfriends,” adds Tania’s friend Precious, who is also 12. “At first we didn’t talk to her, and today she was just like, she’s sorry.”
“She tried to give us a hug.”
“And my friend was like, ‘Don’t touch me.’ And then we started arguing. She acts like she’s 11 going on 25.” Tania studies her palms and pokes out her bottom lip. “It bothers me, because I used to hang out with her. I cared for her.”
If Tania feels betrayed, it’s because she knows that the stakes have been raised, that she’ll now have to do more to draw the male gaze her way.
“I think it makes her more popular,” Precious says of the photos. “That’s probably why she did it.”
“Yeah, ’cause, like, she gets all the boys.”
“Like, all the attention now.”
“When she cries, all the boys go up to her: ‘Oh, what happened?’ or whatever.”
“Girls don’t like her,” Precious counters, matter-of-factly.
“Yeah.” Tania weighs the social odds. “So she’ll become less popular for the girls but more popular for the boys, because the boys will want to go out with her more, because they probably like her pictures. Like, they don’t like you for your personality,” she sniffs. “They like you for your body shape and stuff like that.”