Precious nods. “They expect you to do things, and then when you say no, they’ll be mad.”
“And then start making rumors.”
For 13-year-old Mariah, an eighth-grader at Tania and Precious’s middle school, that’s exactly what happened, proving that the Internet can be as effective a venue for sexual retaliation as it is for sexual exploration—and that girls, as always, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
“Well, the first boyfriend I had in middle school, I was in sixth grade and he was in seventh,” Mariah explains, pushing a lock of dark hair away from her pixie face. “So he had a little more experience. And he was like, ‘Oh, let’s go to the pizzeria and go to the bathroom and do it,’ and I’m like, ‘No.’ And then he started spreading rumors that we did do it, and it started getting online.” She’d be on the Internet, and suddenly she’d get a message from “Mariah the Slut,” asking “Will you suck it?” or “Can I do it with you?” When she replied to ask who was sending these messages, the answer that came back was, “This is you.” She says kids from her school would also “hit me up on AIM and call me names,” things she knows they wouldn’t have the guts to say to her face. “They got me so upset,” she says. “Like, they’re not so innocent theirselves.”
The experience did not drive Mariah off the Internet—which would be all but impossible these days, anyway—but it did make her more cautious. Her current boyfriend lives nearby, and she tries to mainly communicate with him face-to-face. Still, as a sign of trust, they have exchanged AIM passwords and maintain accounts that no one else knows about. Recently, the boy who started the rumors asked her to be his friend on Facebook. Mariah declined.
It’s tempting to say that what’s being lost here is the sweet awkwardness of young love—the shy pauses, the clumsy conversations, the innocent, ill-informed fumblings of two people who are first learning about their sexuality through the feel of the warm flesh and breath of another person, rather than through a moving image of a stranger on a cold, pixelated screen or a cluster of words that spring mysteriously from a complicated pattern of zeros and ones. But that’s probably just nostalgia for a past that never really existed. Kids have always been both kind and brutal to one another about sex. They’ve always fretted about, and wanted to show off, their bodies. Nor is sexual precocity, and the dangers that can accompany it, a product of universal Wi-Fi. Kids came out in 1995. As for Skins, most of the kids I spoke to hadn’t bothered to watch it.