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The Paris Hilton Effect

Daphne Merkin on the new video that’s been making the private-school rounds—and the culture of teenage exhibitionism.


To be a teenager, as many of us can still painfully recall decades after the fact, is to live in a nearly constant state of lonely mortification—and an almost equally constant state of intense socialization, otherwise known as gossip. Although the endless trading in personal details helps to spread the mortification around, the self-doubt that comes with adolescence is peculiarly resilient: Am I pretty enough? Normal enough? Popular enough? Thin enough? And, most important, in this Age of Britney: Am I hot enough? That one dopey word—hot—is my 14-year-old daughter’s highest term of regard for a peer, male or female. It’s not clear to me that she knows exactly what she means by this, but it has something to do with a pungent essence—an eau de sex—that she imagines wafts off those kids she considers to be the lucky ones.

In the latest instance of a teenager attempting to convey her hotness factor, a Horace Mann eighth-grader used a digital camera to tape herself masturbating and simulating oral sex, then e-mailed the gawkily explicit video—which resembles an audition for a pedophiliac porn film—to a male classmate she had a crush on. The boy in question chivalrously rushed the three-minute clip onto the Web, and its contents quickly made the private-school circuit.

For people like me, who grew up in the Gidget era, just to have a note intercepted in which you revealed your abiding love for the boy who sat three seats behind you was enough to cause weeks of embarrassment. This makes it all the more difficult to grasp how very permeable is the universe of IMing and blogs and cell phones in which my daughter and her friends now live. And when you put an easily accessible medium of instant exposure together with a culture that keeps upping the ante on what is “hot,” you get the Paris Hilton Effect: an atmosphere of erotic free-fall. Whatever happened to those innocent girls in their summer dresses?

Once upon a time, in the brain-addled, merrymaking sixties, the Beatles sang: “No one will be watching us. Why don’t we do it in the road?” Nowadays, when the kneesocks World of Henry Orient has converged with the sex-slave gyrations of Linda Lovelace, the Beatles’ challenge to solid bourgeois values seems touchingly outdated. The attention-grabbing, immoderately libidinal future is here, and pity the poor kids who’ve inherited its exhibitionist mantra: Everyone will be watching us. Why don’t we do it online?


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