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.
Of the dozens of kids I interviewed over several months and in various neighborhoods around New York every one of them said he or she had seen “inappropriate material” online, sometimes accidentally through pop-ups or Google searches, sometimes not. There’s no doubt that some kids, and even some schools, remain far more sheltered than others. But the average age of first exposure to Internet pornography is widely cited as 11. “It’s pretty much intensely available,” one 13-year-old told me, before adding that he’s actually not as into online porn now as he used to be. And the very mention of filters tends to elicit laughs. Teenagers and tweens know that programs like Net Nanny don’t stand a chance against their generation’s superior Internet knowledge and access to proxies like Hidemyass.com, which acts as a gateway between a filtered computer and the big bad web and, crucially, keeps searches anonymous.
“You don’t have an account or anything, so it doesn’t give any of your information,” says 12-year-old Alexa of a site called Omegle, which pairs users randomly, and anonymously, in video or text chats. When I meet her and her friend Kelsey around the block from an Upper West Side middle school, they have braces and school bags and the fawnlike quality of girls on the cusp of adolescence. They also know that sites like Omegle are not exactly just for making new friends.
“It was really disgusting,” says Kelsey of the time last year when they first went on the site. “Like, people did inappropriate stuff. They’d show their private parts. They won’t talk; they just type. They’re like, ‘Do you like that, you like that, you want more, you want more?’ And we’re like, ‘No. That’s disgusting.’ ”
“We were together when we first saw it,” Alexa explains. “Our friends were just like, ‘Oh, here, look at this.’ ”
“The boys talk about it a lot.” Kelsey says, shrugging. “We just laughed and disconnected.”
“You can press DISCONNECT whenever you want.”
“It’s like if I [spoke to] ten of them, like, two people would probably be normal. Or one. Or they’d be normal at the beginning and then do that perverted stuff.”
“They can’t find you,” Alexa points out. “You don’t really tell them your name a lot. People know not to tell them where they are and stuff.”
“With certain guys, they’ll see something on the Internet, and then they’ll want their girlfriend to do it.”
“You make up a name or something, like Madison. The thing is, you can always lie. Everybody does.”
The girls know to be wary of strangers on the Internet—but they’re also wary of how the web is affecting the boys they might actually want to date.
“Guys wouldn’t really know about that much stuff if it weren’t for the Internet,” Kelsey says. “It freaks them out.”
“Yeah,” Alexa agrees. “It makes them kind of, like, inappropriate.”
“It can make them perverts at a younger age.”
“Like, sometimes you’re not ready for stuff like that.”
Kelsey tips her head to one side pensively. “I think it mostly happens to guys ’cause they’re just like, ‘Oh, look, that’s really cool.’ You know how when we were little girls, mostly we wore dresses and stuff, and we didn’t want to jump in the mud or anything or splash in puddles that can get us dirty?” The guys, on the other hand, splashed eagerly away. “It’s, like, the same. It’s disgusting to look at that dirty stuff, but the boys are just like, ‘Whatever, it’s life.’ ”
“Once they get older, they’ll grow out of it,” Alexa reasons.
“Yeah, I think it’s just a stage in middle school,” says Kelsey, “but I think they’ll get less perverted when they get to high school and stuff.”
“Basically, with certain guys, they’ll see something on the Internet and then they’ll want their girlfriend to do it,” Cristal says when I ask her how the Internet influences dating among her friends—a sentiment that is largely shared by the girls in the Brooklyn pizzeria.
“Okay, there was this one guy who had, like, a porno addiction,” Tricey tells me. “He likes to watch pornos and everything. And so I’m going out with him, and he sees that I have, well …” She motions to her chest, which is perky and ample. “So he’s like, ‘Oh, you want to dress up like that, too?’ And I see the picture, I’m like—” A look of shock crosses her face, as she goes momentarily speechless. “She had, you know how they have those fake-boob things? And then she had, like, this hot-pink bikini and these really tiny thong underwear. He’s like, ‘Oh, you want to dress like that?’ I just looked at him, for ten seconds, and then I just walked away.”
“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.”
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.
Still, while it’s not surprising that adults believe today’s youth are navigating a brave new world, what is surprising is that the kids themselves—who’ve never known anything different—feel that way, too. They get that they are in a strange, uncharted place. “I think kids kind of mature more because they have computers,” Alexa tells me. “Sometimes it can be a good thing, and sometimes it can be a bad thing.” It’s a version of the idea I heard from every group—an awareness that, sexually speaking, the web may be doing them a disservice.
“I love you,” Tricey says, a bit wistfully. The boys she knows “won’t say that to your face. Like, they won’t have to worry about seeing your reaction when they type words into a computer. They don’t have to worry about seeing that.”
“Yeah,” Samantha agrees. “Because they’re just typing, so they’ll be like, ‘Okay, whatever, blah, blah, blah.’ They don’t even think about what they write.”
“Sometimes they do mean it,” Tricey says. “Sometimes they mean it, and sometimes they don’t mean it. But when they mean it, they’re scared to tell you to your face.”
She shrugs her shoulders, as if it doesn’t matter, though the look on her face says it does. “They’re not gonna show you any emotion,” she says finally, with a sigh. “They have to do that on the Internet.”