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Just blame social media: Vanity Fair's sad and ugly teen sex panic

Just blame social media: Vanity Fair's sad and ugly teen sex panic


What are articles about social media and hookup culture doing to America's young women?

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Technological menace and "hookup culture" are both cultural catnip, so something like Vanity Fair’s "Friends Without Benefits" is a choice coup for an author like Nancy Jo Sales, who also wrote Bling Ring.

"Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and new dating apps like Tinder, Grindr, and Blendr have increasingly become key players in social interactions, both online and IRL (in real life)," warns the lede. "Nancy Jo Sales uncovers a world where boys are taught they have the right to expect everything from social submission to outright sex from their female peers. What is this doing to America’s young women?"

The topic of teen promiscuity is old, but social media is… well, slightly less old, which means not only are we treated to evergreen standbys like internet pornography and gyrating starlets, everyone in the story is constantly hearting Instagram photos and reading each others’ Twitter feeds. At one point, a group of teens decides to have an "online orgy." It’s easy to make fun of this scare-quotes treatment of new technology, but the real problem isn’t rampant cyberfear. It’s that the whole thing is a sad, facile story that looks at the right problem in exactly the wrong way.

Looking at the right problem in exactly the wrong way

Sales has talked to a large sampling of American girls, assuming LA and New York are the only places in America. They are having apparently unsatisfying sex, occasionally with the help of Tinder and other casual dating apps that get a lot less interesting outside big cities. They are using social media (Sales notes that 81 percent of American teens are doing so, apparently a more important statistic than how many are actually sexually active in high school.) It sometimes makes them feel lonely and sad. And if you mention those things together enough times, they’ll probably seem connected, even if the link is as tenuous as a girl staying home alone and watching YouTube videos instead of a DVD.

Sales does hit on some important points about social media and the internet in general. Most obviously, the internet is a huge amplifier — if you’re being bullied or harassed, it won’t stop when you leave school. If someone wants to reveal an embarrassing secret, the whole world is watching. We often see each others’ carefully constructed avatars, not their messy real lives. And whether or not it’s changing behavior in general, people will say things from behind a screen that they never would in person; one girl in the story refers to a boy who is timid in real life but asks for nudes via text. But it’s a big step from online interaction to a real-world sexual revolution, much less one that people have been warning about since women could walk outside unsupervised.

In fact, the article is mostly a series of salacious stories and broad warnings that could have been written at any time in the last 20 years — just swap in Britney Spears for Miley Cyrus. It quotes a counselor and a researcher, but cites only three pieces of non-anecdotal data: the percentage of teens using social media, the hours a day they spend on electronic devices, and the percentage of adolescents who've seen internet porn. Notably absent: how much sex teens are actually having, and whether that number is going up.

I’m not saying I can prove Sales wrong. I’m just saying there’s no good reason to believe she’s right, either. Collecting "hookup" statistics is complicated: for one thing, hooking up can mean anything from kissing to sex. One group found that internet-era college students were neither having sex more frequently nor sleeping with more people than their counterparts from the 1980s and 1990s.

In case you’re wondering, I just cited more relevant data in one paragraph than Sales has in five pages.

When we condemn 'hookups,' we take aim at sex and give sexism a pass

If you assume the article is accurate, things get worse. In the world of "Friends Without Benefits," it’s not just social media that’s the problem — it’s any non-physical communication. "They don’t even have to be together," Sales gasps before describing a teenage boy "getting a boner" from a dirty text; we’ve quickly moved past Snapchat and Tinder and are now indicting the written word. But even this wouldn’t be so bad if there were even a hint that sex isn’t inherently degrading to women and empowering to men.

There are real, painful stories in the article: girls who have been bullied, girls who feel pressured to be sexy, girls who chafe at a double standard. But "hookup culture" articles aren’t helping. For all their iterations, they seem to deliver only one message: if women are given more options — including hookup apps — men will only take advantage of us. Any action that could lead to sex is painted as a tragedy.

The story is heavy on blowjobs and stripping, our cultural shorthand for things men enjoy and women endure. There’s a quote about all genders having rote sex so they can "update [on social media] about it," but boys in the piece seems to want and enjoy sex for its own sake just fine — it’s just girls who apparently don’t get anything but Facebook likes and the chance of a relationship. The thing is, we’ve been telling this story for decades now. In 2003, it was "rainbow parties," which were complete nonsense but pushed the same narrative: boys get pleasure, girls give. This was, in one survey at the time, not borne out at all; teen girls and boys reported both getting and giving oral sex in pretty similar numbers.

The problem apparently isn't just social media — it's communication, period

Look, once again, I haven’t proved anything. But neither has Sales. All she’s done is tell us that girls might as well give up on enjoying sex altogether, at least in high school and college. There’s no way forward from this. No outliers, no good examples inside the relationships she champions, virtually no exploration of what decent sex at any age might even look like for women. Just some fatalistic hand-wringing that reinforces the very idea it’s supposedly condemning. If physical relationships are going to be terrible for girls no matter what, why should boys bother trying to make things better?

Which is, really, the crux of the problem. Sales promises to expose "a world where boys are taught they have the right to expect everything from social submission to outright sex from their female peers." But for a 6,000-word essay that’s ostensibly about male expectations and male desires, it’s telling that it only directly names and quotes one boy. Three other nameless male teens are given single throwaway lines. One of them, despite the article’s virtually exclusive focus on heterosexual sex, is talking about gay hookups. And that quote isn’t even a firsthand account.

If we were actually interested in looking at how boys are "taught" to expect sex, we might consider asking a few of them. But instead, we treat them like mute forces of nature, incapable of empathy when given access to sexting. We assume that men exploiting women is inevitable the moment we let girls onto the internet or out of the house. Social media amplifies the kind of sexual double standard the interviewees describe, but Sales never seems to consider questioning the double standard itself. If anything, she plays right into it.

If we're worried about what boys are being taught, we might consider talking to them

If you want a real story about how social media hurts girls, look at cyberbullying victim Rehtaeh Parsons. Parsons, 15, was allegedly gang-raped while blacked out at a party by four boys, who took pictures of the incident and posted them online. The case against the boys was dropped for lack of evidence, though it was later reopened and child pornography charges were filed. Parsons, meanwhile, was mocked as a slut by fellow students both online and offline, her parents said. "Her friends turned against her, people harassed her, boys she didn’t know started texting her and Facebooking her, asking her to have sex with them since she had had sex with their friends." At age 17, she committed suicide.

Parson’s story underlines a blunt truth: technology and social media can be brutal tools in the wrong hands. But online communication isn't a gun — it has many, many uses that are neither dehumanizing nor isolating, and suggesting that the internet is raising a generation of callow sociopaths whitewashes problems that have always existed offline. When we talk about cybersex or even "hookup culture" in general, we end up taking aim at sex while giving sexism a pass.

The internet created a forum for Parsons’ classmates to shame her. It made it almost impossible for her to escape the comments. But should we really argue that smartphones are a bigger problem than rapists? Should we pretend that boys who assume any non-virginal girl is fair game, or girls who relentlessly police their friends’ sexuality, weren’t just as common 10 — or a hundred — years ago?

Why is it so much easier to blame Facebook than look at the misogyny and hatred it reflects?