Skip to comments.Friends, Friends With Benefits and the Benefits of the Local Mall (NYT discovers teens can be sluts)
Posted on 05/30/2004 1:35:47 PM PDT by Dont Mention the War
esse wants to meet at Hooters. ''It's 40 minutes from where I live,'' he says, ''but trust me, it's worth the drive.''
Jesse is 15. Surprisingly, there is no age requirement to dine at Hooters. When I call the restaurant to make sure I'm not aiding and abetting teen delinquency, the woman who picks up seems annoyed I would even ask. ''No, we're a family restaurant,'' she says. So, amid the bronzed, scantily clad waitresses and a boisterous bachelor party, I find Jesse, a high-school sophomore with broad shoulders and messy brown hair peeking out from underneath his baseball cap. Jesse is there with four of his close friends, whom he has arranged for me to meet.
Among them is Caity, a thin, 14-year-old freshman with long blond hair and braces, who says that she is a virgin but that she occasionally ''hooks up'' with guys. Caity doesn't make clear what she means by ''hooking up.'' The term itself is vague -- covering everything from kissing to intercourse -- though it is sometimes a euphemism for oral sex, performed by a girl on a boy. Sitting next to Caity is her best friend, Kate, also 14, whom everyone affectionately refers to as the ''prude'' of the group. Outgoing and attractive, she's had a boyfriend for a couple of months, but they haven't even kissed yet.
In her New England exurban world, where, I was told, oral sex is common by eighth or ninth grade, and where hookups may skip kissing altogether, Kate's predicament strikes her friends, and even herself, as bizarre. ''It's retarded,'' she says, burying her head in Caity's shoulder. ''Even my mom thinks it's weird.''
Just a few weeks ago, Caity and Kate met a cute boy at the mall. ''Me and Kate walked into this store,'' Caity says, ''and this boy saw the shirt Kate was wearing that says, 'Kiss Me, I'm an Amoeba.' So he was, like, 'That's an awesome shirt.' And she was, like, 'Want me to make you one?' So he went and got Sharpies, and she went and got T-shirts, we met back there and then he said to me, 'You want my screen name?' So he wrote it on my arm. He just got his license, so he came up, and we hooked up.''
I ask Caity if that's it, or if her hookup might lead to something more. ''We might date,'' she tells me. ''I don't know. It's just that guys can get so annoying when you start dating them.''
Adam, a 16-year-old sophomore at the end of the table, breaks in, adding that girls, too, can get really annoying when you start dating them. A soccer player with shaggy blond hair and a muscular body, he likes to lift his shirt at inappropriate times (like now, to the Hooters waitress) and scream, ''I've had sex!'' Adam has had the most hookups of the group -- about 10, he estimates.
When he lived in Florida last year, he lost his virginity to a friend who threw a condom at him and ordered him to put it on. ''Down in Key West, high-school girls are crazy,'' Adam said. ''Girls were making out with each other on the beach. Lesbians are cool!''
While Adam and Caity denied it, there was a thick fog of sexual intrigue that surrounded their friendship -- and a few weeks after our dinner at Hooters, Jesse sent me an online message notifying me of a hookup in the making between Adam and Caity. They were planning to go over to Jesse's house and ''mess around.'' As Jesse explained it, Adam told Caity he didn't want a relationship, and she replied that that was fine, she didn't want one, either.
According to Jesse, Caity set the ground rules. ''Caity told me, 'Adam knows he's not going to get in my pants, but I might get into his.' For now they might just make out, but Caity said that if they hang out a lot more, maybe they'll do more.'' The next day, Jesse messaged me to say that the hookup never materialized. ''Everyone got busy. But I'm guessing it still might happen.''
I first met Jesse online at facethejury.com, one of many Internet sites popular with high-school and college students, where teenagers can post profiles, exchange e-mail and arrange to hook up. (Though facethejury.com, like many such sites, requires members to be 18, younger teenagers routinely lie about their age.) Over the course of several months spent hanging out and communicating online with nearly 100 high-school students (mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class suburban and exurban teenagers from the Northeast and Midwest), I heard the same thing: hooking up is more common than dating.
Most of the teenagers I spoke to could think of only a handful of serious couples at their school. One senior in Chicago, who'd been dating the same girl since sophomore year, told me that none of his friends want girlfriends and that he's made to feel like a ''loser'' because he's in a relationship. As if searching for reassurance, he turned to me and asked, ''Do you think I'm a loser?''
The decline in dating and romantic relationships on college campuses has been deplored often enough. By 2001, it had become so pronounced that a conservative group, the Independent Women's Forum, was compelled to take out ads in college papers on the East Coast and in the Midwest pleading with students to ''Take Back the Date.'' But their efforts don't seem to have paid off. The trend toward ''hooking up'' and ''friends with benefits'' (basically, friends you hook up with regularly) has trickled down from campuses into high schools and junior highs -- and not just in large urban centers. Cellphones and the Internet, which offer teenagers an unparalleled level of privacy, make hooking up that much easier, whether they live in New York City or Boise.
And yet, still, many date. Or sort of, falling out of romantic relationships into hookups and back again. When teenagers do date, they often do so in ways that would be unrecognizable to their parents, or even to their older siblings. A ''formal date'' might be a trip to the mall with a date and some friends. Teenagers regularly flirt online first, and then decide whether to do so in real life. Dating someone from your school is considered by many to be risky, akin to seeing someone from the office, so teenagers tend to look to nearby schools or towns, whether they're hoping to date or just to hook up.
It's not that teenagers have given up on love altogether. Most of the high-school students I spent time with said they expected to meet the right person, fall in love and marry -- eventually. It's just that high school, many insist, isn't the place to worry about that. High school is about keeping your options open. Relationships are about closing them. As these teenagers see it, marriage and monogamy will seamlessly replace their youthful hookup careers sometime in their mid- to late 20's -- or, as one high-school boy from Rhode Island told me online, when ''we turn 30 and no one hot wants us anymore.''
Brian, a 16-year-old friend of Jesse's, put it this way: ''Being in a real relationship just complicates everything. You feel obligated to be all, like, couply. And that gets really boring after a while. When you're friends with benefits, you go over, hook up, then play video games or something. It rocks.''
Why Valentine's Day Is for Losers
ating practices and sexual behavior still vary along racial and economic lines, but some common assumptions, particularly about suburban versus urban kids, no longer hold true. Parents often think that teenagers who grow up in cities are more prone to promiscuous sexual behavior than teenagers in the suburbs. But according to a comprehensive study sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Development, more suburban 12th graders than urban ones have had sex outside of a romantic relationship (43 percent, compared with 39 percent).
It's unclear just how many teenagers choose hookups or friends with benefits over dating. Many, in fact, go back and forth, and if the distinction between hooking up and dating can seem slippery, that's because one sometimes does lead to the other. But just as often, hooking up is nothing more than what it's advertised to be: a no-strings sexual encounter. Recent studies show that it's not uncommon for high-school students to have sex with someone they aren't dating. A 2001 survey conducted by Bowling Green State University in Ohio found that of the 55 percent of local 11th graders who engaged in intercourse, 60 percent said they'd had sex with a partner who was no more than a friend. That number would perhaps be higher if the study asked about oral sex. While the teen intercourse rate has declined -- from 54 percent in 1991 to 47 percent in 2003 -- this may be partly because teenagers have simply replaced intercourse with oral sex. To a generation raised on MTV, AIDS, Britney Spears, Internet porn, Monica Lewinsky and ''Sex and the City,'' oral sex is definitely not sex (it's just ''oral''), and hooking up is definitely not a big deal.
The teenagers I spoke to talk about hookups as matter-of-factly as they might discuss what's on the cafeteria lunch menu -- and they look at you in a funny way if you go on for too long about the ''emotional'' components of sex. But coupled with this apparent disconnection is remarkable frankness about sex, even among friends of the opposite gender. Many teenagers spend a lot of time hanging out in mixed-gender groups (at the mall, at one another's houses), and when they can't hang out in person, they hang out online, asking the questions they might not dare to in real life. While this means that some friendships become sexually charged and lead to ''friends with benefits'' (one senior from Illinois told me that most of her friends have hooked up with one another), a good number remain platonic.
On Valentine's Day, I was invited to spend the evening with 12 junior and senior friends in an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. They were hanging out, eating pizza and watching TV. Not one had a Valentine, and most said they wouldn't have it any other way. Several pointed out that having close friends of the opposite sex makes romantic relationships less essential. Besides, if you feel like something more, there's no need to feign interest in dinner and a movie. You can just hook up or call one of your friends with benefits.
''It would be so weird if a guy came up to me and said, 'Irene, I'd like to take you out on a date,''' said Irene, a tall, outgoing senior. ''I'd probably laugh at him. It would be sweet, but it would be so weird!''
Irene and her friends are not nerds. They are attractive and well liked, and most have had at least one romantic relationship. If that experience taught them anything, it's that high school is no place for romantic relationships. They're complicated, messy and invariably painful. Hooking up, when done ''right,'' is exciting, sexually validating and efficient.
''I mean, sometimes you'll go out with a group of friends and meet someone cool, and maybe you'll hang out and hook up, but that's about it,'' said Irene's friend Marie (who asked me to use her middle name). ''There's a few people I know who date, but most of us are like, 'There's no one good to date, we don't need to date, so why date?' ''
Once Upon a Time, Before the Internet . . .
The last time American teenagers seemed this uninterested in monogamous, long-term relationships was the 1930's and early 1940's, when high-school popularity was largely equated with social (but not sexual) promiscuity: the ''cool kids'' had lots of dates with lots of different people, while the ''losers'' settled down with one person or didn't date at all. This more-the-merrier philosophy played itself out most significantly on the dance floor, where there was nothing more embarrassing for a young woman than to be stuck with the same boy all night.
In her book ''From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in 20th-Century America,'' Beth Bailey, a professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, points out that magazine advice columns at the time urged teenagers to keep their options open -- and, most important, to appear to be always in demand. Dating was seen as a competition that must never be lost. The advice column in Senior Scholastic, a current-events magazine for high-school students, told girls never to reject any boy outright, because ''he may come in handy for an off night.'' And Ladies Home Journal urged teenagers to be open to blind dates: they ''help keep you in circulation. They're good press agents. They even add to your collection.''
Bailey found that ''going steady,'' when it was discussed at all before World War II, was often ridiculed by teenagers and the media. Dating a variety of people simultaneously was the key to a good social standing in high school. ''These dates had to be highly visible, and with many different people, or they didn't count,'' Bailey writes.
But the war changed everything. Suddenly, women outnumbered men, and popular women's magazines and advice books scared American girls with dire warnings like ''Male shortage. . . . It's worse than ever,'' and ''Baldly stated, many girls of your generation will never marry.'' Young women apparently took up the challenge, because by 1959, 47 percent of brides were under 19, and those who weren't would often report that they had gone to college solely to find a husband.
With marriage occurring at a younger and younger age, teenagers started dating earlier, too. It wasn't uncommon for 13-year-olds to go steady. Bailey cites one 1961 study of a middle-class district in Pennsylvania, in which 40 percent of fifth graders were already dating (for many, this meant holding hands and kissing). One frustrated high-school boy wrote a letter to Senior Scholastic complaining that everyone he knew went steady, and that he was labeled a ''playboy'' for wanting to date different girls.
By the late 60's and early 70's, the rituals of high-school dating had taken on an almost prehistoric cast. The ''rules'' -- boy calls girl, boy asks girl out, boy drives to girl's house, boy talks to girl's dad, boy takes girl to movies, boy has her home by 11 (or else) -- were viewed as restrictive and old-fashioned, not to mention sexist. And that's pretty much how things stood until the Reagan era, when dating made a serious comeback. Many teenagers settled down into a mix of serial dating and going steady -- being ''popular'' often meant having a highly coveted boyfriend or girlfriend. And while parents may have felt, as they typically do, that they didn't always understand teenage culture, most still thought they had a pretty good idea of whom their kids were talking to regularly. ''Teens still had to call the home to reach the person they were interested in,'' Bailey says. ''But then came cellphones and the Internet.''
Logging On, Tuning Out
t's no coincidence that hooking up has become popular with teenagers just as the Internet has become an integral part of their social lives. Until about five years ago, Internet meeting sites were mostly the domain of gay and lesbian high-school students looking for love, sex or someone to talk to. Today many heterosexual teenagers place personal profiles on meeting sites, usually without their parents' knowledge, and spend hours in chat rooms. (Two of the more popular sites -- hotornot.com, with 4.3 million members, and facethejury.com, with 1.2 million -- were both launched in late 2000.) And while gay high-school boys frequently advertise that they ''don't do hookups'' and are only looking for relationships, fewer straight teenagers make that claim -- and many make it clear that they're looking for anything but commitment.
''Straight teens have abandoned the rituals of dating, while gay teens have taken them on,'' says Peter Ian Cummings, the editor of XY, a national magazine for young gay men. The Internet, Cummings says, has made it possible for heterosexual teenagers to act the way ''most of straight society assumes gay men act.''
The day I spent with Haris and Emcho, two varsity soccer players at a high school in the Chicago area, would seem to bear that out. I'd met Emcho (he asked me to use his nickname) on facethejury.com, where he typically receives high ratings. (Visitors to the site rate personal photos on a scale from 1 to 10, with anything under a 5 meaning, as one teenager told me, ''that you should crawl into a hole and die.'')
Tall and lanky, with brown hair and a crush-inducing smile, Emcho said there are benefits to being highly rated on a site like facethejury. There was the college girl online who invited Emcho and a friend over to a party at her apartment. ''I was online writing my senior paper,'' Emcho said, ''and this girl instant-messages me and says, 'Hey, I saw your picture on facethejury.''' She invited Emcho over that night. They had sex in her bathroom, Emcho told me, and met up a few more times, but he says he cut it off when she started talking about wanting to date him.
Emcho and Haris said they're both partial to ''preppy suburban girls.'' As Haris put it, ''City girls are cool, but suburban girls are crazy cool!'' (Meaning, Haris explains, that suburban girls are ''easier.'') Recently, he and Emcho met up with two high-school girls. One girl offered to sneak them all into her house, where she and Emcho hooked up on the floor, while Haris and her friend used the closet.
With so many teenagers online willing to hook up, Emcho and Haris say there's no need to rush a relationship. ''A lot of guys get in relationships just so they can get steady [expletive],'' Haris told me. ''But now that it's easy to get sex outside of relationships, guys don't need relationships.''
Last year, there was one girl Emcho really liked who really liked him, but he decided to wait a year or two before beginning a relationship with her. ''He's waiting until the well runs dry,'' Haris said with a smile. It didn't seem to occur to Emcho that the girl might not be available once he's ready.
James Hong, co-founder of the meeting and rating site hotornot.com, which is wildly popular among teenagers, knows that much of his demographic thinks like Emcho and Haris. He says his site purposefully doesn't advertise itself as a dating service (most of its members are under 24). ''You'll never see the word 'dating' on our site, because that's much too serious for our demographic,'' he says. ''There are obviously relationships that come from the site, but mostly I think it's a lot of hanging out and hooking up. This demographic doesn't want to appear like they're needy and looking for a relationship.''
But the neediness comes through in other ways. Many teenagers are obsessed with how complete strangers view them, and they check their online ratings several times an hour. You have to show enough of your body to entice -- washboard abs and cleavage are sure bets -- but not enough to have your photo rejected by the site moderators. If your ratings climb high enough, the sites will often feature your profile in their ''top girls'' or ''hottest guys'' sections, making some high-school students feel like superstars.
Once there, you're likely to receive hundreds of adoring e-mail messages from teenagers around the country, and many local offers to hang out and hook up. For teenagers who already consider themselves attractive, the sites can be an ego boost. And for teenagers who aren't sure, the sites offer a chance -- with the right picture -- to feel wanted, too.
But if your ratings are only average, it can be tough. I spoke to several boys with low ratings who tried hard to sound unfazed, but underneath their nonchalance was an obvious hurt. One pouty, brown-haired sophomore in Boston with an average rating called facethejury.com a ''whorehouse for people who hate themselves and the way they look, and search for affirmation from the outside.'' So why is he on it? ''Boredom,'' he told me. ''It's also entertaining in a perverse kind of way. I've had four highly overweight women in their late 20's ask to meet me.''
There's something surreal about teenagers with online personal profiles, and that's especially true when they're 13-year-olds, which is some of what you'll find on buddypic.com. Out of some 50,000 profiles, more than 4,000 are from baby-faced kids around the country. Some lift their shirts in their pictures, showing off their stomachs. Others make it clear what they aren't looking for. ''LOTS of piercings, ugly . . . chicks, snitches, teacher's pets, stinky . . . chicks'' reads one 13-year-old's ''Dislikes'' column. His ''Likes'' column is simpler: ''Sexy body, Blonde, Blue eyes . . . good personality, willing to go out of their way to be with me.''
Buddypic.com is careful to advertise itself as ''fun, clean and real.'' But on facethejury, ''adult'' meeting sites are just a click away. The links are advertised alongside teenage profiles, which makes for some eerie echoes between the self-styled photos of teenage members -- suggestively posed and airbrushed -- and the longstanding conventions of adult erotica. For many teenage boys and some teenage girls, Internet porn, cybersex and real-time cam-to-cam connections exert a strong pull. As one Boston teenager told me, ''Who needs the hassle of dating when I've got online porn?'' Most of the boys I spoke to said they have access to Internet porn, and many said they started watching it regularly at 12, 13 or 14 years old. Some experts maintain that this kind of exposure is a lot more damaging than sneaking a peek at your dad's Playboy collection. ''The Internet gives teen boys the idea that girls are interchangeable sexual objects at their disposal,'' says Lynn Ponton, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco and the author of ''The Sex Lives of Teenagers.'' ''So how can they ever be developmentally ready for a real-life relationship?''
No Pain, All Gain?
Yet for all the resemblance of teenage hookup culture to a 70's singles bar, the old stigmas and prejudices haven't disappeared altogether. Most teenagers who engage in hookups still worry about being discreet. ''If you're not careful, by lunch the next day at school, everyone will know,'' says Irene, the senior from the Chicago suburb. ''Some people won't care, but others will, and if it happens too often, it will hurt your reputation.''
And girls aren't the only ones who are worried. David, a boyish, brown-haired, 18-year-old varsity basketball player at an all-boys high school in Chicago, said the same thing. Like many male varsity athletes I spoke to, David says he isn't lacking for hookup possibilities. But he tries to be cautious. After all, too much hooking up can ruin any chances for a future relationship -- and, like many teenagers, he holds out the possibility of dating if the ''perfect'' person comes along.
''I've got like five girls in my phone book I can call or text-message who will give it up to me,'' he says. ''But I don't just hook up with anyone. You have to be careful. I have this huge crush on this girl who knows a lot of the girls I know, and I don't want her to find out I hook up a lot and think I'm dirty.''
David isn't the only teenager who used the word ''dirty'' to describe hookups. Inherent in the thinking of many teenagers is the belief that hooking up, while definitely a mainstream activity, is still one that's best kept quiet. And underneath the teenage bravado I heard so often are mixed feelings about an activity that can leave them feeling depressed, confused and guilty.
As much as teenagers like to talk a good game, hooking up isn't nearly as seamless as they'd like it to be, and there are many ways it can go wrong. At the Valentine's Day gathering, Irene and her friends laid out the unwritten etiquette of teenage hookups: if you want it to be a hookup relationship, then you don't call the person for anything except plans to hook up. You don't invite them out with you. You don't call just to say hi. You don't confuse the matter. You just keep it purely sexual, and that way people don't have mixed expectations, and no one gets hurt.
But, invariably, people do. Many teenagers told me they were hurt by hookups -- usually because they expected or hoped for more. But they often blamed themselves for letting their emotions get the best of them. The hookups weren't the problem. They were the problem.
When Irene was 15, she hooked up for a while with a boy (''We basically became friends with benefits,'' she says) who never came around to asking her out officially, as Irene secretly hoped he would. In the end, she was devastated. ''Since then, I've become really good at keeping my emotions in check,'' she says. ''I can hook up with a guy and not fall for him.''
In fact, many teenagers opt for hookups after a romantic relationship has soured. Boys are less likely to admit this, although Jesse, from New England, isn't afraid to. ''I'd usually hook up because I got my heart broken by a girl, and I didn't want to feel like I had lost everything,'' he said. ''So I'd hear that a girl was interested in me, I'd get a ride to her house, we'd hang out and mess around some and I'd leave. Afterward I'd feel dumb, like it wasn't needed. But before you do it, you feel like it's definitely needed.''
Melissa, a senior in a high school north of Boston, confessed she'd never had a good relationship. ''Dating causes pain,'' she told me when I first communicated with her online. ''It's easier not to get attached. And I realized that if it's O.K. for guys to play the field and have sex with 28,000 people, I should be able to, also.''
The day we met in person, Melissa was in a foul mood. Her ''friend with benefits'' had just broken up with her. ''How is that even possible?'' she said, sitting, shoulders slumped, in a booth at a diner. ''The point of having a friend with benefits is that you won't get broken up with, you won't get hurt. He told me online that he met a girl that he really likes, so now, of course, we can't hook up anymore.''
Melissa and the boy used to meet up about once a week. ''To be honest, we don't even really like hanging out together,'' she told me. They met only to have sex. ''I go to his house, we sit there and talk for two minutes, then we go at it. Then we sit there again for about 10 minutes, and I go home.'' (Clearly, for some teenagers, ''friends with benefits'' is a misnomer. Take away the sex, and they probably wouldn't hang out at all.) Melissa forwarded me one of her online conversations with the boy:
Boy: What are you doing other than not talking to me?
Melissa: Nothing at all. . . .
Boy: Wow, you're as bored as I am?!? . . .
Boy: lol. Yup. Life is good. lol.
Melissa: Freakin' fantastic. Lemme tell ya.
Boy: I wish you lived like next door. . . . It would be so much easier. . . . Like I don't know about you, but I wanna [expletive].
Melissa: U always wanna [expletive].
Boy: But that's cuz we've been talking about it and haven't done it. It's built up.
Melissa: That's bc u haven't picked me up yet silly. . . . Well I'm gonna go
lay down. U know my number and where I live if things work out soon.
Boy: Hey wait. If I can do you wanna come over?
Melissa: Sure. So just call me.
Boy: Do you have condoms?
Melissa: Yes dear.
Boy: Hold on.
Melissa: I'm holding.
Boy: I can come get you right now if you want.
Melissa: Um gimme a sec. . . .
Boy: O.K.?? I'll come get you now if you're ready. . . .
Melissa: But I'm gonna be boring tonite . . . and I'm just telling u I'm not in the mood for nething but str8-up sex.
''I have my friends for my emotional needs, so I don't need that from the guy I'm having sex with,'' Melissa explained at the time, sounding very much like the ''Sex and the City'' character Samantha Jones. So why, now that the boy had ''broken up'' with her, was she feeling so depressed? ''It's really stupid, I know,'' she said, shaking her head. ''It's kind of ironic, isn't it? I try to set up a situation where I won't get hurt, and I still manage to get hurt.''
On the plus side, there's a new boy who's interested in her. ''Problem is, he's annoying,'' Melissa said. ''I liked him before we hooked up. Now I can't stand him. He's so needy, and he won't stop calling.'' Melissa said she was going to wait until after Valentine's Day to tell him she was not interested. ''I want a Valentine's Day present,'' she said. ''After that, I'm just not going to answer my phone.'' (As it turned out, they broke up before Valentine's Day.)
Like other high-school girls I talked to, Melissa says she doesn't see why boys get to have ''all the fun,'' although during the few months we communicated, it was clear that Melissa's hookups rarely brought her joy. She complained often about being depressed, and her hookups, which she hoped would make her feel better, usually left her feeling worse. But a few days after a hookup, she would have forgotten that they tended to make her miserable, and would tell me excitedly about a new boy she was planning to meet. When that boy failed to show or called to say he was running an hour late, Melissa's spirits would sink -- again.
But when I asked Melissa whether she thought hookups worked equally well for girls and boys, she surprised me with her answer. ''It's equal,'' she said. ''Everyone is using each other. That's fair.''
Girls Just Want to Have Fun?
Ashley, an outgoing junior who is friends with Jesse, met her current boyfriend at a concert in her hometown. Her parents initially balked at the age difference (she's 17, he's 21), but she was quick to reassure them. ''People assume that if the guy's older, he's the one making all the moves and using the girl,'' Ashley told me. ''But trust me, I was definitely the aggressor. I got into his pants. He didn't get into mine.''
The question of who's in control and who is getting the short end of the stick -- whether in dating or hookups -- kept cropping up. ''Guys who are 16, 17, 18, they're just totally clueless,'' said Irene, the 17-year-old from the upper-middle-class Chicago suburb. ''They'll be like, 'I kind of want you, but now that I have you, I don't really want you anymore, so maybe I should break up with you and have you as a friend with benefits.''' Irene, like many of her high-school friends, has no problem meeting boys who are in college -- and the implication is that maybe they offer something high-school boys don't.
So who's hooking up with guys in high school? Freshmen and sophomore girls. ''Some senior girls won't even look at us,'' said one high-school senior from Glenview, another suburb of Chicago, ''but underclassmen, they look at us like we're gods. Which, of course, we are, so it works out well.'' He told me that he regularly hooks up with a sophomore from another school, but he doesn't take her out with his friends. ''Until I find someone special, I'm playing the ballfield.''
While many girls insist they receive sexual attention during hookups, just as many boys say hookups are mostly about pleasing the guy. Michael Milburn, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and co-author of the book ''Sexual Intelligence,'' an examination of sexual beliefs and behaviors in America, says that the boys' take is more accurate. ''Most of the time, it's the younger girl performing fellatio on the older boy, with the boy doing very little to pleasure the girl,'' Milburn says. Some girls told me that guys think it's ''nasty'' to perform oral sex on a girl. So a lot of girls will just perform oral sex on the guy ''and not expect anything in return, because she'll know that he probably thinks it's gross,'' Irene told me. But her friend Andi pointed out that many girls are themselves insecure about receiving oral sex; they'd rather just have intercourse.
There's a firm belief among many experts on teenage sex that girls, however much they protest to the contrary, are not getting as much pleasure out of hookups as they claim. I was invited to a high school in Boston, where I met with a group of seniors who were debating this very issue. I relayed a conversation I'd had with Marline Pearson, a sociologist who has developed a school curriculum for teenagers called Love U2: Getting Smarter About Relationships, Sex, Babies and Marriage. ''In some ways,'' Pearson said, ''I think girls had more power in the 1960's, when they said: 'O.K., you want to get to first base? This is what you have to do.' Today it's: 'O.K., you want to get to third base? Come over.' I'm a feminist, but I think we've put girls back in the dark ages, with very little power.''
One girl, a brown-haired senior who says she sometimes hooks up with guys she meets through friends, doesn't feel that she's in the dark ages, or that she's powerless. ''If I ask a guy to come over to my house and hook up,'' she said, ''I'm the one benefiting, because I'm the one who wants to. . . . It's not just about pleasing the guy.''
Her friend, a well-spoken senior with shaggy brown hair, faded jeans and a T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her shoulders, listened quietly as her friends defended a woman's right to hook up. Finally, and with some hesitation, she voiced an unpopular opinion among her friends.
''I feel like women have less power today,'' she said. ''It's not just that the guy often doesn't respect the girl or the girl's sexuality, but the girl sometimes doesn't really respect and validate herself. I have a friend who's 20, and he goes on the Internet and meets 16-year-old girls from the suburbs.'' He drives out there, she performs oral sex on him and he drives home. ''Who has the power there? I think that a lot of the times girls are really self-destructive.''
''Well,'' the first girl said, slightly annoyed, ''I don't see why a guy can have a random hookup with a girl and no one questions his motives, but when a girl does it, there's this assumption that she's a girl, so she automatically wants more out of a hookup. When I hook up, I don't want more, and it's not self-destructive. And I enjoy it.''
Dr. Drew Pinsky, co-host of ''Loveline,'' a popular, nationally syndicated radio program that has some two million listeners and that was featured on MTV, doesn't buy it. ''It's all bravado,'' he says. ''Teens are unwittingly swept up in the social mores of the moment, and it's certainly not some alternative they're choosing to keep from getting hurt emotionally. The fact is, girls don't enjoy hookups nearly as much as boys, no matter what they say at the time. They're only doing it because that's what the boys want.''
Wendy Shalit, whose book, ''A Return to Modesty,'' embodies what has been termed ''the new chastity,'' also says she believes that girls are being manipulated, but by a society that tries to convince them that they should act like boys, turning sexual modesty into a sign of weakness or repression -- something young women are taught to be embarrassed about. ''In the age of the hookup,'' Shalit writes, ''young women confess their romantic hopes in hushed tones, as if harboring some terrible secret.''
Those who embrace an abstinence-only sex-education program try to influence teenage behavior by explaining that sexual pleasure requires mutual respect and security. Sarah LaBella works for CareFirst Prevention Services, a group that has taught in junior high and high schools since 1998. One gray, frigid February afternoon, I sat in on a class she was giving to teenage girls in an unremarkable suburban Illinois high school with a view of Dunkin' Donuts.
''Do you want to know the difference between girls and guys?'' LaBella asked. Some of the girls listened intently, others doodled or stared blankly out the window. ''Guys are like microwaves. You hit the right button, and they're ready to go. We, on the other hand, are ovens. It takes a little while for us to get heated up. You have to preheat us.''
Most of the girls smiled, and several laughed. LaBella smiled, too, because if you can make teenagers laugh (with you, not at you), you might get them to actually listen. LaBella, who typically delivers her message to coed classes, knows that some teenagers tune her out between the S.T.D. slide show and the claim that ''the best sex'' happens only within marriage. But she says that many teenagers listen intently, as if hearing some life-altering wisdom. ''We know that most teenagers are never really taught what's involved in making a healthy relationship,'' she told me after class. ''They're trying to build relationships out of hookups or casual sex, and those relationships do not tend to be fruitful ones.''
But are teenagers -- and teenage girls in particular -- always ill served by choosing hookups over relationships? Jeanette May, co-founder of the Coalition for Positive Sexuality, a grass-roots advocacy and educational organization based in Washington that argues that teenagers should be supported in making their own decisions about safe sex and their sexuality, is one of the few adults I spoke to who doesn't think so. ''Often, I think girls, if they are getting as much out of it as the guys, are better served by having sex for their pleasure, without a lot of emotional attachment,'' she says. ''Because they would feel more empowered to practice safe sex, use birth control and avoid sexual interactions that would not benefit them. When girls think they are in love or in a relationship that will lead to love, they're more easily manipulated.''
Few adults would take that line. Regardless of which end of the political spectrum they find themselves on, parents and teen-sexuality experts tend to agree on one thing: hooking up is a bad thing for teenagers. They insist that it's bad emotionally and potentially bad physically. Female adolescents ages 15 to 19 have the highest incidence of both gonorrhea and chlamydia, and according to the latest C.D.C. figures, 48 percent of new S.T.D. cases reported in 2000 occurred among 15- to 24-year-olds. Many of the teenagers I talked to told me that no one they know uses condoms during oral sex, only during intercourse.
''Both conservatives and liberals have their respective blinders on when talking about teen sexuality,'' says Milburn, co-author of ''Sexual Intelligence.'' ''I can think of nothing more important than getting in schools and talking about sexual intelligence and healthy relationships, but most conservatives don't want an open and honest discussion about teen sexuality, and they oppose any conversation that doesn't focus on abstinence until marriage. And many liberals will resist any discussion that might touch on the negative consequences of unbridled sexuality. The conversation we need to have with teens is: 'What's the role that sexuality should play in an emotionally healthy person's life? What are the different ways that people can be sexual? What are the potential dangers?' ''
It's Saturday Night and . . .
For all the efforts to make teenagers aware of the dangers of hookups, many of the high-school students I spoke to shrugged off the idea that hooking up is ultimately a bad thing. As they see it, if they're not going to marry for another 10 years, why not focus on other things (friendships, schoolwork, sports) in high school? And if they're not hurting anyone and not getting anyone pregnant, where is the harm in a little casual fun? The truth is, teenagers may spend less of their time hooking up than adults think they do -- for many of them, friendships have become the most important part of their social lives. Kate, Caity and Adam (the group I first met at Hooters with Jesse) often spend weekend nights hanging out together and talking about sex in ways many adults would find difficult to do themselves.
I met up with them again one Saturday evening, as they lounged around a friend's living room. No one was paying much attention to the music video playing on the big-screen TV. Instead, they spent the night talking about music, soccer, their town (and why it's better than the next town over), oral sex (why some people can't do it well), masturbation (whether girls do it, and if so, whether they do it in the shower) and anything else that sprang to mind.
But the big news was that Kate still hadn't kissed her boyfriend. ''We talk about it all the time, but it's like whenever we get to a point when we're going to, we don't,'' Kate said. ''I feel like I'm going to have to make the first move, and I don't do first moves!''
''Why don't girls make first moves more often?'' asked Brian, Jesse's 16-year-old friend. ''It's really annoying.''
''Oh, they do if they're drunk!'' said Adam (the boy who likes to lift his shirt), sitting on the couch and strumming a guitar.
A lot had happened since I first met Jesse. Through a friend, Adam met a girl he actually would date, except she lived too far away. The biggest development, though, was that Caity and Adam had made out at a concert in front of all their friends. ''It was really disgusting,'' Jesse said. ''They did it right in front of everybody. And it was long.'' Both Adam and Caity dismissed it as a momentary lapse. ''It just happened,'' Caity said. ''Nothing serious,'' Adam said.
The two got to only first base (kissing), which is about the only base that anyone can agree on anymore. ''I don't understand the base system at all,'' Jesse said, lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. ''If making out is first base, what's second base?''
''We need to establish an international base system,'' Brian said. ''Because right now, frankly, no one knows what's up with the bases. And that's a problem.''
Jesse nodded in agreement. ''First base is obviously kissing,'' Brian said.
''Obviously,'' Jesse said.
''But here's the twist,'' Brian said. ''Historically, second base was breasts. But I don't think second base is breasts anymore. I think that's just a given part of first base. I mean, how can you make out without copping a feel?''
''True,'' Jesse said. ''And if third base is oral, what's second base?''
''How does this work for girls?'' asked Ashley, the 17-year-old junior. ''I mean, are the bases what's been done to you, or what you've done?''
''If it's what base you've gone to with a girl, you go by whoever had more done,'' Jesse told her.
''But we're girls,'' Ashley said. ''So we've got on bases with guys?''
''Right, but it doesn't matter,'' Jesse said. ''It's not what base you've had done to you, it's what bases you get to.''
Kate shook her head. ''I'm totally lost.''
''See how complicated this is?'' Brian said. ''Now if someone asks you, 'So, how far did you get with her?' you have to say, 'Well, how do your bases go?' ''
Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a contributing writer for the magazine and a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation. He last wrote for the magazine about the down-low culture.
(I use of the word "sluts" in headline in the unisexual sense.)
By the way, the Times couldn't help slutting up the story themselves. This is the cover of today's Magazine:
The photo is a fraud. Those are professional models, not the kids interviewed in the story. I suppose the actual teens just "aren't photogenic enough." (Though I find the two girls in the photo exceptionally unappealing, and the guys sure don't seem to measure up to any physical standard I hoped to achieve as a teenager.)
Some days I think the terrorist should win.
I know, I know... I don't relly want that.
But some days....
The Slimes are so slow.
The baby boomers strike again.
Between their unwillingness to teach their kids right and wrong, their defense of the President that said 810w j0b$ aren't sex and their own spotty record in regard to marriage and divorce, is it any wonder their children are lost generation like something out of cabaret-era Germany?
In about ten years, once the baby boomers start to die in large numbers, hell is going to get very crowded.
Perhaps worth a miscellaneous ping?
Nice try. Conservatives are not to blame for this. Liberals are reaping (or our children are reaping) exactly what they've sown. It's tragic.
this is a sad article. I have numerous girls (mostly) who write to me about their hookups and they are all in pain.
Funny how those nutty abstinence-only wait-til-marriage conservatives have the only answer that prevents STDs.
I hear you.
Between this story and the Washingtonienne story of last weekend, I feel totally lost and out-of-place.
I guess I am an old man at 44.
If we are blessed enough to defeat the terrorists, what will be left to hold and cherish, if we simply treat others as interchangable parts?
This weekend, it seems particular affecting, with the dedication of the World War Two memorial on the Mall.
Maybe WW2 was the last time we all as a nation really had to grow up?
With each passing decade since, growing up has become easier to avoid.
Now, those younger than I am prefer to "hook up," and life just rolls merrily along.
The "bridge to the 21st century" has brought us to perpetual adolescence.
Sorry to be so down, but only this story and the washingtonienne stories from last weekend have left me so emotionally hopeless and numb.
They aren't big stories.
But they seem to give nothing to fight.
It is like some sort of giant fog has come into the country, arrested all of our kids, and given us no enemy to combat, no foe except this inescapable fog.
When I see our kids living like this, it just saddens me. It is as if we have devolved into animals, and have become obsolete.
For example, compare the text messaging, cell phoning, and instant messaging which is referred to in this story, to the incredibly heartfelt letters written by the everyday soldiers on both sides of the Civil War (as shown in Ken Burns' recent documentary).
Compare now to then, and tell me which group holds life more precious?
I guess things will have to get worse before they get better.
I guess we, as a society, must face the sort of challenge that forces up to shake off the giant fog, bond together, and fight for our freedom and liberty.
Only such a crisis, one I hope never to see, will break the cycle of adolescence, and make us, once again, reclaim our uniqueness as humans, different from the animals, capable of so many greater things.
It is this sort of thing that makes we worry, that gives me cause for concern.
What do y'all think?
You have stated it quite eloquently.
I can only agree.
"Liberals are reaping (or our children are reaping) exactly what they've sown. It's tragic."
Yes, yes, yes, and these children will loathe and perhaps even hate their parents once they learn how they have failed them. There may well be a socially conservative tidal wave bubbling up from the under-25 crowd.
Good thing they're able to inflict the death penalty on any children who dare to be conceived as a result of their actions.
God help us, if this is the norm in today's youth... If I EVER find my daughter doing anything like this, I don't know what we'll do... One thing is for sure: She will not be growing up with much TV, which makes this crap seem (and has helped made it become) normal.
It makes me very, very angry, to see the cause of so many societal problems treated in such a cavalier manner.
When I see our kids living like this, it just saddens me. It is as if we have devolved into animals, and have become obsolete.
They're being taught that they are animals. Animals with uncrontrollable urges. Animals who "are going to do it anyways" and ought therefore to have condom access.
My sad emotions are laced with a healthy dose of anger at the injustice related to this type of behavior, esp. with regard to the unborn who pay for the "mistakes" of their parents' "hooking up" with their lives.
(This is a ping list for topics related to the cultural realities that make abortion-on-demand a perceived need in our society. To be added or removed, FReepmail me.)
Perhaps, but the 'free'trade polices of both parties may crush that tidal wave before it starts.
We have some local boys that hooked up with friends of one of the sisters of the boys, and they(boys) are facing 10 yrs in jail and being labeled as sexual predators for life.
They were kicked off the baseball team. I don't know if they will be able to play football. All the girls made the varsity cheer squad. No downside for the girls.
By all accounts, and from the mouths of two of the girls mom's, the girls were the aggressors.
Getting head in GA when underage is risky.
FYI Girls 14 Boys 15-16.
Maybe so, but these war heroes raised the kids that are the parents of this generation. The WWII heroes came back home as hell raisers and role models, both for good and bad. I agree that things have gotten screwy, but we can only raise our own kids. Then try and be an influence on the others.
I was womdering why this doesn't happen more often, given that frosh-soph girls are going after and being sought by college guys.
It does seem unfair that under-18 sluts who know d*** well what they are doing usually can get off (so to speak) scot-free.
This hooking-up thing would also appear to be a great opportunity for real sexual predators and more violent types to ply their trade. There seem to be no precautions taken for safety's sake.
Is that story being covered in the news at all?
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