Commentary

Porn As A Prelude To Dating: Reading 'American Girls'

Armed with a yellow highlighter, and determined to distill the important insights in this important, almost 400-page book, I dove into the recently published “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives Of Teenagers” by Nancy Jo Sales.

But I couldn't even get through the introduction without coloring almost all of the text.

As a wired human, I was aware of problems with kids and sexting and cyberbullying, etc. But I really wasn’t prepared for how widespread these troubling behaviors are.

First, let’s not be alarmist. Obviously, with their still-developing limbic systems, “teenagers” have been acting out sexually since before there was even such a word in the lexicon to connote them as non-grownups. Everyone from Shakespeare to Springsteen has turned such outlaw coupling among “youtes” into an art form.

But truly, the growth of online porn -- and teenagers’ access to the Internet -- have radically changed the behaviors of teenaged boys and girls.

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Compound that with the introduction of smartphones, which hit the market in 2007. By now, smartphone ownership among teenagers is so widespread that they sometimes see these often violent and misogynistic porn-based images on their hand-held screens before they have even have had a chance to hold hands or share a first kiss.

“We are in uncharted territory,” with the Internet “changing so much about the way we act both romantically and sexually, [that it’s] unprecedented from a revolutionary standpoint,” says Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, whom Sales quotes in the book. 

“Social media is destroying our lives,” one of the girls tells Sales.

“So why don’t you go off?” the author asked.

“Because then we would have NO life,” the kid said.

That, in a nutshell, is what’s going on.

Sales, a writer for Vanity Fair and author of “The Bling Ring,”  a book about a gang of affluent, celebrity-oriented teen thieves, spent two-and-a-half years researching this book, visiting 10 states and talking to all kinds of girls, ages 13-19, about their lives on and off social media. (Full disclosure: we worked together many years ago at New York magazine.)

After interviewing these kids, Sales started following the apps and messaging services they favored, including three I hadn’t heard of: Yik Yak, the “anonymous Twitter,” Kik, and Yeti, a sort of X-rated Snapchat.

The biggest takeaway in an age when girls learn to measure their worth in the number of "likes" they receive on Instagram posts is that sexuality has become a new form of Internet currency, used both to attract boys and impress and compete with girlfriends.

“Things once considered sexist have been reinterpreted by and for girls as 'empowering': beauty pageants, stripping, even porn,”  Sales says.

The book is divided into seven chapters, each devoted to one year in the life of teen girldom from ages 13-19.

Chapter one opens in the leafy, upper-middle-class suburb of Montclair, N.J., with the message “SEND NOODZ.”

That was a text 13-year-old Sophia received via direct-message on Instagram from a boy she barely knew. She didn’t know how to respond. (Her emotions were all over the place, including “Whoa, he finds me attractive?”)  He later texted her, “I really need this cause I have to win a bet. I won’t show anyone.” 

But Sophia didn’t send the "NOODZ." And Sales followed the trail to find the boy himself, who admitted that he was trading these pictures for liquor, sending them to older kids who curated pages of nude-girl selfies. (Yes, that’s another thing.)

The book shows that as the girls age, they start internalizing some of these “ho” messages as just fun, and having porn-influenced sex, which is often rough. (One thing missing from the book: an acknowledgement of the work of advertising consultant Cindy Gallop, who launched the Web site “Make Love, Not Porn” devoted to this very problem, during a TED Talk in 2009.)

Sales talks about the rise of rape culture on social media: “Google “rape-based sex” and see how many hits you get,” Sales says. Top Snapchat features favor topics like “Throwing up, being drunk, getting hung over, being re-drunk.”

It’s not all horrific news, however. Sales says that there's a lot of feminist activism on social media that’s empowering girls. In one of the later chapters on older teens, a girl discusses the Black Lives Matter movement and how this kind of social media activism made a big positive change in her life.

In an interview, Sales told me that she is getting questions from parents of teenagers who describe themselves as “overwhelmed” about social media and say they have no awareness or tools to deal with it, having grown up in a Facebook-less age.

“I’m not a parenting expert,” Sales said, “But we have to help [teenagers] and guide them. It’s OK sometimes to say no. Give them boundaries! If you think it’s inappropriate, you’re the parent. What’s the problem?"

And as awkward and embarrassing as it may be, perhaps both parents and kids should read the book and discuss it.

“The real world we inhabit together is the one that matters,” is how Sales ends the book. “We need to find a way of navigating ourselves and our children back there, to the world of true and lasting connection.”

And short of banishing them to the Himalayas or an Israeli kibbutz, maybe parents can start a “no-phone-Fridays”-for-teenagers movement.  It can’t hurt.

7 comments about "Porn As A Prelude To Dating: Reading 'American Girls' ".
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  1. Jerry Gibbons from Gibbons Advice, April 8, 2016 at 1:09 p.m.

    Are we losing "The inocense of youth"?  It seems to me that was an important part of growing up and maturing.  What a different world.

  2. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, April 8, 2016 at 2:44 p.m.

    I see hundreds of online ads that target young girls. The ads are all lines of clothing, makeup and usually with the thought about being sexier. While many benefit greatly from targeting young girls, the sad part is the pressure to look great never really ends does it?

  3. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, April 8, 2016 at 7:10 p.m.

    Yes, the pressure to be like Kim Kardashian in selfies and belfies (butt selfies) never ends. There is so much pressure on young girls today to be perfect specimens, and it's such a focus of social media. 

  4. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, April 8, 2016 at 8:23 p.m.

    This same article, or ones very similar, have been written, read and discussed since language was invented. Change a few words and "reasons" and it could be written in ancient Greek

    And no amount of "no phone Fridays" or the like will significantly change anything. When rapidly growing hormones bump into rapidly expanding brain cells, stuff happens. 'Twas ever thus and forever shall be.

    Practice and teach respect, common sense and birth control and then sit back and relax. As The Who put it oh so well; The Kids Are Alright. 

  5. Jim English from The Met Museum, April 8, 2016 at 11:05 p.m.

    Your observations are prescient now as they were in 2005, Barbara, just before the introduction of smartphones. "When the outre and the edgy become mainstream, eventually the culture has to find a new edge.  But what do we move on to? We've just about gutted the post-porn market."

  6. Farnaz Wallace from Farnaz Global, LLC, April 12, 2016 at 2:06 p.m.

    Great article.  Time Magazine had a similar cover story on this last week.  Alarming.  We need more empowerment initiatives like MissRepresentation.

  7. Kurt Ohare from ohare & associates, April 15, 2016 at 9:25 a.m.

    I can't even imagine how difficult it must be to be a teenager and parent in this day and age.  
    Even after viewing my kids teen years with the advantage of hindsight, I can offer no advice - only a feeble "do what you think is right" and "good luck".  

     

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