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Blog Interrupted

She posed for Playboy in a pictorial that will run this fall, just in time for the election. Book agents pursued her, and a literary bidding war netted her a six-figure book deal. "It's more than I probably deserve," she says. "Ha! I'm sure a lot of people will agree."

The tittering hordes vilified Jessica even as they pursued her, denouncing her online, around office coolers and in commentaries from the left and right. Jessica thinks she knows why. In a culture increasingly nervous about its own values, numbly sinking into the sofa at night to watch trash reality TV shows and wondering if our own 14-year-old sons and daughters are casually "hooking up," it's satisfying to have a bona fide blog slut to flog.

Jessica Cutler says she is trying to look on the bright side of her notoriety. (Photograph by Kyoko Hamada)

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"I was watching the movie 'Scarface' the other night, and I was like, Oh my God, this is exactly how I feel," Jessica says. "There is that scene where [the gangster played by Al Pacino] was in a restaurant. He was all coked up. He gets thrown out. He tells everyone in the restaurant, 'You need me. You need me. You need me so you can point at me and say that's the bad guy.' "

JESSICA CUTLER, THE MOUSE-CLICKER THAT ROARED, is a smart, subversive waif with a certain South Park charm. She's 5 feet 2, weighs about 100 pounds, wears hoop earrings as big as her fist and has a higher IQ -- she says she's been twice tested at more than 140 -- than the average medical student.

Jessica was officially fired for misusing an office computer, but the men she wrote about kept their jobs. What they lost was their privacy. Jessica's blog identified them only by their initials. But amateur Internet sleuths who read the blog searched electronic databases looking for likely suspects, then posted names and photographs on the Internet. Jessica still refuses to name the men publicly.

"I feel really bad for the guys," Jessica says. "They didn't deserve this."

As for herself, she tries to look on the bright side. "I was only blogging for, what, less than two weeks?" she says. "Some people with blogs are never going to get famous, and they've been doing it for, like, over a year. I feel bad for them."

Sitting in a corner table at the Palm one recent afternoon, she twists a strand of her long dark hair as she contemplates her place in the universe.

"I was the one writing on the bathroom wall" with her online diary. "A lot of men have bad things to say about me," acknowledges Jessica, who has been Googling herself to read anonymous diatribes from online critics. "I really upset them. I think it bothers them to find out that girls really do, you know, get together and laugh about guys' [anatomies] all day."

She's a next-generation Monica, still snapping her thong and gabbing to the girls, only more cynical: free of romantic illusions about powerful men who are going to leave their wives. She's a real-life, "Sex and the City"-style Samantha who says sex is pure sport. She is an American uber-individualist demanding the right to tell her own story her own way.

"Everyone should have a blog," Jessica says. "It's the most democratic thing ever."

And she's something else.

"She's a sign," says Daniel Yankelovich, the pollster and analyst who has been studying American values for 50 years. He means a sign of our times, as is Jessica's frumpy 21-year-old contemporary, Pfc. Lynndie England, whose gleeful mugging for the cameras as she mocked naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib unsettled the national conscience. Both women have left many people questioning: How did we get here?

Jessica's "behavior is not mainstream majority behavior in the same way that most soldiers in Iraq are not abusing people," Yankelovich says. "She's an extreme, but she's a sign. These kinds of signs are breaking out often enough that you know they are signaling something much larger and more important."

Feminist author Naomi Wolf agrees, and says modern sexual conduct offers a window into what's been gained and lost in the nation's values revolution. The sexual revolution, now stripped of much of its feminist political ideology, has left legions of young women free but confused. "I think the tipping point came three or four years ago with the first generation to grow up with the Internet," Wolf says. "They were daughters of feminists. The feminist message of autonomy got filtered through a pornographized culture. The message they heard was just go for it sexually.

"What is gained is they totally reject the double standard and believe they are entitled to sexual exploration and sexual satisfaction," Wolf says. "The downside is we've raised a generation of young women -- and men -- who don't understand sexual ethics like: Don't sleep with a married man; don't sleep with a married woman; don't embarrass people with whom you had a consensual sexual relationship. They don't see sex as sacred or even very important anymore. That's been lost. Sex has been commodified and drained of its deeper meaning."

To conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, who views the sexual revolution as media-driven, immoral and damaging to women, Jessica's eager publicists in the mainstream press are just as repulsive as Jessica herself. "This vulgar little episode reflects a larger, disturbing media trend toward normalizing and glamorizing sexual promiscuity among young working women," Malkin wrote in an online column titled "The Skanks on Capitol Hill," which was posted on the townhall.com Web site. "It harms those trying to succeed on their merits in the professional arena. And it also harms our own daughters, who will be forced to fight harder to protect their dignity and credibility in a 'Girls Gone Wild' culture."

That culture has been well documented. In 1971, 30 percent of American girls ages 15 to 19 had had sexual intercourse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 1988, that number had climbed to 51 percent. The steady rise leveled off in the late 1980s, then dipped slightly, in part because of AIDS awareness campaigns. Still, a substantial number of today's teenage girls report that they and their friends engage in casual sex with multiple partners devoid of emotional commitments.

Twenty-eight percent of girls ages 15 to 17 said that sexual intercourse was "almost always" or "most of the time" part of a casual relationship, according to a 2002 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Seventeen magazine. Thirty percent of girls surveyed said relationships between boyfriends and girlfriends typically involved someone cheating or doing something sexual with someone else.

Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington professor who has been teaching and writing about human sexuality for more than 20 years, says she's not surprised to see more young women engage in casual sex without emotional ties. "In every way women are becoming more like men," she says. "They are ambitious. They are aggressive. They are independent. And more and more, they participate in blood sports, aggressive sports."

Yet even Schwartz, who hosts occasional online sexual advice chats, has been amazed at how sexually bold some young women have become. "High school girls will be open about bisexual contact, and high school boys think bisexual girls are the sexiest thing on Earth. One of the No. 1 questions I am asked is about three-ways. 'My boyfriend asks about three-ways. Should I or shouldn't I?'

"I guess it shouldn't surprise us," Schwartz concludes. "Look how much sex is on every daytime soap opera, every sitcom. We are permeated with this stuff. Did we really think it would just stay inside that 21-inch tube?"

Sexual mores are only the crest of a tidal wave of change. In a span of about 15 years during the 1960s and 1970s, Americans underwent the kind of dramatic transformation of social values that usually occurs over generations, Yankelovich says. First college students, and then an overwhelming majority of Americans, rejected much of the social rigidity of the 1950s. Deeply held American values such as conformity, respectability, sacrifice and duty to others were elbowed aside by newer values: personal satisfaction, individual choice and a pluralism that tolerates vast differences in race, religion and lifestyle.

Yankelovich has coined the term "expressive individualism" to describe the new ethic of personal freedom that, among other things, opened the way for women, gays and minorities to make extraordinary gains. "It was a sweeping revolution, and we are still figuring out its consequences," Yankelovich says.

One unintended consequence of the revolution, he says, is that social morality has now become so relative it has begun to make Americans on both the left and right very anxious, although they disagree sharply on what to do about that. Yankelovich sees that nervousness in Americans' responses to events as diverse as Enron's accounting fictions, the Roman Catholic Church's protection of pedophiles, the Iraqi prison abuse scandal and Jessica's blog.

"The country is taken aback by moral relativism in all of its forms," Yankelovich says. "To me, the best way of thinking about it is that people are now free to say: 'I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't break the law.' An earlier generation, my own generation growing up in the United States, would say, 'What has the law got to do with it?' The usual model for societies is that they have a very thin layer of law and a very thick layer of social morality. What this expressive individualism has done, as an unintended consequence, is weaken that layer of social morality to the point where it's almost disappeared."

In other words, we can denounce Jessica Cutler and call her a blog slut if it makes us feel any better. But she is, for better or worse, our blog slut.

THE DAY JESSICA'S BLOG WENT PUBLIC, work halted at many desks across Washington as Hill staffers, government bureaucrats, lobbyists and journalists forwarded links to friends. Jessica was quickly pegged as the unnamed staffer. From there, people speculated about the identity of her more powerful playmates and argued about what she represented. Was Jessica a new-media revolutionary who turned the tables on the kind of Washington men who have always expected their pretty young playthings to be powerless and silent? Or was she a sleazy hedonist who made money from her sexual liaisons? The debate hasn't ended, especially among women.

On a recent weeknight, a group of young professional women sip wine after work at the 18th Street Lounge in the District and discuss the ways Jessica Cutler seems both familiar to them and yet extreme.

"She depresses me. I don't think people can do those kind of things without emotional repercussions," says a 27-year-old who works in advertising. This woman has never had a one-night stand and can't imagine engaging in casual sex with six different men, she says. But Jessica's frank talk about sex didn't strike her as unusual.

"Women love to talk about sex," she says. "That's what we do when we get together and drink. If I was in a relationship with someone I cared about and I was concerned about my performance, I'd talk about it in graphic detail with my friends. I've learned most of my sex tips from girlfriends."

Across the street at the Lucky Bar, a group of graduate students ponder what Jessica was seeking when she kissed and blogged, and whether she ever found it.

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