At the school I went to back when sex among eighth-graders was all talk, an eighth-grade girl recently employed a digital camera to record her sexual adventures, which she promptly e-mailed to a boy in her class, who then did what comes naturally to kids of a certain age: He put the show on the Internet.
Much consternation ensued, and teachers and parents alike once again felt obliged to instruct the young about the wilds of the Web -- an untamed archive of infinite appetite that will come to haunt all too many of today's adolescents when their antics are Googled by nosy personnel managers in years to come.
This lesson has failed to sink in even among 24-year-olds such as Jessica Cutler, author of a Web log, Washingtonienne, on which she detailed her moonlighting as a prostitute serving politicos. All while she continued her day job as an aide to Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio. DeWine sacked Cutler, officially for "unacceptable use of Senate computers to post unsuitable and offensive material." This, in the short run, will only boost her gross income.
In a matter of a decade or so, the guardrails of shame and pride that previously kept explicit sexual chatter within certain bounds have been thoroughly bashed. Young folks blithely entrust intimacies to the billions of fellow earthlings who scan the Internet looking for just this sort of juicy detail, preferably with pics.
This spring, I taught a seminar in nonfiction writing at Princeton, where my students exhibited infectious eagerness, inspiring talent and jaw-dropping frankness about their sex lives. It would never have dawned on those of us who went to college a generation ago to include explicit sexual detail in coursework. Students do not do this for shock value; sex talk is second nature to them.
One student wrote a piece about her friends' reactions to her six months of celibacy -- and her personal methods of satisfying urges. Another student reported on a field trip she and some friends took to a sex party in New York. There were pieces about being sexiled (locked out of your room while a roommate entertains a partner) and nostalgic reminiscences of childhood calls to phone sex services.
When Amy Sennett, one of my students, set out to report on the role instant messaging plays in the search for dates on campus, her friends happily obliged with stories about computer-hatched hookups and drunken excesses -- with everyone's names included.
The students are not dim; they know that the whole world is watching online. Yet they use the Web to scope around for sex (and relationships, of course) because, as one student said, "There are no awkward pauses, and you don't have to work so hard to generate conversation."
My students know their easy exchanges of sexual detail startle their elders, but they're puzzled that we're so easily shocked. After all, they say, it's pop culture produced by adults that led them down this path.
"The personal stories we hear everywhere around us are so graphic that whatever we say seems tame," one freshman says.
The students say their Sunday brunch chatter is, as a senior put it, "frighteningly 'Sex and the City'-esque, lots of graphic detail."
A thoughtful sophomore says the casual frankness about sex stems from a lifetime of being told that "anything hidden and buried is somehow wrong. It's all that therapy talk we heard growing up."
Talk about sex goes well beyond unburdening oneself of anxieties; all too many young folks use their friends and even strangers as focus groups to guide them through decisions about partners and relationships. As casual and easy as their talk may seem, many young people are not happy with the situation. After reporting on the language of sex on campus, Sennett concluded that despite the open chatter, "honestly, sex has just become more desensitized and almost dehumanized."
In the end, she wrote, technology "allows us to hide behind our computer screens and make bold comments, but you would be hard pressed to find a couple who wouldn't say that it was the time they actually spent together that made the difference."
In the end, intimacy comes only from the core of a relationship, from a private place that no cadre of friends can replace.
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