Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Secret Life Of The 25-Year-Old Girl

I don't read Toronto Life, because it's rarely relevant to my life: despite living in Toronto, and loving it deeply, I don't move in the rarefied circles of charcuterie gastropubs and $500 purses. Their beat is to cover the lifestyle habits of the upwardly mobile and aspirational Torontonians, and they do it thoroughly and well. TL's major faux pas isn't that their topics are narrow in scope, but that there's a first-person smugness ingrained in their articles. The writers aren't encouraged to draw a larger picture for the reader, so I wonder about the relevance of a story about, say, controversy about a fight at a Toronto private school that might otherwise draw me in.

With their recent cover story, "The Secret Lives of 13-Year-Old Girls," TL lays bare Alexandra Molotkow's cybersexual coming-of-age story. Reading certain sections, I found myself nodding, because I could identify with the longings of young teenage girls. We desperately want to know about sex - more than just body parts, but feelings and experiences. At the same time, 13-year-olds are too young to have any meaningful mastery of their interiour sex lives, and the ones who are sexually experienced at that age often seem damaged later on. The internet provided a safe barrier to explore and express sexuality, without the danger of engaging in real, hands-on, consequence-y sex.

I remember exchanging emails with a boy from summer camp, trading stories about what we would do to each other next summer vacation. These were pornographic short stories, and my parents stumbled across them, which led to a major screaming match over what would have happened if my younger brother (who was six years old at the time) had found them. My parents weren't actually worried about my grade-school brother; they were worried that I was somehow going to end up a victim of a sexual predator, even though, in those X-rated emails, I was definitely the more crocodilian of the two of us.

I find, when I talk to my girlfriends now, a common, obsessive theme in our early high school years: we were fascinated by sex, and completely unable to express our fascination. Fearful of being branded a pervert, or worse, I kept my interest carefully hidden away, but I wondered what it would be like to kiss, to touch. Online, where I was a far better writer, I could express some of those desires without the burning shameface that broke out if I even thought about saying my feelings out loud. Molotkow graduated from online chatrooms to early social networking sites, inadvertently becoming a schoolmate's cyberstalker. She finds solace online: it's an escape from the unrelenting shittiness of high school. Going online makes her feel less alone, reassuring her that there are others like her out there, even if they don't go to her school, or are her age.

She shrugs off the alleged dangers of the anonymous internet by flashing her bullshit detector: "I suppose I should have been afraid of meeting strange, older men from the Internet....[b]ut these men passed online background checks: they were friends of online friends, and their 'netiquette' was okay." It was a common trope in the 1990s for news media to report that your children were at risk if they surfed the internet alone - that unsupervised kids were being lured into online chats with old perverts pretending to be frisky young teens. In reality, more than 95% of adults engaging teens in chats owned up to their age, and they were also forthright with their sexual intentions. Without exception, the victims were older than 13 - the same age that Molotkow was when she started cybersexing. To top it off, studies have shown "there is some evidence that adolescents who visit chatrooms are more likely to have problems with their parents, to suffer from sadness, loneliness, or depression, to have histories of sexual abuse, and to engage in risky behavior than those who do not go to chatrooms." In her article, Molotkow admits to three of those four risk indicators - it seems like, more than anything, her prodigious smarts saved her from some potential abuse, and she was luckier than she was smart. Trusting your gut on the internet seems less safe than your average blind date, but there are actually very few incidences of straight-up molestation. In the most recent stats I could find, internet-related events account for about 7% of statutory rape cases in America. It's a tiny minority that garnered huge media attention, because the internet, at that time, was new, and the rules were unwritten.

It's the same story with sexting now. Molotkow poo-poohs the idea that sexting is worth getting riled up over, dismissing it as a younger generation's chatroom, and hey - at least the kids are doing it to each other and not anonymous Russian human traffickers. Unfortunately, she undercuts her position by recounting the dramatic tale of "Jessi Slaughter:"

I’m disturbed by the antics of kids today: take Jessica Leonhardt, an 11-year-old Floridian known as “Jessi Slaughter.” Last year, on a teen message board called StickyDrama, she was accused of sleeping with a musician popular among 11-year-olds. She posted a video of herself to YouTube refuting the claim and threatening her haters: “I’ll pop a Glock in your mouth and make a brain slushy.” [...] In yet another online video, her father yelled at the attackers, saying he knew who they were and invoking the “cyber police.” Unfortunately, there is no such thing as cyber police. In Leonhardt’s last missive, she claimed to be in foster care; her dad passed away of a heart attack this summer.
There are issues with the article - the passages describing her early masturbatory successes were uncomfortable, to say the least - but what's most frustrating is that Molotkow's experience is normal without being representative. The inability to capture the salient issue is Toronto Life's biggest stumbling block, and again, they made me wonder about how this woman's emerging online sexuality had any bearing, other than squicky feelings of retrograde voyeurism, on my life.

Writing an article about what technology means to teenagers is one thing, but this was a more personal (and dated) narrative. She didn't bother talking to any current thirteen year old girls about their technologically enhanced dating/erotic/sexual adventures. She didn't even speak to other women, now in their 20s, who would have been the same age and having the same experiences. Molotkow is a funny, quick-witted writer with an instinct to overshare, and it eats up words that could be used to widen the scope of the article. Like all nostalgia pieces, it's most interesting to those who were there when it happened, and it's likely that a thirteen-year-old girl reading the piece would have no idea what she was talking about: the technology has changed, the rules have changed, even as teenaged girls and their animal need to know their own sexuality remains constant.

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