How the faceless and amoral world of cyberspace has created a deeply disturbing... generation SEX
Remember that Hilaire Belloc cautionary tale - Matilda told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes? I used to love it as a child when telling lies was one of the naughtiest things you could do: Matilda ended up getting burned to death.
These days, however, everything has changed and it’s the truths that children tell that make one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.
A couple of years ago, my daughter Francesca, then aged 13, told me about a party she had been to one Saturday night.
In the course of the evening, she came upon one of her friends, also aged 13, performing oral sex on a boy in the garden. The boy was standing and videoing the event on his mobile phone.
My daughter, in whom the feisty gene has always found strong expression, pulled her friend off the boy, knocked the phone out of his hand and slapped him round the face.
I apologise for shocking you, but then there are a number of things shocking about this event: the casual nature in which such an intimate act is performed in public, the young age of the participants and last, but by no means least, the fact that it is being filmed.
This not only signals the boy’s disassociation from the physical experience, it also indicates his intention to replay the event and, no doubt, to share his triumph with his friends as one might brandish a trophy above one’s head for all to see.
Reality TV has a lot to answer for
Nor was this the only such event on this particular evening. I am no prude, but Francesca painted a picture of Bacchanalia that certainly made me gasp.
That week at school, when conducting a post mortem of their weekend as teenagers do (and always have done), the girls at her then school (she’s since moved), a private girls’ school in London, exclaimed: ‘Hurrah, now we’re more slutty than Slutney’, the affectionate nickname of another school.
Call me old-fashioned, but when I was a gal, sluttishness was not a condition one aspired to.
That year, they were all dressing in Hooters T-shirts (the uniform of the well-endowed waitresses of a U.S. restaurant chain whose slogan ‘delightfully tacky yet unrefined’ sums up its approach) and buttock-skimming shorts.
They looked, as girls so often do, far older than their 13 years and not unlike the Playboy Bunnies who incensed a generation of feminists. (Interestingly, clothing depicting the distinctive Playboy bunny is highly popular now among teenage girls.)
When one considers our society, it’s no surprise that our children have lost all sense of modesty.
Not only do social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo encourage teens to share information about themselves; but when they are not taking their clothes off, their role models are spilling their guts about their ‘private’ lives all over the pages of every national newspaper, magazine and on television.
We have an immoderate interest in the private lives of perfect strangers. Pop stars such as Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears expose the car crash that is their life for all to see.
Jordan, who won fame by revealing her breasts, has a documentary series where she and her husband, Peter Andre, discuss their sex life (or lack of it) in intimate detail.
The Osbournes revealed all for our entertainment in their television series. Was this extraordinary exposure responsible in part for the subsequent drug and alcohol abuse of the two of their children who participated? One can’t help feeling it might have been. Their third child, Amy, wisely chose to stay out of the limelight.
Whatever its exponents may say, reality television has a lot to answer for. I have been a documentary film-maker for more than two decades and am well aware of the power of the medium.
Today’s teenagers are starring in the reality show of their own lives and doing all they can to make it as dramatic as possible.
Where before mistakes we made when young - excessive drinking, acts of promiscuity - were quietly forgotten, now they are recorded and broadcast on the Internet for all to see.
From happy slapping to amateur sex videos (Paris Hilton rose to fame when a shamelessly intimate video of her and her boyfriend found its way on to the Internet, a reality TV show followed, and the rest, as they say, is history).
Do these girls even know what feminism is?
The sexualisation of our young is ubiquitous: boys caught cheating on their girlfriends on mobile phones, ritual humiliation and worse by YouTube (In February 2008, a gang of London teenagers aged 14-16 drugged and raped a woman in front of her children and then posted the film of the attack, videoed on a mobile phone, on YouTube), television programmes like Sex And The City with man-eating Samantha as the living embodiment of casual libidinous sex, all provide the back projection to our children’s lives.
Instant fame is all. In today’s celebrity culture, no one cares how you made your name, as long as you’ve made it; there’s no distinction between fame and notoriety.
Do you really want things that you’ve done when drunk to be plastered all over the Internet?
These images are like puppies; they’re not just for Christmas, they’re for life.
Would the 13-year-old girl administering oral sex in a London garden have done so if she’d fully considered the possible repercussions of the video the boy was taking of her?
Once broadcast on the Internet the images would have become available not merely to the boy’s friends, but to the whole world; to paedophiles and to prospective employers in the future.
In her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women And The Rise Of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy writes about the American experience, where many a young girl’s dream seems to be the desire to dance around a pole or cheer while others do.
She says that feminist terms such as liberation and empowerment, that used to describe women’s fight for equality, have been perverted.
Now the freedom to be sexually provocative or promiscuous is not enough - now it can mean the freedom to be an exhibitionist.
During the same summer as the party my daughter had told me about, she casually mentioned at a lunch gathering of family and friends how another of her friends allowed boys to ‘touch them up’.
There was a sharp, shocked intake of breath around the table; the casual use of language and the public mention of such an act astonished us.
Although many of us might have engaged in such activities at a similar age, none of us could have imagined discussing it in front of our parents let alone in front of our parents’ friends.
So how much are the parents to blame?
It is precisely this erosion of the boundaries of privacy and the absence of taboo that is so shocking about today’s teenagers. Modern technology allows children access to images and information we, as children, could scarcely have imagined.
You want to see a naked girl? Click on to the Internet. You want to hear exactly what your friend got up to the night before? Log on to Facebook. Not only will their boasts tell you that they are recovering from the excesses of the night before, there’ll be the pictures to prove it.
In today’s world of fast information and access to all areas, too many - particularly the young - are having to up the stakes to chase their particular dragon and get the high they crave.
Sometimes, they’re so busy creating drama and tension in the movie of their own lives that they’ve forgotten to be human beings.
A video I was told about shows how far things have gone: a dying woman lay inert on a street while a man urinated on her, saying as he did so: ‘This is a YouTube moment.’
When I was young, secretly looking up the word penis in the dictionary and sniggering was how we got our thrills. This is small beer for today’s children: the girls especially, who, where once they might have struck a pose in front of mirrors in the privacy of their own bedrooms, now exhibit themselves scantily clad in hookers’ poses in photo albums on social networking sites.
There’s something about the one step removal into cyber space that allows people to behave even more outrageously than they might in person. Now, even this boundary is becoming blurred.
Perhaps it’s the freedom or lack of boundaries they’ve learned from virtual reality that give them permission to behave with such frightening lack of inhibition in person. That and the demon drink, for today’s teenage girls drink in a way we rarely did.
So how much are the parents to blame? Those of us who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies will do almost anything to appear ‘cool’ to our children; we certainly don’t wish to come across as some sort of Mary Whitehouse scandalised by today’s youth.
Nor do we wish to appear as joyless, men-hating feminists, although many of us remember that we fought hard for the right to do as men have always done.
One can’t help but wonder what happened to feminism and its lessons. On the one hand, girls drink like men; on the other they dress in a manner that invites sexual objectification. Do these young girls even know what feminism is?
‘The problem is that teenagers have rejected the values of the previous era and to reject the values of the Sixties or Seventies, which was very laissez faire, you have to go very far,’ says Dr Pat Spungin, psychologist and founder of parenting website raisingkids.co.uk.
The bar has unquestionably been raised. Where will it end? In bizarre fetishism or S&M as teens strive to outdo each other?
The lessons learned are confusing ones; girls feel they have the right to get drunk and sleep around, but certain attitudes never change.
According to a sample group of 17-year-olds I spoke to, there is an enormous double standard between the sexes. Boys treat sex as being a sign of ‘laddishness’ and masculinity, they say; promiscuous behaviour on their part is an achievement.
Girls, on the other hand, are caught between a rock and a hard place.
‘Boys demand that they go further before they are ready; if they do, they’ll quickly be labelled as sluts, and gain a reputation as an easy target, so that drunk boys will seek them expecting that they’ll be easy to get off with,’ says one.
‘If they don’t, they’ll be labelled as frigid and become instantaneously unattractive; most boys won’t bother investing time and energy flirting with a girl if they think there is little prospect of pulling.’
‘Girls I know often get drunk and allow themselves to be touched up at bus stops or up against walls,’ says my daughter, Francesca.
Many of her classmates, she says, have been sleeping with their boyfriends since the age of 14 or 15.
Facebook has an application called the Honesty Box, which invites you to send and receive anonymous messages to discover what people really think of you.
The application’s blurb declares triumphantly that messages cannot be removed: ‘Once you send a message, it’s forever.’ Thus has bullying moved from the playground into cyber space?
The implications of all this behaviour are far reaching. A survey about violence in teenage relationships released last month by Women’s Aid and Bliss magazine found that nearly a quarter of 14-year-old girls who responded had been pressured into engaging in sexual activity with somebody they’ve dated.
According to the survey, boys see girls as sexual commodities and one in four 16-year-olds had been hit or hurt in some other way.
Many felt it was OK to hit a girl if she’d been unfaithful. It also found that more than half of 14 and 15-year-olds have been humiliated in front of others by someone they were dating.
‘There used to be a stricter and more regulated approach to bringing up children,’ says Dr Pat Spungin.
‘Parents should take back some of the control they’ve ceded. We don’t say “no” enough, so vulnerable girls don’t have enough experience of saying “no” themselves.’
This is not to say that we should be condemning teenagers for being sexual and proposing that they take chastity vows and attend purity balls as is fashionable in parts of the U.S.
However, we do need to consider what is appropriate behaviour and to help our teens ensure that ill-considered or drunken acts which are sometimes a part of growing up won’t come back and hurt them in the future.
Some, of course, have always been sexually precocious
There have, of course, always been girls and boys who are sexually precocious.
When I was in the fifth form (Year 11) at my girls’ grammar school, I remember a classmate going to Majorca and returning to boast that she’d slept with six boys in a week. Luckily, neither she, nor they, had the pictures to prove it. These days they might well have had.
‘The girls who are most vulnerable and have the most desire to be liked are the ones who are tempted to cross these boundaries,’ says Dr Pat Spungin.
The event cited at the beginning of this article is an extreme one and by no means common to all teens’ experience. It did, however, occur.
Others will have similar stories, and it is symptomatic of a worrying tendency among our teens to live their lives in an inappropriately public arena where they reveal far more of themselves, both literally and metaphorically, than is wise.
Barack Obama recently commented on the fashion among young men for wearing their trousers low on their hips: ‘Brothers should pull up their pants. You’re walking by your mother, your grandmother, and your underwear is showing. (Some people might not want to see your underwear - I’m one of them.)’
Few would wish a return to the hypocritical constraints of life before the sexual revolution; however, the trouble with the pendulum is that it has a habit of swinging too far the other way.
Perhaps it’s time for everyone to pull up their pants and show each other a little more respect; and, since we’re supposed to be the adults, it has to start with us, with how we behave, how we draw boundaries and what we put in our newspapers and magazines and on our television screens.
* Olivia Lichtenstein is a TV producer/director and novelist. Her novel, Mrs Zhivago Of Queen’s Park, is published by Orion at £6.99. Peer pressure has always been a persistent factor of teenage life. The stakes are higher now and teenagers, not surprisingly, have become even more competitive and paranoid. They may often find themselves in situations they are not equipped to deal with.
The internet personae that children create turn them into avatars - an online persona - in their own lives and diminish their empathy for each other. It becomes hard to tell what is real and what isn’t.
I thought I couldn't be shocked, but this article set me back on my heels.
I'd like you to read it to be aware of the gravity of the situation. This is NOT for children and you should understand this writer is not offering a solution. When a "British liberal feminist from the 60's" is calling for standards, we must be in trouble. This is why I'm working as hard as I can to produce our "Keep Your Kids Safe In This Internet Age" series.