Sex & the Ghost II: Cells, IM, hookups and something strange called guilt

teensWhat teen-agers need today is an “international base system.”

At least, that’s what reporter Benoit Denizet-Lewis concludes in a truly stunning — on several levels — cover story in last weekend’s Sunday magazine in the New York Times. The title is “Friends, Friends With Benefits and the Benefits of the Local Mall,” but here at GetReligion.org we can simply think of it as Sex & the Ghost II (The Next Generation). The story is all about sex in the era of cell telephones and the Net, with parents nowhere to be seen.

No one has really defined what relationships are and are not. In this world, a “conservative” is someone who believes that sex should at least involve emotion or enough of a commitment that teens may end up dating. Maybe. Then again, no one has really defined what sex is. This is the post-Bill Clinton era, after all, and there are diseases out there. So where is second base? Where is third base? Is it safe to steal home? Who knows? Who does a young person ask?

And while we are at it, why are the girls — starting at age 13 or thereabouts — having to compete with each other for the attention of the guys? Why is sex, whatever sex is, all about the pleasure of the boys? Why is “romance” a forbidden word?

So “hooking up” sexually with your friends is fine, year after year, and then, someday, that perfect person will come along and then — when you are no longer “hot” enough to compete in the digital marketplace — it will be time to get married. Then everyone will be faithful. Like their parents. Not.

It’s all innocent fun, if the word “innocent” means anything. There are no consequences.

Then again, young people keep saying that they feel dirty. So what does the word “dirty” mean? A kid named David really doesn’t know, except in his gut.

David isn’t the only teenager who used the word “dirty” to describe hookups. Inherent in the thinking of many teenagers is the belief that hooking up, while definitely a mainstream activity, is still one that’s best kept quiet. And underneath the teenage bravado I heard so often are mixed feelings about an activity that can leave them feeling depressed, confused and guilty.

As much as teenagers like to talk a good game, hooking up isn’t nearly as seamless as they’d like it to be, and there are many ways it can go wrong. At the Valentine’s Day gathering, Irene and her friends laid out the unwritten etiquette of teenage hookups: if you want it to be a hookup relationship, then you don’t call the person for anything except plans to hook up. You don’t invite them out with you. You don’t call just to say hi. You don’t confuse the matter. You just keep it purely sexual, and that way people don’t have mixed expectations, and no one gets hurt.

But, invariably, people do.

Eventually a few authorities and experts show up — voices like Dr. Drew Pinsky of “Loveline,” a nationally syndicated radio program. He’s real. He’s been on MTV. Hooking up is not what it seems, he tells the Times.

“It’s all bravado,” he says. “Teens are unwittingly swept up in the social mores of the moment, and it’s certainly not some alternative they’re choosing to keep from getting hurt emotionally. The fact is, girls don’t enjoy hookups nearly as much as boys, no matter what they say at the time. They’re only doing it because that’s what the boys want.”

And a conservative, religious Jewish voice shows up — although she is not identified as such. This is Wendy Shalit, author of the radical volume “A Return to Modesty.” Girls are being manipulated, she argues, and told that true freedom means acting out the worst of male behavior. Dreaming of intimacy and fidelity are now the ultimate sins. However, Shalit is not interviewed. A quote from the distant world of the printed page is stuck into this waterfall of popular media and digital life. Shalit writes: “In the age of the hookup, young women confess their romantic hopes in hushed tones, as if harboring some terrible secret.”

This article is somewhat shocking, but it is must reading for religious leaders and for journalists who want to cover moral issues in modern youth culture. Where are the religious voices? Do they even know this is happening?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • James Freeman

    Terry writes:

    “This article is somewhat shocking, but it is must reading for religious leaders and for journalists who want to cover moral issues in modern youth culture. Where are the religious voices? Do they even know this is happening?”

    I’m not sure you understand. For many traditionalist Christians (and their institutional churches), the ghetto is such a safe, comforting place from which it is satisfying to hurl condemnations when the mean, nasty, fallen world intrudes upon one’s godly solitude.

    And for many liberal Christians (and their institutional churches), they’re still working on the issue of hookups — trying to find a way to affirm youngsters’ self-esteem amid their rutting and perhaps develop an appropriate and tasteful “f*** buddy rite.”

    Those of us who seek to work behind Enemy lines and subvert a subverted culture are on our own. The only thing we can count on is suspicion or outright condemnation from the aforementioned Christian factions.

    And that’s the way it is, June 1, 2004. Good night.

  • K R Coolidge

    Terry, James:

    I am one of those working behind the scenes, so to speak. Since 1979 I have devoted much of my energy to adolescents in public school and Catholic parishes. I now have four teens of my own. From my experiences in six states and a multitude of parishes and schools, some easily named liberal, some conservative, mostly somewhere in the middle, I have seen much pronouncing of morality from one end to self-esteem gobbledygook from the other. However, they all share a common trait: no elbow grease and refusal to reorder one’s own priorities subsumed by the adult culture.

    To counter the culture, so to speak, requires time on the part of matur(ing?) adult Christians spent with young people. It is not the ‘job’ of the school, public or religious, or the overworked and underpaid youth pastor/minister. Putting another youth rally or workcamp experience on the parish/school calendar is not going to get us there. Good, solid research is emerging speaking to need for parent/child interaction as well as adult/adolescent interaction that is quantitative AND qualitative.

    For example, youth who profess a relationship with God also have a positive relationship (lots of communication AND time spent together) with a significant adult in their lives, usually the parents.

    Until we address the busyness of our culture that values activities and awards that translate into a college application bursting at the seams with trivia, our teens will seek to fulfill the innate desire to connect with God and neighbor through self-destructive outlets such as hookups.

  • Molly Douthett

    Yes, we do know what’s out there. And the key is Christian relationships formed in a safe environment. To get a good look at it go to:

    http://www.logos-systems.org

    and talk to Tom Beagan. This ministry changes lives.

  • Molly Douthett

    Oops! I added an “s” that doesn’t belong in the URL I just posted.

    http://www.logos-system.org

    and here is the land line number

    Rev. Tom Beagan

    Executive Director

    LOGOS System Associates

    1-877-YES2LSA

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet @ The Revealer

    What astonishes me about this article is the youth of its author — under 35, given his nomination for a Livingston Award. So how did this guy get so old? And how did the Times get SO ahistorical? Sure as clockwork, every generation gets a bunch of articles about it has more sex, kinkier sex, nihilistic sex, and at a younger age. I remember seeing the same articles when I was a teenager and feeling left out of the fun.

    Before journalists and religious leaders sound the alarms, they might benefit from a trip to the library to research the history of sexuality — and sexual hysteria — in America. A few facts will emerge: kids have always screwed around, from the Puritans on down. This isn’t liberal revisionism; read evangelical historian George Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards if you want to get a glimpse of the hot and heavy in Northampton, Massachussetts circa 18th century (during the Great Awakening, incidentally). Read ANY decent history of the antebellum South if you want really perverse stuff (young white men “practicing” on even younger slaves). I remember with shock my father’s account of a kind of “class trip” he and his buddies took to a brothel — when they were in high school, in the early 1950s, in a conservative town. All that said, plenty of kids are abstaining, and for all the old reasons: fear, good judgement, nerdiness, etc.

    Same as it ever was. What’s sad is that the press keeps “discovering” this news, and that tongue cluckers keep gobbling up these sordid (and overblown) accounts. I imagine such a reader: “Gasp! They don’t do THAT! Hmm. What ELSE do they do…?”

  • James Freeman

    Jeff writes:

    “What astonishes me about this article is the youth of its author — under 35, given his nomination for a Livingston Award. So how did this guy get so old? And how did the Times get SO ahistorical? Sure as clockwork, every generation gets a bunch of articles about it has more sex, kinkier sex, nihilistic sex, and at a younger age. I remember seeing the same articles when I was a teenager and feeling left out of the fun.”

    Of course it’s nothing new — look at Sodom and Gomorrah. But the cynicism of the hookup culture manifesting itself this widely at such young ages *is* something fairly new in modern times.

    To put it succinctly, bad things happen when people start treating one another as objects.

    The depravity of Southern adolescents “practicing” on slave girls was symptomatic of a larger malady that wasn’t eradicated until a half-million or so Americans lay dead on the battlefield. And the depravity of contemporary Western sexual mores (and popular culture) would not have been shocking to those living in Weimar Germany.

    Hitler didn’t come from nowhere. And we haven’t any clue what sort of monster we’re incubating in our cultural petri dish.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com bob smietana

    I’m 39, some I’m at least a few years than Benoit Denizet-Lewis, where were lots of horny teenagers around back then. And most of us lied about what we did and who we did it with.

    Reporting about teen sex may turn out to do than reporting about religion. At least with religion, you can see people in action. Unless Denizet-Lewis was present for the hooking-up, something likely to get him arrested–he’s got to take horny preteens at their word. What are they going to say–no, I’m not hooking up, not me. They want to be cool. So there’s probably some exaggeration going on.

    It’s the disconnect between sex and emotion that’s most disturbing. The emphasis used to be on love at least–”I love you won’t,” guys would tell girls, “won’t you sleep with me.” Now, if Denizet-Lewis is right, it appears they don’t even get that.

    Time to lock my daughters away, unless until they’re 20.

  • Jeff Sharlet @ The Revealer

    James,

    I don’t know which assertion I find more ahistorical — the notion that the Civil War “eradicated” the malady of racism (or that of wealthy southern white men “practicing” — just look at Strom Thurmond’s brood), or that the sexual culture of Weimar Germany somehow produced Hitler. What galls me is when those most concerned with personal responsibility are quick to excuse real bad guys by blaming them on society. Sexual libertinism didn’t cause Hitler; Hitler caused Hitler.

    But, of course, he took advantage of certain cultural ideas. Those don’t include the idea that adults are adults and are free to make their own sexual decisions. They do include the perspective you offer below, that half of society is an “enemy” you must subvert.


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