The XX Factor

Romance in the Age of the Internet Is Lovelier Than You Think

Why can’t a text be an updated quill-to-scroll love letter?

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In Vanity Fair this month, Bling Ring author Nancy Jo Sales returns to the teen beat to investigate how teenagers are experiencing sex and love in the Internet age. She “uncovers a world where boys are taught they have the right to expect everything from social submission to outright sex from their female peers.” Whenever “new social media appears, teens seem to find ways to use it to have sex, often sex devoid of even any pretense of emotional intimacy.” Relationships are now just “a disembodied coupling that takes place solely on a screen.”  Boys want relationships “to be like a porno,” one teenager tells Sales. Girls are “selling oral sex for $10 and $15 in the bathroom at a school,” a counselor to teens adds. “They’re all reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

The stories Sales tells—culled from conversations with dozens of teenagers and a sprinkling of adult experts, mostly based in New York and Los Angeles—are relentlessly bleak. One girl is bullied over her online presence. Another’s sexy photos are forwarded to the whole school. A third attempts suicide. Semen gets on faces and jackets and then on Facebook. Reading this piece, you’d think that the Internet has turned all American teenagers into either suicide risks (if they’re girls) or potential rapists (boys). These teenagers’ individual stories are real and important, but they are not representative. It’s a hit piece fired at an entire generation.

Is the Internet really degrading this generation’s sexual and romantic lives? I have my doubts. The U.S. teen pregnancy rate is declining. Teenagers are waiting longer and longer to have sex. In fact, Americans who have sex before they turn 20 are in the minority. Teens are waiting because they feel that sex is “against their religion or morals” or because “they had not yet found the right person,” according to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control study. The rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in this country have dropped precipitously over the past half-century, even as a higher percentage of victims are reporting those crimes to the police. Marital rape is now a crime in all 50 states. American women enjoy more economic independence than ever, a phenomenon that directly affects their sexual agency. The idea that before the Internet rained hellfire on teenage bedrooms across America, girls and boys were sipping soda pops and slipping letterman jackets over each other’s shoulders is untrue and offensive. Sex was not better when women were second-class citizens.

Of course, gender inequality is still a reality in the United States, and the worst forms of gender violence fall disproportionately on teenagers. Facebook and Snapchat and Tumblr and Twitter and are just new platforms for old problems. But talk to teenagers long enough, and you’ll also find upsides to relationships that play out online. When a person abuses you, it can actually be quite helpful to have evidence of the crime in writing. The Internet has made it more possible for girls to engage openly in conversations about sex—and to consume sexual images—that were previously shared among networks of boys. Pornography (which can often, but not always, be misogynistic, homophobic, and racist) has exploded across the Internet, but so have feminist and queer communities that offer support to people whose sexualities have always been marginalized. Texting with your crush is about as “disembodied” as quill-to-scroll love letters were. Receiving a text from a person you like can be a glorious thing.

This is just a sampling of stories I’ve heard from teenage girls over the past couple of years: “Being young, sex has always been extremely taboo to talk about. I found out about it at an early age and always found it to be a beautiful thing and never thought of it as disgusting,” one 14-year-old American girl told me. Watching and talking about porn on the Internet “helped me realize that I am very open about my sexuality without being vulgar about it.” Finding other girls online who feel the same way “is kinda like when you meet someone who loves your favorite band. You share a special bond and stick together like a family.” Said a 19-year-old New Zealand girl, “I think it’s great women are being able to talk about masturbation and porn more freely,” particularly because “a lot of porn is so heavily influenced by male fantasy.” Sharing sexual images that speak to her sexuality—not to boys’—feels “rare and exciting.” Watching porn “has changed my sex life” for the better, an 18-year-old Australian girl told me. After watching James Deen’s work, she “made little subtle hints” to her boyfriend about sexual moves and dynamics she’d seen online that she thought she might like to test out herself: “I wanted to try it, and now it just comes naturally, and we do them, and I love it.”

These stories are also real and important, but they don’t fit neatly in the framework of the handbasket that teenagers are supposedly carrying straight down to hell. And like many trend stories about adolescent sexuality, the voices of boys are largely absent here, which is pretty alarming when you’re painting them all as misogynist jerks. This is offensive to teenage girls and boys, but also to the very possibility of social progress. Sales’ story is a typically conservative tale that leverages long-standing fears about female sexuality to tear down all technological advancement. “Culturally, we’re insecure about young women’s sexual agency, as well as new technologies that seem to be changing so much,” social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson told me (in a lovely conversation staged over Facebook chat). “It’s much easier to dismiss progressive change when you can call it ‘virtual’ and ‘unreal.’”

On Twitter of all places, some readers are responding to the story by calling for a return to a simpler time—whatever time period the reader happened to grow up in. “This @VanityFair piece makes me REALLY glad my teenaged Internet years were limited to AOL,” Alie Martell tweeted in response. We’re nostalgic for AOL now? That is grim. When I was 11, a friend and I logged into an AOL chat room, told everyone we were legal, then virtually rubbed oil on the back of some anonymous man until he virtually whipped out his penis. This was almost 20 years ago. We can read scare stories like Sales’ and come to believe that our childhoods were good and pure, but it’s not because the world was actually a better place for teenagers then—it’s because the stories we tell about teenagers’ lives today are totally distorted.