The thread begins with a teenage girl who's tortured about the heavy petting she's been doing with her boyfriend. "Am I still virgin by doing things that I do with my boyfriend or is that just the same as if I do sexual intercourse?" she writes. "Is that wrong? Does that mean I'm a sinner? Because all those things just feel so good, I can hardly stop! Please answer this ... because I'm so curious and confused, and I am too embarrassed to talk about this to my friends."
The older girls begin to chime in. "Don't rush it! There is no hurry to lose your virginity," posts one woman. Another replies, "You are still a virgin, you are doing nothing wrong, just make sure you do what you're comfortable with and when you do go all the way use protection." And a third: "Bottom line -- there's no rule that says you HAVE to satisfy this guy just because you turn him on -- he won't die or be irreparably injured just because he didn't get to have sex with you. Orgasms are a privilege, not a right!"
When I was growing up, teenage girls gleaned their sexual know-how from romance novels, Cosmopolitan articles, vague illustrations on pamphlets distributed in sex ed class and a few whispered conversations at slumber parties. Today's teens have it much easier: They have the Internet. In chat rooms and mailing lists, online communities and bulletin boards on teenage-oriented Web sites, girls are having frank sexual discussions about everything from how to give a proper blow job to the vagaries of virginity to the mysteries of the female orgasm. And they are not merely chatting with their peers, but with their elder feminist sisters who are quite happy to impart knowledge to curious youth.
Of course, this open access to sexual information raises concerns for some people: Will exposing a teenage girl to these blunt discussions about sex have a detrimental effect on her sexual development? Listening to the more conservative observers, you might come to believe that the preponderance of sex, porn and explicit sexual discussions online will turn our innocent teens into a generation of Lolitas. Donna Rice Hughes, spokeswoman for the anti-porn watchdog group Enough is Enough and author of "Kids Online: Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace," says that with "early exposure [to sex information online], we will see an increase in sexual activity with kids."
There's no hard evidence of that. But according to the teens themselves, as well as the women who run the communities where girls talk, the Internet is having a positive influence on the sex lives of teenagers -- not merely helping them make informed decisions about sex, but about the kinds of sex they are having. Will the Internet have a measurable effect on the way teens think about sex, eliminating misconceptions and opening up new dialogues that might, in fact, bring about positive changes in some of the alarming ways that teenage girls approach sex? If you ask this group, it already has.
As Lyz, a 14-year-old in Ontario who hangs out on the teen Web community Razzberry, puts it, the Net "is having an impact on my everyday decisions because I am now more comfortable with myself mentally and physically, and I think that gives me more self-confidence and lets me stand up for what I believe in. Since coming online I have found many girls that have the same problems as me and it makes me feel less alone."
Teens do have sex -- about half of all girls in the United States will lose their virginity by the time they're 17, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health issues. It's a statistic that troubles many, considering the 1 million teenage pregnancies and 3 million cases of sexually transmitted disease diagnosed in teens (of both sexes) each year in the United States.
But while millions of teenage girls are engaged in the confused and confusing bumping and grinding of adolescence, most Americans would rather sweep the whole notion of girls' sexuality under the carpet. In 1999, female sexuality is still subject to a shocking double standard; popular culture continues to portray girls' interest in sex as threatening or just plain wrong, while boy's sexual pursuits are treated as a completely natural phenomenon. Take, for example, the Washington Post headline earlier this month, "Parents Are Alarmed by an Unsettling New Fad in Middle Schools: Oral Sex." The story described a neighborhood's horror when it learned that its teenage girls were performing oral sex on boys, but ignored the question of the boys' equally premature sexuality. The school went so far as to call in the parents of the girls who were performing oral sex, but not of the boys who were on the receiving end. Then there's the case of "Coming Soon," a relatively chaste movie about three teenage girls' quest for orgasms, which was originally slapped with an NC-17 rating and has had difficulties finding distribution; in comparison, "American Pie" -- a paean to the teenage penis -- was given an R rating and became a box-office smash.
"It's been hard for girls to get good information about sex -- it's not something that many people are comfortable giving to girls; people are scared by female sexuality," says Esther Drill, executive editor of the popular teen site gURL.com and coauthor of an upcoming book about teen sexuality, "Deal With It!" gURL, which draws hundreds of thousands of teens every month, offers girls frank information about their mental health, body issues and sexuality. With the resources available to them on the Net, Drill says, "I would hope that girls would be more comfortable talking about sexuality; that they would be more comfortable with their own sexuality and able to make more informed decisions."
Anecdotal evidence suggests they are using the Net to talk, express their feelings and make new friends. Simply witness the flood of teenage girls who lurk in online communities like Razzberry, Chickclick, gURL, theglobe.com -- not to mention the AOL chat rooms, instant messaging services and bulletin boards. And wherever teen girls may gather, discussions about sex ensue.
On Razzberry, young girls have talked frankly about masturbation. On gURL, they have discussed how to give a blow job. On theglobe.com, they participate in conversations about the advantages of various sexual positions, or the pros and cons of phone sex. On Estronet (disclosure: I co-edit a women's webzine called Maxi, which is part of the Estronet women's network), they can debate the age-old question "does penis size matter?"
Although there are many girls who say that they are more comfortable talking about sex with their trusted friends offline, the majority of the dozen girls I interviewed said the Internet has become the primary place where they talk about sex. The anonymity of the Internet, they say, makes it a natural place for them to go when they are just too embarrassed to look someone in the eye and ask them a question. As 15-year-old Lizzy puts it, "I do some things online that I would never, ever, ever do off. The person on the other end of the computer doesn't know you, so you feel more at liberty to talk about insecurities and your fantasies about sex."
Others find it easier to elaborate their thoughts on a keyboard. "I feel kind of better not having to say things out loud -- I'm more of a writing person, you see," explains 16-year-old Angela, who lives in the Philippines and spends a lot of time online at sites like theglobe.com, Teenzworld and Estronet. "And there's that advantage over the Net -- not just anonymity, but the fact that the person you're 'talking' to over the Net doesn't see if you're blushing. You can always just brush off embarrassing situations or moments by a simple word or two. Plus, it makes stuff a little less personal, more objective. More conducive to ask-all-you-feel-like-asking."
Catherine Delett, the founder of Razzberry, an online community for teens that boasts 95,000 monthly visitors primarily between the ages of 14 and 16, observes frequent conversations about topics that have historically been taboo. She recently witnessed a thread about masturbation, she says, that surprised her with its maturity. "I couldn't imagine myself sitting around at that age talking about masturbation. I think the anonymity of it really helped them be a little more open, and didn't require them to hide and say, 'I don't do that.'"
Ironically, the Net is also making it easier for non-virtual friends to talk about sex. Kathryn, a 19-year-old who just graduated from a Toronto high school, explains that her friends rarely discussed sexual issues with each other until they discovered the Net. Now they use e-mail to talk about their sexual fantasies, exchange advice and giggle over who they might like to see naked. "You can write it, read it over and rewrite it -- take your time," she says. "They know these things about me now, but I'm not telling them face to face."
But teens aren't merely talking to each other in communities that are designed for their age group and censored accordingly. Many girls "trade up" -- reading Cosmo instead of Teen magazine, watching racy R movies instead of Disney films -- and shun monitored teen sites in favor of more mature women's communities like Estronet. On the Estrolist mailing list, a 450-member women-only community that I moderate, adult women often discuss the difficulties of anal sex, the exact location of the G-spot or the practice of female ejaculation. Quietly witnessing these discussions are a large number of teenagers who have also joined the list and listen in, fascinated, to these impromptu sex ed classes.
Will their exposure to this kind of graphic talk encourage the girls to have sex at an earlier age? Will reading about oral sex make them run out and try it? Media pundits have long debated this issue, blaming premature sexual development on R-rated movies, Playboy magazine, steamy music videos -- even, in the age of Monica Lewinsky, the evening news. Graphic sexual content is, arguably, even easier to find online, and the watchdogs of the Net believe that exposure to such concepts will push kids more quickly toward sexual experimentation.
As Donna Rice Hughes, the anti-porn crusader best known as the agent of presidential hopeful Gary Hart's political downfall, puts it, "If you look at a teenager who is just coming into having feelings about their sexuality and you expose them to sexually explicit material or activity or conversation, it fuels those hormones to need release -- self release with masturbation or sexual release with a partner. It really short-circuits the natural maturation process; they become eroticized earlier than they would otherwise, in age-appropriate increments."
Some conservative politicians also make similar comments about the detrimental effect of porn and sexual content. "Common sense and 40 years of research in the field of child development clearly demonstrate that exposure to sexually explicit images causes significant harm to the psychological development of children," Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, author of the failed Child Online Protection Act, told the New York Times last September. "I believe it is our responsibility to act to protect young people from the corrosive, debasing effects of the voluminous graphic adult content readily available on the World Wide Web."
But, according to researchers themselves, it's hardly that cut and dried. The impact of frank sexual discourse online -- which is neither porn nor a sex ed program -- has never been studied, according to Douglas Kirby, a senior research scientist at the nonprofit health organization ETR Associates.
However, studies have proven that access to sexual information decreases sexual activity. Says Kirby, "Sex and HIV education programs do not increase any measure of sexual activity; they do not hasten the onset of sex, frequency of sex or number of sex partners. They do, however, delay the onset of sex or reduce the number of partners or frequency -- and also increase the use of contraception." Past studies that attempted to show a correlation between pornography and deviant sexual behavior, he adds, have been unsuccessful.
None of the dozen teens I interviewed said they had been encouraged to be more promiscuous by what they learned online. Some, like Kathryn, say that often, "in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, 'I'll do that someday.'" But others say that what they've read online has convinced them that they shouldn't be having sex. Learning about sex online has removed some of the romantic hazy mystery that the media and their peers had imparted to it; now that they know more about it, they are less inclined to try it. In fact, founders of teen sites like Razzberry and gURL point out that conversations about chastity, virginity and "how young is too young for sex?" are among the most popular topics in the sexual areas of their communities.
Take the case of Angie, a 14-year-old Pennsylvania girl who says she's been watching porn "through the scramble" of her parents' cable TV since she was in third grade, and learned about the ins and outs of sex even before then -- which, she admits, is "something I didn't need to know at that young an age." Since she's been online, she's peeked at a few porn sites, and has participated in communities where older women swap graphic sexual advice. She's even had "cybersex" with a few women she met in chat rooms, experiences that have made her wonder if she might be bisexual.
But rather than putting her new knowledge into carnal practice, Angie says her online experiences have convinced her to remain a virgin. As she puts it, "I've figured out that sex in this stage of my life has become too dangerous. I mean, I don't want to turn 15 and suddenly realize that my first sexual encounter has caused me to have herpes or something. So I'm better off not having sex with anyone until I can handle the possible consequences that can come from it."
And what of the girls who have already lost their virginity? Many use the Net to learn about safer sex. This is the kind of information that Teenwire.com, Planned Parenthood's Web site about teen sexuality, is dispensing. Kim Jack Riley, the executive editor of Teenwire.com, says she gets about 300 sex-question e-mails from teens each week, many with subject lines like "help," "I'm desperate," "It's an emergency." "We respond to those e-mails and the responses back are always consistently 'you've saved my life,' 'I didn't realize I have these options,'" Riley says. "They are releasing anxiety so that they can be more productive in other areas in their life, like going to school."
Teenwire.com currently boasts nearly 20,000 visitors a month, and is quickly becoming a major source of smart sexual information for teens from experienced professionals. Planned Parenthood conceived the site, Riley says, as a way for teens to look up answers to the questions they might be too embarrassed to ask doctors or peers, or feel are too frivolous for a trip to a clinic. Explains Riley, "The computer is private -- the user decides how much information to intake at any moment. If they have a quick question, that's OK -- they don't have to sit there for an hour for a lecture from someone who makes them feel judged."
Esther Drill describes a recent conversation that occurred in the gURL discussion boards when a confused teen posed the question "What's an orgasm?" The first response was a breezily ignorant "It's what happens to a guy when he has sex."
Pro-sex feminists hope that young women will learn to embrace their sexuality as a positive thing. Conversations like the one above show that the old puritanical belief that sex is a duty that women perform for men still persists -- especially with teenage girls who feel pressured into sex by eagerly inexperienced dates and have initial experiences with sex that aren't particularly pleasurable. Equally problematic -- as Leora Tannenbaum recently documented in her book "Slut!" -- are the lingering social mores that equate female sexual pleasure with harlotry.
Will the Net help dispel these stereotypes for teenage girls -- teaching them that sex can be something they can enjoy and not be ashamed of?
"It's made me more accepting of a teenage girl having sex and not being a slut because of it," says Kathryn. "In high school you may know that people are having sex, but it's looked down upon," she says. "Because my friends weren't having sex, in the back of my mind I thought, 'I'm kind of weird.' But when I talk to other people online I feel better about myself."
Riley says that Kathryn's sentiment is being mirrored by countless teens she sees visiting Teenwire.com. "We seem to be providing a great sense of relief to a lot of female teens who may be believing in myths or stereotypes that are placed upon them, or they were just basically in a chauvinistic environment that makes them dirty girls because they are having sex," she says. "We've helped them decide they are normal, or OK if they aren't feeling ready. They may be pressured to have sex and come to us to find out if it is the right time."
And, as the gay and lesbian community has long been aware, the Net is a haven for teenagers who are coming to terms with feelings that might not be acceptable among their peers. Maiga, for example, is an 18-year-old girl who lives in what she describes as "a white-bread suburb" near Philadelphia. Although she'd known that she was bisexual for some time, it wasn't until she spent hours conversing with older women in online communities -- women with strikingly different experiences and opinions than the teens she'd encountered in the 'burbs -- that Maiga came to understand her own sexuality.
"Meeting these people I really respect, seeing them living lives that I could see myself living, made me feel a lot more comfortable with my sexual identity. It was really helpful to learn to think of myself as a person who is sexual and enjoys exploring her sexuality a lot," she muses. More importantly, she says, talking to more-experienced women has given her a healthier perspective about relationships. "When I think about relationships now, I am focused around being into them for myself. I fell into a lot of the teenage-girl traps about trying to please someone else."
The Net can offer young girls, and guys, a place to explore their sexuality and to learn how and when to act on their desires -- but only if teenagers are permitted access to sites that host such discussions. Some libraries have had filtering software forced upon them, (or would if the Dr. Laura Schlessingers of the world had their way), and therefore block any online references to sex. And plenty of schools and parents, concerned mainly about kids viewing pornography, have installed similar filters on their computers.
But some see such filters as an overzealous attempt to shield kids from finding online what they can stumble across on any magazine rack. As Heidi Swanson, CEO of Chickclick, points out, "How hard is it to get to the 'how to give a blow job' articles in women's publications? A lot of this sexual content has been out there for a long time. We're hearing that 'ooh, the Net's bad bad bad,' when in fact sex is everywhere." But what the Net is offering that you can't find everywhere, she says, is discourse: a place where teens not only read about sex, but can exchange ideas and experiences with more knowledgeable peers and adults and, hopefully, make more informed decisions about their own sexual boundaries as a result.
"Education is such a good thing," says Razzberry's Catherine Delett unequivocally. "They may be learning things about sex, but also more about contraception and being a teen mother." gURL's Esther Drill concurs: "Just because you have good information about sex doesn't mean you are going to act on it; ultimately it's going to make you make a good, informed decision."
Perhaps the best way to gauge the wisdom that can come from kids learning about sex online is simply to listen to the knowledge that the teens themselves impart to each other. For every teenage girl who asks what an orgasm is, there's someone who will tell her the right answer. For every girl who says she is thinking about giving her boyfriend a blow job to make him happy, there is another who tells her all the reasons she shouldn't -- and that if she does it anyway, to use safety precautions.
It's certainly not easy to be a teenage girl at the turn of the millennium facing sexual decisions at increasingly younger ages. So it's inspiring to hear the words of teenagers like Taryn, a 14-year-old in Vancouver, British Columbia: "I've learned on the Internet, from the many different types of people I've talked to, that sex is a wonderful, natural thing. I've learned that you have to be ready for it and in love. I've learned that sex is not as wrong or dirty as people make it seem, as long as you don't treat it dirty."
If sex talk on the Internet can encourage a girl to reason like that, surely it can't be all that bad.