Talk magazine, four issues old and already dying a public death, has topped itself (pardon the term) in its latest attempt to sell sex, and, one presumes, magazines, movies and everything else Miramax has to offer.
The sordid vehicle, in the February issue of the mag, is a story called "The Sex Lives of Your Children." Raising the bar of tastelessness to dizzying heights, the magazine doesn't just vivisect the sex lives of the usual suspects -- Leo, Gwyneth and Donald. It gets into the pants of middle school students, most of them white, middle- to upper-middle-class kids. Now there's a new twist on the old sex story. Not Bob, Ted, Carol and Alice, but Sean, Mica, Tiffany and Kaitlin.
Well, sorry. It's not a new story. It's more of a threadbare tale guaranteed to satisfy adults who like to publicly bemoan the values of adolescents while privately drooling over the graphically described "real life" activities of underage sex addicts.
It's not a new story (or a news story) that kids experiment with sex. Any adult who has sex was once a kid who found out about sex through experimentation. (Check your Spock and Penny Leach for details.) It's not kids and sex that has changed; it's how adults choose to talk -- and write -- about kids and sex.
The Talk story is just one of many recent articles written by (and for) adults with an excessive preoccupation with the sex lives of young teenagers. This summer, the Washington Post ran a story called "Way Beyond Spin the Bottle" that included graphic descriptions of an oral sex ring and culminated with a description of a meeting in the school library during which parents and teachers sat around more or less asking one another if their kids swallowed and if so which kids. (One thing that has not changed is the sexual double standard; only the parents of girls were called to the meeting.)
This fall, Newsweek followed up with a paranoid cover story, filled with "Freudian fear and cooked statistics," that was supposed to show that early puberty equals early sex, but only showed that adults look at the developing bodies of children in a sexy way.
Now Lucinda Franks, a Talk special correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has established through "dozens" of interviews with real middle school teens that "child's play is not what it used to be."
In a show of real concern for this "problem," Talk chose to illustrate the article with a salacious (in this context) painting by Balthus of a sly schoolgirl, eyes closed, head turned away from the viewer, whose attention is immediately drawn to the girl's exposed panties in the center of the frame. How interesting that this illustration is prominently dated 1938, a sign, perhaps, that adults obsessed with the sex play of children have been around for a very long time.
I suppose that Tina Brown & Co. believed that Balthus would gild this peep show with high art. But it's not Balthus' art that draws the eye. This is a story about adults looking up children's dresses. This is the journalistic equivalent of drilling a hole in the changing room wall. It is pornography in an acceptable package (for the Talk set anyway) produced by and for the kind of people (aren't we all?) who are terrified of the creeping pedophilia we hear so much about. Talk editors seem to see no problem in providing plenty of reading material for said criminals.
Frank's article -- a collection of unfounded conjecture by "experts," warmed-over social clichis and anecdotes from teenage Deep Throats made even more shadowy by pseudonyms set off by self-conscious quotation marks -- offers very little in the way of new statistics on kids and sex.
"There are few hard statistics on the trend," Franks concedes in the story. The most she manages to reveal is that the percentage of teens who have intercourse by the age of 15 has risen in the 27 years since 1970. This, too, is hardly news. (What is news, which Franks fails to mention, is that teen pregnancy has declined steadily since 1991.)
But the lack of hard statistics doesn't keep Franks from speculating that an entire generation of children is growing up without sexual morals. She says at one point: "The kids indulge in behavior that seems a far cry from what their parents generation called 'free love.' The children's version is 'free sex.'"
But as we all know, "free love" was never more than a euphemism for "free sex." This comparison would be simply laughable if it weren't so damned mean-spirited. What can Franks possibly hope to gain by turning contemporary children's sexual experimentation into pathology, while claiming that sex play in their parents' generation was nothing but good clean fun?
And nowhere does she prove that the kids' involvement in sex has anything to do with their values in the first place. Indeed, there is nothing to indicate that their sex play, which rarely seems to involve intercourse, is anything but play, at least in their minds.
Franks paints a world where kids from 12 to 16 experiment with everything "from French kissing to fellatio" -- nice alliteration but a rather wide range of experience. Of course, one might expect this range. Franks herself cites statistics that show that, in the U.S., 38 percent of teenage girls and 45 percent of teenage boys have had sexual intercourse by the age of 15. Although even Franks admits that sexual experimentation isn't quantifiable, she chooses, for the pleasure of her readers, to dwell on fellatio (and the less alliterative cunnilingus). Franks, it turns out, can only think of one thing.
Basically, it all adds up (conveniently) to a rather cynical excuse to print hardcore porn from the mouths of babes. And for the rest of the article, that is what Franks does.
For example, "Darcy," 13, describes "playground sex" -- the perfect fusion of childhood innocence and sexual wantonness: "It's not dangerous -- the crazies are scared of us 'cause we're butt naked in like, five minutes. I do gymnastics. My thing is the rings."
I'm not going to tell you what "Darcy" does on the rings, but Franks does. There are several interesting aspects of this confession (or boast, we don't really know). But nothing about the statement would indicate that our kids are going to hell. (Although, God willing, Franks just might be.)
Just imagine the kind of questions Franks is asking these kids. No one would expect an adult to answer queries designed to elicit graphic detail about their sex lives -- literally blow by blow -- especially when the answers are meant to appear in a mainstream magazine. (I'd like to see someone ask Leo about his exact position during his most recent sexual encounter.) I'm 26, so I think my mother assumes that I have something of a sex life, but I don't expect her to ask me about my blow job technique. Nor would I expect a reporter to ask me to describe my last tryst in graphic detail. And if she did, I'd tell her to go fuck herself. But that is because I am her peer -- not a 13-year-old trying to please or impress an adult, or, even cooler, to get a quote in Talk magazine.
To ask these questions of 12- to 16-year-olds is to exploit -- even endanger -- any number of relationships between adults and kids. Kids' tendency to want to please adults means that, when confronted by a reporter asking salacious questions, they may feel that they have no choice but to answer. Their desire to appear more sophisticated, worldly and experienced than they actually are may lead them to exaggerate or just plain make stuff up. And their fear of being judged or punished means that they follow every confession with a penitential plea for leniency.
But regardless of the answers, no kid should be asked these questions. For an adult to sit down with a kid and lavish attention on him in the form of an intimate probe about sex has many -- obvious -- ramifications. I'm more shocked by the idea of an adult asking teenagers to reveal the intimate details of their sex lives than I am by the idea that teens have sex lives to be revealed.
What question, exactly, did Frank pose to get "Marcia," 12, to describe the taste of semen? Or "Caroline," 14, to disclose that "I know this girl who" sprayed her labia with Yves Saint Laurent? (It's significant to note that both "Marcia" and "Caroline," like many of the teens interviewed, gave the most detail on things they'd heard other kids had done. As a bona fide former adolescent, I remember all sorts of wildly improbable rumors about the sexploits of other students.) One can just see Franks egging on her teen subjects with eager nods and leading questions: Then what did you do? Did you swallow?
Somebody should call Child Protective Services -- and not on these kids, who in most cases, maybe all cases, seem to be partaking in a sexual curiosity appropriate to their age. Franks is the one who needs remedial education in age-appropriate behavior. The only danger in pointing out that none of us actually knows what goes on in each other's bedrooms is the possibility that Franks -- or some other well-meaning authority figure -- will take this as license to ask for an eyewitness account in the name of journalistic accuracy.
Since this article is titled "The Sex Lives of Your Children," it dwells on the children of readers that Talk magazine expects to be within its demographic: "middle- to upper-middle-class" kids of baby boomers, in "urban and suburban areas of the East and West coast." ("Though," Franks adds ominously, "the language of this youth culture is universal." How she knows that kids in Ohio are giving the same blow jobs as kids in New York and California is anyone's guess.)
Sex in this article is dark and foreboding, not natural or innocent, and is brought on by (bad, bad, bad parent!) neglect. The causes of teen sex are predictably linked to the most tired clichis of bad parenting: parents who aren't home, parents who want to be seen as "cool," parents who are afraid to parent, parents who are too busy at work. (One father of a wayward teen, a psychotherapist for at-risk kids, laments that he was too busy working on his book to notice his daughter's downward spiral.)
Academic pressure also takes a hit. The pull quote on the first page, from "Richard," 14, reads, "We work so hard during the week, because of college pressure, that by the weekends, we're totally, like Let the games begin." Becca Bendler, the psychotherapist's daughter whose rescue and rehabilitation makes her the Cinderella in this fairy tale, has her behavior explained away by the fact that she had to attend a public school where a "fast crowd" gave her more attention than her own family.
A diagnosis of dyslexia and attention deficit disorder (one of Becca's "issues") adds more credence to the idea that teenage experimentation is always the result of disease or environment. Oddly enough, in an essay that takes parents to task for undue academic pressure, the solution for Becca is private school. At private schools, her older sister assures her, the students "are intellectually and socially more mature." (Never mind that "mature" in the context of this article tends to mean "one thing" -- lots of sex.)
And it goes without saying that this article is not concerned with the kids who don't have the option to leave public schools, nor the kids whose parents aren't around because they are working two jobs to pay the rent. I don't know that all of these kids are white, but I do know that the only time race is mentioned, it's in the context of a 14-year-old girl, described as a New York public school student, who says she was adopted by a group of boys: "They were African-American and they loved my boobs."
Girls, too, are doubly saddled with the old baggage of the virgin/whore dichotomy ("girls are sluts and boys are players") and the new unwelcome fruits of feminism. Franks tells us breathlessly: "Girls insist on a 'do-me' and boys, closing their eyes, comply, hoping the favor will be returned."
"James," 14, evokes the age-old vagina dentata when he laments, "Boys get pussy-whipped by girls. They cheat on their boyfriends and all they want to do is be eaten out." And "Scott," 15, is happy to blame the sex scandals on a "war between the sexes" that started when the girls were taken off to Take Our Daughters to Work days while the boys had to listen to lectures on gender discrimination.
Elsewhere in the same issue of Talk, a profile of Karenna Gore -- headlined "She Lived Through Grunge" -- is devoted to telling her happily-ever-after story of coming out on the right side of a troubled adolescence. Karenna is reported to have "pushed the boundaries of average teenage experimentation."
In eighth grade, the pubescent Gore dressed like a "freak" and attended late-night parties ("at the home of an out-of-town-parent," of course) where she played "boot and rally" and "smoked a lot of pot." She also sneaked out of the windows at the Gore homestead to smoke and drink; on one such evening, in the 10th grade, one of her friends drove Al Gore's car into a chain-link fence. (By college, it's reported that the Harvard Crimson considered doing an article "tallying up her bong hits.")
Yet Gore's teenage antics are not portrayed as pathology, but simply the charming exploits of a high-energy schoolgirl. She turned out OK. At 26, she's married to a doctor, has a child, is in law school and works as a consultant on her father's campaign. Talk even speculates about her political future -- though there is no doubt whatsoever that she's inhaled many times.
Karenna's rebellious youth is seen as a compliment to her father: "He reminded me of the punk rock bands I used to go see." (Strangely enough, Karenna Gore was not asked about the taste of semen. Her interviewer, Hanna Rosin, was content to allude to Karenna's "wild days" when she was "dark.")
What makes Gore's wrecking the car and smoking pot "average teenage experimentation" while teens 10 years younger are labeled foreign monsters for conducting the same experiments?
We're not doing our kids any favors by portraying them as sexual predators, nor by portraying them as sexual victims. We do not need any more exposis that portray our children as deviant criminals for having discovered their erogenous zones. If anyone should be writing about the sex lives of teens, it should be teens themselves. If kids could speak on their own terms -- without the pressure of currying favor from parents, teachers and journalists -- I doubt that they would describe their sexual experiences in the same way.
Sex is sexy, sex is complex, sex is confusing. But sex itself is not a pathology. As sexually active adults, we all should know this. I suppose that we are expected to be shocked and chagrined to find out that kids experiment with sex. I'm not. And I don't think that it is an indication that the kids are bad.
Franks' story doesn't tell us about the sex lives of kids at all. It tells us about the fears and sexual perversity of adults. Teens have their own sexual code, they are each other's sexual partners, not ours. In the end, they should certainly be allowed to keep their bedroom doors shut -- without the fear that journalists like Lucinda Franks will barge in to catch them with their pants down.