Live girl-on-girl action!

Girls making out with each other to turn on guys is the latest craze at high school and college parties. Is this sexual liberation, or regression?

Published June 20, 2006 11:50AM (EDT)

Julie was a freshman at Northeastern University in Boston when she first saw two straight girls making out. The Norfolk, Mass., native had just arrived on campus for the start of the school year, and she was at a frat party. "Some guys were flirting with a girl, saying to her, 'You should make out with your friend,'" says Julie, now 20. (Like the other young women quoted in this article, she asked that her last name not be used.) "The girl said, 'Oh, no, I don't want to.' Then she looked at her friend and smiled, like maybe it wouldn't be so bad. They pecked on the lips, but the guys kept egging them on, so they ended up French-kissing. Me and my girlfriends looked at each other and said, 'I can't believe they're doing that!'"

After two months at Northeastern, the "girl-on-girl" make-out session had become inevitable at parties, but Julie still hadn't kissed a woman herself. Then she and a female friend showed up at a party without the $5 cover charge, and she suddenly realized that girl-on-girl action could be a form of currency. "I said to the guy, 'What if we make out? Will you let us in for free?' He said, 'Yep, do it.' I knew it'd be something that [the guys] were into which would get us what we wanted -- to save $10."

Kissing girls started earlier for Alexandra, a 16-year-old high school junior in Bellingham, Wash., a town close to the Canadian border. In ninth grade, she says, at a party where the beer was scarce, two of her friends made out with each other for a beer. "The guys were cheering it on and encouraging it," she says. "I thought it was cool that [the girls] got all the attention, and the guys obviously liked it. I went up to them and was like, 'Wow, that was crazy!' They were like, 'Oh yeah, you've never done that before?'"

She hadn't -- but a year later, she joined the club. She and a friend were drinking at a party, and some guys dared them to kiss ... so they did. "It was like, look, I'm the center of attention! Everyone's looking at me and cheering me on. It felt good being in the spotlight," she says. Then she adds, "And the kissing itself didn't really bug me. From then on it became a normal thing to do."

While same-sex hooking up among teens has been in the news lately -- kids who consider themselves questioning and talk about their sexuality as fluid have been splashed across the pages of major magazines and newspapers -- Alexandra (who has kissed six girls) and Julie (who has kissed 10), and the countless other young women like them, don't think of themselves as bisexual, or even "bi-curious." They're firmly straight, they say, but they'll kiss their friends as a performance for guys -- either for material gain, like free entry or alcohol, or to advertise that they're sexually open and adventurous. "A lot of the time, you're doing it to show off to the guy you like," says Alexandra. "They like it, so they're going to like you if you do it."

These women say it's no big deal to kiss another woman -- especially if alcohol has loosened inhibitions all around. Same-sex behavior is more accepted, particularly on campus, and proving that you're "cool enough" to kiss another girl without worrying that your peers will question your sexuality is an example of how open our sexual culture has become. But is this staged bisexuality really a testament to a type of hypersexualized girl power -- or a statement on how far gals will go to please a generation of guys weaned on online porn? And what does it mean to girls who are actually coming out as queer to see straight girls playing bi for male pleasure?

"When girls talk to me about kissing each other at parties, it's invariably in the context of boys chanting "Kiss, kiss!" says Sabrina Weill, former editor in chief of Seventeen and author of "The Real Truth About Teens and Sex." "There's no formal research that asks girls whether it's happening more now. However, anecdotally, it does seem to be talked about more." Precise numbers may not be available, but a well-publicized National Center for Health Statistics study released in September 2005 found that 10.6 percent of girls age 15-19 had had same-sex sexual experiences; the survey did not ask whether the conduct was a result of actual desire, though. In any event, girl-on-girl action seems to be no big deal for high school and college students, who shrug it off as standard party behavior. Alexandra says she sees it at "75 to 85 percent" of the parties she attends. Jay, a 17-year-old senior at a Manhattan high school, says he sees it at "every other party." Alexandra's friend Mikey, 19, also in Bellingham, says such action has been a party staple since he was 14. "Just about every party I go to or have, I see girls making out with each other," he says.

"It's definitely a good, well-worn, tried-and-true route to hooking up with a guy that you want," Julie says. "It's not giving him a lap dance and stripping on a pole for him, but it's showing him that you can be open, and if that's what he likes, that's what you'll do. Which makes him think you're better to sleep with than the 100 other girls in the room with you."

"It gives you confidence," says Nina, a 20-year-old friend and classmate of Julie's who has kissed five of her friends, including Julie, most more than once. "It makes you feel more attractive -- you're turning on a guy, and he thinks it's cool."

"I think it's empowering to these girls," Jay says. "Immediately after, guys come up and are like, Do you want to do that with me? It's a quick fix to get a guy's attention."

But if young women who hook up with other young women aren't expressing their own desires -- Am I attracted to females? Would I like kissing a female? Would I want to do more? -- and are only simulating desire to market themselves to guys, how empowering can it be?

"By nature, something that is empowering makes girls feel strong," says Weill. "Girls don't express to me that they feel strong after [hooking up with other girls]. 'Empowering' is scoring the lead in a school play or winning a spelling bee. Being sexually manipulative is not empowering."

"It must've been around the time of 'American Pie 2,'" Nina, from Danbury, Conn., says when I ask her when she noticed the girl-on-girl trend. (In the bawdy 2001 sequel to the 1999 teen comedy "American Pie," two girls agree to make out if two male characters will, too.) "Guys suddenly seemed obsessed with lesbians. [Two girls together] was the hottest thing ever. And then that poster came out with those two girls on a bed in their underwear kissing -- everybody had that." (She's talking about "Kiss," the 2001 Tanya Chalkin poster that became a college dorm décor staple for guys. Alexandra says two of her ex-boyfriends had one as well.)

In fact, most of the 12 people interviewed for this article cited the "American Pie" movies and the wildly successful "Girls Gone Wild" DVD franchise -- in which a film crew stations itself at a popular collegiate drinking spot (Spring Break destinations, Mardi Gras et al.) and films drunken females getting it on -- as driving the trend. "I definitely got the idea from 'Girls Gone Wild,'" says Alexandra's friend Mikey, who first saw two girls making out at a party when he dared them to. When he was a freshman in high school in Washington, he says, he tried it. "I had these two [female] friends, and we were all drinking. I was like, Hey, why don't you make out? And then they started to! I was like, oh, damn, they're awesome. I don't know why I thought it would be OK to ask them. We were just testing them -- but then they did it. I told them that made them 10 times cooler."

The ubiquity of porn -- whether it's the softcore "Girls Gone Wild" franchise or whatever you can find with a few mouse clicks -- seems to be a factor in the increase of girls hooking up to impress guys, says Weill. Pornography "changes their perception of what is mainstream sexual behavior," she says. "They see a lot of things that they then expect to see echoed in their world. When I first started [editing teen magazines] in the early '90s, I received letters asking how sex works -- mechanical questions. Now those questions are more, Should I shave off all my [pubic] hair? When you see a bunch of girls asking a question like that, you have to assume that they're getting that image from somewhere -- or their boyfriends are, and are communicating to them that that's their expectation."

Pamela Paul, author of "Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families," agrees. Girls "aren't kissing other girls because they want to. They're doing it because they want to appeal to boys their age. And for boys their age who've developed sexually alongside Internet porn, their sexual cues are affected by the norms and standards of porn. And that's girl-on-girl action."

Another factor in the increase of staged bisexuality is the increase in acceptance of same-sex relationships and behavior in general, says Weill. "There's less of a stigma associated with same-sex fooling around," she says. "We see gay characters on TV, bi-curious characters on TV, so it just doesn't seem as big of a taboo as it was 10 years ago."

But for girls who get it on with other girls as a performance for guys, questioning their sexuality doesn't seem to enter into the picture. In fact, they feel free to hook up with other girls precisely because it's understood -- by the girls involved and their spectators -- that all parties are straight. "Girls kissing each other didn't start until my senior year of high school," Nina says. "If it had started earlier, it would've been seen as gay, and we would've been afraid that guys would think, Oh my God, they're lesbians."

Deborah Tolman, director of San Francisco State University's Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality and the author of "Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality," says the term for the "I'm straight but I'll kiss girls" mentality is "heteroflexible." "It's engaging in same-sex behavior that ultimately is a way to confirm your heterosexuality," she says. It's "I went there, I tried it, I'm really straight. 'Bi-curious' is a more authentic concept: I think I may enjoy being sexual with a girl." In the case of females who get it on solely for male enjoyment, it's not at all about experimenting with females, Tolman says. "The motivations aren't about your own desires, they're about getting guys excited and looking hot. It's ironic because they're engaging in sexual behavior, which is supposed to look like it's about sexual desire. The crucial part of that is that they make sure no one thinks they're actually lesbians."

Since she hasn't gone any further than kissing, Alexandra says, her female hookups "aren't experimenting. It doesn't get that sexual. There's a line that you don't usually cross." The general consensus among straight girls who make out with other girls seems to be that kissing is fine, but there are two caveats: You can't go further than that, and you have to be watched -- by males.

"The impulse [to go further than kissing] is there, and some girls do it, but respectable girls who kiss girls don't," says Julie. "Taking that step to the boobs isn't a big deal in the guy-girl world, but in the girl-girl world it's a huge leap. It's taking it above and beyond. It's like, now she's a lesbian, or she's a huge slut." What about women dancing with each other? "Touching them without kissing, like dirty dancing, is OK," Julie says. "But if you kiss them while doing that, it's an exponential leap from what was originally intended."

Females who perform for males say they're not at all turned on by the hookup, except for the reaction they know they're eliciting: None of the girls I interviewed said they'd repeatedly kissed girls because they enjoyed it or because they found it arousing. "If I knew a girl was a lesbian, I wouldn't make out with her, because I'd think that would be weird," Nina says. "When I'm making out with my friends I know we're doing it in a joking way, like, 'Ha, ha, we're drunk and we're going to do this to tease the guys.' I've never done it without a guy watching me. That would be weird, too, because the whole reason we're doing it is to screw with the guys. We wouldn't do it if they weren't there. I don't just go and make out with girls because I think it's fun."

That kind of reasoning disturbs Tolman: "It's an insult to women who actually want to be with other women," she says. Ashley, a 14-year-old lesbian who attends a small public school in Harlem, agrees. She first saw two straight girls making out at a party last summer, she says, and it was clear they were doing it as a means to hook up with the boys who were watching. "I don't think it's right, because it sends a message that being a lesbian is a joke -- that being with women is for male pleasure," she says. "And then when someone asks the girls if they are lesbians, and they say, 'Oh, no, of course not!' it's like they're saying that actually being a lesbian is unnatural and disgusting." Mandy, a 23-year-old lesbian in a small town in mid-Iowa, says that as one of the only out women in her area, the girl-on-girl trend among straight women puts her in an awkward position. "I don't go to straight bars anymore because my guy friends expect me to make out with their girlfriends," she says. "It drives me nuts -- it's like they're putting on a show and they expect me to join them. A lot of girls around here will say they're bi, but if the only time you make out with girls is when guys are watching, you're not really bi."

"I've heard from some straight girls that they do it because it's fun," says Rachel Popkin, a 19-year-old lesbian in Seattle. "But if women feel pressured to do anything they wouldn't normally do just to please guys -- that's exploitative."

So does it work? If straight girls who make out with each other really aren't doing it for their own pleasure, but to please guys, are the guys, well, pleased?

Mikey, the 19-year-old in Washington state who has successfully persuaded six young women to make out for him and bribed 10 others, says he'd "definitely" be more interested in hooking up with a woman after seeing her make out with another woman. Jay, the Manhattan high school senior, disagrees. "You can't help yourself finding it sexually attractive, but it's not a girl that I'd want to date," he says. "I don't like that a girl would be so desperate to get a guy's attention." When he sees gals making out to impress guys, he says, "it seems like they're overly sexual and far too eager to please. The chase is all the fun. If they're just throwing themselves at you, it's boring."

Emily, 17, another friend of Alexandra's and Mikey's in Washington, says she has kissed a girl once -- because she wanted to -- and says that she feels as if she'd be disrespecting herself if she acquiesced to a guy's joking demands for girl-on-girl action. "I think guys get the wrong impression of you if you do that," she says. "If a guy isn't impressed by me, it's pointless to try to get his attention that way. And I'm not the type of girl that goes out of my way to get a guy's attention. It's like, if he notices me, that's tight, but if he doesn't, that's OK."

Long-term dating isn't the goal of the straight-girl make-out, says Julie; hooking up with the guy watching is. But she concedes that many girls attempt to hook up with a guy in the hopes that he'll become a boyfriend. "One of girls' fantasies of hooking up with a guy you like is that they'll want to date you, but that's a tried-and-failed situation. If you go home with a guy [right away], you have a minimal chance of him taking you seriously."

But if these young women are not actually into kissing their girlfriends, why do they feel they need to do it to prove how sexual they are? Why can't a girl attract a boy by being her intelligent, hot self?

"A lot of girls who do want long-term boyfriends will still settle for the hookup because it gives them that temporary feeling of being taken care of and being close to someone," Julie says. "It's sad to see that this is what it's come to -- that guys will raise the bar and girls will scramble to meet it. Women just want to know what they have to do to get these guys to fall in love with them. And if guys will take them home after kissing a girl, then that's what they're going to do, because it's better than going home alone." She pauses. "Now that I'm saying it out loud, I'm like, Huh -- that's a sad way of going about it."

By Whitney Joiner

Whitney Joiner is an editor at Seventeen magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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