Sexting and society: How do writers respond?

In a post on the relative quality of fiction and nonfiction, I mentioned that fiction should be affected by how society and social life changes. That doesn’t mean writers should read the news de jour and immediately copy plot points, but it does mean paying attention to what’s different in contemporary attitudes and expression. I got to thinking about “sexting,” an unfortunate but useful portmanteau, because it’s an example of a widespread, relatively fast cultural change enabled by technology. (Over a somewhat longer term, “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation” describes “a revolution in sexual behaviour,” which may explain why a lot of contemporary students find a lot of nineteenth century literature dealing with sexual mores to be tedious.)

Laws that cover sexting haven’t really caught up with what’s happening on the ground. Penelope Trunk wrote a an article called The Joys of Adult Sexting, in which she does it and thinks:

And what will his friends think of me? Probably nothing. Because they have women sending nude photos of themselves. It’s not that big a deal. You know how I know? Because the state of Vermont, (and other states as well) is trying to pass a law that decriminalizes sending nude photos of oneself if you are underage. That’s right: For years, even though kids were sending nude photos of themselves to someone they wanted to show it to, the act was illegal—an act of trafficking in child pornography.

But sending nude photos is so common today that lawmakers are forced to treat it as a mainstream courting ritual and legalize it for all ages.

Sending a naked photo of yourself is an emotionally intimate act because of the implied trust you have in the recipient. When you act in a trusting way—like trusting the recipient of the photo to handle it with care and respect—you benefit because being a generally trusting person is an emotionally sound thing to do; people who are trusting are better judges of character.

Trunk’s last paragraph explains why, despite all the PSAs and education and whatever in the world, people are going to keep doing it: because it shows trust, and we want significant others to prove their trust and we want to show significant others we trust them. You can already imagine the dialogue in a novel: “Why won’t you send me one? Don’t you trust me?” If the answer is yes, send them; if the answer is no, then why bother continuing to date? The test isn’t fair, of course, but since when are any tests in love and lust fair?

Over time, as enough kids of legislators and so forth get caught up in sexting scandals and as people who’ve lived with cell phone cameras grow up, I think we’ll see larger change. For now, the gap between laws / customs and reality make a fruitful space for novels, even those that don’t exploit present circumstances well, like Helen Shulman’s This Beautiful Life. Incorporating these kinds of social changes in literature is a challenge and will probably remain so; as I said above, that doesn’t mean novelists should automatically say, “Ah ha! Here’s today’s headlines; I’m going to write a novel based on the latest sex scandal/shark attack/celebrity bullshit,” but novelists need to be aware of what’s going on. I wrote a novel called Asking Alice that got lots of bites from agents but no representation, and the query letter started like this:

Maybe marriage would be like a tumor: something that grows on you with time. At least that’s what Steven Deutsch thinks as he fingers the ring in his pocket, trying to decide whether he should ask Alice Sherman to marry him. Steven is almost thirty, going on twenty, and the future still feels like something that happens to other people. Still, he knows Alice won’t simply agree to be his long-term girlfriend forever.

When Steven flies to Seattle for what should be a routine medical follow up, he brings Alice and hits on a plan: he’ll introduce her to his friends from home and poll them about whether, based on their immediate judgment, he should ask Alice. But the plan goes awry when old lovers resurface, along with the cancer Steven thought he’d beaten, and the simple scheme he hoped would solve his problem does everything but.

Asking Alice is asking questions about changes in dating and marriage; if you write a novel today about the agonies of deciding who to marry with the metaphysical angst such a choice engendered in the nineteenth century, most people would find that absurd and untrue: if you get married to a Casaubon, you divorce him and end up in about the same circumstance as you were six months before you started. But a lot of people still get married or want to get married, and the question is still important even if it can’t drive the plot of a novel very well. It can, however, provide a lot of humor, and that’s what Asking Alice does.

A lot of literature, like a lot of laws, is also based on the premise that women don’t like sex as much as men, don’t or won’t seek it out, and are automatically harmed by it or wanting it. This is a much more tenuous assertion than it used to be, especially as women write directly about sex. A novel liked Anita Shreve’s Testimony, discussed extensively by Caitlin Flanagan here and by me here, engages that idea and finds it somewhat wanting. So does the work of Belle de Jour (now revealed as Dr. Brooke Magnanti), who basically says, “I worked as a hooker for a long time, didn’t mind it, and made a shit ton of money because I made a rational economic decision.” A lot of academic fiction premised on professors having sex with students examines the idea that female students can want/use sex just as much as men; this is how Francine Prose’s Blue Angel works, and Prose is a canny observer of what’s going on and how it connects to the past.

Note that women wrote all these examples, which I don’t think is an accident, since they’re probably less likely to put other women on pedestals than men are. I’ve been reading a lot of sex memoirs / novels written by women (Never the Face; Nine and a Half Weeks; two of Mary Karr’s memoirs, which are good but overrated; Abby Lee (British sex blogger); Elisabeth Eaves’ Bare) in part because I want to write better female characters. After reading a lot of this stuff, I’m even less convinced than I was that there are stereotypically “male” or “female” ways of thinking or writing about the world, but knowledge itself never hurts and I don’t regret the time spent. On a similar note, Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance is totally fascinating, even when Radway tries to explain away retrograde features of romances or how women are often attracted to high-powered, high-status men.

She write in a time before sexting, but I wonder if she’s thought about doing a Young Adult version using similar methodology today. For writers and others, sexting shows that teenagers can make their own decisions as people too, even if those are arguably bad decisions. To me, this is another generational gap issue, and one that will probably close naturally over time. One older agent said on the phone that maybe I needed a younger agent, because her assistant loved Asking Alice but she didn’t want to rep it.

Damn.

I’m old enough to have lived through a couple medium-scale social changes: when I was in high school, people still mostly talked to each other on the phone. In college, people called using cell phones and often communicated via IM. After college, I kept using phones primarily for voice, especially to arrange drinks / quasi-dates, until I realized that most girls have no ability to talk on the phone anymore (as also described Philip Zimbardo and the ever-changing dynamics of sexual politics). As I result, I’d now use text messages if I were arranging drinks and so forth. Around the time I was 23, I realized that even if I did call, women would text back. That doesn’t mean one should race out and change every phone conversation in a novel that features a contemporary 19-year-old to a text conversation (which would be tedious in and of itself; in fiction I write, I tend not to quote texts very often), but it’s the kind of change that I register. Things changed between the time I was 16 and 23.

I’m in the McLuhan, “the medium changes what can be said,” which means that the text is probably changing things in ways not immediately obvious or evident. Sexting is one such way; it lowers the cost of transmission of nude pictures to the extent that you can now do so almost instantly. Laws are predicated on the idea that balding, cigar-chomping, lecherous 40-year-old men will try and coerce 16-year-old girls outside cheer practice, not ubiquitous cell phone cameras. Most parents will instinctively hate the cigar-chomping 40-year-old. They will not hate their own 14-year-old. So you get for all sorts of amusement where laws, putative morals, conventional wisdom, technology, and desire meet. Still, when pragmatics meet parents, expect parental anger / protectiveness to win for the moment but not for all time. Nineteenth and twentieth century American culture is not the only kind out there. As Melvin Konner wrote in The Evolution of Childhood:

Contrary to some claims of cultural historians, anthropologists find that liberal premarital sex mores are not new for a large proportion of the cultures of the ethnological record and that liberal sexual mores and even active sexual lives among adolescents do not necessarily produce pregnancies. In fact, a great many cultures permit or at least tolerate sex play in childhood (Frayser 1994). Children in these cultures do not play ‘doctor’ to satisfy their anatomical curiosity—they play ‘sex.’ They do play ‘house’ as Western children do, but the game often includes pretend-sex, including simulated intercourse. Most children in non-industrial cultures have opportunities to see and hear adult sex, and they mimic and often mock it.

Perhaps our modern aversion to sex among adolescents is in part because of the likelihood of pregnancy, economic factors, and others. Given the slow but real outcry from places like the Economist and elsewhere, this might eventually change. That’s pretty optimistic, however. A lot of social and legal structures merely work “good enough,” and the justice system is certainly one of those: we’ve all heard by now about cases where DNA evidence resulted in exoneration of people accused of murder or rape. So maybe we’re now heading towards a world in which laws about sexting are unfair, especially given current practice, but the laws remain anyway because the law doesn’t have to be optimal: it has to be good enough, and most people over 18 probably don’t care much about it unless it happens to be their son or daughter who gets enmeshed in a legal nightmare for behavior that doesn’t result in tangible harm.

Something like a quarter to a third of American adults have smoked pot, but we still have anti-pot laws. America can easily afford moral hypocrisy, at least for now, and maybe sexting will be something like weed: widely indulged in, a rite of passage, and something not likely to result in arrest unless you happen to be unlucky or in the wrong situation at the wrong time. The force generation the prohibition—that is, parents engaging in daughter-guarding—might be much stronger than the force of individual rights, utilitarianism, or pragmatic observations about the enforcement of laws against victimless crimes that do not result in physical harm.

There’s more of the legal challenges around this in Ars Technica’s article “14-year old child pornographers? Sexting lawsuits get serious,” which should replace “serious” with “ridiculous.” In the case, a 14-year-old girl sent a 14-year-old boy a video of herself masturbating, and then her family sued his. But how does a 14-year-old be guilty of the sexual exploitation of children,” as is claimed by the girl’s family—if a 14 year old can’t consent to consent to this kind of activity, then a 14-year old also can’t have the state of mind necessary to exploit another one. Paradoxes pile up, of the sort described in Regulating Sex: The Politics of Intimacy and Identity, where the writers show how the age of consent has been rising as the age of being tried as an adult has been falling. Somewhere inside that fact, or pair of facts, there’s a novel waiting to be written.

Questions like “What happens when people do things sexually that they’re not supposed to? How does the community respond? How do they respond?” are the stuff novelists feed on. They motivate innumerable plots, ranging from the beginnings of the English novel at Pamela and Clarissa all the way to the present. When Rose and Pinkie are first talking to each other in Brighton Rock, Rose lies about her age: ” ‘I’m seventeen,’ she said defiantly; there was a law which said a man couldn’t go with you before you were seventeen.” Brighton Rock was published in 1938. People have probably been evading age-of-consent laws for as long as there have been such laws, and they will probably continue to do so—whether those laws affect sex or depictions of the body.

Adults have probably been reinforcing prohibitions for as long as they’ve existed. Consider this quote, from the Caitlin Flanagan article about Testimony linked above:

Written by a bona fide grown-up (the author turned 63 last fall), Testimony gives us not just the lurid description of what a teen sex party looks like, but also an exploration of the ways that extremely casual sex can shape and even define an adolescent’s emotional life. One-night stands may be perfectly enjoyable exercises for two consenting adults, but teenagers aren’t adults; in many respects, they are closer to their childhoods than to the adult lives they will eventually lead. Their understanding of affection and friendship, and most of all their innocent belief, so carefully nurtured by parents and teachers, that the world rewards kindness and fairness, that there is always someone in authority to appeal to if you are being treated cruelly or not included in something—all of these forces are very much at play in their minds as they begin their sexual lives.

In Testimony, the sex party occurs at the fictional Avery Academy; Shreve imagines Siena, the girl at the center of the event, as a grifter, eager to exploit her new status as victim so that she can write a killer college essay about it, or perhaps even appear on Oprah. For the most part, the boys are callous and self-serving.

Flanagan has no evidence whatsoever that “teenagers aren’t adults” other than bald assertion. That “they are closer to their childhoods than to the adult lives they will eventually lead” has more to do with culture than with biology, as Robert Epstein argues in The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen and Alice Schlegel and Herbert Barry argue in Adolescence: An Anthropological Inquiry, and even then, it depends on when a particular person hits puberty, how they react, and how old they are; nineteen-year olds are probably closer to their adults selves than thirteen-year olds. Saying that teenagers believe, according to an ethos created by teachers, that “the world rewards kindness and fairness,” indicates that Flanagan must have had a very different school experience than I did or a lot of other people did (for more, see “Why Nerds are Unpopular.”) As I recall, school was capricious, arbitrary, and often stupid; the real world rewards fulfilling the desires of others, whether artistically, financially, sexually, or otherwise, while the school world rewards jumping through hopes and mindless conformity. If I don’t like the college I go to, I can transfer; if I don’t like my job, I can quit; if I don’t like some other milieu, I leave it. In contrast, school clumps everyone together based on an accident of geography.

In Testimony, Shreve misses or chooses not to emphasize that Sienna enjoys the attention, and she’s not actually got much beyond that. She says that “I”m going to start a new life. I can be, like, Sienna. I can whoever I want” {Shreve “Testimony”@27}. In Rob’s voice, Sienna is described this way:

I remember that Sienna started moving to the beat, a beer in her hand, as if she were in a world of her own, just slowly turning this way and that, and moving her hips to the music, and little by little the raucous laughter started to die down, and we were all just watching her. She was the music, she was the beat. Her whole little body had become this pure animal thing. She might have been dancing alone in her room. She didn’t look at any of us, even as she seemed to be looking at all of us. There was no smile on her face. If it was a performance, it was an incredible one. I don’t think anyone in the room had ever seen anything like it. She was in this light-blue halter top with these tight jeans. The heels and her little jacket were gone already. You just knew. Looking at her, you just knew.

She took off her own clothes, and “We watched as she untied her halter top at the neck. The blue cloth fell to reveal her breasts. They were beautiful and firm and rounded like her face. You knew at that moment you were in for good [. . .]” Later, he says “It was group seduction of the most powerful kind.” Given how Mike, the headmaster, describes the video in the first section, it’s hard to see Sienna as lacking agency, or someone who’s coerced into her actions. That, in the end, is what I think makes the Caitlin Flanagans of the world so unhappy: if the Siennas will perform their dances and give it up freely and happily, does that mean other girls will have to chase the market leader? Will they have to acknowledge that a reasonably large minority of girls like the action, like the hooking up, like the exploring? If so, a lot of Western narratives about femininity go away, if they haven’t already. If you’re a novelist, you have to look at the diversity of people out there and the diversity of their desires. Shreve does this quite well. So does Francine Prose in Blue Angel. If you’re writing essays / polemics, though, you can questionable claim that teenagers are closer to their childhood selves all you want.

I like Flanagan’s writing because she’s good at interrogating what’s going on out there, but I’m not the first to notice her problems with politics; William Deresiewicz is more concise than I am when he writes Two Girls, True and False, but the point is similar. Flanagan wants to imply that all people, or all girls, are the same. They aren’t. The ones unhappy with the hookup culture are certainly out there, and they might be the majority. But the Siennas are too. To deny them agency because they’re 14 is foolish. Matthew, J. Dot’s father, says that “The irony was that if a few kids had done something similar at the college, they’d be calling it an art film.” He’s right. Things don’t magically change at 18. Our culture and legal system are designed around the fiction that everything changes at 18, when it actually does much earlier. The gap between puberty and 18, however, is a fertile ground for novelists looking for cultural contradictions.

7 responses

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  2. I have a technical question. How do you think writers should write text messages in prose? I’ve seen it done in several different ways (quotation marks, described, the character names starting each line with the messages following colons) but I’m still waiting for a standard form to be recognized, given that, as you mentioned, texting is becoming the predominant means of communication for the younger generation.

    Like

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