Don't Shoot I'm Only the Piano Player
I'm writing in response to another post, which I quote below. I'm not doing this to snark, humiliate, attack, or try to crush some stranger (whom I'd probably like if I met her) into the cybernetic dust. If my approach involves some eye-rolling on my part, please consider it of the “aw, come on” variety, and not of the “listen, asshole” flavor. After all, she and I have interests in common: information technology, the welfare of young people, feminism. Nor is her particular post the only example of her point of view – which is ubiquitous – it just happens to be nearby and handy. And besides, I write better when I imagine having a conversation with someone else, even when they might get vexed with me.
15-Year-Old Sluts Post Internet Porn!
Facebook Girl Bootifies Neighbors!
I Show More Than My Face on MySpace, and There's Nothing My Mother Can Do About It!
My Little Girl Is Tonguing the V on WebTV!
So many headlines, so little content. We must be having a Jerry Springer moment.
All right then, let us do it. Let us all moan. Let us groan. Let's boo, hiss, gasp, and cheer. Let's wring our hands, rend our clothing, beat our breasts, and cry “What is becoming of our (lewdly self-photographed) young people?” Of course to take ourselves seriously, we'll have to ignore that there are no doubt Egyptian hieroglyphics depicting this very process and over similar issues. We'll have to stay in the tunnel of deep denial where lamentation produces its most impressive echoes. (“OI, Oi, oi, oi, oi…”) After all, it's no fun to cry “The sky is falling!” and have your audience smile and respond, “Yes, dear, we know – for the last 5,000 years. Glad you could join us.”
Unfortunately for the cultural equivalent of professional mourners, some of us have been to the Museum of Freak Out Antiquities and seen the famous parental potsherd from ancient Sumer. You know, the one inscribed. “You can't tell the boys from the girls, they have no respect, their music is just the same thing over and over again and I can't understand the words and if I could I know they'd be dirty, and besides they play it so loud, and come back here young woman you are not leaving this house wearing that!” (It's a big potsherd.)
More specifically, this particular Greek chorus – let's call it the Slut! chorus – has been going on since long before Jerry Springer, or for that matter, Greece. So what's new here? The Internet? The fact that kids can now get crazy, stick out their tongues, grab their crotches, gyrate, and moon the entire planet en masse, including their parents, teachers, neighbors, and many people who would much rather imagine Britney and the other Mouseketeers have no genitals? Is it the sheer volume of the phenomenon?
Maybe, or maybe the numbers just make it impossible to ignore. Is there a problem here, and if so, whose is it? After all, we're talking about imagery, not deafening noises or bad smells. If we don't want to look at an image, can't we just avert our eyes? We aren't talking about a house-sized billboard on the highway, are we? If we don't agree ‘the more, the merrier,’ can't we just stay home? The party is on the Internet, not in our underpants (unless it is).
It's not as though we're helpless recipients of content. Personally, I don't care for celebrity gossip, pernicious lies masquerading as political analysis, or pornography involving kitchen products. Consequently, I don't surf People, Rush Limbaugh, or Mayonnaise for Adults Only. And while I might consider the consumers of this content idiots, that doesn't lead me to question the rights of either producer or consumer. After all, “An it harm no one, do as you will,” and I can't claim any of it harms me, no matter how appalling its taste. While Spring Break XXX isn't a party I care to attend, neither is having ice cream and cake with 5-year-olds.
“Facebook: Home to Wannabe Porn Stars”
While I admit I haven't put any effort into finding it (I have other sites for that), I've never seen any porn on FaceBook. Certainly I've never seen any examples of it posted on OS. I believe the terms of service of both sites prohibit it, as do those of most social networking sites.
Of course there's lots of sexual imagery on FaceBook – much of it in the ads the site runs. It has this in common with most sites on the Internet, 80% of the bus stops in my urban neighborhood, many of my favorite paintings in the National Gallery of Art, and every television program I've ever watched.“…these girls have HUNDREDS of pictures of themselves and others in these degrading poses”
Is the number relevant to the issue, or are we having a “Pool Halls! Right here in River City!” moment? Admittedly, “pool hall” doesn't have quite the same ring, but are we talking ethics here, or accounting? Do we want people to consider the issue, or stampede? After all, these days the difference between one photo and a hundred is a function of which phone you own and the muscular endurance of your thumb. Of course young people usually have strong thumbs.
More importantly, I have to insist that “degradation” is subjective – if you don't feel degraded, you aren't. “You are too being degraded! You just don't know it!” and similar approaches lead to infantilization, i.e., domination masquerading as concern for the welfare of others. Bad idea. Certainly you can degrade yourself, but you're the only one who can know for sure if you've done so. Historically, traditional marriage has degraded far more young women than saucy photos ever have.
Similarly, “You are exploiting yourself!” and similar absurdities have already led to bad law whereby teenagers who've picted each other explicit images of themselves have been charged with child pornography. I'm just waiting for some brilliant young pioneer to write the teen version of Our Bodies Ourselves.
Meanwhile, the kids on FaceBook and elsewhere don't strike me as degraded. They look almost universally delighted with themselves and their own dishabille silliness. As for me, if I felt degraded by seeing these photos, that would be between me and my therapist and certainly not their problem.Why Are All These Women Pretending To Be Porn Stars?
I also don't see anyone in these photos pretending to be a porn star, but it's still an interesting question. Why would teenagers pretend to be porn actors? I think we'd have to ask them to be sure, and while we're at it, we might also ask children why they pretend to be truck drivers, rocket ships, or horses. Why do adolescents pretend to be adults? Why do adults dress up for halloween? Why do old people (me, for example) dream of being young again?
Why do all of us like to play at being things that we are not, and often have no wish to be?
But enough of my Socratic pretensions. The answer is “Because we love to play.” I think the real question here is “Why are some of us horrified when young people play at being sexual?”“The V SIGN Is Everywhere”
A deaf friend tells me this particular “V” is a hearing sign often adopted by ASL users, but none of us need pretend we don't recognize it as not having originated with Winston Churchill. Similarly, what's the point of pretending we don't understand that everyone, in all age groups, tries on roles for size – sexual and otherwise? Sexuality, making fun of cunnilingus, and play acting are all joyous and blameless parts of being human.
And that's all I see here – pictures of kids showing off and being silly (and yes, sexual, and sexually silly). They look to me like they're imitating music videos and other sexual imagery as well as making up their own. They're experimenting with looking sexy, feeling sexy, being sexy. They look mischievous and happy, and if the past is any guide, some of their playful silliness will become part of pop culture, and from there, high art.
I honestly don't understand what anyone finds objectionable about an image of a girl flicking her tongue between her fingers. Is it that she knows she has a vagina? That's she's showing her tongue? That she's implying she knows the two can be put together? That she's showing us (and everyone) what she knows? Which of these things do we object to? Her vagina, her tongue, her fingers, her knowledge, her stating the obvious, or her doing it in public?
And finally, what is it we imagine we could do about any of it, even if we agreed we had the right to?
Surely we realize that Little Miss Naughty Tongue knows she's driving some grownups right up the wall, particularly those who find her tongue interesting. This, after all, has been the time-honored cultural duty of all adolescents throughout history. The cell phone camera may be new, but Heather shaking her booty at it is a hominid tradition going back many millennia. So, presumably, is her parents' distress, but I can't help but wonder if the distress isn't optional.“…Behave Like a Lady”
Was it Wilde who said “A lady's reputation is unlikely to improve?”
The great joke here is that it's not only unlikely to improve, it can't. If there's anything we've learned from women's studies, it's that "lady" is a sneaky tactic designed by men to ensure women play the game at a disadvantage. Ladies may stay fixed in stone on their cultural pedestals or they may fall. Either way, women lose. The only hope of escaping the game is to refuse to play, and posting your thong on YouTube at age 15 strikes me as being as good a place to start as any.
Similarly, a "slut" is anyone who displays more sexual freedom than the person calling them that, particularly if they're having fun and don't much care about what others think. The fact that these terms are applied to girls and women and not boys and men is nothing more than the usual sexist double standard. (Long standing feminist objections to this are having interesting effects. I was fascinated when my 16-year-old niece said, “He's cute and really sweet but I'm not going out with him: he's a slut.” She seems not only to have divorced the word from gender, but from judgment. Her tone implied not “a bad person” but merely, “insufficiently discriminating for my taste.”)
The word "prude" is also about propriety, and only incidentally about sex. What "prude" actually describes is a person who is ashamed and afraid and who projects those feelings onto others. Hollering “Prude!” is a reaction to this – a defense against an invasion. It says, “Get your shame out of my yard before I bite a hole in the seat of its pants.” A prude is not simply someone who restricts his or her own behavior; a prude wants to restrict everybody.
What people, particularly young people, are actually doing when they take slurs like slut and whore and wear them as emblems, is detoxifying them. They're collectively taking the power out of ad hominem attacks and forcing their detractors to expose themselves. “You can't just call me a slut. Everybody's a slut.” This forces their attackers out of the fallacious underbrush of propriety and tradition. Exposed, their arguments – or lack thereof – have to stand or fall on their own merits. “You don't know me!” means “You can't just call me a ho' and expect me to listen. You have to tell me what specific problem you have with my behavior, and prove you have a right to influence it.”“Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem Are Rolling Over On Their Graves…”
Uh, uh… No she din't.
Neither Fonda nor Steinem has demonstrated any interest in “behav[ing] like a lady.” Quite the reverse. Ever see Barbarella? It's a hoot. So is Steinem's I Was a Playboy Bunny. Both Fonda and Steinem found uses for being babes that subverted oppression – especially the sort that tells girls they have no right to presentation of their own sexuality. To reference Steinem in this context is particularly misguided. She put on a Bunny costume, walked into the chauvinists' den, and exposed and undermined them right under their quivering nostrils. Or are we to believe that the nymphet wearing the "HO" t-shirt is actually advertising her services as a prostitute?
The ones rolling over in their graves are Jesse Helms, Phyllis Schlafly, Nicolas Chauvin, and the entire membership of Focus on the Family. The people who're having screaming fits are those who support a double standard for the sexual conduct of men and women, who want to see girls grow up to be chattels, and who are terrified of young peoples' sexuality because of their own unexamined fear and shame.
“…anything that is considered "public record" cannot be removed”
Nor need it be.
Fears about employability or other forms of social acceptance of those who are openly sexual are a very temporary situation. They're similar to the fear of discrimination faced by early gay activists in choosing to come out of the closet. Many suffered, but over 50 years later, such discrimination is, more than anything else, impractical. Nor is it going to take anything like 50 years for this, too, to pass. Ultimately, employers won't discriminate against those who engage in Internet hijinks because it won't be in their interest. Rejecting a large percentage of job applicants due to antiquated, destructive notions of sexual shame that bear no relation to performance is no way to remain competitive in the market place. And those that do? Businesses that discriminate against qualified employees have a smaller pool of skilled workers.
By the time today's 10-year-old is ready to run for tomorrow's President, there will be few potential candidates left that haven't been demonstrably silly, bawdy, drunk, stoned, randy, outrageous, and a whole lot more. The solution is not to go back, but forward. Young people with more honesty and less hypocrisy can make the generations of Bill Clinton, Sam Adams, Ted Haggard, and all the rest the last who feel they have to lie about their sexuality to achieve their goals in the world.
Whose Shame Is It, Anyway?
Most objections to phenomena like teenage girls flashing their butts on YouTube strike me as disingenuous if not downright dishonest. One sure sign of this is that so few seriously objects to boys engaging in exactly the same behavior. To reduce the discussion to Jerry- and Maury-style game of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is to miss the core issue: what rights do young people have in our society, and will we guarantee them to all?
We don't like to address this – it pushes too many of our buttons. It brings us disturbingly close to acknowledging that young people are entire human beings, not incomplete adults or bloodless abstractions like “girl” or “boy.” We begin to wonder if depriving anyone of sexual expression isn't a form of sexual abuse, and if concepts like “purity” aren't something we inflict on others for our own purposes. When we pursue this honestly, we invariably find ourselves examining not our children, but ourselves, and we often don't like what we find. It's difficult, but that's no excuse for scapegoating kids.
So, let's proceed regardless. If children are our hope for the future, shouldn't we pay attention to what they have to teach us? It's possible we have nothing to be ashamed of except shame itself, and nothing to lose except hypocrisy.