In the endless trend stories about adolescent “hook up culture,” the voices of young men are often conspicuously absent. Reporting for NBC News, Abigail Pesta begins to fill that gap with a piece on how teenage boys experience sex and relationships in the age of the sext. “Conventional wisdom tends to oversimplify the situation to something along the lines of: Boys get to have sex, which is really all they want. They are seen as predators, and girls, their prey,” Pesta reports. In reality, boys “often expressed a desire for a deeper connection with girls, but felt confused about how to make it happen.” She quotes one 15-year-old sexter who told a classmate, “Well, I want my dick in your mouth?” then followed it up with a more traditionally romantic plea: “Will you at least be my girlfriend."
This peek into the mind of the modern teen boy is largely based on the work of psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, who interviewed 1,000 American students (and pored over their texts and Facebook messages) for her new book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. Steiner-Adair concludes that technology has stunted adolescent relationships, thanks to the “the influence of online porn,” the flattening of “nuance and body language” in textual communication, and the decline of teens going steady. “To be sure, some boys have always been crude,” Pesta writes. But modern lovers have taken the dynamic to “new extremes.”
It’s great that Steiner-Adair is actually talking to boys, but it doesn’t sound like she fully understands the way that they text. Anyone who thinks that text messages lack nuance has failed to mine the vast emotional potential of the Emoji keyboard; those who believe that Internet porn is more extreme than ever aren’t remembering the bestiality and abuse that punctuated some stag films of the 1970s. The antediluvian approach intensifies as the topic gets spun into a segment on the TODAY Show. “Teen boys are sexting more than ever,” TODAY claims. You might think that’s because text messaging was not actually available to high schoolers of Matt Lauer’s generation. But according to Lauer, the jump from pen-and-paper notes to smartphone texts has necessarily degraded the tenor of the come-on. When boys were forced to pass girls notes on paper, they said things like this:
Now they send texts like this:
Those fake iPhone screengrabs sure look intense. But when it comes to real crimes, modern American relationships have actually become a lot less “extreme” in recent decades. Incidents of rape have declined by as much as 85 percent since the 1970s (and when they do happen, victims are more likely to report the crime). Domestic violence incidents have also dropped precipitously since the ‘90s. That’s partly because, as public policy researchers Amy Farmer and Jill Tiefenthaler outline, the American population is aging, and younger women are at a greater risk of being victimized by their partners than older women are (this age gap is not a new phenomenon). But intimate partner violence also drops “as women’s alternatives outside their relationships improve,” they found. As women secure higher educations and increase their earning potential, they’re “able to achieve self-sufficiency in the long-run.” When “battered women can support themselves, they are both more likely to leave and have more power within their relationships if they stay.”
Women in their teens and 20s still face an elevated risk of abuse and assault. But confining their relationships to casual sexts instead of jumping into intense relationships could actually help girls avoid violence from their partners now and later in life. Sexting is not “something that creates a very secure relationship,” child development specialist Dr. Robyn Silverman tells Lauer. Kids tell her that “hook up culture makes it so they can get a competitive edge in college and high school. They’re not worried about the relationship. They’re focused on school and the things that matter to them.” Adds journalist Lola Ogunnaike, “that’s a problem, because people aren’t fostering real relationships anymore.” The TODAY show panel talks about that like it’s a bad thing, but "real relationships" don't erase the potential for abuse; in some cases, they leave girls more vulnerable to repeat offenders. After Steiner-Adair took a look at that 15-year-old's sexts, she interviewed the girl who received them. The girl dismissed it "a stupid, disgusting exchange" that was "typical for the boys at our school." But later, when the boy sent her another message telling her that "he liked her," she became "intrigued" by the possibility of a real relationship with him. A disgusting text from a boy is bad, but a serious commitment with the sender could be a lot more dangerous.