From the sad and infamous "Am I Ugly" tween YouTube trend to webcam striptease videos, young women today are more visually vulnerable than ever before. While for decades teen girls have been pressured to live up to an unattainable standard of beauty, that obligation to show off and look good has never been so constant. Technology is invading the traditional refuge of the bedroom, turning what was once an entirely private space into a makeshift production studio.
For far too many young women today, the ubiquity of social media both allows and compels them to be always "on," performing for a real or imagined audience they have rapidly decreasing opportunity to escape. A 2009 (pre-iPad-era) survey found that an astonishing 71% of teens used webcams in their bedrooms. It's impossible to know how many teens use those webcams for "Skype sex" or to create "private" videos for partners. Several sex educators with whom I spoke suggested that the sexting panic of a few years ago seems to have been at least partly supplanted by a trend towards "striptease videos," usually made by young women at the behest of boyfriends or other guys whom they're trying to impress. Psychotherapist Kerry Cohen, author of Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity told me she's spoken with many teens who've sent nude photos (or, increasingly, naked videos) to guys who then shared them widely. The cost is predictably devastating. Where once high school rumors were used to shame girls, Cohen describes the pictures or video clips as "irrefutable proof of ‘sluthood.' You can't deny the image is yours; the shame is so much greater as a result."
It's worth noting how new this phenomenon really is. It's been barely 15 years since the first celebrity sex tape featuring Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee became an Internet sensation. As tame as it seems now, that notorious video transformed how people thought about pornography and their own capacity to produce erotic imagery. Porn wasn't just something you watched or read; it was now something anyone could create. Critically, for many guys, it was now something they could encourage young women to make for them.
Cohen — and many of my students in the Navigating Pornography class I'm teaching this semester — told me story after story of how young men relentlessly urge young women to send them photos or striptease videos. (My students point out that the moves in these videos are invariably derivative and identical, just as are the pouts and poses in the still photographs.) Though research shows that the number of young people who actually send naked photos or videos may be surprisingly small, Cohen and others suggest that a far higher number of girls are pressured to do so. That coercion, whether it's successfully resisted or not, is more of the problem than the sexy images themselves. "Back in the day," one student of mine said, "a guy could only bug you to do something with him if you were physically together. Now he can nag you into doing something sexual that you'll regret — while he's on the other side of town and you're alone in your bedroom."
Why would young men who have a universe of explicit porn at their disposal pressure young women into sending them photos or videos that are tame by comparison? Predictably, the answer has as much to do with power as arousal. In explaining this, sex educator Charlie Glickman cites the John Hughes' classic Sixteen Candles, in which a young Anthony Michael Hall begs Molly Ringwald to give him her panties, which will serve as proof of his sexual prowess to his disbelieving friends. "Getting a young woman to make you a video or send you a naked pic is the same thing," Glickman suggests. A "sexted" picture isn't just porn, it's porn that its recipient will be the first (but probably not the only) guy to possess. That's why boys usually share what they're sent, invariably violating a promise to keep the images private. The photo or the video is an irresistible "talisman of manhood," Glickman says. "It's about proving to other guys that you were able to get a girl to overcome her inhibitions."
What's then the motive for the young women who create and send these images? Educator Jamye Waxman mentioned in an email that this is less about actual turn-on than "the validation of getting seen as sexy." Like Cohen, Waxman draws a distinction between teen girls' craving for affirmation and (often just slightly) older women's enthusiastic embrace of Skype and similar platforms as tools for getting off with a partner. One of my students, married to a soldier in Afghanistan, told the class of the marriage-strengthening properties of webcam sex during her husband's long deployment. As both Cohen and Waxman suggested, that's worlds away from the experience of many (if not most) teen girls who "just want to be affirmed as hot."
In that light, these webcam "strip videos" serve the same function as the heartbreaking "Am I ugly?" clips. Sure, some may in fact be about nothing more than sexual urges — but they can also be about girls' hunger for approval. That hunger isn't new, but the expectation that girls can and should seek out that approval 24/7 is. In an interview, HLN anchor Richelle Carey, an outspoken advocate for teens and a board member for Girls Scouts of Greater Atlanta, connected the proliferation of these two types of self-exploiting videos to "an atmosphere where girls feel they have to perform all the time. The model isn't scripted TV but reality television, where the cameras never turn off." Reality TV stars are perfect role models for teens, who see endless (if risky) opportunities to perform for attention themselves. Technology allows even very young girls to shoot, edit and upload the record of those performances for all to see.
Because these girls are playing at something inauthentic — acting sexy without feeling sexual, like the paradigmatic reality star, Paris Hilton — the anxiety to know that they're "doing it right" means, Carey says, that they're "always second-guessing themselves." Whether they're asking "Am I ugly?" or doing cringe-inducing stripteases to hip-hop soundtracks, increasing numbers of young women are creating and sharing visual records of their struggles with that self-doubt.
The pearl-clutching about sexting is over-the-top, but it's almost impossible to exaggerate the very real impact that media images of perfection — and of reality stars who never take a break from being "on" — have on young women's lives. And while the technology that allows the modern teenage bedroom to be instantly connected to the outside world can create comfort and community for lonely young people, that same technology ratchets up the pressure to perform for others in what were once safe and private spaces. What we're left to reckon with is the painfully public and frighteningly permanent record of those performances.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. You can see more of his work at his eponymous site.
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