Recently I worked myself into a giant, gnarled, spiny tumbleweed of outrage, ranting and raving my way across the Internet and into my social life. The subject of my vitriol was a Facebook page, filed under controversial humor, called "12 Year Old Sluts." It features, among other jokes and memes, the kind of idiotic "sexyface" pictures pre-teen girls take of themselves in the bathroom mirror. The founders of the page encourage their commentariat to "put these sluts in their place," with tactics that would make the meanest mean girls blush.
I managed to shake my Outrage Tumbleweed with the help of equally disgusted friends, a like-minded Internet community, and vinyasa yoga. Though I'm more pleasant to be around this week, and I've (mostly) stopped shoving my petition at people, I can't stop thinking about those girls. There is something horribly, heartbreakingly familiar about the digital predicament in which they now find themselves.
Ten years ago, when I was 14, I went to Sweden with my soccer team. There was no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Documenting our adventures meant returning to the States and waiting for the CVS technician to process a role of film.
My team was full of flirty, aggressive, smart, cool teenaged girls, so naturally, we met a matching boys team approximately 10 seconds after we arrived at the hotel. My friends rapidly paired off for some relatively tame shenanigans and hot tub make-outs. Though I mostly watched nervously from the metaphorical sidelines, occasionally I snapped pictures with a disposable camera. At some point, someone must have grabbed my camera, because weeks later I was met with a surprise. My mother had picked up the developed images and left the package on my bed. On one photo, she had added a sticky note, "I'm not mad." Two peers, fully dressed, thankfully, were simulating sex with a rather phallic looking trophy.
There is a picture on "12 Year Old Sluts" that rings a few too many bells (and yes, I'm going to keep writing out "12 Year Old Sluts" even though it makes me uncomfortable. It helps me remember that those are words I should never have to type.) It's two girls, maybe 14, squatting over traffic cones in a mall, grinning like lunatics. The comments are horrendous, but they're nothing compared to the ones another girl, less conventionally attractive, received on her bathroom-mirror self-portrait. Most explain objects the commenter would rather have sex with than her, but one suggests she should be hanged. As I scroll through them all I can do is cross my fingers and thank the technology gods for sparing me from middle school Facebook.
The crux of the problem for this girl, let's call her Susie, is that she's stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one side, there is the crushing pressure to be sexually desirable. She is aware of this pressure even before she caves to it, and at a much younger age than adults would like to believe. Why do you think we cake make-up on toddlers, sell push-up bras to 9-year-olds, or suggest that tweens get bikini waxes? We are preparing them for what we know is coming. They are smarter than we think and they know these tricks and tips are not for their benefit, but for the benefit of people who look at them.
On the other side, Susie knows that she loses the desirability game if she caves to the desires she has inspired. Though "sexual capital" isn't a phrase she will run across until her gender studies classes 10 years later, Susie intuitively understands that she loses hers if people think she's too accessible. I still remember the name of the girl who gave the first blowjob in middle school. Minutes after it happened, her name had worked itself from one end of the building to the other. You can bet that no one gave two shits who was on the receiving end; he remained anonymous and she watched one afternoon's adolescent experiment destroy the desirability she'd spent years cultivating.
The wiggle room between the rock and the hard place-that sweet spot between being wanted and being respected-is all but non-existent. It is a sliver, a tiny wedge, the narrowest of alleys. Adult women spend years trying to find it, alternating between extremes, recalibrating, shooting for appreciation without denigration. Look at me, but not for too long. Want me, but don't try so hard. Think that I'm beautiful, but know that I'm classy. But not too classy. Lady in the street, freak in the bed. You know the drill.
Many women-especially those of us with a top-notch education, strong role models, and a stellar support group-eventually arrive at the conclusion that the rock and the hard place can go screw themselves. We know that we are sexual beings with needs and wants that are nobody's business but ours and our partner's. We know that some people will be attracted to us, and some people won't, and that's just the way the cookie crumbles. We assemble these eventual epiphanies into a package of good vibes that we try to cocoon ourselves in every day. Some days it works better than others.
But teenagers? Teenagers have it worst of all. Not only do the rock and the hard place still matter more than anything, but they have yet to fully develop the ability to scope out long-term ramifications. Their skins are still baby thin and easily pierced. They want to be noticed and ignored, be thought exceptional and average, all at the same time. For teenaged girls, for Susie, Facebook in middle school is the perfect tool to test those boundaries and get instant feedback from the people who matter to her most, her peers.
Should Susie post pictures of herself in her underwear? Of course not. Should Internet safety be written into every school's curriculum? Yes. Should parents and teachers help kids understand the limits to healthy social media use? Yes, obviously. Will Susie regret that picture someday? For damn sure.
The gentlemen that launched "12 Year Old Sluts" believe they are doing Susie a favor. They believe they are teaching her a lesson about responsibility by reposting her image to be pilloried by a slew of ignorant asshats. The lesson she's learning, though, isn't about what one should or shouldn't post online. She learned that she is not sexy enough, at 12, to please the masses. She learned that she is also too sexy, at 12, to please the masses.
She learned that her body and her sexual choices, ill-advised as they might be, are up for public debate. She learned what grown women already know; by having a female body that you dare to parade around your neighborhood, you are asking to be looked at, lusted after, judged, discussed, desired, and sometimes touched. From this experience, Susie learned that when the rock and the hard place collide, it hurts like hell.
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.
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