What does it mean to use sex to sell the “youth sexualization” debate?

The cover of this week’s New York Magazine promises a look at “Porn and junior high culture.” The opening paragraph of the article describes author Alex Morris surfing the web to find an image of one of his interview subjects, Cristal, 14:

[She’s] in a teeny, tiny skintight dress posing like a Vargas girl with back arched and leg raised and bust swiveled to face the camera. Her waist is narrow. Her lips are full. She’s a pretty thing, and from the number of provocative images and Cristal’s pout in each of them, it appears that she knows it.

He describes some girls as having “the fawnlike quality of girls on the cusp of adolescence” and writes that a girl’s chest is “perky and ample.”

The photos that accompany the article by artist Evan Baden re-create netporn images with young-looking models who, the reader is cheekily assured by a caption, are at least 18 years old.

What will it take to get past this familiar combination of lusty drooling over teenage girls’ “fawnlike” and “perky” bodies with hand-wringing about their sexual behavior and exposure to inappropriate materials? While the magazine offers to assess the damaged caused by the sexualization of youth by online pornography, it seems to be completely unaware–or perhaps unconcerned–with its complicity in the marketing and selling of young female sexuality.

The article does speak to girls, which is a nice change from the usual approach of stories about youth, technology, and sexuality, but Morris uses their voices to  illustrate a portrait of girls jealous of the attention boys seem to pay to their rivals who post photos online:

“I think it makes her more popular,” Precious says of the photos. “That’s probably why she did it.”
“Yeah, ’cause, like, she gets all the boys.”
“Like, all the attention now.”
“When she cries, all the boys go up to her: ‘Oh, what happened?’ or whatever.”
“Girls don’t like her,” Precious counters, matter-of-factly.
“Yeah.” Tania weighs the social odds. “So she’ll become less popular for the girls but more popular for the boys, because the boys will want to go out with her more, because they probably like her pictures. Like, they don’t like you for your personality,” she sniffs. “They like you for your body shape and stuff like that.”

This doesn’t seem to be fundamentally any different from the sentiment in “Are You Popular?” (1947):

Ginny thinks she has the key to popularity: parking in cars with the boys at night. When Jerry brags about taking Ginny out, he learns that she dates ALL the boys, and he feels less important. What about Ginny? Does that make her really popular? … No, girls who park in cars are not really popular. Not even with the boys they park with.

That said, Morris still gets credit for noticing this:

The Internet can be as effective a venue for sexual retaliation as it is for sexual exploration—and that girls, as always, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

How could writers explore this tension without sexualizing and demeaning the people they are trying to examine? Could articles examine how boys use the internet for self-expression (not just as a source of dysfunctional porn addiction)? Could they ask girls about the benefits of expressing their sexuality online, not just the risks and pitfalls?

There is a lot more to examine about the relationship between sexuality and technology, but by asking the same questions and reproducing the same familiar narratives, the conversation so far seems to have stagnated.

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