Sex & the Ghost II: Cells, IM, hookups and something strange called guilt

What teen-agers need today is an "international base system." At least, that's what reporter Benoit Denizet-Lewis concludes in a truly stunning -- on several levels -- cover story in last weekend's Sunday magazine in the New York Times. The title is "Friends, Friends With Benefits and the Benefits of the Local Mall," but here at GetReligion.org we can simply think of it as Sex & the Ghost II (The Next Generation). The story is all about sex in the era of cell telephones and the Net, with parents nowhere to be seen.

No one has really defined what relationships are and are not. In this world, a "conservative" is someone who believes that sex should at least involve emotion or enough of a commitment that teens may end up dating. Maybe. Then again, no one has really defined what sex is. This is the post-Bill Clinton era, after all, and there are diseases out there. So where is second base? Where is third base? Is it safe to steal home? Who knows? Who does a young person ask?

And while we are at it, why are the girls -- starting at age 13 or thereabouts -- having to compete with each other for the attention of the guys? Why is sex, whatever sex is, all about the pleasure of the boys? Why is "romance" a forbidden word?

So "hooking up" sexually with your friends is fine, year after year, and then, someday, that perfect person will come along and then -- when you are no longer "hot" enough to compete in the digital marketplace -- it will be time to get married. Then everyone will be faithful. Like their parents. Not.

It's all innocent fun, if the word "innocent" means anything. There are no consequences.

Then again, young people keep saying that they feel dirty. So what does the word "dirty" mean? A kid named David really doesn't know, except in his gut.

David isn't the only teenager who used the word "dirty" to describe hookups. Inherent in the thinking of many teenagers is the belief that hooking up, while definitely a mainstream activity, is still one that's best kept quiet. And underneath the teenage bravado I heard so often are mixed feelings about an activity that can leave them feeling depressed, confused and guilty.

As much as teenagers like to talk a good game, hooking up isn't nearly as seamless as they'd like it to be, and there are many ways it can go wrong. At the Valentine's Day gathering, Irene and her friends laid out the unwritten etiquette of teenage hookups: if you want it to be a hookup relationship, then you don't call the person for anything except plans to hook up. You don't invite them out with you. You don't call just to say hi. You don't confuse the matter. You just keep it purely sexual, and that way people don't have mixed expectations, and no one gets hurt.

But, invariably, people do.

Eventually a few authorities and experts show up -- voices like Dr. Drew Pinsky of "Loveline," a nationally syndicated radio program. He's real. He's been on MTV. Hooking up is not what it seems, he tells the Times.

"It's all bravado," he says. "Teens are unwittingly swept up in the social mores of the moment, and it's certainly not some alternative they're choosing to keep from getting hurt emotionally. The fact is, girls don't enjoy hookups nearly as much as boys, no matter what they say at the time. They're only doing it because that's what the boys want."

And a conservative, religious Jewish voice shows up -- although she is not identified as such. This is Wendy Shalit, author of the radical volume "A Return to Modesty." Girls are being manipulated, she argues, and told that true freedom means acting out the worst of male behavior. Dreaming of intimacy and fidelity are now the ultimate sins. However, Shalit is not interviewed. A quote from the distant world of the printed page is stuck into this waterfall of popular media and digital life. Shalit writes: "In the age of the hookup, young women confess their romantic hopes in hushed tones, as if harboring some terrible secret."

This article is somewhat shocking, but it is must reading for religious leaders and for journalists who want to cover moral issues in modern youth culture. Where are the religious voices? Do they even know this is happening?

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