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Of course, all this technology has its explicit side--which is typically where boys get into trouble, though it's not always boys acting as the aggressors. One mother told me the story of her son's being sent explicit pictures from a girl at school, in various stages of nudity. The images came with the message "You are special, and no one else gets to see this," the mother said. "My son eventually discovered that it had been sent to all her 'special' ones, numbering about a handful."
For boys, getting sexy images from a girl, solicited or not, raises their social status. "It's a big ego boost," says Ethan Anderson, a 17-year-old from Boulder, Colo. Girls send pictures for lots of reasons: to get attention, in response to requests from a boy or to compete with other girls. But the boys don't always know what to think. "I've gotten probably like four unwanted pictures ... just desperate girls who are looking for a good time with everyone," says Winston Robinson, an 18-year-old who is starting his first year at Drexel University this fall. "It's awkward, especially if you didn't ask for it. When it happens, I delete it, so the parents don't try to screw you over if they find it."
"You have to use Snapchat. It's the condom of sexting," says Ethan, referring to the popular app that lets users send photos that disappear after a brief viewing period. But even digital condoms break, it seems: new apps let people save Snapchats.
Lost in Translation
Teens may not be having sex all that much earlier than previous generations were, but their culture is far more saturated with sexual language and imagery. And while discussions of sex and hookups are constant, both genders still struggle to communicate what they want or don't want. "Sex is a sport to my generation. For girls too," says Ricky Coston, a soft-spoken 20-year-old from New Orleans. "I have friends who just want to have sex with me, but it's nothing real." Ricky describes the daily speculation at the charter high school he attended about who'd "gotten with" whom. It's a culture he clearly finds exhausting and confusing.
Ricky, who is a church youth leader and was homecoming king in junior and senior year of high school, told me a story about a moment when he felt caught between his sexual desires and the expectations for guys when it comes to sex. A girl offered to give him oral sex, and rather than feeling triumphant, he felt conflicted. "I never told her I didn't like her. At the point leading up to it, I could have walked out," he said. And even though it's easy to assume he said yes simply because he wanted sex, there were multiple factors at play in his decision. He didn't want to hurt her feelings, he said, and he worried that if he rejected her, she would get angry. The guilt came later: "I wanted it, but it felt bad at the same time ... I felt like a man-whore, and I really regret treating her like that."
Developmental psychologist Andrew Smiler has spent decades studying masculinity and adolescents. "We've been teaching girls for two generations to be in charge of their own sexuality, their desires," Smiler says. "But we're still teaching boys the same things we did 20 years ago ... that they are supposed to be the pursuers. But the world has changed around them."