Teenage sexuality has been a perpetual concern for parents–and for good reason. In our own times, American teenagers have unprecedented opportunities to experiment sexually and they are bombarded with cultural messages that encourage sexual experimentation and promiscuity. In a very real sense, the chickens have come home to roost as this nation faces the inevitable result of a breakdown in sexual morality.
A shocking portrait of the new shape of teenage sexual activity is provided in a cover story published in the February 6, 2006 edition of New York. In “Love and the Ambisexual, Heteroflexible Teen,” Alex Morris introduces us to the “cuddle puddle” of New York City’s Stuyvesant High School. Brace yourselves–this is a shocking form of reality therapy.
Morris first introduces his readers to Alair, a sixteen-year-old junior at Stuyvesant High School. Alair is dressed in a tight white tank top that is cut off above the hem in order to expose her midriff. She accessorizes with a black leather belt that features metal chains and studs, and she attracts a great deal of attention as she walks down the halls of her very selective high school.
Alair is on her way to the “cuddle puddle” that takes place during the students’ free tenth period of the day. As Morris describes the scene, “There are girls petting girls and girls petting guys and guys petting guys.” Alair quickly connects with Jane and Elle, fellow juniors at the high school. “All three have hooked up with each other. All three have hooked up with boys–sometimes the same boys. But it’s not that they’re gay or bisexual, not exactly. Not always,” Morris advises. The boys and girls of the “cuddle puddle” are experimenting with sexuality in all of its varied forms–and this will stretch the imagination of most adults.
“With teenagers there is always a fair amount of posturing when it comes to sex,” Morris admits, “a tendency to exaggerate or trivialize, innocence mixed with swagger. It’s also true that the ‘puddle’ is just one clique at Stuyvesant and that Stuyvesant can hardly be considered a typical high school. It attracts the brightest public-school students in New York, and that may be an environment conducive to fewer sexual inhibitions. ‘In our school,’ Elle says, ‘people are getting a better education, so they’re more open-minded.’”
In other words, the “cuddle puddle” at this New York high school is not fully representative of adolescents across the nation, but it may soon be. Indeed, data released by the National Center for Health Statistics indicates that eleven percent of American girls age fifteen to nineteen reported same-sex sexual encounters.
As Morris explains, “More girls are experimenting with each other, and they’re starting younger.” Many analysts believe that these numbers are actually under-reported. One researcher indicates that as many as twenty percent of teenage girls experiment sexually with another girl during their teenage years.
“Go to the schools, talk to the kids, and you’ll see that somewhere along the line this generation has started to conceive of sexuality differently.” No kidding. The teenagers at this high school greet each other sexually, grabbing various body parts, the way students used to slap each other on the back or the way adults shake hands.
The difference in the way these teenagers conceive sexuality has led some child-development specialists to identify them as the “post-gay” generation.
Homosexuality–lesbianism in particular–is seen as a developmental stage or as a completely valid lifestyle choice. The participants in the “cuddle puddle” tend to think of themselves as more than heterosexual or homosexual. As they have collected and coined words to describe themselves, they use terms like “polysexual, ambisexual, pansexual, pansensual, polyfide, bi-curious, bi-queer, fluid, meteroflexible, heteroflexible, heterosexual with lesbian tendencies” or “just sexual.” As Morris concedes, “The terms are designed less to achieve specificity than to leave all options open.”
Alair, for example, admits to frequent sexual hook-ups with both boys and girls. She is featured on the front cover of the magazine holding on to a half-naked boy named Jason and cuddling next to Molly, another girl.
Her parents are only mildly concerned, if at all. Morris describes Alair as “one of the lucky ones whose parents don’t mind her bisexual tendencies.” He goes on to describe Alair’s father as the president of a company that manages performance artists and her mom as a “professional organizer.” As Alair sees it, her parents are “awesome.” She reflects: “I think they’ve tried to raise me slightly quirky, like in a very hippie little way, and it totally backfired on them.” She now understands that she has gone “further than I think they wanted me to go.”
Speaking to Morris, Alair’s mom said: “I can’t say I was pleased . . . . But I can’t say that I was upset either. I like that she’s forthright about what she wants, that she values her freedom, that she takes care of herself. But I have all the trepidations a parent has when they learn their child is becoming sexually active.”
The “cuddle puddle” is a puzzle of complicated relationships. Many of the girls have hooked up with each other in the past and some continue to do so in the present. They caress each other’s hair and bodies and do so in front of boys who may be hooking up with each other as the girls watch. Occasionally, the girls and boys hook up with each other, but this seems to be less frequent, at least for the girls, than same-sex activities.
For these kids, the only sin is repression. They consider any opposition to homosexuality–any notion that any form of consensual sexual activity among these teenagers could be morally wrong–to be evidence of nothing more than psychological repression and intolerance.
“To these kids, homophobia is as socially shunned as racism was to the generation before them,” Morris explains. “They say it’s practically the one thing that’s not tolerated at their school. One boy who made disparaging remarks about gay people has been ridiculed and taunted, his belongings hidden around the school. ‘We’re a creative bunch when we hate someone,’ says Nathan. Once the tormenters, now the tormented.”
As it turns out, the “cuddle puddle” is only a warm up for what follows. The real action for these teenagers takes place at parties, most often held in their own homes. With parents distracted by work and their own interests, these kids are given a free reign in empty houses and, as this account makes graphically clear, this leads to all kinds of sexual activity that takes place in the bedrooms and bathrooms of the homes.
When the group shows up at Nathan’s home, the guys begin to hang out in Nathan’s room. Before long, they are joined by some of the girls and making out begins. The group orders Chinese food and passes an ice cube around the room, which everyone is expected to put into their pants.
“It’s just another afternoon of casual flirtation. The boys showing off for the girls, the girls showing off for everyone. No strings attached. In theory, anyway.”
The industrial revolution and the other massive social changes that have so reshaped American life led to the development of what we now call adolescence–an extended (and growing) period of time in which sexually-mature young persons are largely congregated together without a great deal of adult supervision. They are not expected to accept and fulfill adult responsibilities, and the sexual boundaries and rules that had at least defined and restricted teenage sexual behavior in the past have largely evaporated.
Stuyvesant High School may be somewhat atypical, but the “cuddle puddle” is not. The development of the American high school has produced a social context for teenagers that separates them from parental oversight, gathers them together in one place, and privileges their own social structure, friendships, and peer morality above all others.
Anyone who doubts the impact of the sexual revolution needs only to read this article in order to see our present crisis–much less the future. Of course, there are some who, like Alair’s parents, will celebrate teenage sexual liberation, even to the point of ambisexual and heteroflexible sexual experimentation.
Missing from this entire picture is any notion that human sexuality is a stewardship to be protected and a gift to be respected, rather than simply a physical capacity to be used in personal experimentation and polymorphous gratification. This is what a world without sexual rules looks like–a giant “cuddle puddle” of sexual experimentation. Can we even imagine the life-long and eternal consequences of the “cuddle puddle?”