Whatever before college
The Cuddle Puddle of Stuyvesant High School
Researchers find it shocking that 11 percent of American girls between 15 and 19 claim to have same-sex encounters. Clearly they’ve never observed the social rituals of the pansexual, bi-queer, metroflexible New York teen.
* By Alex Morris
Alair is wearing a tight white tank top cut off above the hem to show her midriff. Her black cargo pants graze the top of her combat boots, and her black leather belt is studded with metal chains that drape down at intervals across her hips. She has long blonde curls that at various times have been dyed green, blue, red, purple, and orange. (“A mistake,” she says. “Even if you mean to dye your hair orange, it’s still a mistake.”) Despite the fact that she’s fully clothed, she seems somehow exposed, her baby fat lingering in all the right places. Walking down the sterile, white halls of Stuyvesant High School, she creates a wave of attention. She’s not the most popular girl in school, but she is well known. “People like me,” she wrote in an instant message. “Well, most of them.”
With teenagers there is always a fair amount of posturing when it comes to sex, 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.”
That said, the Stuyvesant cuddle puddle is emblematic of the changing landscape of high-school sexuality across the country. This past September, when the National Center for Health Statistics released its first survey in which teens were questioned about their sexual behavior, 11 percent of American girls polled in the 15-to-19 demographic claimed to have had same-sex encounters—the same percentage of all women ages 15 to 44 who reported same-sex experiences, even though the teenagers have much shorter sexual histories. It doesn’t take a Stuyvesant education to see what this means: More girls are experimenting with each other, and they’re starting younger. And this is a conservative estimate, according to Ritch Savin-Williams, a professor of human development at Cornell who has been conducting research on same-sex-attracted adolescents for over twenty years. Depending on how you phrase the questions and how you define sex between women, he believes that “it’s possible to get up to 20 percent of teenage girls.”
“The interesting kids kind of gravitate towards each other,” Elle had explained earlier. “A lot of them are heteroflexible or bisexual or gay. And what happens is, like, we’re all just really comfortable around each other.”
“You’d be an awesome mom, I think,” says Elle. Her own mom puts a lot of pressure on her to date a nice Jewish boy. Once, Elle asked her, “ ‘Mom, what if I have these feelings for girls?’ and she said, ‘Do you have feelings for boys too?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And she’s like, ‘Then you have to ignore the ones you have for girls. If you can be straight, you have to be straight.’ ” Elle asked to go by a nickname because she hasn’t told her mother that she’s not ignoring those feelings.
Even as cultural acceptance of gay and bisexual teenagers grows, these kids are coming up against an uncomfortable generational divide. In many of their families, the ‘It’s fine, as long as it’s not my kid’ attitude prevails. Some of the parents take comfort in the belief that this is just a phase their daughters will grow out of. Others take more drastic measures. Earlier this year at Horace Mann, when one girl’s parents found out that she was having a relationship with another girl, they searched her room, confiscated her love letters, and even had the phone company send them transcripts of all her text messages. Then they informed her girlfriend’s parents. In the end, the girls were forbidden to see each other outside school.
Even Jane, whose parents know about her bisexuality and are particularly well suited to understanding it (her mother teaches a college course in human sexuality), has run up against the limits of their liberal attitudes. They requested that she go by her middle name in this story. “My mom thinks I’m going to grow up and be ashamed of my sexuality,” she says. “But I won’t.”
To these kids, homophobia is as socially shunned as racism was to the generation before them. 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.
Alair is one of the lucky ones whose parents don’t mind her bisexual tendencies. Her dad is the president of a company that manages performance artists and her mom is a professional organizer. “My parents are awesome,” she says. “I think they’ve tried to raise me slightly quirky, like in a very hippie little way, and it totally backfired on them.”
“ ’Cause you ended up like a hippie?” Nathan asks.
“No, ’cause I went further than I think they wanted me to go.” Despite the bravado, there’s a sweetness to Alair. She sings in the Trinity Children’s Choir. She does the dishes without being asked. She’s a daddy’s girl and her mother’s confidante, though she hasn’t always managed to skirt trouble away from home. She got kicked out of her middle school, Columbia Prep, after getting into an altercation with a girl who had been making her life miserable. (“I threw a bagel at her head, all right? I attacked her with a bagel.”)
“My mom’s like, ‘Alair, I don’t understand you. I want to be a parent to you but I have no control at all . . . As a person you’re awesome. You’re hilarious, you entertain me, you’re so cool. I would totally be your friend. But as your mother, I’m worried.’ ”
“I can’t say I was pleased,” her mother tells me about first learning of Alair’s bisexual experimentation. “But I can’t say 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.”
Of course, none of these kids will have to deal with their parents quite this directly in another year or so—a fact of which they are all acutely aware. College is already becoming a pressing issue. Everyone thinks Elle is going to get into Harvard. “If I fail physics, my average drops like a stone,” she frets. Alair and Nathan want to go to the same college, wherever that may be.
“You do realize,” Alair tells him, “that, like, we’re two of the most awesome people in the school.”
It practically takes a diagram to plot all the various hookups and connections within the cuddle puddle. Elle’s kissed Jane and Jane’s kissed Alair and Alair’s kissed Elle. And then from time to time Elle hooks up with Nathan, but really only at parties, and only when Bethany isn’t around, because Nathan really likes Bethany, who doesn’t have a thing for girls but doesn’t have a problem with girls who do, either. Alair’s hooking up with Jason (who “kind of” went out with Jane once), even though she sort of also has a thing for Hector, who Jane likes, too—though Jane thinks it’s totally boring when people date people of the same gender. Ilia has a serious girlfriend, but girls were hooking up at his last party, which was awesome. Molly has kissed Alair, and Jane’s ex-girlfriend first decided she was bi while staying at Molly’s beach house on Fire Island. Sarah sometimes kisses Elle, although she has a boyfriend—he doesn’t care if she hooks up with other girls, since she’s straight anyway. And so on.
Some of the boys hook up with each other, too, although in far fewer numbers than the girls. One of Alair’s male friends explained that this is because for guys, anything beyond same-sex kissing requires “more of a physical commitment.” If a guy does hook up with other guys it certainly doesn’t make the girls less likely to hook up with him; and the converse is obviously true.
The cuddle puddle may be where a flirtation begins, but parties, not surprisingly, are where most of the real action takes place. In parentless apartments, the kids are free to “make the rounds,” as they call it, and move their more-than-kissing hookups with both genders behind locked bathroom doors or onto coat-laden beds. Even for bisexual girls there is, admittedly, a Girls Gone Wild aspect to these evenings. Some girls do hook up with other girls solely to please the guys who watch, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the behavior of someone who is legitimately sexually interested and someone who wants to impress the boy across the room. Alair is quick to disparage this behavior—“It kinda grosses me out. It can’t be like, this could be fun . . . is anyone watching my chest heave?”—but Jane sees it as empowering. “I take advantage of it because manipulating boys is fun as hell. Boys make out with boys for our benefit as well. So it’s not just one way. It’s very fair.”
She’s not just making excuses. These girls have obliterated the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” stranglehold that has traditionally plagued high-school females. They set the sexual agenda for their group. And they expect reciprocation. “I’ve made it my own personal policy that if I’m going to give oral sex, I’m going to receive oral sex,” says Jane. “Jane wears the pants in any relationship,” Ilia says with a grin. “She wears the pants in my relationship, even though she’s not part of it.”
But dating gay girls isn’t really an option either, because the cuddle-puddle kids are not considered part of the gay community. “One of the great things about bisexuality is that mainstream gay culture doesn’t affect us as much,” says Jane, “so it’s not like bi boys feel that they have to talk with a lisp and walk around all fairylike, and it’s not like girls feel like they have to dress like boys.” The downside, she says, is that “gays feel that bis will cheat on them in a straight manner.” In fact, there’s a general impression of promiscuity that bisexual girls can’t seem to shake. “The image of people who are bi is that they are sluts,” says Jane. “One of the reasons straight boys have this bi-girls fantasy is that they are under the impression that bisexual girls will sleep with anything that moves and that’s why they like both genders, because they are so sex-obsessed. Which isn’t true.”
If you ask the girls why they think there’s more teenage bisexual experimentation happening today, Alair is quick with an explanation. “I blame television,” she says. “I blame the media.” She’s partly joking, giving the stock answer. But there’s obviously some truth to it. She’s too young to remember a time when she couldn’t turn on Showtime or even MTV and regularly see girls kissing girls. It’s not simply that they’re imitating what they’ve seen, it’s that the stigma has been erased, maybe even transformed into cachet. “It’s in the realm of possibilities now,” as Ritch Savin-Williams puts it. “When you don’t think of it as being a possibility, you don’t do it. But now that it’s out there, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that could be fun.’ ” Of course, sexy TV shows would have no impact at all if they weren’t tapping into something more innate. Perhaps, as research suggests, sexuality is more fluid for women than it is for men. Perhaps natural female intimacy opens the door to sexual experimentation at an age when male partners can be particularly unsatisfying. As one mother of a cuddle-puddle kid puts it, “Emotionally it’s safer—it’s difficult in this age group to hold onto your body. You’re changing. There’s a safety factor in a girl being with a girl.” Then, laughing, she asked that her name be withheld. “My mother might read this.”
It’s true that girls have always experimented, but it’s typically been furtive, kept quiet. The difference now is how these girls are flaunting it. It’s become a form of exhibitionism, a way to get noticed at an age when getting noticed is what it’s all about. And as rebellions go, it’s pretty safe. Hooking up with girls won’t get them pregnant. It won’t hurt their GPA. It won’t keep them out of honor societies, social groups, the Ivy League.
In the end, the Stuyvesant cuddle puddle might just be a trickle-down version of the collegiate “gay until graduation.” On the other hand, these girls are experimenting at an earlier age, when their identities and their ideas about what they want in a partner are still being formed. Will it affect the way they choose to live their adult lives? Elle is determined to marry a man, but Alair and Jane are not so sure. Maybe they won’t get married at all, they say, keep their options open. “I have no idea,” says Alair. “I’m just 16.”
Afew weeks later, the guys are hanging out in Nathan’s room. Jason is stretched out on the bed and Ilia is leaning back in a chair by the desk, and it’s pretty clear that nothing much is happening this afternoon. Just some guitar playing, some laying about. Then the girls show up and things get more interesting. Alair and Jane have brought a couple of friends, Molly and Nikki. Molly doesn’t know for sure if she’s bisexual, but “I have my suspicions,” she says; she’s hooked up with Alair before. Nikki is with her friend Jared, who she’s sort of but not really dating. He makes out with boys but considers Nikki his “soul mate”; she’s totally straight but kisses girls. “I kiss anything pretty, anything beautiful, anything worthwhile,” she says.
First, let me say as a Hunter alum,it is really, really good to see this story attached to Stuy.
Why? Because most of this is bullshit.
I seriously doubt that homophobia has been eradicated at Stuy. Or that guys are hooking up with guys like girls hook up with girls. Why? Because the social consequences are quite different.
Although I had to laugh when I read the reactions of liberal parents.
They're pro-gay, for gay marriage, have gay friends, but act little better than fundie rednecks when it's their little girl experimenting with other girls. Searching rooms, telling parents, it's like a Douglas Sirk movie when it's in their home.
I mean, if it's OK for gays to marry, why isn't OK for your little princess to have a girlfriend. About 20 years ago, it would have been about race, now, it's about same gender sex. A wee bit hypocritical, no? Silly me, I thought we were past this. You would think they'd be happy because they don't have to pay for the odd abortion.
And the gay kids don't like this because these girls are playing where they live. They aren't going to get kicked out of their homes, or raped or shot for how they look or being in the wrong place. I can understand why lesbians want nothing to do with them.
The article reads like something you'd see on Literotica. Sexy 18 year olds who date each other. The reality is probably a lot less sexy.
As far this article goes, I'd bet the minute that the Stuy kids hear shit from their friends at Science or Tech or Hunter or Regis, homophobia will be back in fashion. I wouldn't want to be playing sports for Stuy this winter.
posted by Steve @ 1:13:00 PM