This week's New York Magazine contains a curious cover story, focusing on a group of Stuyvesant High School students who call themselves "the cuddle puddle," and who are fluid in their sexual identities. Using some real names and photos--and probably rendering even those whose names weren't used identifiable to their peers and possibly parents--it traced their tangled relationships and various straight, bi- and homosexual pairings.
Stuyvesant, of course, is an exceptional school for gifted kids--but it seems to me that even there, such an article could potentially do lasting social damage to the participants. As one of the interviewees put it, describing how one teen was harassed for his anti-gay remarks, "We're a creative bunch when we hate someone."
But mightn't this article make these teen subjects targets themselves--not because of their same sex involvement, but because of their highly personal revelations? Janet Malcolm has memorably described how journalism often involves some form of betrayal of the subject by the writer, but are kids fair game for that? Did they have any idea what they were letting themselves in for, on the cover of the magazine?
As a journalist who covers youth issues myself, I'm all in favor of quoting teenagers and listening closely to them on all manner of thorny questions--and I think we need to hear more, not less, from adolescents in their own words.
But this article cloaked itself as an exploration of what it said was a general increase in teen same-sex experimentation. It didn't, however, provide any data suggesting that there *was* an actual increase: it only noted that the first-ever national survey found that the same proportion of teen girls report same sex experimentation as adult women, and claimed that it "doesn't take a Stuyvesant education" to see that this means more girls are at it.
Perhaps it takes one to recognize that no such assumption can be made: maybe, for one, it means today's girls are more likely to admit it. Or maybe, people simply experiment more when they are young.
Whether or not more girls are experimenting with lesbianism is somewhat besides the point, however: the article came across as more of an excuse to parade that titillating possibility in front of us and hype its "girls gone wild" elements, at the possible expense of a group of young people.
We all want to know what teens are doing and what risks they may be facing. But articles like this tell us little about that--and if the purpose was to create an intimate portrait of one specific social group, that could have been done just as easily without using real names and photos.
It's one thing if the teens themselves want to post that kind of material online, framing it themselves for their peers on the web--although, as a recent New York Times article (which also probably should have kept its subject anonymous to protect him as he struggled to get out of the world of child pornography) suggests, even this is not risk-free. But it's quite another for an adult journalist to describe it for the amusement of adult readers, with seemingly no regard for the potential costs to the subjects.