06/18/2009 07:04 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Sext Generation

Twenty years ago, a friend and I choreographed a routine to the then-ubiquitous song, "Straight Up" by Paula Abdul. Eager for captive parents and friends to watch, we slid one arm across our chests and swung our hips seductively. "Do you really want to love me forever?" we purred.

Last month, a fifteen-year old girl I know posted a video of herself on Facebook lip-syncing to a song called "Phone Sex." With heavy-lidded eyes in a dimly lit room, she crawled slowly along her bed. "The way you talk and the moan, I put your body to the test, it's not a fantasy but it's phone sex," she whispered. She has close to 1,000 "friends" who can watch it.

"Sexting," broadcasting nude or revealing photographs or video of oneself, is the latest phenomenon to hit the radars of anxious parents. Earlier this year, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that about one in five teens is a sexter.

The digital age has fundamentally changed the rules and terms of social connection for teenagers. The year I was dancing to Paula Abdul, the frenzied exchange of who-did-what faded when the final bell rang. Today, the rumor mill churns 24-7, and conversations move seamlessly between real and virtual hallways.

Sexting illuminates a disturbing new trend: the talking has not just migrated online; the technology itself has become part of the grammar of teen sexual relationships. Sending a photo of oneself is no longer an ornament to flirtation. The picture has become the conversation.

Girls say a guy's request for a photo is a flattering sign "he likes you." The photograph itself becomes an invitation, a central moment in the teen mating ritual. Nearly a third of teens told surveyors that exchanging explicit images or text creates an expectation of "hooking up."

When it comes to shooting yourself, pictures give girls the power to control how they are represented, a thrilling enterprise for young women, most of whom think they should be thinner, prettier, or sexier. "You can be who you want to be in a picture," a high school junior told me.

Sexting tricks girls into thinking they're in control. But girls lose control once they hit the "send" button. Guys keep the photos in their phones as digital evidence of a girl's interest, and they flash that badge around, passing around their phones in classrooms and at parties. The photo symbolizes a new kind of young male status: I'm cool enough not only to be liked by this girl, but to own her half-naked image.

For teenage boys, a great many of whom consume online porn (hiding their virtual histories instead of magazines in the box springs), these photos can blur with the many other sexualized images of women they are consuming.

As usual, it's girls who suffer the double standard. If a seductive photo is seen as "hot" by guys, the same picture in a girl's phone changes the caption to "slut." A new, more insidious kind of forwarding flurry begins. Jesse Morgan, an 18 year old girl, committed suicide after a nude photograph was circulated en masse.

In a world where girls are overexposed to sex but punished for having it, sexting is unsurprising. Girls have long indulged their desire privately, fearful of the disease, pregnancy, and ostracism they are warned will follow. For example, girls often use alcohol to circumvent rules about sexual propriety. If you're "wasted" when you do it, it's not really you.

Sexting is the latest channel to clandestine self-expression. Play the Good Girl at school, but let your inner vamp out online.

That's not to say sexting is an expression of genuine sexual desire. Like me dancing to Paula Abdul, girls who sext mimic the sexual images they consume en masse daily. More telling is that over half of teen girls surveyed said they were pressured by guys to do it. Only 18% of guys said they felt the squeeze from female peers.

This generation of girls has been taught to see pornofied sexuality as the new girl power. The terms of being cool demand a just-one-of-the-guys mentality towards exhibitionism and promiscuity. If girls who show off their intellectual strengths are still punished as "conceited," cleavage now opens doors. At an upper middle class public high school in Arizona, a senior allowed a boy to film her shirtless and kissing another girl. His entire posse of friends now keep the video in their phones, and the girl "loves it" when they play it. But if boys and girls are now copping the same glib attitude towards sex, the rules haven't changed; as with oral sex, it's girls who still perform for boys, not the other way around.

If I'd had a webcam in 1989, my friend and I would have probably posted our dance on Facebook. Girls have always loved to perform for an audience, and celebrities have been our secret dance teachers for generations. What's different is that the ante has been upped. It is one thing to dance to perform, and another thing to perform for relationship. Where the music stops, nobody knows.