In response to:

‘Hot’ Sex & Young Girls from the August 18, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

Zoë Heller’s latest review [“‘Hot’ Sex and Young Girls,” NYR, August 18] is typically incisive and sensible, but in her honorable effort to quell over-the-top assertions about the dangers of social media, she underestimates its distinctive power in girls’ lives.

To portray girls as without “a single cultural resource or pursuit outside of [the social media hive’s] ambit” would, of course, be a misrepresentation. But it is similarly misleading to suggest, as Heller does, that social media’s appearance as a consuming force in girls’ lives may be the simple product of Nancy Jo Sales’s line of questioning. Of course, directed questioning and a too-narrow focus can empower anyone to write a “shocking exposé” about the “outsized role” of anything (Heller’s amusing example is pets). But social media is set apart from pets, PlayStations, and any other easily overstated aspect of teenage lives in that it is nearly always with us, no matter how hard we try to shake it, forced on us from friends, peers, and even institutions. (When I was accepted to my university, I was immediately directed to my new class’s Facebook group. I could, of course, have chosen not to join—but there was a clear suggestion in being sent a link to the group.)

I cannot think of a single friend who, despite her seriousness and intelligence, has not grappled with the domineering presence and pressures of social media. There is no real neutrality or avoidance to be found for the members of my generation: even if we choose not to photograph, we are always being photographed. One either participates in the Instagram culture or is forced to take a stand in opposition to it: absence from social media is itself a sort of presence. Young women, even those who—as Peggy Orenstein might put it—watch alternative films, cannot escape the constant buzzing, beeping, and “tagging,” no matter how avid and sincere their cultural pursuits. Sales, Heller, and any other writer would be hard-pressed to overstate the extent to which young women are “trapped in the social media hive.”

I am loath to strip girls of their agency, and equally loath to side with the oft-hysterical media narrative about girls, their telephones, and their sex lives. It is of course condemnable to “underestimate the heterogeneity of teenage culture”—and I hope that my status as a teenage girl writing to The New York Review can offer some assurance of the sincerity of this condemnation. But I have yet to meet a single teenage girl whose sexual self-image, sexual life, and personal identity have not been challenged, shaped, or directed by the invasive power of social media and an accompanying, equally harmful desire to “self-brand” as an alluring figure.

Margaret Shea
Brown University
Arlington, Massachusetts

Zoë Heller replies:

I thank Ms. Shea for her comments. The aim of my review was not to discount social media’s potent influence on young women’s sexual self-images, but to question whether that influence is felt equally by all young women, regardless of their class, age, or education. Much as I sympathize with Ms. Shea’s story of being pressurized into joining her university class’s Facebook group, I would still hazard that she is better defended against social media’s “invasive power” than, say, the seventeen-year-old quoted in Nancy Sales’s book, whose idea of Nirvana is to get three hundred likes on her Instagram posts and “to be the girl everybody wants to fuck.”