In April, residents of Louisa County, Va., were shocked to learn of a sexting "ring" among the town's teenagers. When Hanna Rosin asked teens from Louisa County High School how many people they knew who had sexted, a lot of them replied: "everyone." But what was originally characterized in the media as an organized criminal affair was soon revealed to be widespread teen behavior.
"I think we as a culture don't know whether to be utterly alarmed by sexting, or think of it as a normal part of teenage sexual experimentation," Rosin tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
In her report on the Louisa County scandal for The Atlantic, Rosin set out to address the question, why are so many teenagers sending each other nude photos? How much does teen sexting have to do with actual sex? How should parents, and communities, respond? And how do child pornography laws apply?
Rosin's article, "Why Kids Sext," appears in the November issue of The Atlantic.
On the police investigation of the Louisa County sexting case
[The police] call the girls in and they think there's something really, really wrong — something unusual and sinister happening right under their nose — that's how the investigation starts. ... But by the law any picture of a minor is illegal and so they just ask the girl[s] who they call in for interviews, "Well, do you know anyone else who has naked pictures on their phone?"
And everyone says, "Yeah! I know five people," or "I know 10 people."
And remember: This is a relatively small town so people are trusting the police officers. They all know each other. So then they call in five people and then they call in five people and then they call in five people and pretty soon the investigator has bins full of cellphones with pictures of naked kids that belong to teenagers. ...
So they've moved from thinking this is sinister to realizing, within a few days, this is completely common.
On how these teenage girls felt about the boys seeing pictures of them naked
That's what's amazing to me that this is so common given what we all know to be true about teenage awkwardness. The girls would actually get around this. I mean, some girls are just into it. They look great, they look like the pop stars they see, they're proud to send their pictures.
People would get around this by taking pictures of parts of their body, like they might just do the upper part of their body, or they might take a picture in a dark room or at certain angles. People worked hard at these pictures — not the guys, they just take one kind of picture — but the girls worked pretty hard at these pictures to make them look like the pictures that they saw in other magazines.
On what the sexts mean to the boys who receive them
The sexts are just their currency. The girls described it to me as, "Oh, [it's like] the guys are collecting baseball cards or Pokemon cards." They don't take actually take them that seriously. They're not a huge part of their sex life; it's just something [the boys] collect. ... It's cool to have one that nobody else has. It's kind of a social currency more than it is a springboard for fantasy, which is kind of surprising.
There's so much free porn out there that these pictures serve a different role. These guys look at these pictures for five seconds; they're just not that big of a deal to them. And so sending them along is kind of fun. ... It seems like a prank.
On how smartphones are changing how kids socialize
Kids do stay up in the middle of the night and text — that's kind of a known phenomenon that once they finish their homework and their after-school activities and they've had dinner and spent time with the family, [the middle of the night] is the time when they're all hanging out on their phones.
So your choices here are to take away their phone or limit ... their evening phone time, or ... to think about, "Why is this happening? Why is it that kids have to stay up all night hanging out with their friends?" ...
Some of this is just the way that children are being raised today, which is that they're so scheduled and they've got so much to do, and so many after-school activities, and every minute of their time is watched and monitored and designed for their self-improvement that they don't really have a space to be teenagers.
On how there is no safe sexting
Let's say you have the most trustworthy boyfriend or girlfriend in the universe. ... This person puts their phone down — and this is a case that's actually happened — they put their phone down in a locker room in high school and they go and take a shower or get dressed. Somebody else picks up the phone and as a prank, instantly sends that naked picture to everyone on the contact list, which includes Grandma, Grandpa, your mom, everybody on the contact list. So that can happen. Once the photo exists, it can be sent out.
A new Hilary Mantel book is an Event with a "capital "E." Here's why: The first two best-selling novels in Mantel's planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, each won the Man Booker Prize — that's a first. The BBC is filming an adaptation of Wolf Hall for airing in 2015, and Mantel's original short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, was printed in The New York Times Book Review in September. That story is from Mantel's new short story collection of the same name. Heads always tend to roll — figuratively and otherwise — in Mantel's writing. Hers is a brusque and brutal world leavened with humor — humor that's available in one shade only: black.
Even Mantel's many fans might approach this collection with some skepticism — after all, publishers have been known to cash in on an author's popularity by gathering up and repackaging earlier remnants. Indeed, nine of these stories were published already in the U.K., but I'd deem only one to be dispensable: It's a soft, impressionistic piece called Terminus, in which an unnamed narrator riffs on a vision of the dead moving through Waterloo Station.
Every other story here makes a permanent dent in a reader's consciousness because of Mantel's striking language and plots twists, as well as the Twilight Zone-type mood she summons up. Mantel is drawn to grotesque characters and surreal situations even when writing, as she does here, of the modern world. Although they're miles apart in terms of style, I think she has a lot in common with Nathanael West, whose novels like Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust caught people behaving at their worst and laughed.
In an eerie story called Comma, for instance, two grubby little girls spend their summer vacation spying on a nearby mansion where something wrapped in a blanket is wheeled out on the patio for air every afternoon. That blanketed something — a deformed child, perhaps? — is shaped like a comma and in an effort to see if "it" talks, one of the girls throws a rock at "its" face. Looking back on their actions years later, the more sensitive of those girls is baffled. She says: "If you spent your time trying to understand what happened when you were eight and [your friend] was ten, you'd waste your productive years in plaiting barbed wire."
Who else writes in such images — images that at once stop a paragraph in its tracks and also advance our psychological understanding of what's going on? Mantel's curious metaphors and violent verbs are themselves things of beauty: a noisy air conditioner is said to be "rattl[ing] away like an old relative with a loose cough"; a nervous taxicab passenger remarks on a "seat belt sawing into her throat"; a meaty meal kept warm for a wandering husband is described as a "brown dinner that ... shrivel[ed] to a stain in its ovenproof serving dish."
In what I think of as the best story in this collection, the one called How Shall I Know You, a woman pulls up at a hotel which doesn't quite measure up to its glossy brochure. She comments to herself: "What I had taken to be stucco was in fact some patent substance newly glued to the front wall: it was grayish-white and crinkled, like a split-open brain, or nougat chewed by a giant." That story starts out as a witty farce about a writer who accepts an invitation to lecture on her books at a book club in some dismal burg, but it curls round into something richer and stranger altogether: a chill meditation on the hierarchy of pity.
A writer would have to be in absolute control of her language in order to successfully pull off an assassination fantasy featuring a recent real-life public figure, which is, of course, what the title story here is. Our female narrator recalls how, in August of 1983, she foolishly opened the door to a man she thought was a plumber; instead he's an assassin who wants to use her kitchen window to take aim at the then Prime Minister. The tone is at once droll and terrifying; Mantel is playing around with the theme of choices or doors that people walk through in life; she's also explicitly venting her rage at Thatcher. That she manages to do all this — juggle the metaphorical meditations and political commentary in a darkly comic short story — is breathtaking, which is the word I'd use to describe this collection.
There's more to Swedish pop music than Abba. In recent years, worldwide pop hits from acts such as Robyn and Icona Pop have achieved success in America; the Swedish pop producer Max Martin has written hits for acts like Katy Perry and Britney Spears. Now a singer-songwriter in her 20s called Tove Lo is scoring hits in this country that mix dance-club pop with rock soulfulness. Fresh Air music critic Ken Tucker has a review of Tove Lo's debut album Queen of the Clouds.