This Slate essay about Larry Clark’s films attempts to knit together some inescapable trends—teenage exhibitionism, reality TV, easily accessible pronography, widely distributed user-generated content, exploitation being synonymous with attention—under the term Generation Porno. Of Clark’s latest film, part of the omnibus film Destricted, critic Christopher Kelly writes, “In only 38 minutes, the director has powerfully illustrated all his grand themes: that modern teenagers’ and twentysomethings’ compulsion to expose themselves is boundless; that our culture has now wholly transformed sex into a purely consumerist commodity; that none of us can take our eyes off a train wreck, least of all when there are attractive naked bodies involved.” These themes delineate what Kelly calls the “defining aesthetic of our time,” which recognizes the “truth” that “the adult urge to consume that which is young and beautiful is ineradicable.”
That seems an appropriate way to assess our current cultural climate. I’m not sure it stands as a universal truth that adults will always yearn to “consume” the sexuality of children, though. If anything, that seems a particular result of an unfortunate collision of technology making the self infinitely more marketable and widely distributable, and capitalist ideology celebrating such a shrewd move. Children learn to make themselves into products just as the law of planned obsolesence has come to seem given and immutable. Sexuality, now inextricably bound with the manipulations of marketing, becomes merely a medium of exchange in which the ultimate goal is not pleasure but social recognition—which has been divorced from any civic ideals (impossible in the Hobbesean world fomented by fetishized individualism) and now amounts to measuring how many hits your MySpace page gets or how many seconds a stranger’s leer locks on your body. Sex is an appeal rather than an activity; it’s the one species of rhetoric that young people know they have the edge in—it’s what they are taught by virtually every representation of themselves in commercial media.
But despite all that, generation Porno is itself a media creation—I wonder whether these are teenagers how adults secretly wish them to be, not how they actually are. That teenage lives take place in part on the Internet—a disembodied, near-anonymous realm that enables one to take chances and inhabit fluid identities in a way one couldn’t and wouldn’t in real life—makes it easy to search out and find extreme examples of teen lasciviousness that we can then document and tut-tut about. The cohort is enormous, yet we are still willing to shocked by anecdotes. Even though we insist they should (be careful what you say and do on the Internet! it could affect you in a job interview! it could lead to Identity Theft! etc, etc), teens probably don’t take their online lives all that seriously or see them as indicative of their offline morality. What Generation Porno knows is not instrumentalized sexuality so much as the ephemeral nature of identity itself when it plays out in the operating system of a one giant interactive video game, which is what the social side of the Internet has essentially become.