The One Direction film is scary to watch, but it makes a good point about teen sexuality

If anyone needed proof that sex is something girls do rather than have done to them, it's this.

If you are not a teenage or pre-teen girl, this is what you probably think about boyband fans: they're just little girls with a liking for unthreatening pretty boys; they dont care about music; all they want it something safe. To which it's worth replying: safe for whom, exactly? Watching One Direction: This is Us (the Morgan Spurlock-directed 1D documentary), it doesnt look like in the middle of a crowd of Directioners is a very cosy place to be.

Actually, it looks terrifying. Small female faces break wide open with uncontainable emotion, their mouths twist and tremble. They cry, not decorous and moderate tears of gratitude, but the shocking, howling sobs of the frantic. And then there's the noise. The noise would beat any normal person back: thousands of lungs emptying themselves in a simultaneous scream, a vast wail of wanting.

Harry, Zayn, Niall, Louis and Liam are accustomed to it, though - to a point. Sometimes, they toy with it like conductors of a dreadful orchestra: in Milan, they duck behind a balcony, listen to the noise subside, then leap up playfully to be met by another predictable rain of shrieks. But in Mexico City, Liam looks genuinely shaken at the noise which meets him when he steps out from behind a stack of amps in a half-empty stadium, hours before the show is due to start.

The noise is for them, but Liam's alarmed face says that he knows there's something in it that the band can't control. In Amsterdam, they go shopping and get mobbed. After they've taken shelter in a Nike store, Liam tells the camera, "One of them had my ear and wouldnt let go. I think she wanted to keep it. I said, you can't have that, its mine." He laughs, but he's holding onto his ear like he's relieved to find it still attached.

The fans want them so badly they would rip them apart. This is a whole crowd with a common purpose: total individual possession of their favourite band member. I asked a friend's teenage daughter if she wanted to come and watch the film. "No, I couldn't," she said firmly, "I'd be too jealous watching all those other girls meeting them."

Most of these girls are too young for them to call this mad wanting lust. They wouldn't recognise sex as the ultimate object of the feelings shaking them, and that's the safety of the boyband crush. Fixating on someone securely unobtainable lets you practice all the wildness of desire without making too many mistakes, embarrassing yourself too badly or hurting anyone too much (Liam's yanked ear is just collateral damage.)

 

Elated staff pose outside an official One Direction store with merchandise

And though these passions are a way of playing at having adult feelings, they're not disposable. A few weeks ago, I went to an open-air screening of Dirty Dancing. As Patrick Swayze appeared for the first time, approximately 2,000 middle-aged women exhaled Johnny as one, his the image imprinted on the gosling brain of their new-hatched lust some time in the 80s or 90s.

When I was growing up, it was Take That and Boyzone who inspired frenzy: some friends of a friend travelled from Chester to Ireland to camp on Stephen Gately's mum's lawn, because, well, contact with a few feet of distantly related turf was better than no contact at all. And when my mum was growing up, it was the Beatles. One of her most prized anecdotes is the one about the time an alarmed and ragged George Harrison, running away from fans (they probably wanted his ear), ran directly into her.

And before that Elvis, and before that Sinatra. As long as we've had mass media, we've had mass crushes on male stars. So why do still pretend that sex comes over teenage girls like some malignant force from outside? The dread word "sexualisation" is applied almost exclusively applied to girls and never to boys, and it suggests some kind of external process imposing sexuality on women. If girls never underwent "sexualisation", presumably they would remain untainted by desire. Boys, meanwhile, are assumed to just know what they want and what to do, and if any education is needed, it's to warn girls of this masculine menace.

This is transparently a disservice to children of both genders. But for girls, the damaging lesson they're left with is that sex is something done to them, not something they do. If consent even enters into this debate, it's as something girls can refuse: all the agency they're offered is the chance to say no. Yes is taken away from them and replaced with a dull acquiescence to the incontinent urges of boys. Sex stops being a collaborative pleasure and becomes a grim tussle, with men trying to take it, and women charged with keeping it locked up.

But boys and girls have just the same mix of hunger and confusion, the same questions, the same need for answers from grown-ups. And while decorous adults refuse to acknowledge that girls are not just girls, but women in training, there's a seven-decade-old industry predicated on the fact that girls will pursue a boy they like to the end of the universe. The grown-ups keep quiet, and those lungs keep emptying themselves in a howl of unrecognised need.

One Direction performing. Image: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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