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.

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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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