Do you know what your son’s doing tonight?

Today the Sydney Morning Herald published an article by Rachel Olding lamenting the supposed “hyper-sexualisation” of teenage girls as well as highlighting the culture of binge drinking - apparently made worse by the prevalence of social media such as Facebook.

The piece has been criticised on a number of blogs and by various people on Twitter for presenting a very shallow view of today’s teenagers, focusing entirely on young women from the North Shore of Sydney, focusing entirely on women etc etc.

I thought I’d do something different, so instead of a critique of Olding’s article, I’ve just rewritten it.

By swapping the genders.

So instead of focusing on teenage girls the article now shines the spotlight on teenage boys from the North Shore. I think it makes for interesting reading.

Do you know what your son’s doing tonight?

They’re young, beautiful and think they’re invincible. On the face of it, today’s teenage boys are no different from those of previous generations. Except, writes Robert Olding, that they’re sexually promiscuous and binge drinking like never before – and documenting much of it on Facebook.

It’s midnight on a Saturday and at King Street Wharf’s Cargo Bar, the night has soured. Jon*, a 17-year-old graduate of an exclusive north shore boys’ school, has been kicked out after tripping over a bar stool and nearly smashing a glass. His friend Mark, 18, has stormed out in a boozed-up sulk because the former Pymble Ladies College girl he’s casually sleeping with hasn’t appeared. Stephen, 18, the third in this tight-knit circle, is the last one standing. Barely.

Stephen is so drunk that he can hardly talk but in a haze of double vodka cranberries he’s telling me how a night like this plays out. “My motive is to choose a girl and flirt with her,” he slurs. “If it’s someone I’m not interested in, then I’ll just sleep with them but if it’s someone I like, I’ll try to hold it from them for, like, four weeks.” We’re interrupted by a girl he knows who demands that Stephen and I pash. “Have you two ever hooked up?” she smirks. “C’mon, hook up or get out.” I wear my disgust on my face but Stephen ignores her and when a Pussycat Dolls song starts playing, jokingly gyrates up against some boyfriends on the dance floor. Faux gay kisses were cool in year 10, he says, but are a bit of a yawn now.

Across the city, boys like Stephen are out having fun. Or are they? In less than a generation, the binge-drinking epidemic, hyper-sexualised raunch culture and social media have collided, drastically changing young men’s behaviour and leaving them vulnerable to an array of physical- and mental-health issues like never before.

“The problem is just enormous,” says Gordian Fulde, the director of emergency medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital, which treats about 100 alcohol- and drug-affected young men each weekend, a number that is rising each year. “Of course, there are an awful lot of boys sitting at home doing homework but when they let it rip, they really let it rip. And these days, if a boy goes out and gets trashed and vomits, maybe even ends up in emergency, they freak out at the time but you can see that they’re getting a badge of honour. The next day the photos will go up on Facebook.”

Stephen got his “badge of honour” in year 8 when he was 14 — the same year he lost his virginity. He was admitted to the Sydney Adventist Hospital in Wahroonga for alcohol poisoning and given only a 14 per cent chance of surviving the night. He giggles as he recalls drinking a bottle of vodka and a bottle of rum with Jon before passing out in a park. And the best thing? There was no hangover because the contents of his stomach had been pumped out through his nose. “I was fine! I was just really hungry,” he laughs. His parents grounded him for three weeks but were too relieved to be angry and the incident seems to have had little effect on his drinking. “Once you start you don’t want to stop.”

I find that all my best nights out are when I’m hammered … I dunno, you just don’t worry about anything,” adds Mark. Like the recent night when he drank half a bottle of vodka with orange juice before hitting Killara’s Greengate Hotel. After a bottle of wine there, he finished the night with Sarah, the 18-year-old former PLC girl. She produced some ecstasy pills, which they crushed and snorted off a car bonnet before wandering in a euphoric haze until sunrise. “But I wouldn’t normally do that,” says Mark. “I was just so pissed.”

Line them up and Mark, Stephen and Jon are almost identical: all short shorts, bare, orange-tinged legs, made-up hair and long, dark hair. They’re smart, with malleable dreams and a genuine, if at times tumultuous, love for each other.

Just out of school, they tell me that their grade was a volatile one. One guy had sex with a girl during schoolies week only to find her in bed with two of his friends an hour later. Another overdosed on ecstasy at last year’s Mardi Gras. One friend has become a chronic weed smoker and can barely leave the house. And each of the three has had their own share of troubles.

Stephen’s businessman father died suddenly while overseas a few years ago, at which point Stephen’s mother switched him and his elder brother to a new school and the family moved suburbs to start afresh. Now studying health science and nursing, Stephen hopes one day to open a nursing home.

Mark, short and subtly stout, is one of five children – including one with a disability – and has had to shoulder more responsibilities at home than many boys his age. Perhaps that’s why he played up at school. His first dalliance with drugs, at 17, involved a cocktail of marijuana, ecstasy and amyl nitrite. He’s studying education and working at an after-school childcare centre close to his family home in Sydney’s north.

Jon, who lives with his family in the northern suburbs and is studying animal veterinary bioscience, tends to be over-shadowed by his friends’ woman-eating ways but still hooks up with girls.

Spending a month touring Sydney’s bars with the boys was an unfettered, depressing experience. I’m only five years older than them but their behaviour seems five times more outrageous than anything from my school days — just how much lower can the bar go? Theirs is a world in which sleeping with a girl in the toilets is “pretty slutty” but you’ll shrug it off the next day.

They “pre-load” — drinking a bottle of champagne while getting ready — then share another on the train on the way into the city. It’s all LOL, DTF (“down to f…”, the latest way of gauging whether a boy will “put out” or not), “wet pussy” shots and “f… buddies” (friends who have no-strings-attached sex). Waking up not knowing where you are is not unusual.

Five nights out a week isn’t, either.

With its concentrated areas of hedonism, the city has always been a magnet for teens — whether coming over the bridge, in from the west or along New South Head Road. “At [school] everyone was good friends with people in the years above; they’d tell us where to get fake IDs,” says Mark. “You’d hear about these crazy times they’d have in the Cross. We just couldn’t wait to go there.”

These days, venues go in and out of fashion as photos circulate on Facebook and the pack converges on the next new bar. Mondays are always Side Bar and Scubar, sweaty backpacker bars near Central Station. Wednesdays are for the Greengate, Thursdays are The Greenwood Hotel or Alberts in North Sydney. And a night out’s not cheap: Jon spends most of the money He earns from his two-days-a-week job at a veterinary surgery on going out — up to $100 on alcohol alone. “We’re doing what any boy our age would do.”

“If you had a census of the number of boys who have hangovers on Sunday mornings, it’d be astronomical,” says Fulde, who sees the evidence for the alarming statistics every day.

Fifteen- to 18-year-olds have the highest rate of hospital admissions for drunkenness of any age group; by the age of 18, one in three teens is drinking at a high-risk level compared to one in 10 two decades ago. 

For young men, the risk of being admitted to hospital with alcohol-related liver disease has steadily increased in the past decade.

Paul Dillon, former spokesman for the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre and author of Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs, last year visited the hospital bed of a 28-year-old Melbourne man dying of alcohol-related liver cirrhosis.

Eight times in the past year, Dillon has had to change the physiological information he includes in the talks he gives at schools as more is learnt about the impact of alcohol on the vulnerable, developing teenage brain. Once, he says, the common wisdom was that the greatest harm from alcohol came while people were drunk — judgment is impaired, the risk of accidents and sexual assaults is greater. “But now we’re learning more about some pretty significant brain-development stuff. I’ve been standing there [in schools] practically in tears, looking at the sea of beautiful young men who have no idea what they’re doing to themselves every weekend,” he says. “Yes, it’s just a phase for most of them but it’s a phase that is beginning much earlier — they’re patterns of drinking we’ve never seen before.”

The night I meet the boys at Cargo Bar, Stephen ends up flirting with Tara, 18, a check-dress-wearing north shore girl. She is pushing him to go back to her parents’ place and he’s finding it tough to resist. He knows she has slept with a friend’s 14-year-old brother but that doesn’t faze him. The boys describe their attitude to sex as “non-judgmental”. Mark’s sexual exploits raised some eyebrows when, in year 10, he moved from her upper north shore school (“where every guy had slept with, like, five girls”) to another closer to the city (“like, only two boys in the year had had sex”).

And for many young men, the sex seems less about pleasure than what people will think of them. “If you went home with a girl and didn’t sleep with her, she’ll tell all her friends what a dick you are but if you sleep with her, she might be like, ‘Oh, what a slut,’ ” says Mark. “I’d prefer to sleep with her so the girl would be happy rather than have her tell everyone I was a dick. I don’t feel used. It’s just a normal thing.” Adds Jon: “It’s just sex; to us it doesn’t mean anything.”

The day after the night before, Stephen tells me that he summoned up his last shred of common sense and went home without Tara. Nevertheless, photos of the boys pop up on Facebook a few days later – a blurry, dislocated, messy night of drinking, dancing and smoking captured in more detail than the boys can remember.

When I used to go out, the next day we would always debrief on the night’s events over the phone,” says Nina Funnell. “What’s happening now is that young people are doing a public debrief of the previous night’s events. For some, the photos on Facebook are even more important than enjoying the night itself.” Funnell recalls one boy telling her that he preferred to have a fake tan that looked hideously orange in person because it looked good in the photos on Facebook.

A night’s highlight is to be snapped by the ever-present party photographer, a concept imported from New York where hipsters with cameras swim through nightclubs looking for anyone wild or sexy enough to immortalise on a trendy blog. These shots usually end up resembling soft-core porn – girl-on-girl action, legs spread — the racier the better.

“If you like to pose, Sydney is the perfect city for you,” says Alex Singh, 27, who is behind Hobogestapo, a five-year-old collective of photographers who bounce between packed clubs and parties each week. It started as a way to get free drinks and climb the hierarchy of clubland. But in a world in which everyone wants to be famous, the photographers now have a cache of groupies. “As soon as the camera is pointed, they turn into different people,” says Hobogestapo snapper Pat Stevenson, 26. “They’re way more exhibitionist, especially when they’re wasted.”

Sociologists and commentators lament the “pornification” of society and the “sexualisation” of men at younger and younger ages. “I mourn for the men of today,” says author and social commentator Melinda Tankard Reist. “We need well-rounded citizens and boys aren’t getting that opportunity. They think they’ll attract success and attention through sexual allure.”

Sydney feminist and executive Sandra Yates offers an even harsher assessment. “They’ll be poor white trash in another decade,” she says. “Because while they’re out partying, their more studious, stronger-minded counterparts are sailing past them.”

Even if these boys can make it through their wild years without physical-health issues, they still are vulnerable to an array of mental-health problems. Research indicates that high levels of alcohol consumption in adolescence lead to higher rates of depression and anxiety in adulthood. And at a basic level of self-worth, they’re not doing themselves any favours. “It makes for a fragile self-esteem if you derive self-worth from preening and … brief encounters on a dance floor with women who only admire you for your sexuality,” says UTS psychologist Louise Remond, who writes the Dolly Doctor column.

The question is, where are the parents in all this craziness? The answer is as complex as the problem. Stephen says his mother’s philosophy was “the day I turned 18, I could do what I want”. Jon and Mark keep some information from their parents. “My mum knows how much I drink but I would never tell her about sleeping with girls,” says Jon. “And she doesn’t know I’ve done pills before.”

“To look at young men’s drinking, we’ve got to look at our own drinking,” says Paul Dillon, who worries that parents’ sense of invulnerability is similar to their sons’. And perhaps parents — the main source of alcohol for teenagers — need to learn to say “no”.

Jon says his mother occasionally lectures him about binge drinking but he can’t really see there’s a problem. As the sun comes up after another debauched night, he declares it the best night ever. “Sometimes I don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” he says, lighting up a cigarette. “Of course you’re gonna go out and drink and do a few stupid things when you’re young but who doesn’t?”

Names in this story have been changed.

@3 years ago with 6 notes
  1. mnurkic reblogged this from mediatart
  2. extremelyloudincrediblyawesome reblogged this from mediatart and added:
    Amazing take on an article that I just spent ages raving about.
  3. mediatart posted this