the cuddle puddle of stuyvesant
researchers find it shocking that 11 percent
of american girls between 15 and 19 claim to have same-sex
encounters. clearly they've never observed the social
rituals of the pansexual, bi-queer, metroflexible new york
lair is wearing a tight white
tank top cut off above the hem to show her midriff. her
black cargo pants graze the top of her combat boots, and
her black leather belt is studded with metal chains that
drape down at intervals across her hips. she has long
blonde curls that at various times have been dyed green,
blue, red, purple, and orange. ("a mistake,"
she says. "even if you mean to dye your hair orange,
it's still a mistake.") despite the fact that
she's fully clothed, she seems somehow exposed,
her baby fat lingering in all the right places. walking
down the sterile, white halls of stuyvesant high school,
she creates a wave of attention. she's not the most
popular girl in school, but she is well known. "people
like me," she wrote in an instant message. "well,
most of them."
alair is headed for the section of the second-floor hallway
where her friends gather every day during their free tenth
period for the "cuddle puddle," as she calls
it. there are girls petting girls and girls petting guys
and guys petting guys. she dives into the undulating heap
of backpacks and blue jeans and emerges between her two
best friends, jane and elle, whose names have been changed
at their request. they are all 16, juniors at stuyvesant.
alair slips into jane's lap, and elle reclines next
to them, watching, cat-eyed. all three have hooked up
with each other. all three have hooked up with boys--sometimes
the same boys. but it's not that they're gay
or bisexual, not exactly. not always.
their friend nathan, a senior with john lennon hair and
glasses, is there with his guitar, strumming softly under
the conversation. "so many of the girls here are
lesbian or have experimented or are confused," he
ilia, another senior boy, frowns at nathan's use
of labels. "it's not lesbian or bisexual.
it's just, whatever . . . "
since the school day is winding down, things in the hallway
are starting to get rowdy. jane disappears for a while
and comes back carrying a pint-size girl over her shoulder.
"now i take her off and we have gay sex!"
she says gleefully, as she parades back and forth in front
of the cuddle puddle. "and it's awesome!"
the hijacked girl hangs limply, a smile creeping to her
lips. ilia has stuffed papers up the front of his shirt
and prances around on tiptoe, batting his eyes and sticking
out his chest. elle is watching, enthralled, as two boys
lock lips across the hall. "oh, my," she murmurs.
"homoerotica. there's nothing more exciting
than watching two men make out." and everyone is
talking to another girl in the puddle who just "came
out," meaning she announced that she's now
open to sexual overtures from both boys and girls, which
makes her a minor celebrity, for a little while.
when asked how many of her female friends have had same-sex
experiences, alair answers, "all of them."
then she stops to think about it. "all right, maybe
80 percent. at least 80 percent of them have experimented.
and they still are. it's either to please a man,
or to try it out, or just to be fun, or 'cause you're
bored, or just 'cause you like it . . . whatever."
with teenagers there is always a fair amount of posturing
when it comes to sex, a tendency to exaggerate or trivialize,
innocence mixed with swagger. it's also true that
the "puddle" is just one clique at stuyvesant,
and that stuyvesant can hardly be considered a typical
high school. it attracts the brightest public-school students
in new york, and that may be an environment conducive
to fewer sexual inhibitions. "in our school,"
elle says, "people are getting a better education,
so they're more open-minded."
that said, the stuyvesant cuddle puddle is emblematic
of the changing landscape of high-school sexuality across
the country. this past september, when the national center
for health statistics released its first survey in which
teens were questioned about their sexual behavior, 11
percent of american girls polled in the 15-to-19 demographic
claimed to have had same-sex encounters--the
percentage of all women ages 15 to 44 who reported same-sex
experiences, even though the teenagers have much shorter
sexual histories. it doesn't take a stuyvesant education
to see what this means: more girls are experimenting with
each other, and they're starting younger. and this
is a conservative estimate, according to ritch savin-williams,
a professor of human development at cornell who has been
conducting research on same-sex-attracted adolescents
for over twenty years. depending on how you phrase the
questions and how you define sex between women, he believes
that "it's possible to get up to 20 percent
of teenage girls."
of course, what can't be expressed in statistical
terms is how teenagers think about their same-sex interactions.
go to the schools, talk to the kids, and you'll
see that somewhere along the line this generation has
started to conceive of sexuality differently. ten years
ago in the halls of stuyvesant you might have found a
few goth girls kissing goth girls, kids on the fringes
defiantly bucking the system. now you find a group of
vaguely progressive but generally mainstream kids for
whom same-sex intimacy is standard operating procedure.
"it's not like,
oh, i'm going to
hit on her now
. it's just kind of like, you
come up to a friend, you grab their ass," alair
explains. "it's just, like, our way of saying
hello." these teenagers don't feel as though
their sexuality has to define them, or that they have
to define it, which has led some psychologists and child-development
specialists to label them the "post-gay" generation.
but kids like alair and her friends are in the process
of working up their own language to describe their behavior.
along with gay, straight, and bisexual, they'll
drop in new words, some of which they've coined
themselves: polysexual, ambisexual, pansexual, pansensual,
polyfide, bi-curious, bi-queer, fluid, metroflexible,
heteroflexible, heterosexual with lesbian tendencies--or,
as alair puts it, "just sexual." the terms
are designed less to achieve specificity than to leave
all options open.
to some it may sound like a sexual utopia, where labels
have been banned and traditional gender roles surpassed,
but it's a complicated place to be. anyone who has
ever been a girl in high school knows the vicissitudes
of female friendships. add to that a sexual component
and, well, things get interesting. take alair and her
friend jane, for example. "we've been dancing
around each other for, like, three years now," says
alair. "i'd hop into bed with her in a second."
jane is tall and curvy with green eyes and faint dimples.
she thinks alair is "amazing," but she's
already had a female friendship ruined when it turned
into a romantic relationship, so she's reluctant
to let it happen again. still, they pet each other in
the hall, flirt, kiss, but that's it, so far. "alair,"
jane explains, "is literally in love with everyone
and in love with no one."
elationships are a bitch,
alair is having lunch with jane, elle, and their friend
nathan at a little indian place near jane's upper
west side apartment. jane has been telling the story of
her first lesbian relationship: she fell for a girl who
got arrested while protesting the republican national
convention (very cool), but the girl stopped calling after
they spent the night together (very uncool).
"we should all be single for the rest of our lives,"
alair continues. "and we should all have sugar daddies."
as the only child of divorced parents, alair learned early
that love doesn't always end in happily ever after
and that sex doesn't always end in love.
nathan looks across the table at her and nods knowingly.
he recently broke up with a girl he still can't
get off his mind, even though he wasn't entirely
faithful when they were together. "i agree. i wholeheartedly
agree," he says.
," says elle, alarmed.
she's the romantic of the group, a bit nai? 1/2 ve, if
you ask the others.
"well," says nathan. "you're,
like, the only one in a happy relationship right now,
so . . . "
alair cracks up. "happy? her man is gayer than
i am!" (jane, the sarcastic one, has a joke about
this boy: "he's got one finger left in the
closet, and it's in elle, depending on what time
"but at least she's happy," argues
"when i'm single, i say i'm happy i'm
single, and when i'm in a relationship i seem happy
in the relationship. really, i'm filled with angst!"
nathan rolls his eyes. "anyone who says they're
filled with angst is definitely
he's got a point. in her brand-new sneakers and
her sparkly barrettes, elle is hardly a poster child for
teenage anxiety. she makes a's at stuyvesant, babysits
her cousins, and is engaging in a way that will go over
well in college interviews.
then again, none of them are bad kids. sure, they drink
and smoke and party, but in a couple of years, they'll
be drinking and smoking and partying at princeton or mit.
they had to be pretty serious students to even get into
stuyvesant, which accepts only about 3 percent of its
applicants. and when they're not studying, they're
going to music lessons, sat prep, debate practice, japanese
class, theater rehearsal, or some other ri? 1/2 sumi? 1/2 -building
their sexual behavior is by no means the norm at their
school; stuyvesant has some 3,000 students, and alair's
group numbers a couple dozen. but they're also not
the only kids at school who experiment with members of
the same sex. "other people do it, too," said
a junior who's part of a more popular crowd. "they
get drunk and want to be a sex object. but that's
different. those people aren't bisexual."
alair and her friends, on the other hand, are known as
the "bi clique." in the social strata, they're
closer to the cool kids than to the nerds. the boys have
shaggy hair and t-shirts emblazoned with the names of
sixties rockers. the girls are pretty and clever and extroverted.
some kids think they're too promiscuous. one student-union
leader told me, "it's weird. it's just
sort of incestuous." but others admire them. alair
in particular is seen as a kind of punk-rock queen bee.
"she's good-looking, and she does what she
wants," said a senior boy. "that's an
"the interesting kids kind of gravitate towards
each other," elle had explained earlier. "a
lot of them are heteroflexible or bisexual or gay. and
what happens is, like, we're all just really comfortable
around each other."
still, among her friends, elle's ideas are the
most traditional. her first kiss with a girl was at hebrew
school. since then, she's made out with girls frequently
but dated only guys.
"i've always been the marrying type,"
she says to the table. "not just 'cause it's
been forced on me, but 'cause it's a good
idea. i really want to have kids when i grow up."
"have mine," offers alair.
"i will," elle coos in her best sultry voice.
"anything for you, alair."
jane blinks quickly, something she has a habit of doing
when she's gathering her thoughts. "they will
probably have the technology by the time we grow up that
you two could have a baby together."
"but, like, if alair doesn't want to birth
her own child, i could."
"i'll birth it," alair says, sighing.
"i just want you to raise it and pay for it and
take care of it and never tell it that i'm its parent.
'cause, i mean, that would scar a child for life.
like, the child would start convulsing." everyone
"you'd be an awesome mom, i think,"
says elle. her own mom puts a lot of pressure on her to
date a nice jewish boy. once, elle asked her, "
'mom, what if i have these feelings for girls?'
and she said, 'do you have feelings for boys too?'
i'm like, 'yeah.' and she's like,
'then you have to ignore the ones you have for girls.
if you can be straight, you have to be straight.'
" elle asked to go by a nickname because she hasn't
told her mother that she's not ignoring those feelings.
even as cultural acceptance of gay and bisexual teenagers
grows, these kids are coming up against an uncomfortable
generational divide. in many of their families, the 'it's
fine, as long as it's not my kid' attitude
prevails. some of the parents take comfort in the belief
that this is just a phase their daughters will grow out
of. others take more drastic measures. earlier this year
at horace mann, when one girl's parents found out
that she was having a relationship with another girl,
they searched her room, confiscated her love letters,
and even had the phone company send them transcripts of
all her text messages. then they informed her girlfriend's
parents. in the end, the girls were forbidden to see each
other outside school.
even jane, whose parents know about her bisexuality and
are particularly well suited to understanding it (her
mother teaches a college course in human sexuality), has
run up against the limits of their liberal attitudes.
they requested that she go by her middle name in this
story. "my mom thinks i'm going to grow up
and be ashamed of my sexuality," she says. "but
to these kids, homophobia is as socially shunned as racism
was to the generation before them. they say it's
practically the one thing that's not tolerated at
their school. one boy who made disparaging remarks about
gay people has been ridiculed and taunted, his belongings
hidden around the school. "we're a creative
bunch when we hate someone," says nathan. once the
tormenters, now the tormented.
alair is one of the lucky ones whose parents don't
mind her bisexual tendencies. her dad is the president
of a company that manages performance artists and her
mom is a professional organizer. "my parents are
awesome," she says. "i think they've
tried to raise me slightly quirky, like in a very hippie
little way, and it totally backfired on them."
" 'cause you ended up like a hippie?"
"no, 'cause i went further than i think they
wanted me to go." despite the bravado, there's
a sweetness to alair. she sings in the trinity children's
choir. she does the dishes without being asked. she's
a daddy's girl and her mother's confidante,
though she hasn't always managed to skirt trouble
away from home. she got kicked out of her middle school,
columbia prep, after getting into an altercation with
a girl who had been making her life miserable. ("i
threw a bagel at her head, all right? i attacked her with
"my mom's like, 'alair, i don't
understand you. i want to be a parent to you but i have
no control at all . . . as a person you're awesome.
you're hilarious, you entertain me, you're
so cool. i would totally be your friend. but as your mother,
i'm worried.' "
"i can't say i was pleased," her mother
tells me about first learning of alair's bisexual
experimentation. "but i can't say i was upset
either. i like that she's forthright about what
she wants, that she values her freedom, that she takes
care of herself. but i have all the trepidations a parent
has when they learn their child is becoming sexually active."
of course, none of these kids will have to deal with
their parents quite this directly in another year or so--a
fact of which they are all acutely aware. college is already
becoming a pressing issue. everyone thinks elle is going
to get into harvard. "if i fail physics, my average
drops like a stone," she frets. alair and nathan
want to go to the same college, wherever that may be.
"you do realize," alair tells him, "that,
like, we're two of the most awesome people in the
"we would room," nathan says. "we would
"fuck yeah. but i'm gonna need a lock on
my door for like, 'i'm bringing these five
girls home, nathan. what are you doing tonight?'
" she mimics his voice, "'i'm
reading my book.' "
"ouch!" nathan scowls at her.
"it's the kama sutra!"
"oh, right, right."
"i've actually read the kama sutra,"
alair informs the table. "some of that shit just
isn't gonna work."
"i know!" says jane. "we have three
editions at my house."
"like, i've tried it. you need a man that's
like 'argh!' " alair pumps her arms
up above her head. "i've got one of those
guys, actually." she's talking about jason,
the boy she was hanging out with last night, another frequenter
of the cuddle puddle. "he's so built."
"he's in love with you," jane says
"no, he's not!"
"yes he is!"
"how could he
be in love with alair?"
jane nods in alair's direction. "he bought
"he bought you gum." this cinches it for
nathan. "yeah, he loves you. he wants you so in
alair looks at him blankly. "but he already has
that. we're friends." there's no need
to bring love into it.
but later, back at jane's apartment, as the afternoon
is turning to night, alair has the look of, if not love,
at least infatuation, as she waits in the hallway for
the elevator to take her back down. only it's not
jason she's saying good-night to--it's
jane. "you make my knees weak," she says.
and then to cut the tension: "i showered for you
and everything." she leans in and gives jane a kiss.
t practically takes a diagram
to plot all the various hookups and connections within
the cuddle puddle. elle's kissed jane and jane's
kissed alair and alair's kissed elle. and then from
time to time elle hooks up with nathan, but really only
at parties, and only when bethany isn't around,
because nathan really likes bethany, who doesn't
have a thing for girls but doesn't have a problem
with girls who do, either. alair's hooking up with
jason (who "kind of" went out with jane once),
even though she sort of also has a thing for hector, who
jane likes, too--though jane thinks it's totally
boring when people date people of the same gender. ilia
has a serious girlfriend, but girls were hooking up at
his last party, which was awesome. molly has kissed alair,
and jane's ex-girlfriend first decided she was bi
while staying at molly's beach house on fire island.
sarah sometimes kisses elle, although she has a boyfriend--he
doesn't care if she hooks up with other girls, since
she's straight anyway. and so on.
some of the boys hook up with each other, too, although
in far fewer numbers than the girls. one of alair's
male friends explained that this is because for guys,
anything beyond same-sex kissing requires "more
of a physical commitment." if a guy does hook up
with other guys it certainly doesn't make the girls
less likely to hook up with him; and the converse is obviously
of course, the definition of "hooking up"
is as nebulous as the definition of "heteroflexible."
a catchall phrase for anything from "like, exchanging
of saliva" to intercourse, it's often a euphemism
for oral sex. but rules are hazy when you're talking
about physical encounters between two girls. as alair
puts it, "how do you define female sex? it's
difficult. i don't know what the bases are. everyone
keeps trying to explain the bases to me, but there's
so many things that just don't fit into the base
system. i usually leave it up to the other girl."
elle elaborates by using herself as an example. at a
recent party, she says, she "kissed five people
and, like, hooked up with two going beyond kissing. one
of them was a boy and one of them was a girl. the reason
i started hooking up with the guy is because he was making
out with this other guy and he came back and was like,
'i have to prove that i'm straight.'
and i was standing right there. that's how it all
began." the guy in question became her boyfriend
that night; even though the relationship is all of a week
old, she calls it her second "serious" relationship.
"at least i'm intending for it to be serious."
(it lasted eleven days.)
the cuddle puddle may be where a flirtation begins, but
parties, not surprisingly, are where most of the real
action takes place. in parentless apartments, the kids
are free to "make the rounds," as they call
it, and move their more-than-kissing hookups with both
genders behind locked bathroom doors or onto coat-laden
beds. even for bisexual girls there is, admittedly, a
girls gone wild
aspect to these evenings. some
girls do hook up with other girls solely to please the
guys who watch, and it can be difficult to distinguish
between the behavior of someone who is legitimately sexually
interested and someone who wants to impress the boy across
the room. alair is quick to disparage this behavior--"it
kinda grosses me out. it can't be like, this could
be fun . . . is anyone watching my chest heave?"--but
jane sees it as empowering. "i take advantage of
it because manipulating boys is fun as hell. boys make
out with boys for our benefit as well. so it's not
just one way. it's very fair."
she's not just making excuses. these girls have
obliterated the "damned if you do, damned if you
don't" stranglehold that has traditionally
plagued high-school females. they set the sexual agenda
for their group. and they expect reciprocation. "i've
made it my own personal policy that if i'm going
to give oral sex, i'm going to receive oral sex,"
says jane. "jane wears the pants in any relationship,"
ilia says with a grin. "she wears the pants in
relationship, even though she's not part of it."
when the girls talk about other girls they sound like
football players in a locker room ("the boobie goddesses
of our grade are natalie and annette," or "have
you seen the asian girl who wears that tiny red dress
and those high red sneakers?," or "carol is
so hot! why is she straight? i don't get it"),
but there's little gossip about same-sex hookups--partly
because the novelty has by now worn off, and partly because,
as alair puts it, "it's not assumed that a
relationship will stem from it." it seems that even
with all the same-sex activity going on, it's still
hard for the girls to find other girls to actually date.
jane says this is because the girls who like girls generally
like boys more, at least for dating. "a lot of girls
are scared about trying to make a lesbian relationship
work," she says. "there's this fear
that there has to be the presence of a man or it won't
but dating gay girls isn't really an option either,
because the cuddle-puddle kids are not considered part
of the gay community. "one of the great things about
bisexuality is that mainstream gay culture doesn't
affect us as much," says jane, "so it's
not like bi boys feel that they have to talk with a lisp
and walk around all fairylike, and it's not like
girls feel like they have to dress like boys." the
downside, she says, is that "gays feel that bis
will cheat on them in a straight manner." in fact,
there's a general impression of promiscuity that
bisexual girls can't seem to shake. "the image
of people who are bi is that they are sluts," says
jane. "one of the reasons straight boys have this
bi-girls fantasy is that they are under the impression
that bisexual girls will sleep with anything that moves
and that's why they like both genders, because they
are so sex-obsessed. which isn't true."
if you ask the girls why they think there's more
teenage bisexual experimentation happening today, alair
is quick with an explanation. "i blame television,"
she says. "i blame the media." she's
partly joking, giving the stock answer. but there's
obviously some truth to it. she's too young to remember
a time when she couldn't turn on showtime or even
mtv and regularly see girls kissing girls. it's
not simply that they're imitating what they've
seen, it's that the stigma has been erased, maybe
even transformed into cachet. "it's in the
realm of possibilities now," as ritch savin-williams
puts it. "when you don't think of it as being
a possibility, you don't do it. but now that it's
out there, it's like, 'oh, yeah, that could
be fun.' " of course, sexy tv shows would
have no impact at all if they weren't tapping into
something more innate. perhaps, as research suggests,
sexuality is more fluid for women than it is for men.
perhaps natural female intimacy opens the door to sexual
experimentation at an age when male partners can be particularly
unsatisfying. as one mother of a cuddle-puddle kid puts
it, "emotionally it's safer--it's
difficult in this age group to hold onto your body. you're
changing. there's a safety factor in a girl being
with a girl." then, laughing, she asked that her
name be withheld. "
mother might read this."
it's true that girls have always experimented,
but it's typically been furtive, kept quiet. the
difference now is how these girls are flaunting it. it's
become a form of exhibitionism, a way to get noticed at
an age when getting noticed is what it's all about.
and as rebellions go, it's pretty safe. hooking
up with girls won't get them pregnant. it won't
hurt their gpa. it won't keep them out of honor
societies, social groups, the ivy league.
in the end, the stuyvesant cuddle puddle might just be
a trickle-down version of the collegiate "gay until
graduation." on the other hand, these girls are
experimenting at an earlier age, when their identities
and their ideas about what they want in a partner are
still being formed. will it affect the way they choose
to live their adult lives? elle is determined to marry
a man, but alair and jane are not so sure. maybe they
won't get married at all, they say, keep their options
open. "i have no idea," says alair. "i'm
few weeks later, the guys
are hanging out in nathan's room. jason is stretched
out on the bed and ilia is leaning back in a chair by
the desk, and it's pretty clear that nothing much
is happening this afternoon. just some guitar playing,
some laying about. then the girls show up and things get
more interesting. alair and jane have brought a couple
of friends, molly and nikki. molly doesn't know
for sure if she's bisexual, but "i have my
suspicions," she says; she's hooked up with
alair before. nikki is with her friend jared, who she's
sort of but not really dating. he makes out with boys
but considers nikki his "soul mate"; she's
totally straight but kisses girls. "i kiss anything
pretty, anything beautiful, anything worthwhile,"
nikki runs her hands through jane's hair. "you
look awesome! i love this shirt. i love your hair."
jane crosses the room to sit in alair's lap, and
alair wraps her arms around her. that reminds nikki of
"wait! let me show you guys the next painting i'm
doing," she says, pulling from her backpack a photograph
of alair asleep on the beach in a striped bikini. it's
a sexy picture, and nikki knows it.
chinese food is ordered, guitars strummed, an ice cube
is passed around and for no apparent reason everyone is
required to put it down their pants. it's just another
afternoon of casual flirtation. the boys showing off for
the girls, the girls showing off for everyone. no strings
attached. in theory, anyway. most of the kids say they
hate relationships, that they don't want to be tied
down, that they want to be open to different possibilities
and different genders from minute to minute, but there
is a natural tendency--as natural perhaps as the
tendency to experiment--to try to find connection.
like it or not, emotions get involved. if you look closer,
you can see the hint of longing, the momentary pouting,
the tiny jealousies. jared can't take his eyes off
nikki, but nikki seems interested mainly in alair. jason,
too, is angling for alair's attention, but alair
is once again focused on jane. and jane, well, jane might
actually be in love.
she is in a particularly good mood today, quick to smile,
and even more quick to drop into conversation the name
of the boy she recently started dating, a tall, good-looking
senior and one of the most popular kids at stuyvesant.
later, while rummaging for silverware, she casually mentions
that they may start dating exclusively.
"ugh!" alair exclaims, grabbing her by the
hips and pulling her away from the drawer. "what
"let's put it this way," jane counters,
grinning and snatching up a fork. "i'm not
interested in any other
still, it's clear that jane really likes this guy.
and alair seems a little rattled. her fortune cookie reads,
"you are the master of every situation." except
perhaps this one.
later, after the lamps have been switched on and the
takeout eaten, both girls are on a love seat in the living
room, leaning into each other, boys and dirty dishes strewn
about. jane starts showing off what she can do with her
tongue, touching her nose with it, twisting it around,
doing rolls. everyone is impressed.
"my tongue gets a lot of practice," she says.
"why don't you practice on me?" alair
demands. "i'll hook up with you." it's
clear that she means more than kissing.
jane blinks a few times. "i'm scared i'm
going to be bad at it," she finally says. she's
being coy, just putting her off, but there's a bit
of sincerity to her nervousness.
"you won't be bad at it," alair reassures
her. she pulls jane between her legs and starts giving
her a massage, running her hands up and down her back,
pushing her hair aside to rub her neck. when the massage
is over, jason comes over to alair, grabs her hand, kisses
it. for the rest of the evening, he stays close to her
side, but she stays close to jane.
the next day when i meet up with alair on her way to
choir practice, she tells me that nothing ever happened
with jane that night. she's decided to give up on
her. jane's with someone else, it's official,
and there's no room in the relationship for her.
"but you know what," she says, mustering a
smile. "they're, like, monogamous together,
and i'm really happy for them. and being their friend
and seeing them so happy together totally beats a fling."
she pauses. "it really does."