The Sad Girls of Tumblr

[Content note: mental illness, depression, self-harm, suicide]

I’ve written before about the potential dangers of presenting depression and other mental illnesses as somehow attractive or appealing or more “real.” In a blog post dealing with the same issue, Spencer writes:

We love to romanticize depression. On Tumblr, browse the “#soft grunge” tag and you’ll find artfully edited photos of scars and Instagram-filtered pictures of cigarette cartons with phrases like “You’re going to die anyway” superimposed. “Soft grunge” treats depression and suicide like beautiful black roses–twisted, painful romantic ideals. We do it off of Tumblr too, like when we associate our favorite comedians’ or authors’ mental illnesses with their genius. Half the time, it seems, “tortured soul” is uttered in awestruck, not empathetic tones.

That post also links to another post, called “On Tumblr’s Romanticization of Depression,” by a blogger named Sarah:

Every time you reblog pictures of a computer screen that says “stupid sad girl” or Marlboro cigarettes with sticky notes pasted on them saying “because you broke my heart,” every time you contribute to a culture that makes depression seem like a quirky thing to add to your “about” section instead of a serious disorder with one of the highest death rates of any illness, you are actively making it okay for people to ignore their health problems and just be sad. That’s enablement.

People need to stop posting pictures of pills and tagging them #death, #suicide, #self hate, #soft grunge, and #pale. Trust me on this one, overdosing on pills: not really a good time. It’s nothing like the pictures of parties that are scattered all over your dashboard. A pretty blue-eyed boy will not come up to you when you’ve been lying in an ER bed for four hours because you can’t walk and tell you how beautiful you and your sadness are. Maybe that’s because you won’t be wearing pants at the time (I wasn’t), or maybe that’s because you’ll barely be able to speak because your mind is so distorted by the drugs. He won’t kiss your fucking scars. In fact it’s likely that nobody ever will, because seeing the mutilated flesh of someone you love is terrifying.

In a general sense, I agree. Spencer and Sarah make the point that seeing depression presented as sexy and alluring may discourage people from viewing it as an issue to work on, and while it should always be an individual’s choice whether or not to consider themselves “mentally ill” or to seek treatment for a mental illness, normalizing such pain and suffering probably doesn’t help.

But then I started thinking–how many of the people posting these things are depressed themselves, and how much moral responsibility should we assign to a person in the depths of mental illness to avoid presenting their own condition in a way that may encourage others to follow suit?

Sarah allows for this possibility, including a caveat:

Which isn’t to say that no girl with a soft grunge blog is actually diagnosed with depression (or any other mental illness), because I’m sure many are. And I think I can kind of understand the appeal. Feeling like you’re a part of something can be comforting, and so can seeing that other people feel the same way you do. When you’re in the healing stages of a mental illness, having support isn’t just important, it’s a necessity. But the soft grunge subculture doesn’t support the “Sad Girls” it idolizes, it enables them.

However, I’m not sure that really answers my question.

First of all, I take issue with the term “enablement” as used here. Professionals and others usually use this term to mean doing things that encourage someone else to behave self-destructively. For instance, someone may “enable” a friend’s problem drinking by constantly offering them alcohol or inviting them out to bars; a parent may “enable” a child’s preoccupation with getting high grades by grilling them about their grades and expressing disappointment at anything less than an “A.”

But I’m not sure what exactly Sarah thinks is being “enabled” here. If it’s depression itself, then that doesn’t make sense, because depression is not a risky or maladaptive behavior that can be enabled. It’s a mental illness. It could also be not getting treatment for depression, but I’m not sure that makes sense as a behavior that can be “enabled,” either. Not getting treatment for depression is, sadly, the default. True, if people’s Tumblr feeds were filled with age-appropriate, compassionate advice about seeking help for emotional distress, they might be more likely to do so. But in that case, the entire way the dominant culture approaches mental illness qualifies as “enablement.” In that case, every time a friend told me to “just cheer up!” or “just come hang out with us!” when I was feeling sad, they were “enabling” my behavior of not seeking treatment, because they were suggesting that depression is something that can be fixed by choosing to “just cheer up” or go to a party.

More to the point, I think that this view somewhat discounts the very realistic possibility that the people posting these “soft grunge” images are themselves depressed, and what this means about “enablement.” Who are they enabling? Themselves? Each other? Others who are more or less depressed than they are? Younger Tumblr users?

It’s complicated to me because I view this type of self-expression–the romanticization, the preoccupation with death, the attention-seeking (which I do not mean pejoratively)–as part of the mental illness itself. As a symptom, even. I haven’t seen any studies about this and have no idea which Google Scholar keywords could possibly help, but anecdotally, my experience with people who suffer from mood disorders is that some of them cope with the illness by viewing themselves and the illness in this way. Not all, obviously, but almost no mental illness symptom is shared by everyone who has that diagnosis, so to call something a symptom is not to imply that it’s a universal symptom.

It is sometimes comforting, especially when you’re scared and don’t know what’s happening to you and lack the knowledge to label it “depression,” to think of it as something special and even positive. This is especially the case when you’ve been steeped in a culture that glorifies a certain type of disaffected sadness, and ties it causally to greatness in art, music, and literature. So, even if the girls of the soft grunge subculture are enabling others, that’s only because they were first enabled themselves.

Some of it is a sort of sour grapes thing, too. You try to be happy, you can’t, everything hurts, and you think, fuck it, who wants that boring shit, anyway?

When I was in high school, I didn’t have a Tumblr (I don’t think it existed yet), but I definitely found these types of images appealing in some way. Maybe if something like Tumblr existed I would’ve even shared them. The reason they appealed to me was because they made me feel like the way I felt was a way of being more alive, not a way of missing things that other people got to have–joy, security, optimism, hope, self-esteem. And even if I didn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for depression at the time, I certainly did just a couple years later when I was diagnosed with it.

I don’t think that any of this necessarily makes promoting such memes and images ethically okay. Most of us have no problem condemning pro-ana/-mia blogs and forums, for instance, and this is really the depression/bipolar disorder version of that. (I suppose, though, you could argue that pro-ana/-mia materials are more dangerous than “pro-depression” materials, if you could even call these Tumblrs that.)

But it does mean that it’s not as simple as telling people to stop doing it.

I think the first step would be to start taking adolescent mental health seriously. It’s a serious issue. Most people know this, I think, on some level. But we still don’t take a preventative approach.

It’s expected that parents start taking their children in for dental checkups as soon as they have teeth. It’s expected to start seeing an ob/gyn for checkups as soon as you become sexually active. Why not taking that sort of proactive approach to mental health in adolescence–or even in childhood?

(Of course, all of that is bound up in issues of privilege and access, but even teenagers whose parents can easily afford and access mental healthcare often fail to receive it until things become very bad.)

So, yeah, in short, I don’t disagree with either of the perspectives I linked to. I just think it’s a little more complicated than I ever realized before. It’s easy to say, “Don’t romanticize depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.” It’s harder to say, “Don’t show symptoms of your depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.”

Rejoice! The NYT Finally Published a Pretty Good Article About Sexuality

The New York Times has an article about the effects of pornography on teenagers, and it’s actually such a well-written piece that I got really excited and wanted to share it with you. This happens very rarely with the NYT‘s reporting on sexuality.

The article is mostly about research on teens and porn and includes lots of quotes from actual researchers. Amazingly, there are no quotes from fearmongering religious leaders or politicians to provide “balance.” (I will be very very happy if that particular proud journalistic tradition is finally going the way of independent print media [ugh]).

Since it’s presumably written for the lay public, the article could be a little clearer about the correlation-vs-causation problem, but this paragraph sums up the problems with this type of research pretty well:

After sifting through those papers, the report found a link between exposure to pornography and engagement in risky behavior, such as unprotected sex or sex at a young age. But little could be said about that link. Most important, “causal relationships” between pornography and risky behavior “could not be established,” the report concluded. Given the ease with which teenagers can find Internet pornography, it’s no surprise that those engaging in risky behavior have viewed pornography online. Just about every teenager has. So blaming X-rated images for risky behavior may be like concluding that cars are a leading cause of arson, because so many arsonists drive.

This, I think, is actually not entirely fair. A better analogy would be if a study found that arsonists drive at a significantly higher rate than non-arsonists, which still wouldn’t be enough to show that cars cause arson. An alternate explanation could be that people who commit arson have a greater need than other people to be able to get around quickly on their own, perhaps in order to escape a crime scene, so they are more likely to have cars and to drive.

When it comes to sex and porn, it’s more likely that a particular type of teen (say, one who has a high sex drive or is just really curious about sex) is more likely to both watch porn and to engage in risky sexual behavior, not that watching porn causes the risky sexual behavior.

This study also demonstrates the same issue:

Among the most prolific and revered researchers to examine teenagers and pornography is a duo in the Netherlands, Jochen Peter and Patti M. Valkenburg. The pair has been publishing studies about this issue for nearly a decade, most of it based on surveys of teenagers.

They found, as Mr. Peter put it in a recent telephone interview, that “when teens watch more porn they tend to be more dissatisfied with their sexual lives. This effect is not really a strong effect, though. And teens with more sexual experience didn’t show this effect at all.”

This correlation is not at all surprising. People who are dissatisfied with their sex lives (whether because they’re not having sex or because the sex they’re having isn’t great) are probably more likely to watch porn because it’s a way to vicariously experience what they don’t have the opportunity to experience. Whereas people who are sexually experienced may be more satisfied with their sex lives, and those of them who watch porn may be doing it for other reasons.

However, some of the studies discussed in the article seem flawed enough so as to actually show very little:

If academia can’t shed a great deal of light on this issue, perhaps teenagers can. Miranda Horvath, one of the lead researchers behind the Children’s Commissioner report, says that the most revealing part of the research came during an improvised debate, where a group of teenagers — ages 16 to 18, both girls and boys — were divided into two camps. One was instructed to argue that pornography had an impact on them, the other that pornography did not.

The pro-impact camp did not lack for fodder.

“They said it had an impact on their body image, on what young people think sex should be like, what they could expect from sex,” says Ms. Horvath, a professor of psychology at Middlesex University in London. “They talked about how if you see things in pornography, you might think it’s something you should be doing and go and do it.”

The no-impact camp could not fill up its allotted 15 minutes. There were more giggles than arguments. After a couple of minutes, the person chosen to speak turned to the rest of the team and asked, “What else should I say?”

Of course “the pro-impact camp did not lack for fodder,” as these sorts of messages about the effects of pornography are so pervasive and emotional in the media that it’s no wonder teens would pick them up and parrot them. It could even be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy; you’re told porn will damage your body image, and so it does. But that’s not to discount the possibility that it really does; that’s just to say that this study is a rather poor way of demonstrating that.

It’s also important to note that these teens were told what to argue, and that it’s basically impossible to argue that something hasn’t affected you. All you can really say is “Well uh it hasn’t affected me.” To argue that something has affected you, you just have to list all the ways, hypothetical or otherwise.

This part of the article stuck out to me as a little odd:

“I have a son,” says Professor Reid of U.C.L.A., “and I don’t want him getting his information about human sexuality from Internet porn because the vast majority of such material contains fraudulent messages about sex — that all women have insatiable sexual appetites, for example.”

I think it’s fair and reasonable not to want your children to learn about sex through porn, but Reid’s specific concern seems strange. If anything, mainstream porn probably suggests that women are less interested in sex than they really are, or that their “insatiable sexual appetites” are limited to specific sexual acts that straight men happen to enjoy. I would actually much rather a teenage boy believe that women generally like sex than believe the common cultural script, which is that women don’t really like sex and need to be cajoled and coerced into it, or they do it to entrap men into relationships.

The article also notes the difficulty of operationalizing variables when it comes to research on pornography. What exactly is porn? What is harm? And here’s where we run into some issues.

American research on teenage sexuality tends to define a number of things as “bad”: starting to have sex at a young age, having sex a lot, having sex with many different partners, having sex casually, having unprotected sex. These are the sorts of factors researchers tend to look at when they examine things like the efficacy of sex education and the effects of porn on teenagers. While the latter item is something we should rightfully be concerned about because it directly leads to negative health consequences, the other ones are more a reflection of how our culture views teenage sexuality (and sexuality in general) than anything else.

In general, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum tend to believe that it’s best to start having sex later rather than sooner, to be less sexually active rather than more so, to have fewer partners rather than more, and to have sex in more “serious” relationships rather than more “casual” ones. So when someone conducts a study that purports to show that teens who watch porn have more sexual partners or have more sex in general, that’s only supposed to be “troubling” because our culture has constructed it that way.

What is hardly ever talked about when we talk about “negative sexual consequences” of this or that? Being in an abusive relationship. Violating someone else’s consent. Not being aware of what consent even is. Not feeling comfortable talking about sex with one’s partners. Having judgmental and shaming attitudes about others’ sexual choices. Feeling judged or shamed for your own sexual preferences or gender identity. Believing that some types of people exist for your sexual gratification and objectification. Believing that there are things that others can do to “deserve” abuse.

If watching porn increases the likelihood that teens experience or believe these things, I want to know, because that’s a lot more concerning to me than someone losing their virginity (itself a mostly-bullshit concept) at 16 rather than 17.

“Porn,” too, is a vast category of films and videos that encompasses everything from homemade tapes by couples looking to make some cash or get off on being watched, to huge professional productions that employ well-known actors and make a profit. I’d have to, er, go deep into the methods sections of these papers to see what they mean by “porn” (if they bother to define it), but a lot of this research begins from the premise that things like multiple simultaneous orgasms, 8-inch dicks, and inhuman flexibility are necessarily features of porn. Of some porn, sure. Maybe not of the porn most teens watch. Who knows, unless we actually research it?

My favorite part of the article is the end:

“One of our recommendations is that children should be taught about relationships and sex at a young age,” Professor Horvath continued. “If we start teaching kids about equality and respect when they are 5 or 6 years old, by the time they encounter porn in their teens, they will be able to pick out and see the lack of respect and emotion that porn gives us. They’ll be better equipped to deal with what they are being presented with.”

At a minimum, researchers believe a parent-teenager conversation about sexuality and pornography is a good idea, as unnerving to both sides as that may sound. The alternative is worse, according to Professor Reid. Putting a computer in a kid’s room without any limits on what can be viewed, he said, is a bit like tossing a teenager the keys to a car and saying: “Go learn how to drive. Have fun.”

Something that’s always struck me about discussions of porn and teens is the hypocrisy of adults complaining that teens are learning about sex through porn…while not suggesting any better ways for them to learn about sex. The common solution seems to be “ignore the problem and hope it goes away” or “pretend that if teens don’t know much about sex they will not have sex until they get married at which point they will magically immediately have a pleasurable, fulfilling, mutually consensual sex life.”

Of course teens seek out porn to learn about sex. Their sex ed programs either yell at them that they’ll get pregnant and die if they have sex, or they awkwardly have them learn to use condoms and name all the parts of the reproductive system, all without any mention of the central reason humans have sex to begin with: pleasure. They are discouraged from learning how to masturbate if they don’t already know how, so even that avenue to sexual pleasure is closed off to many teens, or else filled with shame and fear. Porn, for all its faults, is a wonderful way to see for yourself what sex might be like.

If porn is a bad way to teach teens about sex, then they need a better way. And that way must include discussion of the positives of sex as well as the negatives.