You often hear from Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers how exhibitionistic young people have been since roughly 2003 or so -- putting up all those pictures of themselves on MySpace and later Facebook, uploading any video involving themselves to YouTube, not to mention all of the "over-sharing" they do in their Facebook status updates, etc. These are the facts, but is this the correct reading of the facts?
Hardly. This is just a technological change that has allowed people to broadcast themselves more widely to the rest of the world. Can you imagine if there had been YouTube or Facebook in 1968 or 1992? Friends on Facebook would have had to endure endless status updates about hearing the voice of a new generation, rising up against the patriarchy, bla bla bla. And while third wave feminism smothered any chance of there being a strong sexual vibe to Generation X's turnout, it doesn't take much imagination to picture what the counter-culture of the late '60s and early '70s would've uploaded to YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, and so on.
Young people recently have not been reserved in the way that 30-somethings during the 1950s would have been -- there is all that crap on Facebook, etc. -- but theirs is a mock-exhibitionism. How can we tell they're not willing to walk the walk? Consider the history of streaking: it peaked in popularity during the mid-'70s. Now it's only a few people a year who do it and only at the most high-profile events, whereas before you would've seen hundreds of college students running around campus naked even though there were no cameras trained on them at all. Of course, in the '70s there were also streakers at high-profile events like there are now.
In plain terms, today you have to pay people a dramatically higher price in attention to get them to streak, meaning their underlying preference to do so is more prudish than it was for young people of the 1970s. In more technical terms, and looking at it another way, the distribution of youthful exhibitionism has shifted in the prudish direction. That is, less of the mass is concentrated at the high end where you find streakers and flashers, and more of it is in the half-hearted part of the spectrum.
After the streaking fad burned out, did rampant exhibitionism fade away? No, it just took the form of girls flashing their boobs at rock concerts. Again, there are typically no cameras that will broadcast the girl to the rest of the world, so it is not a case of attention-whoring. It's just a wild thing that you do for the sheer thrill of it: omigod, that concert last night was like SOOO awesome -- i like TOTALLY flashed bon jovi!!!! It didn't matter if it was a small venue with under 100 people or a sold-out arena with tens of thousands. That's just what girls did.
But once wild times gave way to tame times in the early '90s, that died off too, effectively ending young people's indulgence in exhibitionism. I remember going to my first concert in the spring of 1995 -- it was the Foo Fighters (before their first album was out) playing at the Black Cat in DC. Here was the new band of an incredibly famous grunge musician, and none of the girls there flashed at all. I would've noticed since I was a horny 14 year-old and was pumped just to be around girls in a nightclub. Whether it was a smaller show like that one or the day-long HFStival that filled an entire stadium, I don't recall seeing girls flash at all. In fact, from all the videos I watched of Nirvana concerts held during the early '90s, I don't remember any flashing.
I haven't been to a big concert in awhile since hardly anyone has grabbed my attention as being a great live band. But flashing must be even lower now because the male musicians of today are either self-doubting crybabies or screaming rejects -- not the type that gets a girl hot and bothered enough to flash the lead singer. That's a pretty easy way to operationalize how masculine the musical zeitgeist is -- what percent of female fans flash at their concerts? Aerosmith or Prince -- high enough. John Mayer or Korn -- zero. Damn, I'll bet even Joan Jett had more flashing fans than those dorks in Weezer.
As with streaking, there's still a minimal amount of flashing going on, but it's only a handful of girls who travel to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. It's nothing on the scale of many girls doing it in every small town that a touring rock band played at. And again young people today need to get paid a lot -- namely in those highly sought-after beads -- in order to flash. The 17 year-old who snuck out after her curfew to see Guns N' Roses didn't expect to receive anything in exchange other than a little attention. Again it was mostly just for the thrill of doing it, like shoplifting or going for a joyride.
Indeed, I'm so confident that this is an effect of when you grew up rather than what age you are right now that I'll bet 40 year-old metal chicks still flash at the reunion tours of their favorite bands, while their young counterparts who are into nu metal, deathtronicacore, etc., would die of embarrassment to even ponder the idea out loud.
If you go through examples like streaking and flashing, most people will remember just how exhibitionistic young people were during wild times. So the only reason they perceive today's remarkably well-behaved young people as out-of-control is that they've blocked out the counter-evidence from the past. If they took an honest look, they wouldn't get to enjoy the age-old sport of whining during middle age about these slutty youngsters these days. Hey, the Gen X-ers' parents got to whine about this -- correctly -- when the Gen X-ers were growing up, so why shouldn't they get to, now that they are middle-aged?
[Update] In the comments Peter adds another case study that confirms my hunch about 40-something flashers, which is that toplessness in France is on the decline among the young. The article says that the golden days were the '70s and '80s, so it looks like the timing of the end of wild times was the same as it was here -- the early '90s. That's not surprising since the rise of wild times was basically the same as here, namely the late '50s and exploding in 1968. From the article:
But the trend is also part of a wider social movement by younger French women who are shunning the less-inhibited habits of previous generations. If burning bras and going topless were the ways French women of the 1970s and '80s demonstrated their freedom, their daughters and grand-daughters seem less comfortable with exposed flesh. "The values of our time are more conservative, traditional and familial," says Kaufmann.
With sensitivities like those, it's little wonder the poll found French women had strong opinions about public nakedness. Nearly 50% said they were bothered by total nudity on beaches or naturist camps, and 37% said they were disturbed by publicly exposed breasts or buttocks. Forty-five percent of respondents reported they'd prefer to see a lot less flesh hanging out in full view -- male or female.
Those attitudes got even more pronounced with respondents aged 18-24. A quarter of women within that group described themselves as very pudique [modest or priggish], and 20% saw any nudity as tantamount to indecency. That, sociologists say, explains the changing scenery on French beaches. Younger women disinclined to baring themselves make up the majority of female sunbathers; those still willing to go topless are usually older French women.