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Stockton, California, is inland, hot, 20 percent poor, and crime-ridden. The top nine employers are schools, hospitals, the government, and Amazon, which has two giant fulfillment centers in the city. No. 10 is O’Reilly Auto Parts. It’s a good place to leave, if you can. As ever in places like this, the high schools are full of trouble and promise, and one of them—Bear Creek High School—has lately been in the news because of two of its students: Bailey Kirkeby, a junior, and Caitlin Fink, a senior.

They are thoroughly creatures of the modern age, but what impresses me about both of them is how deeply they also exemplify some of the most enduring traits of girlhood. They are hopeful, concerned about fairness, foursquare on the side of the underdog, and drenched in a romantic vision of life, in which sorrows can be easily overcome and infinite happiness is always on the horizon. Like every girl since the beginning of history—and surely, to the last syllable of recorded time—they are subjects of great interest to people who don’t mean them well. Let’s get to know them a bit.

Bailey, who is 17 years old, has long wavy hair, glasses, a heavy course load, and a raft of positions at the school newspaper, where she is the managing editor and news editor, as well as an entertainment columnist and a staff writer. Her bio posted on the paper’s website suggests that she is the kind of girl to put your money on. “With junior year testing my limits every waking moment, I am delighted to partake in my first year of journalism and relieve some of my stress through the pleasures of writing and editing,” she reports. “I joined journalism because I have a questionable obsession with the New York Times and am fascinated by the mechanics of creating a newspaper, which I get to experience by being part of the Bruin Voice staff.” One ticket out of Stockton, please.

Caitlin—this fact hits you with a hammer’s force, and there’s no point burying it—is a beautiful girl. She likes Napoleon Dynamite and The Ellen DeGeneres Show and the music of Blood on the Dance Floor. “I’m a lovey-dovey, old-school romantic,” Caitlin has said of herself, and also a bit of a pushover: “I won’t even say anything if people cut in front of me in line.”

Recently, Caitlin has been in a predicament that sparked Bailey’s attention and also her sympathy. In need of money, Caitlin began working in pornography, which has solved her short-term financial problems, but which has also led to people “saying things” about her at school. It occurred to the staff of the Bruin Voice that a story that treated Caitlin like any other inspirational student—one who had faced and overcome obstacles—a piece that allowed her to tell her side of the story, would be helpful to Caitlin and good for the paper.

Because Bailey had a class with Caitlin, she seemed the obvious choice to write it. She pitched the idea to the school newspaper’s faculty adviser, Katherine Duffel, who approved it, and soon the girl was working on a 1,000-word article about Caitlin. However, things quickly went sideways.

The superintendent of the Lodi School District heard about the article, a mysterious turn of events, as there are almost 30,000 students in the busy and troubled district, and at that point only a handful of them knew about the article. The superintendent demanded to review it before publication, and Duffel refused. “It’s just the word pornography and where people’s minds go,” she told The New York Times. “I think they lose their minds, quite frankly, when they hear that word.”

At this point, an array of powerful adults sprang into action to ensure that the students at Caitlin’s school could know all about her work in porn, and how to find it. The Student Press Law Center referred Duffel and Bailey to an attorney named Matthew Cate, who took on the case pro bono.* Major news outlets, including the Times, covered the story in lavish detail, conveying a tone of moral neutrality toward the matter of a high-school girl making porn, and of quiet but obvious disapproval toward the infringement of the student journalists’ First Amendment rights. Cate read the article, assured the district that despite its concerns (among them, that students under 18 had viewed pornography in the preparation of the piece) it did not violate the state’s education code, and the article was published on May 3.

“Throughout their high school years, students are often told to follow their dreams and pursue what they love,” the piece begins, and it presents Caitlin as someone who is doing just that. The tone is that of a Seventeen feature circa 1964, the kind that told girls what it’s like to be a stewardess or a fashion model—here is something fun, and even glamorous, that any pretty girl, from any small town, can do if she puts her mind to it. “I travel to San Francisco a lot, and I don’t have to pay anything, because someone pays for the expenses,” Caitlin says. “I’ve been trying new things, going out of my comfort zone, and meeting new people.”

The uplifting tone belies much of the reported information about Caitlin. Apparently Caitlin—who later told media outlets that she is “estranged” from her family—moved out on New Year’s Eve and is now paying $300 a month in room and board to live at a friend’s house. It’s not clear whether she began doing porn before or after this event, but it’s clear that the work—in addition to a dishwashing job—helps her pay for the room and other expenses.

She has been “verified” on Pornhub, meaning that it’s possible for her to get paid for the videos she’s uploaded to the site, but at the time of the interview, her videos had not attracted enough views to earn her any money. One recent disappointment was being sent away from her first professional video shoot—arranged by her new “agent”—when the producers saw acne on her body and decided that they no longer wanted her.

So now that you have the facts of the case, here’s a question for you: What happened to us? When did we lose the ability to interpret the signs of a girl in bad trouble?

Feminists have wrestled with their relationship to pornography ever since the early ’70s, when the Rimbaud-loving Jersey girl Andrea Dworkin joined forces with America’s most lighthearted legal scholar, Catharine MacKinnon, and created sex-negative feminism. Their arguments about the nexus between violence against women and hard-core pornography were powerful, but the whole enterprise was a hard sell in the midst of the sexual revolution.

“No woman needs intercourse; few women escape it,” Dworkin said—what happened to Rimbaud?—from deep within her overalls, and she lost the crowd. MacKinnon’s legal argument depended on pornography’s potential violation of the equal-protection clause, a delicate proposition, and one she was advancing at a time when free speech was at the very center of the youth movement. The women were raising important questions, but in 1988 the World Wide Web arrived, blotting out the sun and giving us porn without end, porn as it is now and ever shall be, porn beamed down from the starry heavens into the world’s bedrooms and bathrooms, buses and fast-food joints, church parking lots and prison cells. Porn surrounding you in the room where you sit reading this article—all you have to do is set your phone to pick up the signal.

“Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their head,” Cecilia Brady tells us in The Last Tycoon, and the same is true of internet porn. When Christ arrived, there was plenty of warning (“Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended?”), but porn just crashed down, set its own terms, and left us on our own. It was a gyre that kept widening, and everything fell into it and disappeared, until porn was the truth and private behavior was the lie. The curtain stirring in the breeze fell into the gyre, and the missed class, and the hotel room. The shirttails tucked rapidly into chinos, the skirt quickly zippered fell into it. These things still existed, of course, but they were mediated by porn, as all sex was mediated by it—a performance of it, or a rejection of it, or an attempt to erase certain images from it.

Children learn about the mechanics of sex—or rather, that mechanics is the whole of sex—by watching women who may have been blood-tested and “verified” professionals, or who may have been so impoverished and desperate that they would have done literally anything for cash or drugs. Everyone is welcomed into this vast emporium of sex, and although the party line is that consumers bring their own desires to it and simply find the porn that suits them, the influence runs in the other direction.“If you’re with somebody for the first time,” a sex researcher at Indiana University helpfully tells her students, “don’t choke them, don’t ejaculate on their face, don’t try to have anal sex with them. These are all things that are just unlikely to go over well.”

Certainly we can reserve judgment about private sexual behavior, but we can’t pretend that the things people expect to do in bed, or expect partners to do in bed, have not been hugely—almost entirely, by this point—influenced by online porn. No wonder so much sex between young people takes place behind a thick velvet curtain of alcohol—who wouldn’t want to be under anesthesia for some of these exercises? Culture is progressive and cumulative, and so is porn, restlessly seeking and crossing the next boundary, and thereby making whatever came before it seem tame and ordinary.

The problem is that there are some very old human impulses that must now contend with porn. One of them is the tendency of deeply troubled teenage girls to act out sexually as a kind of distress signal, an attempt to get the attention of adults who may not be getting the message that they’re in a crisis. Working this out within the closed world of a high school was painful, and almost always contributed to suffering, but it was something that could be transcended—eventually everyone moves on and the past settles into place.

But working out these impulses within the pitiless economy of the vast, global pornography industry is an entirely different proposition. Whenever a third party stands to profit from the sexual choices of a woman, a door is opened into another world, far beyond the high school, the disappointed parents, the town where she lives. It’s natural that this would become the venue for these troubled girls; porn is the main determinant of high-school kids’ sexual imaginings. Girls who feel uncomfortable or shamed about their body are deeply drawn to it. “I liked the attention I got,” Caitlin says of her first foray into selling pictures online; she liked “being called beautiful. I enjoyed it because it made me feel good about myself.”

The idea, vigorously maintained by a certain kind of young porn star and by her feminist defenders, is that it is entirely possible to be an adult performer yet in private life be someone who is perhaps modest, perhaps—as Caitlin describes herself—an “old-fashioned romantic.” It’s hard to imagine that it’s possible. I suppose the model for this might be marriage, in which a woman might be extremely modest and careful in her public dealings, but in bed with her husband is a fully sexual being, her desires as carnal and adventurous as anyone else’s. But it seems to me that a troubled teenager, desperate to be called beautiful, will have her sense of self deeply affected by work in that industry, which will quickly seek to put her in ever more extreme forms of on-camera behavior.

What has happened is that within a few years of porn’s arrival, the country quickly learned what it was dealing with—something it had no power to control, something it couldn’t even keep small children from encountering—and so modern life simply adjusted itself around the new, imperial leader. The left decided to champion porn in a variety of ways, beginning with reconceiving the women who work in it as fully liberated, empowered feminists, as though every woman you see in porn is driving carpool and making the weekly Costco run. Sure, there are women in porn who do those things. Do you know what percent of the vast, global porn industry these self-actualized porn workers represent? Not a large one.

The right understands porn as a thing for sale, and so has a grudging respect for it. “It’s Trump,” the porn star Eva Lovia told Fortune at the 2016 AVN Awards when she was asked whom she was supporting for president, “because I like my money. I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I want to keep it.” The right destroyed the one force capable of challenging porn’s ubiquity: social conservatism. It gleefully elected a sleazeball whose personal history is that of a man with contempt for the ideas of personal responsibility and duty to others that were once central to social conservatism.

The right sold out social conservatism for lower taxes and “The Snake.” Our shadow first lady, Stormy Daniels, enacts an endless performance of Fatal Attraction; Donald Trump calls her “Horseface” on Twitter, and her own sleazeball lawyer—who was somehow briefly considered a potential Democratic candidate for president—is currently out on $300,000 bail in a serious extortion case. The president calls a much-loved, exceedingly minor member of the British royal family “nasty,” and his own beautiful daughter “Baby”—and there isn’t anything left of the social conservatism of yesteryear but money, and selling any valuable commodity we have remaining, from our natural resources to our international reputation to our young girls.

The only person questioning any of these notions seems to be Caitlin herself, who labors under the delusion that she’s not living on a darkling plain. “The only hard thing so far is making sure I have enough money,” she told Bailey, in the testing, hopeful way of a teenager trying to wheedle something out of adults. Maybe she had gained—from Napoleon Dynamite and Ellen—the impression that she lives in a society where the center holds, and where promising girls are not left to drift so far beyond the shoreline that no one feels impelled to consider a rescue. “Other than that”—here she is, the daughter that you and I made together, letting us know how she’s doing—“I’ve honestly been doing really good with myself.”


*This article originally stated that the Student Press Law Center referred the school to Matthew Cate. In fact, it referred Duffel and Bailey to Cate.

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