In fall 2012, a rattled ninth-grade girl came into the assistant principal's office at Albany High — a small public school in an East Bay suburb near Berkeley — with the type of complaint that ninth-grade girls have voiced since time immemorial: An 11th grader was hitting on her. At first, she was flattered. She flirted back. The idea of dating an upperclassman seemed titillating, a kind of status symbol.
Then, through a series of conversations that must have occurred offline, the 11th grader made clear that their relationship was a ruse. That, in fact, he and a group of friends were conspiring in something that upperclassmen boys have done since time immemorial: holding a competition to see who could have sex with the most freshman girls. They bragged about their exploits on Facebook and Twitter. They called it the Underclassman Bitch League.
Assistant Principal Susan Charlip (who, full disclosure, was my English teacher at Albany High) had to investigate. "So I would read these kids' Twitter pages until I understood what the terms meant," she says now, a year later. "They were basically inappropriate comments about — how do I say this? — sexual habits, interests, and, uh — proclivities." Members of the Bitch League quoted rap lyrics, bragged about sexual positions, and philosophized about "bitches." They posted pictures of themselves drinking Bombay Sapphire gin.
"I mean, if that's what you're into, then more power to you," Charlip says. "But do you really want people to read that?"
It didn't take a ton of sleuthing to identify the six main Bitch League conspirators. Most of them went by their real names on social media, and even the ones who had avatars often posted real pictures of themselves. Some of them were top students — the kind who got courted by colleges and spoke at public events, and generally saw themselves as beyond reproach.
"So I talked to the girls, and I talked to the boys, and they all started talking to each other," Charlip recalls. "And one of the boys changed his Twitter name to 'Ms. Charlip' as a form of protest. I spent a lot of time in this underworld of their stupidity."
In the end, though, she wasn't able to punish the boys for besmirching the girls' reputations, or the girls for becoming accomplices in their own exploitation. Technically, the whole incident had occurred outside of school grounds. And the extent to which it bled into classroom life, either as mere distraction or as reason for kids to be jeered, was difficult to determine.
After calling the kids into her office repeatedly and notifying their parents, Charlip felt she'd exhausted all disciplinary measures. She handed out copies of the school's sexual harassment policy and advised everyone to set their accounts to private — mostly for their own good. College admissions officers look at this stuff, after all.
The Underclassman Bitch League scandal happened at a particularly inopportune time for Albany High School. Students and teachers were still reeling from an even more bruising incident. In October 2012, the dimpled, well-liked, 28-year-old middle school teacher James Izumizaki hanged himself with a necktie after two students alleged that he had been sexually abusing them for months. His death created a huge rift in the small, affluent suburb, with some residents vehemently defending Izumizaki on social media, and others begging for sympathy toward the victims. News trucks were parked outside the school for days.
Administrators couldn't handle another media blitz. They chose to quietly break up the Bitch League without issuing any press releases or publicly chastening any students.
"I suppose I could have done more," Charlip says. "But it would have been a stretch under the law the way it was written." Most of the girls seemed rather sanguine — or at least smugly complacent — about their role in the sex league, and Charlip had trouble convincing some of them that a guy who posts these things about you isn't your boyfriend. Within a few weeks, the whole thing blew over.
Around the same time that year, a similar scandal erupted at a nearby school in another tony East Bay suburb. Piedmont High's "Fantasy Slut League" arose when several male varsity athletes began keeping score of their exploits with female students, many of whom were unwitting draftees. The game was exposed during a school date-rape assembly in October, which inspired a scorching letter to parents from Principal Rich Kitchens. Though Piedmont administrators never punished the participants and no criminal charges were filed, the story ultimately became national news. (The Albany High league was apparently an attempt to emulate Piedmont.)
Commentators in the media often expressed more shock at Piedmont High's administrative inaction than the more humdrum revelation that upperclass boys prey on underclass girls. But what really made the sex league stories salacious — and disquieting — was their public nature. The boys at Piedmont had broadcast their stats online, much the way players tout wins in a fantasy sports league. Similarly, the Albany fiasco had occurred, in large part, over Facebook and Twitter. Whatever sex acts had happened seemed inconsequential compared to the online spread of degradation and public shaming and braggadocio.
"There's this question of bullying," Charlip says, "and how much they felt bullied or were bullying other people. And then there's the question of whether they were just doing the electronic version of what happened in the wood-paneled basement." Meaning teens were just as lascivious in previous generations, but they weren't broadcasting their lives.
"I mean, we did all those things," Charlip says, pausing to chew on the thought. "But nobody put it on a billboard on Route 9."
Those particular images of social media — as both a billboard and a wood-paneled basement — crop up over and over again when parents, school administrators, and legal experts try to describe its repercussions. Adults who grew up with rickety dial-up connections and AOL instant messenger often lament how noxious social media has become, and how much it's poisoned their kids' lives. Sure, they were just as bad, the logic goes. But they limited their mudslinging to bathroom graffiti or notes passed in class. Twitter, with its endless fire hose of teen blather, is far more potent.