Sexting Distress: Answering Difficult Questions
By Ruthie Kolb, Training Manager
February 9, 2017
Millennials aren’t getting a lot of love these days. Between being blamed for the downfall of everything from relationships to golf, they also get criticized for being lazy, entitled, and apathetic. This isn’t anything new; every generation is sure that “kids these days” are ruining society with their irresponsible and immature behavior.
What is new, however, is the age of the smartphone. Almost every young person today has constant access to the Internet, to their friends - and to their romantic flames. Combine older generations’ determination to criticize youth, their anxiety of technology, and the terror of young people having sex, and voila: sexting creates a perfect storm of moral panic.
Colorado Youth Matter has tackled sexting before, but with two bills about sexting coming up in Colorado’s legislature this session, now is a good time to readdress this tricky topic: how do we talk about sexting with the young people in our lives? For many of us, that question sparks immediate anxiety about online predators and the permanence of the internet. Let’s dive further into that anxiety: what makes sexting so scary?
For one thing, adults don’t understand it
….or, rather, we think we don’t understand it. Sexting seems bewilderingly different from when we were young, and it can be easy for us to criticize it as deviant behavior. But let’s back up and put sexting into context. Humans have been taking and sharing nude portrayals of themselves with partners for as long as we’ve had the ability to produce images. Painters paint their muse. Photographers take nudes. People send explicit letters to their partners while they’re travelling. In my day, we took polaroids. In other words, the media is new but the behavior isn’t. Sexting is just human sexual development finding a new outlet; it’s the natural progression of sexual desire in the modern world.
But, one might argue, the root of our anxiety surrounding sexting isn’t necessarily that young people are taking nude photos: it’s that with modern technology, that photo can be shared with thousands of people in the blink of an eye. While that is a valid concern, too often our anger, shame, and disgust with sexting is directed toward the wrong person, for the wrong reasons.
Victim-blaming and sexting
When a nude photo is shared online, the automatic reaction is often to criticize the person in the photo: “What were they thinking, taking a nude photo of themselves? How could they be so stupid?” All of the attention is directed toward the victim; rarely do we harshly criticize those who share photos online without consent. We live in a society that is more intent on shaming a teen who took a photo than on punishing the person who violated their trust. Think about the way our culture talks about high-profile sexting cases, like the leak of Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos. That incident was widely reported as a “scandal,” directing shame and disapproval toward Lawrence for taking the photos in the first place instead of toward the person who leaked them.
When someone shares nude photos without consent, it isn’t a scandal: it’s a sex crime. Unfortunately, the ways in which we discuss sexting with youth uncomfortably mirror the way our society blames victims of sexual assault. When a young person’s photo is shared online without their consent, the common reaction is, “Well, honestly, what did you expect was going to happen when you took that photo?”
We need to ask ourselves why we have accepted sexual violation as a norm of romantic relationships. We’ve become so numb to it that we are actually punishing young people for expecting trust, love, communication, and respect in their relationships. That, after all, is the insidious message we send youth when we chastise them for having their privacy violated by someone they trusted: “How stupid of you to expect respect from your romantic partner.” We need to have better conversations about online respect and consent so that we shift the social norms away from blaming the victims of online violations.
Our attitude of victim-blaming permeates the law as well. Currently in most states, underage sexting falls under “the creation and distribution of child pornography.” Some laws have lowered the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor, but in all of these cases, the law does not take into consideration consensual sexting. So, if a teen has taken a photo in a consensual relationship and their partner shares their photo, the victim can also be tried with a child pornography charge. This doesn’t support teens at all, and again, sends youth the message that if their trust is violated, they are worthy of shame and punishment.
So, what can better conversations look like?
It’s important for us to reframe sexting with the ideas above in mind: sharing nude photos or communicating sexually with romantic partners was happening before the rise of smartphones, and victims of non-consensual photo sharing should not be blamed for being violated. Keeping these ideas in mind as we talk to young people will help to remove some of the stigma and shame we’ve attached to sexting. If a young person comes to you and tells you that someone leaked a nude photo of them online, do not shame them. Place the blame where it belongs: onto the person who violated their trust and privacy by leaking the photo.
At the same time, we want young people to understand that there is risk involved with sexting, and we want them to be critical thinkers as they consider this issue. Amy Hasinoff, author of Sexting Panic, gives these sample discussion questions on her website as a starting point to facilitate thoughtful conversation:
· How do you know if an image you receive is intended to be private or if it’s ok to pass on to your friends?
· If you want an image to be private, what’s the best way to make sure your recipient knows?
· What kind of images are likely to cause problems if someone distributes them? Does the person’s gender make a difference? Is that fair?
· How do you think someone would feel if you shared a private image they sent you? What could happen to them if their friends, teachers, and family members saw it?
· Do you think sexual images of people your age should be illegal? (Compare answers to state laws.)