Sex & Relationships

Teen Sex Panic: Media Still Freaking Out About "Sexting"

Rather than focusing on how harmful and dangerous sexting is, we should be talking to young people about healthy sexual behaviors.

The sensationalizing, melodramatic, "scare-the-crap-out-of-you", hype machine that passes for mass media these days is once again doing its best to ensure that parents are ready to break out the chastity belts, pass out whistles for "stranger danger" encounters, install nanny software on their home computers to block adult content, and this time, take away their cell phones to ensure that they are safe from the big, bad, sexually predatory world out there. Yes, I'm talking about the attention the "recent phenomenon" labeled "sexting" has gotten in the mainstream media in the last few weeks.  According to the news reports I found via a simple Google search, sexting is a very dangerous activity that could damage your future and ruin your life - although there wasn't really much of an explanation of how this could happen.  Instead of getting caught up in yet another panic, let's take a rational look at this "new" behavior as well as some of the real concerns that a more responsible press might address. 

First, sexting is not new.  Cell phones are no longer new; texting is no longer new; and even sending photos via a cell phone is no longer a new technology.  And before there were cell phones, there was the internet and a similar panic about teens emailing nude photos or posting nude photos online. There was even a Veronica Mars episode about it as well as numerous Law and Order: SVU episodes (I heard that SVU has already had an episode about sexting, but I haven't seen it yet).  Before there was this "new" technology, teenagers engaging in this "new" behavior wrote each other explicit notes, gave one another nude Polaroids, and spent hours talking "dirty" to each other on the phone - and I seem to recall that all of these, including secretly recorded phone calls, were passed around my high school.

Which brings me to the second issue at hand, the real problem is not the sexting itself but the nonconsensual actions that are taking place later.  I think it is pointless to argue whether or not it is appropriate or inappropriate for young people to send explicit photos or texts to their boyfriends and girlfriends because I believe they should be allowed to make those decisions for themselves and that it is our responsibility as teachers, parents, and other adults to help them make wise decisions and not just panic after the act has occurred.  What should be a greater concern are the things that are happening when one party feels jilted and decides to seek revenge on their ex.  Sending photos out to friends and family members or posting them online without the consent of the other person is an assault on that individual in an attempt to cause them great harm and suffering and is where we should be focusing our greatest efforts at stopping a behavior, if that is the action most needed.  Instead, certain groups are pointing their finger at the person whose photo was distributed without her permission and putting the blame on the victim.  And yes, I say "she" because it is once again girls who are being targeted during this panic because it is their virtue and purity that need protecting otherwise they damage their futures - boys, apparently, will just be boys and it's not such a big deal when guys put up photos of their body parts. 

One issue that is very real and should be a huge concern is that young people who are sending each other photos risk the possibility of being charged with distributing child pornography, both the sender and receiver.  If this were to happen, the young person could be labeled as a sex offender for the rest of their lives and be forced to warn neighbors, inform employers, and become ineligible for certain types of jobs when they get older.  The real outrage should be over these outdated laws regarding age of consent, statutory rape, and child pornography through which young people are charged and convicted when engaging in consensual behaviors.  (NOTE:  before the firestorm starts, let me stress that I am not talking about situations where there is a 45 year old man distributing/selling/purchasing sexually explicit photos of children; I am talking about 18 year olds who may be charged under these laws when their 16 year old boyfriend or girlfriend sends them a nude photo during a consensual act.)  These laws NOT the act of sexting are what could do damage to someone's future and destroy their life. 

Rather than focusing on how harmful and dangerous sexting is, we should be talking to young people about healthy sexual behaviors including the difference between consensual and nonconsensual acts.  We should provide them with the truth about possible unintentional consequences and issues related to trust and dating in relationships.  We should not be focsing on punishing young women or men for sending explicit or revealing photos in any medium, but we should ensure that ANYONE who distributes those photos, uses them to seek revenge, or in any other way without the consent of the original sender is warned that they could face criminal charges. 

On another note about cell phone useage and healthy sexuality, there was a great article in the New York Times this week about young people using their phones to get information about sexuality and it mentioned one of our friends and colleagues at ISIS, Inc.  It's a great example of how we can shift our focus on how harmful technology can be for young people and start focusing on how we can use technology to reach them in new ways and help them make healthy and responsible decisions about their sexuality.

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