This week, authorities reported that they are investigating more than 100 central Virginia teens for sexting—they have shared nude or semi-nude pictures on Instagram. Sexting among teens is not new, of course—a 2009 Pew Research study established that teens are sexting as a regular part of their online behavior. Image-based social networking platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, which teens are using in greater numbers to escape parental supervision on Facebook, are the logical places to share these pictures. Teens don’t see sexting as a big deal, and often engage in the behavior without an understanding of the possible consequences, which can range from prosecution as a sex offender to providing cyberbullies with endless fodder for sexual shame.
I was glad to see that the authorities in central Virginia are using their investigation as a platform for discussion about the possible dangerous consequences of sexting. This education is absolutely key, and schools are beginning to include it in their forums on online safety. There have been several legal cases around sexting in which kids who were unaware of the possible consequences of their actions have faced some very serious charges. For example, a 13-year-old North Carolina girl faces a felony charge after posting a video of a friend having sex with a 17-year-old boy, who is also facing charges. The girl posted the video at the urging of another boy, who wanted to shame the girl in the video.
The use of sexting to shame girls—but not boys—is what happens when rape culture meets technology. Teens send “sexy” pictures of themselves in equal numbers, but girls don’t pass around nude or half-nude pictures of boys to brand them as sluts. Although many teens share pictures within the context of a trusting relationship, once a picture or a video has been posted, it is fair internet game. All social networking sites are vulnerable to hacking—even Snapchat, which allows temporary sharing of pictures, has been exposed as a potential privacy risk. So a girl who sends a picture of her breasts to her boyfriend might not realize that the picture is not as private as she thinks—and she could find that out when her peers begin to shame her for it online. When you put rape culture together with sexting, girls’ lives can be at risk: 15-year-old Amanda Todd took her own life after a man she flashed in an Internet chat room used her picture to bully her relentlessly online.
In talking to teen girls about sexting, we should let them know that though our culture might have an exacting double standard about sex, they should never feel shame for feeling sexual. Sexual curiosity is natural, and sexting is often meant as a form of flirting. We also need to teach our boys that it is never OK to demean a girl for being sexual—even if doing so would score points with male peers. And all teens need to understand that behavior they might view as private could have serious legal consequences.
Dr. Elizabeth Englander, author of Bullying and Cyberbullying: What Every Educator Needs to Know, emphasizes the need to be genuine when talking to kids about sexting. Don’t tell them that their risky behavior will inevitably lead to devastating consequences, because they know that isn’t true. Sexting has become a common enough behavior that most kids know someone who has done it and had no negative consequences. Parents and educators need to emphasize that sexting is all about risk, much like wearing a seatbelt. Chances are you won’t have an accident if you’re not wearing a seatbelt, but if you do? Things could get very bad very fast. (Also see Common Sense Media for some great pointers for talking to teens about sexting.)
There are many kids whose parents have conversations like this on a regular basis. The kids I’m worried about are the ones who, for whatever reason, don’t have that kind of support at home. They are our most vulnerable members of society, and we are living in a technological world that is moving faster than our ability to understand and regulate its impact on our lives. We are also living in a world that not only tolerates but encourages the sexual objectification and the sexual shaming of women as a core component of masculinity.
Put these factors together, and you have a recipe for disaster that only social change can resolve. That change isn’t about teen behavior—it’s about cultural behavior. It’s about what limits we put on the sexual objectification and shaming of women in our media, and in what ways we require our technologies to cooperate in setting those limits. If we don’t change these things—if we don’t address rape culture in our media—female sexual expression, in any form, will continue to be used to hurt women. And teens will forever be caught in the crossfire of our cultural contradictions about sex.