The way we talk about sexting is failing our teenage girls

Keep it IRL.
Keep it IRL.
Image: Upsplash/Alejandra Quiroz
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There’s something wrong with the way we talk to teenagers about sexting.

A lot of parents and schools warn teens to avoid sending nude photos, lest they fall into the wrong hands or be used against them if a relationship goes south. In practice, this often translates to asking girls not to send pictures to boys, since research shows that boys are four times more likely to pressure girls to send sexts than vice versa. We’re far less likely to talk about why it’s wrong to request nude photos in the first place, according to Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author who works with teens. This is clearly a flawed approach if we want to protect kidsnot to mention sexist.

“That our focus has been so preponderantly on the sending, not requesting, of sexts underscores the exact problem we need to address,” Damour writes in the New York Times. “We accept and perpetuate the boys-play-offense and girls-play-defense framework because it is so atmospheric as to be almost invisible.”  

A key victory of the #MeToo movement has been to shine a bright and unforgiving light on the rampant sexual abuse and harassment that women face. But to effectively change a culture where men set the rules and women are expected to comply, we have to start in adolescence—when love and sex are new and exciting, but also unfamiliar and uncomfortable. We need to teach teenage girls to place more value on their own desires and expectations, while teaching teenage boys to see love and sex not as just as milestones of a masculinity, but as a way of connecting with another human being. 

Damour’s book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood explains that the teen brain re-models itself in adolescence. Teens have red-hot emotions and a control center that’s still under construction, inviting “act now, think later” behaviors. In this context, “consent” too often depends upon boys’ power of persuasion, and not girls’ feelings about what they are ready for. 

To change that culture, we should spend less time telling girls what to do or not do, and more time helping girls internalize the knowledge that their role is not to serve as a sexual object for others’ satisfaction. Damour cites an interesting study, published in the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy, that analyzed comments posted between 2010 and 2016 on A Thin Line, MTV’s campaign against sexting, cyber bullying and digital dating abuse. Comments from 462 girls between the ages of 12 to 18 showed that over two-thirds of girls had been asked for explicit images. When they received those requests, they often did not know how to respond. Young women sent nude pictures in the hope of gaining a relationship, but also as the result of coercion, including angry threats.

“Young women attempted to navigate young men’s coercive behaviors yet frequently resorted to compliance,” writes the study’s author Sara Thomas, from the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University. (The study focused on women’s experiences with digital drama or experiences they felt were inappropriate, so there is an element of selection biassome girls may want to send photos, or request photos themselves.) Importantly, the question for the girls in the study wasn’t whether or not to send sexts, it was how to navigate pressure from boys. The simplest way to resolve the issue? Telling boys to cut it out.

Damour says rules have obvious limitations with teens—they love to defy them. But she also argues that rules can influence social norms. If kids get the message that requesting a nude photo is as problematic as sending one, teens might feel they have recourse when they want to say no.

“In talking about sexting with both daughters and sons, parents might say, “We don’t want you to share nude photos of yourself — even with someone you really care about and trust — because doing so puts you in a terrible position. The relationship might change, or that person could simply lose track of their phone. It’s just not worth the risk.” To that we should add, “And it’s not O.K. to request naked pictures because then you are putting someone else in a terrible position. Don’t do that either.”

For parents, talking about sex is hard. But there’s abundant evidence that we are falling short on the basics, including consent in a digitally drenched world. More than 60% of kids in a nationally representative survey of more than 3,000 students by Harvard’s Making Caring Common project had never spoken with their parents about “being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex,” and a similar share had never talked about the “importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you.” 

This is scary for a number of reasons—including the implications for sexual harassment and assault. According to the Harvard report, two-thirds of teenagers agreed with or didn’t oppose the idea that government and media overhype sexual harassment. Richard Weissbourg, faculty director of the Making Caring Common project, said he was “flabbergasted” by how many respondents felt there was too much attention to sexual harassment in the media.

Yet these issues are quite likely to affect teenagers personally. One in five women reported being sexually assaulted during college, according to a 2016 national report (pdf) from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center found. Half of women will experience some kind of sexual harassment in their lifetime, the Economist says

By spending more time talking to boys about why it is not okay to ask a young girl for a nude photo, we are also helping girls navigate the deeply complex world of sexuality in their youth and eventual adulthood. Thomas, from Northwestern, framed it well when she wrote that “Public discourse has positioned women as largely responsible for men’s sexuality, leaving women in charge of simultaneously pleasing and tempering men’s sexual desires.” It’s not fair to put girls in that position. So it’s time to tell everyone that requesting nude photos is not okay—and make sure the boys are getting the message.