There has been something on my mind a lot lately. Sure, I have been loosely following the progress on missing flight MH370, the growing tensions between Russia & the West, even the somewhat recent Ebola outbreak. But what’s really been on my mind, as I am sure it has been on a lot of yours’, is…yup, you guessed it, sexting.
Sexting (in case you are wondering) according to Merriam Webster is, “the sending of sexually explicit messages or images by cell phone”, although some definitions extend this to computers as well. So simply put, it's dirty talk or naked or close to naked (suggestive) images sent via technology.
Sexting is all the rage. Apparently according to a not very likely credible website, here are some “shocking statistics about sexting”:
The percent of teenagers who have sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves:
- 20% of teenagers overall
- 22% of teen girls
- 18% of teen boys
- 11% of young teen girls ages 13-16
The percent of teenagers sending or posting sexually suggestive messages:
- 39% of all teenagers
- 37% of teen girls
- 40% of teen boys
Kids aren’t the only ones doing it. Another study states that one in five American adults sext or share racy text messages with others on their smartphones, though these numbers are likely much higher.
I know what you’re thinking, “why haven’t I done this already?- sounds like fun”. But sexting is no laughing matter, at least not to TV programs like W5. A lot of news reporting has understandably focused mostly on the detrimental effects of sexting among (heterosexual?) teenagers. The stories all look pretty similar: so and so, age ___ (under 18) sent a naked picture of herself to her boyfriend and he sent it to his friends and they posted it all over the internet. Now she regrets it and schools and lawmakers are trying to crack down on sexting.
Statistics also show that it is girls that are more likely than boys to send naked photos, and boys requesting sexts (aka nakedish photos), are more likely to receive them and share them among friends. But what is being done about this “epidemic”? One strategy used as a deterrent is the potential pressing of charges for possession of child pornography for anyone who is found with these kinds of pictures on their phones.
While I am certainly not an expert on sexting (though personal experience has to account for something, right?) nor have I read all there is out there written on the subject, one common theme I notice among these more conservative mainstream sources is the message to young women not to sext: “Don’t take the pictures”, “Once it is done there is no taking it back”. Sure, it’s important to have conversations about how she will feel if these photos get leaked (and strategies around not including your face in photos), but there seems to be a general lack of conversation with boys around respecting women and the photos they have entrusted you with (as well as how this does not equate to “being a man”).
I don’t know why I would be shocked that in our society, a society that teaches women that their only real power is through their looks and their bodies, but continues to police how we use them, that the onus of responsibility would fall on women. Similarly to sexual assault in our communities- where we continue to focus on teaching women to “not get raped”, rather than teaching men “not to rape”- this mentality extends to sexting. Women not only have our bodies policed, but we are responsible for managing men’s sex drives as well.
Obviously sexting among teens can be problematic .I’m not pretending it isn’t. Recently I attended a talk on sexting given by Erin Watson from the University of Guelph. Not surprisingly, she noted a correlation between sexting and sexual risk behaviour; substance use before sexual activity, condomless vaginal, anal and oral sex, higher reports of a past STI, to name a few. What is important to note, is this is a correlation, not causation. One does not necessarily lead to the other, but rather sexting might be a “symptom of high risk behaviour, not a gateway” (Watson, 2014).
As an educator, this is an important piece. Here is a whole new world of HIV and sex education possible. We know that an alarmingly growing rate of youth use cellphones - so why are we not using cellphones more as a medium to have conversations with youth around sex and risk behaviour?
Some agencies are catching onto this, including my own- ARCH HIV/AIDS Resources & Community Health. This was a large part of the rationale behind our H3: Halt Homophobia & HIV app which I am shamelessly plugging (www.archguelph.ca/app). This gives new meaning to “meeting people where they are at”. If meeting teenagers where they are at means finding them among a technological wasteland of awkward teenager sexual exploration - then that is where we should meet them, so to speak.
What I particularly liked about Watson’s talk was her highlighting of some of the positive aspects of sexting for teens. While it is easy to argue that sexting can be a really positive experience for two consenting adults, it is harder for people to see how it can be positive for youth as well, especially when all we hear about in the media is how negative it is.
As Watson points out, sexting is associated with sexual pleasure, can be a “safer”* subsititute for sexual activity, which can reduce risk of STIs. Using sexting along with masturbation can increase sexual self-awareness and sexual pleasure. Sexting can also be a way to promote “sexual identity development and exploration”, as well as “provide space for marginalized sexualities to be expressed and explored” (Watson, 2014).
Additionally, something I have been arguing for quite some time, and something I was glad to see Watson support, is that sexting helps promote sexual communication and can increase sexual knowledge. I find this particularly useful for women, who by and large, often have difficulty finding space and comfort to express their sexual desires.
Sexting can be a safer space for people to talk about likes, dislikes, boundaries, rules, expectations and consent, and as Watson argues, a more empowering space for people to talk about these issues. If we’re trying to deal with this growing epidemic of sexual assault and start directing conversations to involve consent, maybe sexting is one of the ways to do this. If we’re trying to decrease risk of HIV and other STI transmission, maybe sexting is an easier way to talk about safer sex and for condom negotiation to happen before the bedroom in the heat of the moment.
Again, I’m not for a second denying that there aren’t inherent risks and problems with sexting, but what I am arguing is maybe we can be using it for good. Maybe instead of shaming it and trying to teach girls not to do it, we can learn how and why youth do it so we can respond in a way that reduces risk of HIV and other STI transmission and promotes sex positivity, healthy sexual behaviours and relationships. Because, after all, (something we haven’t mentioned) sexting is fun!