I had a recent breakthrough about sexting. I have a fourteen-year old daughter, so sexting is something I discuss frequently with other parents, often in hushed tones. Our conversations have several refrains: that sexting is a dangerous, illegal behavior; that girls fall victim and should know better; and that it can have an egregious impact on young women's lives.
When our daughter got her first smartphone, my husband and I sat her down and explained that sending nudes was a dangerous practice that could destroy her life. She might trust her boyfriend not to share the photos, but one day, when they broke up, he might do just that. Victims of "revenge porn" can be ridiculed by friends and classmates and, later, judged by college admission officers and future employers.
Our very good, very innocent daughter blithely complied and reassured us that she couldn't fathom sending naked pictures of herself to any boy ever. And because we're cool, progressive parents, we assured her that she could show her naked body to any boy she wanted, in person.
And then I became the Marketing Director for Keepsafe Software, a company whose flagship product is a photo vault app with 60 million installs. Photo vaults lock down people's personal pictures on their phones. After interviewing and surveying people who used Keepsafe during my first months on the job, it became clear that one reason people use photo vaults is to protect and hide nude images. There was more to sexting than I realized...
I learned that 50 percent of adults and 10–15 percent of teenagers sext. As with most technological trends, the law hasn't caught up yet. Teenagers caught sexting can be prosecuted for dissemination and possession of child pornography, and in some circumstances, they can also be charged with exploitation of minors ― i.e., themselves.
But why are so many young people sexting? It doesn't take much research to observe how much of our children's social lives have moved online. These days I wonder if my daughter and her friends prefer interacting on social media to actually spending time together. They can retreat to an idealized world, safe from life's disappointments and their own dashed expectations. And your hair always looks perfect on Instagram and Snapchat!
Social media is the most powerful force in advertising and self-promotion today. Celebrities use these platforms to connect with followers and promote their brands. The more the Kardashians "break the Internet," the more we gape, and the more our kids adopt their poses. Is it not normal to take a selfie with pouty lips over one's shoulder?
This is the context in which teenagers are discovering their sexual identities. Sexual exploration and courtship have not changed — it's the mode that's changed. Flirting now happens digitally. Arousal often occurs digitally. Negotiated personal boundaries and establishment of trust between lovers takes place digitally. But the laws of attraction remain the same.
Asking our sons and daughters not to sext is like preaching abstinence — and we know how that goes! When we ask our kids to abstain from sexting, we appear just as naive as our parents did. Abstinence doesn't help kids who are curious about sex make practical decisions to shape a healthy sexual identity. Moreover, it's hardly a progressive perspective for young women. It reeks of a double standard and the Victorian ideal for "purity" in women.
In my research, I identified two different camps on sexting. In 2014, Robert Sciliano from McAfee published a study with interesting data about how people intertwine technology with relationships. Sciliano takes a distinctly paternalistic and moralistic stance on sexting:
Come on now people, stop being so reckless. No matter what your age group or gender, a lot of you are engaging in behaviors that will sting you in the end. The time to wake up and get smart is BEFORE something adverse happens that will expose you in ways you never wanted.
The other camp is represented by Refinery29's Reclaim Your Domain campaign. The popular millennial lifestyle site routinely publishes articles about nude photos, celebrity photo hacks, and revenge porn. Each story begins with this manifesto:
Some people say the only way to stop online harassment is to stop going online. Well, we aren't going anywhere. Reclaim Your Domain is Refinery29's campaign to make the internet (and the world outside of it) a safer space for everyone — especially women.
Refinery29's perspective is that nude photos are common and there's nothing wrong with them. The articles call out the double standard for women and the ways in which revenge porn has been normalized. Guess which take on sexting is likely to appeal to my feminist daughter?
Turns out that sexting (and double standards) are human nature. I doubt many parents sit their sons down to warn them about the terrible consequences of getting caught with dick pics, because they don't think getting caught will hurt their sons' chances of getting into college or landing a good job. I can think of exactly one example where a man may have been adversely impacted by his dick pics.
Shaming girls plays right to the double standard. Women will never be considered men's equals unless we can resist the impulse to penalize women for overstepping sexual boundaries while turning a blind eye to men who do the same. There should be no consequences for sending an intimate photo to someone we love or are simply flirting with. Revenge porn is different. Sharing nude photos of someone else without consent is a crime.
We have to teach boys and men that privacy is not in the eye of the beholder. Personal privacy is a boundary each individual sets for herself. Without privacy, we aren't free to behave according to our wishes, and this restricts personal development. In the physical world, our personal privacy is well understood. Online we've made it more complicated, but it doesn't need to be so.
Let's impress upon boys and men the real meaning of consent. With nude photos as with any sexual act, consent is about getting permission before taking action, every step of the way. Online and offline.