With everyone talking about it so much lately, thought I'd reprise the topic with some questions Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon.com asked me about sexting a few months ago, and the whole of my answers. To see her finished piece, you can meander over here.
Q: Where does "sexting" -- or for that matter, taking nude self- portraits or videos that they may or may not share with a significant other, friends or a crush -- fall within teenage sexual development?
I'd lump television in with the 'net and other new media when I say that with the media presence being what it has become, the need or desire to seen -- already a typical part of young adult development as well as human existence -- has become huge. And that's not just about sex, but because sexual development and exploration is also a big part of being a teen, as well as a part of life, period, and something that's still treated as provocative, particularly when in any way public, sex enters into this.
You're asking about teens using these kinds of media in terms of sex, but we could just as easily be talking about anything else. Teens tend to be creative and expressive, and teens often feel invisible in many ways, so doing things to be more visible has always been typical. When it comes to sex, this is hardly the first time we've seen young people publicize their sexuality: before we had this media, we had video cameras, before that film cameras, before that the written word, and all throughout, public or semi-public sex, ways of proclaiming to peers that one is sexually active, available to become so OR that a person is simply a sexual person, even if they've not intent of engaging in sexual activities with others. I'd say this is pretty normal behavior when it actually happens: teens just using the current media at hand to do the kinds of things young people exploring their sexuality and sexual identities have always done.
People forget that at the turn of the century, in the 20's, in the 50's and 60's, in the 80's and 90's... there has always been something like this, some way young people were expressing or publicizing sexuality that adults were freaking out about, quick to proclaim as abnormal, and quick to state as something new that had never gone on before. Not hardly! I've no doubt we could find dirty telegrams from way back when if we looked for them. People express things through available media. Sex is one thing people may express.
Mind, it may be becoming a little (and I do mean a little) more pervasive, simply because a) the media we have is so much more accessible and easy to distribute than what we have had before b) it's a lot easier to get that 15 minutes of fame for the average Joe or Jane than it has been in the past, and c) the advent of porn available en masse, so easily, as it is now and has been for most of their lives is going to make all of this feel very nonprovocative for some and very common. Then again, it may not: this'd hardly be the first time adults made a big fuss about something they say young people are doing en masse without actually consulting with young people to find out what the real deal is. I think more adults are talking about 9and doing) sexting than young people are.
Q: Can it be a healthy form of teenage sexual self-expression?
I'd say so, but I think when we're looking at whether or not something is healthy, we need to look at and ask about individual motives.
Is someone doing it to freely express themselves or share reciprocal (and I'd say that's important) levels of intimacy with a partner? Is it coming from a place, for them, that feels positive? Does it feel authentic, liberating, freeing? Is it a choice being made informedly when it comes to the risks? Are there some smart boundaries, including firm agreements about privacy? If so, I'd say we're probably looking at healthy behavior.
Or, is someone doing it out of a need to prove something to someone else, to try and earn love or attention? Does it feel like an act or like it's required? Is it being done to try and gain social status or due to peer pressure? Out of a self-injury impulse, to try and do themselves harm or get into trouble? Is it happening in the context of anything exploitive or abusive? If so, I'd say we should consider this may not be healthy.
Q: Is it reasonable or fair to allow that some teenagers will have sex but not that they will engage in this type of sexual experimentation?
Oh, absolutely. Just like it's fair or reasonable to say that a young person who "dresses like" (whatever arbitrary thing that means at the time) she is sexually active or talks about sex (in general, not "I had sex last week,") should not be assumed to be having any kind of partnered sex.
Q: Nowadays, how does the Internet and other technology play a role in teenagers' sexual development?
It's tough to say if it's any more or less than other types of media have in the past, but I think we can say that in a media-saturated culture, this has an impact. For one thing, teens hear and see more and more messages about sex from more and more sources, which is not necessarily negative: that can be positive, negative or neutral, depending on what the messages are, how much meaning they have to a teen, and what kind of protective factors a given teen has to filter those messages through, like intelligence, community or family support and involvement, self-esteem, education.
Another thing to bear in mind is how many teens are having relationships now which are only or partially online, and so sometimes this IS the way they are having sex in those relationships: via photos, webcams, phone or cybersex. Again, while I know that these relationships have their own pitfalls, and adults have fears about them, I think we have to be careful about being too hasty to approach them with fear. After all, those kinds of sex don't present any risks of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, and may also involve greater communication than in-person sex does and teens report positive experiences with online relationships just lie with in-person ones.
I think we, as adults, often forget that teens today grew up with these tools: they're not new to them. This is the life they know, and a culture that's familiar.
Q: What are the main dangers of "sexting" and how should parents address concerns about that type of behavior?
We would be remiss not to talk about the law, because it's a big issue.
According to the legal definitions of child pornography, a photograph of a nude minor distributed WILL fall under that umbrella, leaving the teen who made it and distributed it and the others who look at it and distribute it open to very serious criminal charges. These recent cases are not the first time teens have been held responsible in this way.
Obviously, that's a huge danger all by itself: child pornography is nothing close to a misdemeanor. Personally, when I have had teens ask me about this or talk about doing this, my own advice is that given the world that we live in -- both due to the legal ramifications, as well as the fact that we know this stuff can come back to haunt a person, especially women, far later in life than one'd expect, I advise against it, and suggest finding other ways, safer ways, less permanent ways, to express sexuality, especially before one is a legal adult.
Another is the fact that many teens aren't so great about respecting privacy or understanding that intimacy is...well, intimate.
In other words, Judy takes these photos and passes them to her boyfriend Joey. Joey thinks they are so hot and gets such an esteem-rush from Judy doing this for him that he sends them over to his friend, who thinks Judy is actually a big freak or a slut (or whatever a person's sexual pejorative term of choice is) and so sends it to a handful of people. Then the train has left the station and those photos can wind up in everyone's hands very fast.
Too, the velocity of young adult relationship is such that be it with this or any other kind of sex or intimacy, some teens wind up exposing a whole lot very soon, well before they've established if the person they are doing it for or with is trustworthy. Teen relationships also tend to start fast and end fast, so photos given to a partner can quickly belong to an ex, and many of teens don't exactly handle breakups well: some may use old nude photos to retaliate.
So, there is certainly a lot of room for serious betrayal or embarrassment, and something that felt good and liberating when done could really quickly turn into something that leaves the person who did it feeling very bad about themselves or their sexuality.
My advice to parents is pretty much the same no matter what kind of sexual behavior with teens we're talking about: ask questions, try and do so without issuing judgment, and just freaking listen. A parent can ask a teen, for instance, why this is something they're doing, and how they feel it benefits them. They can address the serious legal implications as well as the possible social issues to be sure a teen knows what the real deal is, and even make suggestions as to less risky ways to express sexuality or share intimacy with a partner. A parent can express their concerns and set limits and boundaries without going to a place that's about shaming sexuality or sexual expression, but rather, about helping a teen to make choices that don't derail their lives or put them at serious risk.
Parents might also do well to remember what ways they and/or their friends may have publicly or privately expressed their sexuality.
Q: Is there any difference in the way this behavior potentially impacts girls as opposed to boys?
I'd say so, simply because we still live in a sexist world, and a lot of the archaic double-standards about sex and women still have yet to go away. A girl who does this stuff is still likely to be presented by many as a slut, a boy, a stud, and I'd say you're less likely to see guys doing this in the first place. So far, far more girls are sexting than guys. When we do hear from teens about this who are engaging in this (which is rare), it seems it's much more often women than men, and much more often something women do for men than women do for female partners. I also more often hear young women expressing that this is asked for by male partners than I hear things the other way around.
Suffice it to say, there are more inherent dangers in a young woman appearing to be sexually available or sexual than there are for young men, both interpersonally and socially. The idea that a young woman is putting herself out there sexually -- especially for mass consumption, even if that wasn't her intent -- hasn't stopped carrying any of the same weight or heavy judgment than it has had in the past. If only.
We still are not in the historical or cultural place where a woman can fully express her sexuality for herself, by herself, whatever that may look like, and have that be supported, as supported as it is for men.
Want more from the cutting room floor? Check out The Cutting Room Floor: Masculinity, Gender and Orientation.