Slutty Selfies or Prudish Pics: Perspectives on Sexting Reveal We’re Not Getting Anywhere

By: Kerry Holden,Sexual Violence Prevention Specialist at Umbrella in St. Johnsbury, Vermont

The recent academic article reviewed by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic (On Teen Sexting: Same Sexism, Different Technology) highlights the continued conundrum of our adolescent girls: to be a slut, or to be a prude? Clearly, this dichotomous model, plaguing women and girls for centuries, offers our girls two limited options as to how they orient themselves into their developing sexual worlds. However, a bigger and deeply frightening issue looms broadly above, steering this paradigm: the label which girls find themselves placed into is little more than a description of their male peers’ access to their body.

Prude=Good luck on that date, buddy.

Slut= Party time.

Sadly, the decision to engage in consensual sexual activity, should you be female, places you in the ole’ slut category. While the decision to remain distant from sexual behaviors renders one a prude. While Lippman and Campbell’s research provides important insights regarding the prevalence (if not progress) of the slut/prude paradigm, the issue remains the same: somehow our teenagers are ingesting the belief that female’s bodies and identities exist solely in (or out of) service to their male counterparts.

It feels unnecessary to research the ways in which this paradigm still exists; Every time a new technology floats into mainstream society it will undoubtedly reflect the values of that very society (eg, social media highlights our value of social connectivity as ever-occurring new cell phone models keep up with our love of all things new). Until something changes – or at least budges- technology will simply reflect back what is occurring in our collective minds and belief systems. It’s the underlying values- the forces which support boys in believing they have the right to label a girl any name they want and identifies girls as sexual (or not sexual enough) objects- that need to be addressed. Again, our young girls find themselves in the predicament of learning how to avoid sexual labels from their peers rather than their peers learning how to respect individual decisions and behaviors. Should our adolescent girls spend their time learning how to navigate this coding system or might there be more pressing concerns which should take up their mind space- say, exercising their freedom to choose what makes them happy?

Beliefs that impact our children also impact our adults, our communities and our society.  They don’t exist separately and they don’t act alone. Teenage boys labeling their female peers as “sluts” or “prudes” most likely watched TV shows with the dissemination of this belief throughout their later childhood. After all, isn’t the prude-to-slut transition the backbone of any Disney girl’s stardom (read all about it!)?!. Or how about The Bachelor, a show in which the labels provided by the sought-after male make or break the women’s success and happiness? When he flips through magazines in which women and girls are decorated and displayed for his pleasure and open to his judgment, doesn’t the sense of entitlement to their bodies become a given? When he watches sports matches in which the only female role reaffirms all other images he receives of women’s roles, how could one expect these boys not to label girls as accessible or not? How do we expect boys to see their female peers as anything other than the images of females which surround them everywhere and every day?

While the research presented is important and highlights a continued, dangerous concern in our society, it also demonstrates gross stagnation in gender roles and sexuality. The larger concern is that some boys feel entitled to girls’ bodies and allowed to nonchalantly disrespect girls with a label serving only to describe their access to girls’ body. Similarly, girls learn to alter their behavior to avoid judgment or abuse from males; their behavior is steered not by their wants and needs but by a desire to avoid harm.

Most frightening is the fact that these children will grow to be men and women, the men externalizing their learned right of entitlement and the women living their fear of this entitlement.

Madrigal’s article reminds us the slut/paradigm box is not going away. What to do? We need to talk to our young boys about an individual’s right to expression. Boys deserve to know the impact their privilege has on others and they need to understand the ways in which they can utilize this privilege. Boys deserve the opportunity to question television, discuss the images they see in magazines, and critique the behaviors of their peers. They deserve to be informed of their options as they transform into men and they need to know how these choices impact others. Respect, not power, must be the benchmark to which our boys strive. And our girls deserve the same respect and flexibility in exploring themselves as they mature. They need to know their identity and value extend far beyond their sexual titles and that those titles are sexist, limiting, and wrong. Girls, too, need guidance in navigating and processing the same images that impact our young boys and understand the unrealistic and harmful standards the media propagates.