by Amanda Rohdenburg, Director of Advocacy, Outright Vermont
1. First things first: Sexting is a slang word created by pushing ‘sex’ and ‘texting’ together. So then ‘sexting’ is a sexual text exchange, sometimes including nude pictures. It can happen through a whole range of social media (Facebook, Twitter), electronic devices (computers, camera phones, tablets), and applications (i.e. SnapChat).
2. All ages of people send these types of messages, not just teens. Members of Congress, celebrities. It’s endorsed openly in popular magazines; in 2013 Cosmo published an article listing partial nude pics among activities on so-called first base. The roots of the abuse of this media aren’t in the technology or the kids; they’re embedded in the same sexist, violent bedrock that supports all kinds of sexual violence.
3. Consent is a huge concern when it comes to sexting. Consent can only exist when there is a balance of power including: awareness of consequences both positive and negative–AND what it means for the relationship; safety to change their minds/stop at any time; safety, emotional and physical, to say ‘no.’ When it comes to sexting, if someone forwards a sensitive photo without permission, that is sexual abuse. There is no consent.
4. There are a lot of cultural messages aimed at teens around sexuality. Folks who practice masculinity are stereotyped as hormone-drenched hooliganswhile folks who do femininity are made to seek constant approval for their appearances. Media are filled with self promotion: Social media can provide instant feedback to either secure stud status by showing how macho you are, or getting all the ‘likes’ you can for a beach selfie. There’s a common phrase “Pics or it never happened.” It means that photo evidence is required to prove something actually happened. Pictures secure bragging rights and instant celebrity status as they go viral, just as kids are bombarded with the need to prove themselves. In that context, sexting isn’t so much a phenomenon as a product of a bad cultural recipe.
5. A few themes are usually present when adults talk to youth about sexting: Kids, particularly those socialized as girls, are made to feel as though their lives will be over, it will follow them their whole lives and so on. It’s true that the internet remembers everything, but it’s also true that a person’s online history is long and ongoing. We focus so much energy on the material itself that we tend to overlook the trauma and sense of violation incurred by digital abuse. In cases across the country, pictures of sexual assaults have been posted to the internet for ‘proof’ or bragging rights, and fallout of that has been catastrophic. We need to do a better job of teaching youth the principles of consent–including within digital lives.