REAL Talk: Sexting

With sexting becoming increasingly common, we may need some new approaches to deal with it and some new ways to talk about it. But just because it’s common doesn’t make it right. It can still cause tremendous harm.

Time to Face Facts

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 71% of teen girls and 67% of teen boys have sent or posted sexually suggestive photos.

Lately, the sexting stories out there have been multiplying. From massive school sexting scandals to prevent getting caught to multiple suspensions and arrests for leaking photos and videos.

Just this past month, a “young victim had sent sexts to a boyfriend at his urging, but after they broke up, the boy shared the images with others, escalating into bullying and sexual harassment,” said District Attorney Thomas Hogan.

If these messages do become public then they can become embarrassing and painful for the original sender. No Bullying explains how senders can experience long term effects such as depression and loss of self-esteem. They explained that “The only defense that parents have against sexting is informing. When parents inform their children of what can happen, teens may be less likely to send these types of messages.”

Parents try their best. All of these stories go viral for a couple of days, and adults everywhere spend a few days upset. The parents and critics ask “why the school [hasn’t] done more to educate students about sexting,” says Jonathan Zimmerman of The New York Times. Zimmerman goes on to explain that while schools are an easy target, it’s the wrong one.

Here’s the reality that adults are going to have to face: this generation is going to sext. As one Leyden student put it, “It’s going to happen either way, so just let it happen.” School and parent intervention will not help.  Sexting has become the norm for most teenagers, and it might be time to consider a different approach when talking about it.

Amy Hassinof, a professor at University of Colorado- Denver, explains that we really need to face statistics because “studies have shown that about 30 percent of teenagers sext.” Although sexting is classified as child pornography in many places, Hassinof argues that it “seems illogical… that the child pornography laws don’t make a distinction about whether the sexting was consensual or not.”

While my generation still perceives one-sided sexting as offensive or criminal, we don’t see consensual sexts as taboo. We joke about it more than anything else. Zimmerman even compares it to “necking in the car…for earlier generations” and calls it a form of “courtship.” We almost never even report it to our parents or teachers. In Colorado, a recent sexting scandal found that over 100 students were using an app and sharing nude photos and this was kept a secret for quite some time.

Twenty states have even changed their sexting laws to accommodate to the common place practice of sexting. They’ve stopped enforcing long-term consequences, like a life time presence on the child sex offender registry, and instead favor immediate consequences like installing monitoring softwares into phones.

None of this makes sexting right. We need to realize that if we choose to sext, we still risk ridicule, bullying, harassment, and legal consequences.It’s bad behavior.

But when a bad behavior is so common, trying to stop it by just saying “don’t do it” might not be as helpful as teaching students how to work with it. If schools and parents  already provide safe sex education for teens when they’re minors, then why shouldn’t they provide safe sexting tips as well? Wouldn’t it make things a whole lot easier and possibly prevent damage to people’s relationships?

Author Kylie Singh offers interesting advice in her article “7 Crucial Tips to Practice Safe Sexting.” She cites Dr. Scot Conway’s suggestion to send implied nudes instead of explicit nudes. Some good examples, according to Conway are “an arm draped across the breasts, a topless photo from behind, a side shot, a towel or sheet held in front of the body are all options.” These aren’t as “scandalous,” but they get a similar point across. Even then, before you consider pressing that send button, Kyli Singh believes you should “take a second to think about how much you really trust the recipient,” because there’s always a chance that they might not be the only person seeing that photo.

Practical suggestions such as these should be a part of our sexting conversation with young people. Adults should reconsider their zero tolerance stance, especially with older teens.

A world with zero sexting, and a world where teenagers listened to everything their parents told them, would be ideal. But since teenagers don’t work like that it’s better to add the safe sexting conversation alongside all the other awkward family conversations.

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Know When, Where to Turn

When she received the picture “At first I ignored it,” she said. They were no more than friends at first, casual acquaintances through a mutual friend. They began talking more and would have normal conversations. Over time, they grew closer, and their conversions shifted. She said, “He started talking to me about sex and other things.”

One day, they decided to add each other on Snapchat and continued talking. Then at night he sent a picture of his genitalia to her. This situation caused distance to get in between them. “At first I ignored it,” she said. “A couple weeks went by, and once again he sent more pictures. Sometimes he would do it more than once. It got to a point where he would do it frequently, and I did not know what to do, so I blocked him.”

When teenagers receive a text, there are choices they make. Rather than simply ignoring or blocking, they have the option to go to the police and report the person sexting and press charges on the offender.

But the high school student above didn’t know what to do when she received the picture. She said, “I’m not sure what to do when I receive a sext. I mean we were never educated about that. I guess you tell someone, but I don’t know who.” Even when they do know where to go, some students still do nothing. “I don’t want someone to get in trouble for a dumb reason, unless I’m really being harassed. I don’t think it is a thing to take to the police,” one said.

Another student shared her story of receiving a sext she didn’t ask for. It came from her boyfriend. She said, “I was very shocked, and it made me uncomfortable.” Receiving a sext from a friend or stranger is different compared to getting one from your partner. It may make the other person in the relationship feel pressured to send something back. In this case she said, “I was afraid he would break up with me or that he would lose feelings for me.” The key to most relationships is communication. After she received the message from her boyfriend she said, “I didn’t send anything back, but talked to him in person on how it made me uncomfortable, and he respected my opinion.” She also said, “I don’t want to change my values or morals for anyone. That shouldn’t be what a relationship is about.”

Dean of Students Mr. Michael Grosch advised students that they should “let their parents know” especially if receiving the message is disturbing.

If teenagers were to receive some sort of sext and go to Mr. Grosch for help, he would tell them to “delete it instantly.” He said, “Delete it right away because you don’t want to be sending it to someone else even as a joke.” If the teenager is receiving the sext, they should not send the image to anyone because then the image can spread and everyone can see it. He said, “If you forward it to somebody even as a joke, it can have consequences that you never intended. When you get in trouble is when you forward it because now you are distributing it.” It’s also illegal if the person in the picture is a minor because technically you’re in possession of child pornography.

Reaching out for help from others isn’t easy for teenagers when it comes to sexting. Mr. Grosch said, “A lot of teenagers may not know [what to do] or want to [get help].” The student may feel uncomfortable or weird talking about the situation with a trusted adult. He also said, “There’s no shame in reaching out for help. Sometimes there are bigger things at stake than being a narc.” Going to someone for help can make the problem go away whether it is the parents, police, or dean helping. “It could save someone’s reputation. It could save someone’s mental health,” he said adding, “I hate to be dramatic, but it could save someone’s life.”

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