It’s not like the “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine” way of flirtation is a new process, as KJ Dell’antonia, blogger for the New York Times reminds us.
This morning, Good Morning America showed a snippet (not available to public at time of writing this blog post) on the dangers of teenage sexting, one of many news media sources to recently discuss the issue. Generally, the media links sexting with cyber-bullying, as the names Hope Witsell and Amanda Todd evoke fears that messages and images intended for an intimate partner can quickly get forwarded into the wrong hands, resulting in a heap of humiliation and emotional abuse. These are important stories, no doubt, that perpetuate the media’s overarching narrative that our world is becoming less trustworthy.
Emily Bazelon, contributing journal for Slate, explains the detriment of media coverage of sexting and other teen sexual activities in her review of Kathleen Bogle and Jeff Best’s new book Kids Gone Wild: Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex:
“Still, the alarmism breeds, and has repercussions. It creates a misleading picture of kids’ lives and obscures the real issues of sexuality facing American teens. While the overall teen birthrate has declined, too many black and Hispanic girls are still getting pregnant. Data from 2011 shows that teenagers of color are more likely than white kids to have had sex before age 13 and to have had four or more partners. Best and Bogle rightly argue that the TV shows do a disservice, fueling “the fears of white, middle-class parents that their kids are engaging in unprecedented sexual promiscuity” while ignoring “real class differences in sexual behavior, which are connected to poverty, educational opportunities, and other complex factors that the news media, particularly television, often want to avoid.”
Sexting, either through a sexually suggestive message or an erotic image, appears to be transitioning into a common option for exploring sexual development. Jeff Temple, professor of psychology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and others recently assessed the sexting habits (in this case, strictly the sending of erotic imagery vita text message) of a diverse group of Texas teenagers, discovering that approximately 25% of teenagers have sent a sexually explicit image through text message during their six-year-long study. While these students are reportedly seven times more likely to have sexual intercourse than those that don’t sext, they appear to have no increase of sexually risk-taking activities, such as unprotected sex, the combination of sex and alcohol, and a higher quantity of sexual partners.
David DeMatteo, professor of psychology and law at Drexel University, and several of his students provide a detailed study about the prevalence of sexting amongst teenagers. In “Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences“, published in September 2014’s Sexuality Research and Social Policy, DeMatteo and colleagues discover that 54% of the students assessed acknowledge sending sexually suggestive/erotic text messages; 28% of students reported texting erotic images of themselves. 10% of the pool of teenagers reported texting weekly, while 28% said that they “seldom” exchange sexts. Males and females send a common amount of non-visual sexts, but adolescent girls were more than twice as likely to send visual sexts of themselves as teenage boys. Teenagers don’t seem to be sexting to anonymous parties; 44% of teenagers reported sending sexts consensually with their romantic partners, while another third of teenagers used sexting to flirt with a romantic interest.
Much has been written about sexting and cyber-bullying, and while the research from Drexel seems to suggest that cyber-bullying is an outlying experience, it still exists around sexting. Fifteen percent of students reported feeling pressured to send sexts back to the original sender, and while only eight percent of the adolescents claimed to have personally experiencing embarrassment or humiliation from others following a sext, a whopping 71% said that they knew someone who had been embarrassed, humiliated, or bullied because of a sext. About a quarter of the participants said that they forwarded sexts to other people, generally friends.
DeMatteo warns of the correlation between rising rates of sexting amongst teenagers and the lack of appropriate legal infrastructure. Here’s the problem: Only ten states have passed legislation pertaining specifically to underage sexting. Forty state governments folllow the federal identification of sexting amongst minors as child pornography.
Massachusetts is one of these forty states. David Capeless, District Attorney of Berkshire County, writes the following about sexting on his website:
“Sexting” may violate the laws of the Commonwealth that were established to keep our children safe. The child pornography laws in Massachusetts are all felonies; they are quite serious, and there are no “lesser” charges (i.e. misdemeanors) that apply to this conduct.
Sexting seems to encompass the actions of all parties involved, including those who encourage/entice a minor to take a nude photo, the minor whose nude/sexually explicit picture gets taken, and those who send and forward these pictures. Massachusetts laws seem to be indifferent to whether the sext message sent to a minor is consensual; if it involves a minor, the state of Massachusetts deems this has participating in or distributing child pornography, a state felony. Conviction of sexting amongst minors can result in a 10-20 year jail sentence, a $10,000 fine, and being forced to register as a sex offender (as the state considers sexting among minors as a sex crime) for twenty years.
We can argue in another blog post whether or not the length and severity of sentencing is justified, especially given that research doesn’t seem to support the alarmism that television reporters place around sexting, but nevertheless, David DeMatteo and colleagues uncovered another disturbing trend: Over 60% of students were unaware that sexting is viewed by the state (Pennsylvania, home of Drexel, has a similar structure to Massachusetts) as child pornography. Students who knew of these legal implications reportedly participated in sexting far less than those that didn’t. DeMatteo writes in an online interview:
Young people need to be educated about the potential consequences of sexting, which can include legal, social and psychological consequences; ways to avoid running afoul of sexting laws in their jurisdictions; and how to avoid becoming a victim of sexting.
The education should come from many sources – the more young people hear the message, the more likely it’ll be to sink in – so they should be educated by their parents, schools, and perhaps even law enforcement. An interesting question is at what age should such education about sexting occur? A reasonable position would be that young people should be made aware of sexting – what it is, consequences, etc. – around the same time they are learning the basic facts about sexual behavior.
As we discussed in Friday’s blog, parents and educators can remind their adolescents that nothing on the internet truly gets erased, as Snapchat would lead us to believe, discuss the emotional response around what happens when you receive a sext from another peer, and have conversations about the legal implications of sexting.