“Asking” is not the same as “coercing”

Lisa Damour writes in the NYT this week that we shouldn’t just tell girls not to share images–we should also tell boys not to ask for them.

I appreciate the gender equity in how she frames the problem:

That our focus has been so preponderantly on the sending, not requesting, of sexts underscores the exact problem we need to address. We accept and perpetuate the boys-play-offense and girls-play-defense framework because it is so atmospheric as to be almost invisible.

But this article implies that sexting is typically (or even, always?) damaging and coercive. Certainly, lots of people (up to 40% of women in some studies) have experienced coerced sexual contact. Researchers call this “consensual unwanted sex.” And it’s definitely a problem in sexting too. Sexual coercion–online and in-person–is a massive cultural problem that we need to address.

Yes, we should urge everyone not to pressure their partners into to have sex. But no one who’s interested in effective public health policy suggests that educators and parents should also urge all women to avoid sex entirely as a viable solution to sexual coercion.

If we look at the stats, heterosexual relationships are quite dangerous for women–indeed, about as dangerous as sexting, statistically–so perhaps women should just abstain from them entirely? Perhaps the lesbian separatists of the 1970s were on to something.

The alternative is to create educational programs that teach teens how to say “yes” and “no” to sexting, how to recognize their own needs and autonomy, and crucially, how to communicate with and respect their partners.

It troubles me that Damour suggests we should teach teens “not to ask” for photos. Because the vital skill teens need to learn is the difference between “asking” and “coercing.” Until boys and men are taught about consent — how to ask and communicate without pressure or manipulation — in a serious and sustained way, the sexual assault epidemic will continue.

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I have an op ed on CNN.com today about Facebook’s recent efforts to combat revenge porn.

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“Revenge porn” is sexual abuse in a new digital form. A recent study shows that 10% of women under 30 years old in the United States have been victimized by the misuse of their intimate images. Facebook is one of many platforms that host this kind of abuse despite its efforts to tinker with the ways users can report unauthorized content.

This spring, Facebook rolled out a feature allowing users to request that Facebook take down any unauthorized intimate images that are being shared on the platform. And last week, Facebook announced a pilot program for users in Australia to upload nude images of themselves they suspected were being shared without their permission. Facebook would then generate a digital fingerprint of each image so that it couldn’t be shared on the platform.

A better solution would be to give users the power to prevent any images that depict them from ever being posted on the platform.

I’m not sure why, but I was a bit surprised by the low quality of the user comments. Many are victim-blaming (well, just don’t sext then, duh) and others are panicked misinterpretations of free speech. Here’s a good response from user “Dahak:”

Why are so many people confused about the 1st Amendment? It says the government can’t arrest you or penalize you for speaking. Facebook is not the government. Facebook can put whatever restrictions it wants to on its platform. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. If you have a better idea, go build it and popularize it. That is how the free market works.

Mentoring instead of monitoring

Many parents use apps to monitor their kids. From Life360 that tracks their location, to Nest cameras in the baby’s room and apps that log every text message, there is a lot of enthusiasm for the surveillance of children. It’s an understandable reaction to genuine fears and anxieties, but there are alternatives.

Devorah Heitner argues that we don’t need parenting apps that monitor kids, we need to mentor empathy:

These disturbing revelations paint a picture of a military culture in which men are building feelings of camaraderie around the exploitation of their female peers. Marines United is a clear illustration of how sexual harassment is about power, not sex. If the men involved in this group just wanted a trove of sexually titillating photos, they could have shared porn or naked images of any random women. Instead, they targeted their fellow Marines.

From: “Marines’ Secret Trove of Nonconsensual Nude Photos Is About Power, Not Sex,” Slate.

A sexting PSA that doesn’t victim-blame

Most PSAs about sexting tell girls “just don’t sext.” Yet we know that abstinence-only is ineffective, and that this approach blames victims instead of addressing the real problem.

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection recently posted a remarkable video aimed at teens about sexting and privacy violations. It is one of the few PSAs I’ve seen that blame privacy violators rather than victims:

What’s unique about this PSA is that it does not shame the girl for sexting in the first place. Instead, it blames the blame for wrong-doing on the person who shared her image without consent. The girl says, “I trusted him,” which highlights that he broke that trust.

In Canada, teens are better protected from prosecution for child pornography, as long as they sext consensually and within a private, intimate relationship. However, teens cannot consent to the distribution of their images outside the privacy of that relationship. I advocate that the US should adopt a similar reform to child pornography laws.

The video ends with the message: “it’s your body/ it’s your image/ TAKE BACK CONTROL.” This is something I’ve also never seen in a sexting PSA–the idea that girls, in particular, are entitled to ownership over their sexual images. Indeed, that is a key argument of my book, that we should look at sexting as media production and thus grant those who produce sexual images of themselves ownership rights. The point is to respect teens (especially girls’) sexual autonomy in order to better protect them if they are victimized by a privacy violation.

Bravo to the CCCP! Now, as other researchers have also argued, their next task might be to stop referring to consensual sexting as “self/peer exploitation” elsewhere on their website.