Sexting and sex ed

Great story today at Salon.com by Daniel Denvir about the sexting scandal in Colorado. I love it when journalists can take the long view and see that the problems are systemic–here, that means sex ed and gender norms.

In most Colorado classrooms, as in many nationwide, sex is all danger and no fun. And so, when it comes to actually flirting, making out and having sex, kids get no advice from experts at school. …

Teaching pleasure in sexual education is rare in the United States save for some elite liberal private schools. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In the Netherlands, for example, sexuality education kicks off at age four singing songs about crushes, talking about hugs. Gender stereotypes are addressed at age 8. Sexual orientation and contraceptives at 11.

“For girls, I think the Dutch put a lot more emphasis on the fact that women can make choices,” Amy Schalet, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Alternet. “It’s not like it’s perfect, but there’s at least a conversation about, ‘what do you want? What do you feel?’ You can also see it in the fact that the Dutch are one of the few countries that really openly talk about masturbation for both sexes [during sex education]. It’s often thought that that’s one way that women can really become empowered about their sexuality, when they know about sexual pleasure and their own bodies. That’s not usually part of American sex education.”

Most Dutch teens report consensual and pleasant first sexual experiences, according to PBS Newshour. They have very low teen pregnancy rates, and very high rates of contraceptive use. And low rates of sexually transmitted infections too.

Sexual ignorance contributes to people making such bad decisions about sex, from maliciously sharing explicit photos to sexual harassment and assault—part and parcel of a culture that prioritizes male pleasure as the principal goal of sex and subjugates women as that pleasure’s object.

Sexting illustrations and an interview in the Westword

Here’s an interview that appeared online and in print in Denver’s alt weekly magazine, the Westword: “Teen sexting laws: Author sees their roots in slut shaming.”

I am really happy with the way this reporter used my comments about gender, sexuality, and slut-shaming. In a lot of other stories they tend to gloss over that. But here it’s even in the headline of the online version! I think the best part is the image that accompanies the print version. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but for the first time it feels like the person who chose the image actually read the article and found a way to illustrate a story about sexting without using a sexualized image of a teen girl. IMG_3237
Nearly all stories about sexting that include an image use a stock image of teenager using a mobile phone, a parent looking at a phone in shock (there is one image that’s been used over and over for years), and for many, a sexy (often partially obscured, pixelated, darkened, or blurred) image of a teenage girl sexting.

sexting-angry momThe hypocrisy, of course, is that in articles that harshly judge teenagers for sexting, and condemn girls for “sexualizing themselves,” the adults who illustrate these stories seem to have no qualms with producing sexual images of teenage girls. Apparently it’s only a moral problem when the girls create such images themselves. When adults choose, create, publish, and look at these images it seems to be no big deal. These stories, and the broader mass media landscape that routinely offers sexualized and objectifying images of women, are saying to teenage girls: Do as we say, not as we do.

It would be fair, or at least consistent if we either (1) stopped creating and looking at any objectifying images of women or (2) if we could stop shaming girls (and women) for participating in the production of these images.

Never read the comments

I was quoted last week in a Yahoo Parenting article explaining that consensual sexting is not inherently harmful and that we should instead be concerned about coercion, harassment and privacy violations.

While I’ve said similar things before in many different popular publications, Yahoo Parenting readers seem to be an especially active group of commentators who were particularly offended by my arguments. Of nearly 200 comments, almost all of them are negative.

What’s interesting to me about these comments is how strongly people reacted and how irrational their responses were. Some only read the phrase that “consensual sexting is not harmful” and were outraged that privacy violations were not mentioned–of course this is mentioned a couple lines further down in the article.

Many more felt that the idea that “consensual sexting is not harmful” is so absurd that they could only respond with exaggerated ad hominem attacks:

  • This expert is clearly on drugs (since Colorado recently legalized retail sales of pot)
  • This expert is not really an expert
  • This expert just wants to sell books (if only they knew how little money we make on academic books!)
  • This expert is an idiot

What this illustrates is that for these readers the idea that “consensual sexting is not harmful” violates their common sense ideas so thoroughly that they cannot actually consider the argument at all. I imagine that they view my argument as an attack on their deeply held beliefs–thus the only response is to attack back with what they perceive to be equal force and equal disregard for the speaker.

But if the idea is so absurd, why respond at all? While they clearly don’t see it as one side of a legitimate controversy (and thus worth serious consideration), they must feel as though the idea is at least nipping at the heels of a rational argument, or else why bother to engage with it at all?

While I can’t control exactly how journalists quote me–other than refusing all interviews–how can I hope to reach people like this and encourage some of them to think critically about their common sense beliefs?

When I’m explaining my arguments to anyone I don’t know, I never lead with “consensual sexting is not harmful.” Instead, I try to establish with my audience that we both care about protecting young people. I tell them that research shows that around a third of teens will sext. So our task, I say, is to think about how to reduce the potential harm. By the way, I add in, we know abstinence-only sex ed is a failure, so we can guess that abstinence-only sexting policies will be too. Then I explain that the child pornography laws that apply to sexting are too harsh and that they criminalize victims of privacy violations. Coercion, harassment and privacy violations are serious problems we need to address, I say, but consensual sexting is not inherently harmful. Risky, yes, but not causing harm in and of itself.

Obviously people are more inhibited from calling me an “idiot” in person than in anonymous online comments, but so far most people have reacted to my logic fairly well. Even if they disagree on moral grounds that personal sexual photography is wrong, they seem to understand my arguments about harm reduction and the problems with victim-blaming. After all, I’m not disrupting the idea that girls (teens too) are vulnerable and in need of protection. Once I confirm that for my audience, some are willing to consider that maybe consensual sexting is not inherently harmful.

So unless I can control how to roll out my argument and establish common ground with my audience first, I’m not sure there’s a way for me to encourage critical thinking about common sense assumptions like “sexting is bad” without being seen as ridiculous. I imagine I’ll keep talking to the press because I think it’s important to try to shift the conversation about sexting, even though I know that fighting common sense will never be easy.

So the real lesson from this is, of course: never read the comments.

Quoted in the November issue of the Atlantic

I was interviewed for this month’s Atlantic cover story on sexting by Hanna Rosin, and the article mentioned my forthcoming book as well!

atlantic cover- why kids sextI’m really happy that Rosin articulates the consent framework that I advocate in my research.

The importance of consent also comes across well in the interview Rosin did for Fresh Air about the article, and Rosin accurately describes the vital problem I’ve found with many misdemeanor sexting laws that have been passed since the panic began in 2009: most of these new laws don’t distinguish between consensual sexting and deliberate acts of harm and humiliation.

In her article, Rosin also explains the problems with new misdemeanor laws very clearly:

In Florida, for example, a minor who is guilty of transmitting or distributing a nude photograph or video must pay a fine, complete community service, or attend a class on sexting. A second offense is a misdemeanor and a third is a felony. Where they’ve been passed, the new laws have helpfully taken ordinary teen sexting out of the realm of child pornography and provided prosecutors with a gentler alternative. But they have also created deeper cultural confusion, by codifying into law the idea that any kind of sexting between minors is a crime. For the most part, the laws do not concern themselves with whether a sext was voluntarily shared between two people who had been dating for a year or was sent under pressure: a sext is a sext. So as it stands now, in most states it is perfectly legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex. But if they take pictures, it’s a matter for the police.

Yet her suggestion that the prosecutorial discretion can solve the inherent problems of criminalizing sexting  ignores the fact that queer youth, low-income youth, and youth of color caught sexting will be disproportionately penalized:

The nonconsensual sharing of pictures, even among just a few people, should probably count as a criminal act, as long as there is prosecutorial discretion.

At the same time, I was also glad to see that Rosin explained how law enforcement involvement in privacy violation cases can be even more traumatizing than the original incident:

What seemed to mortify them most was having to talk about what they’d done with a “police officer outside their age group.”

… Marsha Levick, a co-founder of the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center, sees many cases where the police investigation does much more harm than the incident itself. “The rush to prosecute always baffles me,” she says. “It’s the exponential humiliation of these boys, or more often girls, in an official setting, knowing their photos will be shown to police officers and judges and probation officers. And the reality is, a lot of these officials are going to be men. That process itself is what’s traumatizing.”

Finally, I’m really pleased that Rosin discusses the sexual double standard, which is at the heart of slut-shaming and sexual harassment:

Studies on high-school kids’ general attitudes about sexting turn up what you’d expect—that is, the practice inspires a maddening, ancient, crude double standard. Researchers from the University of Michigan recently surveyed a few dozen teenagers in urban areas. Boys reported receiving sexts from girls “I know I can get it from” and said that sexting is “common only for girls with slut reputations.” But the boys also said that girls who don’t sext are “stuck up” or “prude.” The boys themselves, on the other hand, were largely immune from criticism, whether they sexted or not.