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.

CEOP to parents: Don’t panic about sexting

CEOP’s new sexting PSAs seems like a step in the right direction. They focus on telling parents not to panic about sexting, and to instead try to listen to their kids and understand why they do it. The videos make a good comparison when the narrator (an adult) remembers how her parents disliked her outfits as a teen and suggests that sexting is similar–a way for teens to “feel good about themselves,” “push boundaries,” and “experiment.” I think this may be the first PSA that offers the crucial message that sexting is not wrong and deviant; teens often do it simply for pleasure and that it’s not something to worry about in and of itself. These videos also include the important point that forwarding a private photo without permission is a serious violation.

The impact of abstinence-only education on rape victims

Famous kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart speaks out against abstinence-only education:

When Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins University panel last week, she explained one of the factors deterring her from escaping her attacker: She felt so worthless after being raped that she felt unfit to return to her society, which had communicated some hard and fast rules about premarital sexual contact.

“I remember in school one time, I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence,” Smart told the panel. “And she said, ‘Imagine you’re a stick of gum. When you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who is going to want you after that?’ Well, that’s terrible. No one should ever say that. But for me, I thought, ‘I’m that chewed-up piece of gum.’ Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away. And that’s how easy it is to feel you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value.”

Survivors of rape and trafficking, she said, need to be “given permission to fight back,” and that requires them “to know you are of value.”

Full video here.

Fantastic new sexting report released today

albury sexting report coverA fantastic new report on sexting from Kath Albury, Kate Crawford, Paul Byron, and Ben Mathews was released today. They offer a list of practical recommendations that legislators, educators, prosecutors, and parents would do well to take into account. Here are some highlights of the report’s excellent recommendations:

  • We recommend that both educational and legal responses to sexting reflect ‘harm reduction’ principles rather than promoting abstinence from the production and exchange of digital photos between peers or from using social media.
  • We recommend that sexting education be more focused on fostering ethical, respectful practices between intimate partners and within friendship networks.
  • We recommend that educational strategies that address sexting, including information resources for adults, seek to problematise and challenge gendered double-standards in relation to concepts such as ‘provocativeness’, ‘self-confidence’, ‘responsibility’, ‘consequences’ and ‘reputation’.
  • We recommend that educational strategies that address sexting, including information resources for adults, distinguish between non-consensual production and distribution of sexting images and consensual image sharing.
  • These educational strategies should emphasise ethical frameworks, and recognise that sexting can be an expression of intimacy, rather than shaming young people for sexting. Framing sexual expression only as a risk does little to alleviate anxieties or feelings of shame that young people may experience in relation to their sexualities.

What should we teach kids instead of “stranger danger?”

Tech Mommy explains:

I’ve decided not to teach my daughter about stranger danger.

I’m replacing “Don’t talk to strangers” with “Don’t keep secrets from Mommy and Daddy”. …

I’m replacing “Don’t trust men in vans” with “Trust your instincts.” …

I’m replacing “Don’t tell anyone your name” with “Use the correct name for your body parts.” …

If something doesn’t feel right, I want her to tell me. If one of her friends is being hurt, I want her to tell me. If someone older than her asks her to keep a secret, I want her to tell me.

via LK

Sexting 101

As a result of a 2011 Texas law, schools in that state are required to provide students with an educational program about sexting. After skimming the course materials online, I took the 30-question quiz and scored only 85%! It didn’t reveal which answers I got wrong, but I suspect I missed some of the technical legal questions, like whether a particular type of sexting could be a class A, B, or C misdemeanor. Many of the questions are more subjective:

If you engage in sexting behaviors, your relationships with friends and family can be negatively affected in what ways?

* A. Others may think of you as “easy” or sexually active

* B. You may attract the unwanted attention of predators

* C. Others may be embarrassed to be seen with you

* D. All of the above

Abstinence-only and the perils of optimism

This video of GOP candidate Rick Perry talking about his support for abstinence-only education has been bouncing around the internet. The consensus among feminists and progressives seems to be that he doesn’t understand that abstinence-only doesn’t work. But I think it’s too simplistic to say that people like Perry are misinformed about the facts and to think that if they just understood the data they might change their minds.

story via AD

In fact I think the reality is far more disturbing. I think Perry is well aware that his state’s sex education policies are harmful to youth, but that the political capital he maintains by publicly supporting abstinence-only is more important to him.

Perhaps this is too cynical.

The more charitable–but equally disturbing–interpretation is that he truly believes that abstinence-until-marriage is such an important moral value to promote that it is worth spending money on educational policies that have negative effects on teens’ health.  In this video, his rhetoric is clear: he is saying that even if abstinence-only education enables just a few kids to delay sex until marriage, it is worth the cost to the rest of the teens in the state. Feminists and leftists need to understand that their opponents in this matter are not idiots who cannot comprehend a statistic–they know abstinence is not working but they desperately want it to. They are idealists and optimists like we are. Unfortunately, in this case their optimism translates to seriously harmful policies.

Statistics and empirical studies are useful for convincing fence-sitters and pragmatists to support comprehensive sex education. But the real battlefield is in the realm of ideas about sexuality. Why do people like Perry think abstinence-until-marriage is so vital and important? What does it mean to them and why are they willing to make huge public health sacrifices to pursue it? Until we can redefine what sexuality means for people with these views, no proof of abstinence-only’s disastrous effects will convince them that it is not a goal worth pursuing.

Why do we assume sexting girls aren’t expressing their authentic desires?

An article by Leigh Goldstein in Jumpcut argues that the legal and media commentary about sexting denies youth the capacity to be subjects:

By criminalizing self-produced child pornography, our government has effectively censored minors’ right to record their sexualities or erotic identities. … Having shushed the kids, we adults gleefully expound on what they must feel: duped, misguided, ultimately regretful of having exposed and/or exploited their bodies. Exploited object? Of course, it’s the part kids were born to play. But the role of subject when it comes to discourses of desire? That remains off limits.

Goldstein also raises interesting questions that I am trying to grapple with in the chapter I am currently working on:

If ample research, especially that coming out of girls’ studies, has already documented the silencing of adolescent sexuality, why do legal and media discourses continue to participate in this silencing? And what are the possibilities for bringing together these different forms of discourse so that they better inform each other?

We’ve been hearing warnings from feminist researchers for decades that the “missing discourse of desire” in sex education for girls could lead them to have trouble saying “no” as well as saying “yes” to sex. Why haven’t I seen any feminist articles heralding sexting as: “finally, look at this, a new way that girls are expressing themselves sexually!”?

DHS advises parents to tell their kids to “wait”

The new administration seems to be still pushing abstinence over education. A new series of TV PSA’s depicts kids (75% girls, of course) telling parents: “tell me you want me to  wait to have sex.” Wait until when? Until they’re married, of course. Because, as the campaign slogan explains: “success comes to kids who wait to have sex.” Why? Because people who wait “have a better chance at success, whether that means getting an education, having a career, or just being happy.”

Since 95% of people do have non-marital sex, and research consistently demonstrates that abstinence programs are “ineffective, unethical, and poor public health,” why promote such an impossible and counter-productive goal? Are these PSA’s just a politically viable facade for a hidden comprehensive sex education agenda?

Not quite. Though the campaign promotes abstinence until marriage, it does have some information for those 95% of people who won’t get there. Under the section “Dealing with Risky Behaviors and Other Challenges” the birth control information chart cites only the “typical use” failure rate (15% for condoms) and not the “consistent and correct use” failure rate (2%). Why not launch a PSA campaign to make “typical” use more “correct and consistent”? And really, why bother with this section at all–how many teens would ask for help getting condoms or birth control after a parent makes it clear that the only thing they approve of is “waiting”?

The site devotes a few sentences to parents of queer kids (or, um kids who might be, err,experiencing difficulties with gender identity or sexual orientation“), who should keep in mind, “Accepting your son or daughter can help lead to strong, life-affirming relationships in the future.” But the rest of the campaign makes it pretty clear that gay kids, who can’t ever get married, will never be successful or happy.

via Feministe and Salon.