“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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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.

Do we really charge victims of privacy violations?

One of the main arguments for decriminalizing consensual teen sexting (with age spans) is that it would prevent victims from being charged. District Attorneys and others who are opposed to this change often claim that law enforcement would never do such a thing, so therefore no legal reform is needed.

This 2016 report on on “sextortion” from the Crimes Against Children Research Center provides new evidence that teenage victims of privacy violations (or threats, or other related harassment) are indeed sometimes threatened with prosecution under child pornography laws:

When victims were minors, perpetrators were often breaking criminal laws about the production or distribution of child pornography, but respondents feared they were vulnerable to criminal charges also. Some respondents [victims of “sextortion”] who described incidents that occurred when they were minors had been threatened with charges or blamed. So in many cases described in the survey, perpetrators were shielded from criminal consequences and respondents had little support from authorities. (p. 55)

Some examples from this survey:

“I was the one who ended up getting in legal trouble since I was the one who sent it.” Female, 16, f2f

“I was told I could be held responsible for making and distributing child pornography.” Female, 14, f2f

“The police threatened to bring me up on charges of distribution of child pornography.” Female, 17, online

“My boyfriend sent my whole family and his friends and my friends the photo. [My family and I] tried to press charges [and get a restraining order against him]. Him and I both looked at jail time, fines, and having to register as a sex offender for ‘child pornography’ since we were both under 18. Luckily, the state [did not press charges].” Female, 15, f2f

“I feel really intensely angry that you can get in legal trouble for sending naked pictures of YOURSELF when under 18. You literally can be charged as a sex offender for it, which is so incredibly wrong because I was the victim. All that law does is protect abusers…” Female, 17, online (p. 52)

The report makes this important recommendation for law enforcement:

[A]s with other sexual assault victims, police need to be trained to focus on perpetrator behavior to avoid exacerbating the sense of shame and self-blame that many victims feel.

In addition, law enforcement agencies need to review policies that lead them to charge young victims of sextortion with child pornography offenses or threaten to do so. Such policies, or victims’ fears of such policies, appeared to deter police reporting of perpetrators who victimized minors and increase the distress of victims who felt they could not get justice. (p. 63)