Young people rarely get to talk about what they think about ‘sexy’ media – the common message is that sexualised media is always harmful and dangerous for young people. For www.parenting.digital, Dr Claire Meehan, a Lecturer in Criminology at The University of Auckland, New Zealand talks about sexting amongst young people, the importance of consent, and need to recognise the possibility that sexting may be part of normal sexual expression.
Teens, technology and sex
Media revelations in New Zealand that children have been watching pornography and posting sexually explicit images of themselves online has come as a shock to many, especially parents. Globally, young people do engage with explicit material. For example, research conducted in the UK in 2016 discovered that 94 per cent of children in their study had been exposed to pornography by the age of 14 years. The most recent report by the Office of Film and Literature Classification in New Zealand found that pornography has become an important part of life for young people and they are using it as de facto sex education. Research conducted in Australia in 2015 found that 49 per cent of their sample of 2243 young people had stated they had sent a ‘sext’ – a sexual picture or video of themselves – to another individual and 67 per cent of the respondents had received a sexual image or video.
However, young people who watch pornography don’t always sext and vice versa. Also, the Australian research cited above shows that only a minority of teens sext, and crucially, that few are harmed by the behaviour. Emotive media coverage tends to present sexting as a dangerous epidemic can shape readers’ perceptions of teen sexual exploration. This general, simplistic reporting ignores the importance of consent and the structural context in which consent happens. Reflective of the wider attitudes and opinions around teens, technology and sex, this approach leaves no scope for critical discussions around young people’s digital sexual lives.
Yet, if we listen to them properly, we would hear how teens are resisting the dominant narrative.
Rape culture and ‘sexting’: the short skirt of the internet
Sexting is often used as an umbrella term which can include consensual and non-consensual sharing of intimate images and texts, it fails to reflect the complexities of sharing intimate images or words. Teen sexting is frequently framed as a risky activity; where young people are “naïve” and at risk of becoming “addicted”.
The framing of sexting has a particularly gendered dimension, which tends to focus on girls as the protagonist and boys as passive recipients. Young women who sext are often viewed as “giddy” and “vulnerable”. This assumption is problematic as the evidence is inconclusive. By creating the narrative that girls are sending more sexts, mainstream media is able to play into the wider moral panic about teenage girls and sexualisation. According to the sexualisation perspective, girls who ‘sext’ are victims of a hyper-sexualised popular culture and in need of protection. However, as Hasinoff argues in her 2015 book Sexting panic, the problem with this approach is that it fails to take into account female autonomy and the possibility that sexting may be part of normal sexual expression.
The framing of sexting as a teenage girl problem becomes even more complex when boys are involved in ‘sexting’ incidents. For boys sexting is generally framed around the legal consequences. For example, UK headlines frequently refer to boys receiving sexts and then being charged under child pornography laws. However, in cases where boys send sexts, they are framed as ‘boys being boys’. For example, early in 2017 the New Zealand soap opera Shortland Street had an episode in which a teenage boy, Harry, sends an intimate picture to his girlfriend. His dad discovers the picture and the episode ends with the now infamous line ‘Please, tell me that is not your penis’. Maxine Fleming, a producer on the show, said:
When I read the script, I was like, that is the cliff-hanger of the year for me. It is a comedy story, but like all good comedy there’s a truth at the core of it, and it is social commentary, that story.
While media commentary on the show did offer advice for how to keep teens safe online, it is difficult to imagine a sexting story where a female protagonist is portrayed in such a light-hearted way.
Standing up for young people
When young people’s voices attitudes and experiences are excluded in favour of adults’ preconceived ideas and how they may relate to young people, the disconnect between the reality of young people’s experiences, media reporting and society’s understandings is reinforced. Several outlets have challenged society’s framing of sexting as inherently negative. In 2015 the satirical comedian John Oliver ran a story on online harassment, which included ‘revenge porn’, on his HBO show Last Week Tonight. While the segment predominantly focuses on women whose images were sent without consent by framing the debate around online harassment of females, Oliver highlights how our framing of sexting often fails to take into account the wider context of victim blaming and rape culture:
That distinctly victim-blaming sentiment of if you didn’t want this to happen, you shouldn’t have taken photos is hardwired into mainstream culture. Just watch how the news talks about this whenever it comes up.
It should also be noted that teenagers are challenging commonly held assumptions on sexting. For example, Teen Vogue’s column ‘UnSlut’ has dedicated several columns to sexting and distinguishes between consensual and non-consensual forms of the behaviour. The column also challenges society’s expectations of teenage girls, with one article aptly titled ‘How to get your parents to stop slut shaming you.’ Here in New Zealand Em, a website aimed at helping teenage girls combat sexual assault, also challenges the dominant narratives on sexting. Referring to the non-consensual sharing of images, the website maintains that the fault does not lie with the creator but rather the distributor. These narratives challenge the outdated idea teenage girls need to be protected from both sex and technology.
Teen sexting – try not to panic!
By creating space for these narratives and listening to young people it may be possible to create a new, more nuanced framework through which adults view sexting. It is important that we, as adults, engage with this debate. We must continue to have open and honest conversations with our young people, no matter how tricky, and to support them. Rather than be shocked, these revelations should be a ‘wake-up call’ to all of us: parents, educators and wider society to listen to, inform and support our young people.
First published at www.parenting.digital, this post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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