Sexting: Moving the Discussion from Criminality to One of Harm Reduction, Healthy Human Sexuality, a
As both a current law enforcement officer with over 29 years of experience, and an international social internet/social media safety advocate, I have been watching the discussions surrounding “sexting” for the past several years. I too have waded into this discussion, with several postings on the topic that can be located here:
To date, I have now presented to over 188,000 middle and senior high school students throughout North America, many of whom have reached out to me for help because of sexting gone wrong issues.
Recently, a study specific to teen sexting was published in the Journal of Pediatrics:
This study found that “sexting is the new norm among adolescents, and it isn’t reserved just for at-risk teens. The same study also found a link between “sexting and later sexual activity,” but it did not find that those same teens engaged in risky sexual behavior. Of interest to me, the study further went on to suggest that sexting has become the new “first base” when it comes to teen dating in today’s online world.
In relation to sexting becoming the new first base, peer-reviewed research in both Canada and the United States has found that between 20-25 percent of teens have engaged in some form of sexting. Given this fact, I would disagree with the researcher’s suggestion that sexting has become the “new first base,” because 75-80 percent of our teens are not engaging in this form of online behaviour. Having said this however, 20-25 percent are, and some, not all, of these teens have experienced negative personal and public outcomes as a result. Notice I stated “some,” not “all,” have experienced a negative outcome. In fact, research has shown that there is a relatively low risk when it comex to sexting behaviour:
This research is anecdotally supported by the teens that I have spoken to as well. It must be stated, however, that when things do go bad, they go really bad! It is no wonder then that teens will tune out those who only preach about the negatives of sexting, without also speaking to some of the positives. As an example, one grade 12 girl shared with me that she was in a long term/long distance relationship with a young man, and that sexting allowed them to stay intimate. This same young lady understood the possible negative consequences of such actions, BUT given the relationship and trust factor with her partner, she believed the positives of sexting outweighed the possible negatives. She stated several times that the sexting was consensual and not pressured or coercive in any way. In other words, she conducted a mature risk analysis, a skill I’ve witnessed in many of the older teens I speak to, BUT not the younger ones.
As a result of this published research by the Journal of Pediatrics, I decided to post the following question to over 13,000 teens who currently follow me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-White-Hatter/136487353183161) which can be located under the Oct 9th thread:
“A new report out of the USA found that “sexting” is developmentally normative behaviour, and in todays world of teens, can be considered a part of the dating process. In my high school days we used polaroids. I want to hear from the experts in this topic area, and the experts are you teens, do you think sexting is a part of the dating process or is it something else.”
The replies that I received back from the teens were nothing short of amazing. They were open, honest, and direct when they replied to my question, and I would encourage everyone reading this article to head over to my Facebook page and have a read of what the students posted.
Here’s what have I learned from the teens who replied to my Facebook message, as well as from thousands of students who have spoken directly to me on this subject at my presentations:
1) Sexting is NOT necessarily a part of the dating process or something that should be considered “the new first base”
2) Although not a part of the dating process, sexting can become part of sexual intimacy in a relationship once TRUST has been established - this is especially true for older teens.
3) Sexting in the younger ages is more about seeking attention, or it’s something that has been psychologically pressured or coerced in a emerging relationship. This is quite different from the trust and intimacy based sexting we see with older teens.
4) Many teens, although they’ve heard about the possible bad outcomes of sexting, are unaware of the real psychological, emotional, physical, and even legal consequences that such actions may have if the sexts are published outside of the relationship.
Traditionally, many of those in the internet/social media safety and advocacy field have only concentrated on the message of “abstinence,” and the undesirable personal, public, and legal consequences of sexting. Specific to the abstinence message, there is lots of research out there that shows that teaching abstinence when it comes to healthy human sexuality does not work with teens; this is why many of us tend to take a “harm reduction” approach and we teach “safer sex:” http://goo.gl/4i5qsL. I would argue that it has become clear via peer-reviewed, empirical and anecdotal research, that sexting, especially amongst our older teens, may play a role when it comes to relationships, human sexuality, and intimacy considering that about 20-25 percent of our teens have sexted. Given this fact, does it not make sense that we should also be talking about sexting (age appropriate), both the negatives and the positives, as it relates to relationships, trust and healthy human sexuality, rather than just concentrating on the negative personal, public and legal consequences? Even the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized this fact. The Supreme Court has stated that if sexting takes place between two consenting teens under the age of 18 years, then we in law enforcement are not to get involved from a criminal investigation standpoint, even though it is technically illegal. However, if one of the two parties distributes the sexual content outside of the relationship without consent, then the Supreme Court has advised that the police may want to become involved.
I do believe that in sexting cases where the sext has been pressured or coerced, or where a partner has distributed a sext outside of a relationship in a cruel, vindictive, and criminal way, then there should be criminal consequences to their actions in most cases. In others, Restorative Justice practices may be the better approach. Here’s an article that speaks directly to this type of sexting:
I believe that we need to change our message from the strict abstinence/criminal only based discussions that permeate our industry, to a more hybrid message that speaks to healthy relationships, trust, healthy human sexuality, and harm reduction (emotional, psychological, physical, and criminal consequences) based discussions. I believe that programs that only push the negatives do not truly reflect the reality of what our teens are experiencing. As Dr Elizabeth Englander, an expert on sexting and youth, has stated on this issue, “To a student who is listening to a presentation making only negative assumptions, the adults may appear to be greatly exaggerating risks.”
As internet/social media safety advocates, our role is to educate our youth with the real information, so that they can make an informed decision. YES, we still need to emphasize that any sext once published digitally, can become public, permanent, searchable, and therefore exploitable, and provide real world examples of such. In other words, teens need to know that no matter the reason for sending a sext, there is always a risk involved. In our discussions with teens, we also need to acknowledge that research has found that some forms of sexting can be classified as “normative” sexually developmental behaviour.
Now for the real question: “What age should these discussions begin take place?” I believe as early as possible in an age appropriate manner. Oh, and for those who think, “My child is in grade school so I don’t have to worry about this challenge,” I have seen sexting as early as grade 4.
Start the conversation!!!
Digital Food For Thought
I had the opportunity to discuss sexting with a group of youth advisors (mid-late teens early 20’s) at our local Island Sexual Heath Society office today. Many of their thoughts and insights were echoed in my original blog posting, BUT there were a couple of others that they shared as well:
They agreed that sexting (nudes) was not a part the “new first base” BUT maybe that sexts that are “text-based only” could be. Text-based sexting without the inclusion of pictures wasn’t seen to be a big deal to this group.
All agreed that although a reality, it is apparently fairly uncommon and not as popular as many adults believe it to be.
Trust was also a huge factor. In fact, a couple of these young adults shared with me that they had shared a sext (nudes), BUT before they did so, there was first an intimate trust factor in play. They felt there was no coercion involved and no pressure to do so.
Having said this, they also reported that males were far more likely to just casually send out “dick pics” without asking to do so
When I asked why some of them had sexted (nudes), one stated, “I wanted to try something different in our relationship and it didn’t really arouse me, so I didn’t do it again.” Another stated that her and her partner were “…..so busy given university and my job that it was really hard to get real-world face-to-face time, so sexting allowed me to stay intimate with my partner.”
Those who did disclose that they had sexted (nudes), stated that they took active counter-measures to help protect themselves. This was so that should the picture become public, no identifying characteristics such as their face, any birthmarks, scars, tattoos, background in the picture that could be tied back to them. They also shared that they tagged the picture’s EXIF (exchangeable image file format) data to a different name. These were common countermeasures that I heard from many youth. Such countermeasures provide them with a believable deniability factor that it wasn’t them in the picture, but rather someone else. It would appear that some youth have learned to adapt, overcome, and improvise to help minimize risks, given some of the well-publicized negative consequences of sexting that has gone public.
Of interest, all youth stated that it seems that guys usually only want a “face and boob shot,” rather than a full nude, which would include the groin or buttocks areas. When I asked them why, they couldn’t give me answer.
Several stated that they weren’t afraid of their partner sending out the nudes, but rather they were more concerned about third parties who would access there unlocked phone, or their partner’s phone, who could then potentially access and see the pictures. In fact, one of the youth spoke up and stated that is exactly what happened to her. A friend had asked to use her phone, and in the process located her nudes and was attempting to email them to his phone, but she was able to stop him before this happened.
All young advisors agreed that when males send and receive sexts they are considered “studs” by their friends and peers, but when female do it they are often labeled sluts.
All of the youth agreed that relationship/sex education in schools needs to be updated to reflect the reality of sexting (both text-based and nudes) in the context of healthy human sexuality, relationships, and consent.