Sext-Ed: An Asymmetrical Harm Reduction Approach
Having presented to over 463,000 teens from across Canada and the US, the topic of sending nudes or what adults call “sexting” (or in Canadian law is called the “distribution of intimate images”) is a hot topic of concern for many adults and teens alike. Nudes are nothing new—just go to any art museum and you will see that they have been around for centuries. However, what has changed is the ease for a teen to create and distribute their own nudes via technology.
Some current Canadian and US statistics on the frequency of sexting:
Media Smarts, Canadian Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, interviewed over 800 youth between the ages of 16-20 years:
41% have sent a sext
26% of 16-year olds reported sending a sext
42% of sexts sent did not stay private
93% of youth think people their age are sexting
66% have received a sext
*Of note, the Media Smarts definition of sexts included both images and text messages
2019: Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2019). The Nature and Extent of Sexting Among a National Sample of Middle and High School Students in the U.S. Archives of Sexual Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-1449-y
18.5% of middle and high school students had received a sexually explicit image
14% of middle and high school students had received a sexually explicit image from a romantic partner
13% of students reported sending a sexually explicit image
11% of students reported sending a sexually explicit image to a romantic partner
*Of note, this study’s definition was specific to a sexually explicit image only
As the reader can appreciate, although a real concern for sure, sexting is not at the epidemic level that traditional media, and some adults, like to believe.
In many of the schools that we visit, the tact that many take specific to educating pre-teens and teens on this topic is an “abstinence” and fear-based educational approach; in other words, “don’t send nudes because if you do you will be arrested.” However, there is some fantastic research out there that shows us that the message of abstinence, or threatening arrest, doesn’t work so well. (1) Also, here’s a great YouTube video from a teen about the failures of teaching abstinence-based programs to their generation that is evidence-based. (2)
Having researched this issue for several years now, we believe there are several challenges to teaching an abstinence-based approach to sexting. Often, such abstinence-based programs place a strong emphasis on the criminal consequences of sexting, which can shut down the avenues of support and recourse when a nude is non-consensually shared with others. Why? Because many teens will not report such an incident to the police, or another person in authority, for fear of being arrested. The Crimes Against Children Research Centre reported that only 16% of teens whose intimate image was weaponized contacted the police or a person in authority (3). Compounding this concern is the fact that we also find that the Canadian law specific to sexting is often misunderstood and incorrectly shared with students in the hopes of scaring teens not to sext. Here’s a link to an article that we have written that explains current Canadian case law specific to sexting that we wrote for teachers and school administrators (4)
We believe that we must meet young people where they are in their sexual development in today’s “onlife” world, without judgment, and this is especially important for teens who are now being sextorted because of an intimate image. Like it or not, human intimacy is changing, and there may be times in a teen’s life where thoughts and considerations of sending an intimate image will be a reality.
It’s our opinion that we need to move away from the abstinence/criminal centric approach that is often taken when it comes to sexting, and move to a more asymmetrical, holistic, educational/ harm reduction approach, combined with a criminalization message where reasonable and appropriate to do so. The onlife world is changing societal norms around intimacy. Is sexting always harmful? No. Is it always risky? Absolutely. We believe that there are no software, hardware, or criminal fixes to this challenge. We believe that age-appropriate psychosocial approaches are needed to share what the risks are specific to sexting and what teens can do to help minimize those risks.
The topic of sexting is more than just sending texts, pictures, or videos; it’s also about consent, trust, and relationship abuse in all its forms. Rather than just concentrating on those teens who send nudes, we need to focus more on those who weaponize intimate images that have been sent to them with trust and consent. In other words, we need to stop victim-blaming! We also need to empower and educate bystanders who are forwarded or shown these intimate images outside of a relationship. Teens need to understand that such a breach of trust will not be tolerated and is illegal in Canada. We also need to educate the police, educators, and parents on how to sensitively respond to a disclosure of a teen, who comes forward to report that an intimate image that they sent has now been weaponized and distributed.
Admittingly, we use to teach an abstinence-based approach to sexting, but for the past 5 years, at the high school level, we have now taken more of a hybrid abstinence/harm reduction approach that we developed with the help of teens. Yes, we still share that it is more desirable that teens not share an intimate image with others given that in 42% of incidents they get reposted. However, if they do, we then provide a harm reduction framework for their consideration to help reduce harm should the pictures become public:
#1: Make sure your face is not in the picture. This will help provide deniability if the picture becomes public.
#2: Make sure there are no scars, tattoos, birthmarks, or jewelry in the pictures that are specific to you. Again, this helps to provide deniability if the picture becomes public.
#3: Make sure that there is no identifiable clothing, like a school shirt, that is visible and/or is specific to you. Again, this helps to provide deniability if the picture becomes public.
#4: Make sure the background is neutral and not taken in your bedroom or your bathroom that can be identified back to you.
#5: Turn off automatic backup of photos on your device so that pictures are not uploaded to a file or the cloud. You want to prevent external access by others.
#6: Scrub all meta-data from the picture, such as the longitude and latitude of where the picture was taken or the type of device used to take the picture. Again, this helps to provide deniability if the picture becomes public.
#7: Lock your device and any file apps so that others who may access your phone will not have the ability to access any pictures on your device that they could copy/forward to others.
#8: Use a translucent watermark of the name of the person that you are sending the nude to, and hide it in the picture so that it is not visible. There are several free apps on the market that will allow you to do this such as “PS Express”. By taking this step, if the person you sent the picture to now sends this picture to others without your permission, there is a covert digital bread crumb that will help the police to prove that the suspect distributed the picture.
#9: Make sure that you attach a message to the picture that says, “Not to Be Shared”. Here in Canada, this will help police with proving the offence of “Non-Consensual Distribution of An Intimate Image” if the receiver does send it to others outside of a relationship without your consent.
We know that for some parents and caregivers, you will not agree with the above-noted framework, and we respect your opinion as a parent. However, we hope that most parents and caregivers will understand that we live in a different world and if our goal is to reduce harm to teens, then we need to be approaching such challenges in a way that ties into where they are in today’s onlife world, is relevant to their life, and appeals to their intelligence and experience. We believe that this will help teens to make good onlife decisions when it comes to sexting. There is no such thing as “safe sexting,” but we can make it safer thus reducing harm.
Hybrid Harm Reduction Approach:
A Tool to Help Cope with Unsolicited Requests For Nudes:
We also believe that an important component to dealing with this challenge is providing teens with tools and resources to help deal with the ever-increasing pressure to provide nudes, that they tell us is not uncommon in both middle and high schools across Canada and the USA. In our presentations, we ask teen girls how many of them have been asked for a nude. Consistently, 20-30% of their hands will go up. Often these teens tell us that such requests put them into a lose/lose situation. If they send a nude and it becomes public, they are shamed and called a “hoe,” “slut,” or “thot.” If they don’t send a nude, then they are shamed and called a “prude,” “ice queen,” or “tease.” This is yet another reason why talking about sexism with teens is so important in today’s discussions surrounding healthy human sexuality.
Hearing this concern, we here at The White Hatter have also initiated a project to provide teens with a tool to help combat unsolicited requests for nudes that we call the “No, It’s Rude to Ask for A Nude” project. Having presented to hundreds of thousands of teens from across North America, we have heard their message loud and clear; they really hate the fact that people who they usually know, and sometimes people they don’t know, are asking them to send nudes. As a result, we here at The White Hatter team wanted to provide students with a digital tool that they can use to help send a message to the solicitor that what they are asking for is inappropriate, and sometimes even criminal. These actions could result in punitive measures if they don’t stop. This digital tool is a digital image that contains this important message:
We believe that “NO” is a complete sentence with no room for negotiation—a message this image clearly depicts. We also believe that the warning, “I’ve screen captured your message as evidence if needed” sends a clear message to the person requesting the nude that if asked again, there could be consequences to their request including being arrested for Luring under section 172.1 of the Criminal Code. Many teens are unaware of this fact and when we share this in our presentations, it is always interesting to see how many jaws drop.
We encourage teens to copy or download a high-resolution version of this image to their photo album on their phone so that they can send it in a return message to a person who asked for a nude (5).
Remember, there is no technological/criminal-centric fix to the harmful non-consensual distribution of intimate images. Yes, we often find that discussions surrounding this topic primarily concentrates on abstinence, criminalization, and shaming, but such discussions do not resonate with today’s teens and their online world. We have found that the criminalization and shaming often shuts down paths for teens when it comes to support and recourse if an intimate image has been non-consensually shared; this is why many teens will not come forward to report such an incident to parents, teachers, or the police. We should move away from abstinence/criminalization approaches to this topic, and start to concentrate on educational efforts surrounding consent, trust, relationship abuse, and discussions surrounding sexism. We believe that a “hybrid” abstinence/harm-reduction approach is what is needed to truly reduce harm to our teens on this important topic.
(3) wolak and david finkelhor, “SEXTORTION: FINDINGS FROM A SURVEY OF 1,631 VICTIMS,” Crime Against Children Research Center & Thorn, Jun. 2016.