The social conservatives are raising the warning to parents, teens and everyone else of the newest grave peril to the world: sexting.
I really think there is an instinctive reaction of the “leaders of society” to be afraid of new fun things, especially if they are popular with teens. However, with over 20 years professional experience dealing with the related issues, I would propose that not only is sexting by teens (and adults) not an evil; it is, on the whole, a very positive development.
To be sure we are on the same page: let me define sexting in the broad sense. It is a person using electronic media to send nude or sexual photos or text to someone else. In effect is it little different than when in 1976, I stretched the telephone cord out to reach a storage room so I could talk to my girlfriend on the phone. I was 14 or 15 as was my girlfriend. For hours we would talk about sexual things and occasionally masturbate as we talked. I was too young and afraid to actually do any of the things we talked about. Further my imagination was limited to what I found in the Playboy, Penthouse and OUI magazines my dad had stashed in a closet. We never had physical sex in the whole half year we were a couple, but we talked about it a lot.
I tell that story because early sexual experiences are nearly universal. My wife at a slightly younger age had a best friend with whom she “practiced” what they would do when they were older and had boyfriends.
Beginning at the outset of puberty, sexual thoughts, talk and early ‘trials’ begin to grow in the lives of young people. Not the end, but the beginning of puberty. So for girls this begins between about 11 and 13 years old and for boys about 13 to 15 years old. This period is typified by self stimulation that comes short of what would be called masturbation, looking at their own bodies and observing the changes and looking at other people’s bodies and imagining what they look like naked. And early sexualized talk has always been nearly universal. What is new, is the easy access to graphic sexual photos and video. Porn is ubiquitous and is often the primary teacher of “normal” behavior to this young group looking for guidance.
By the time their bodies have matured to the point that adult type sexual behavior is an option, young people have been developing an internal vision of sexuality for several years. The problem is there is not a good outlet for that experimenting with sexuality during that formative time . There are eight to ten years between the budding of sexuality and the achievement of the maturity needed to be actively sexual in a responsible fashion. This lag time holds many pitfalls for adolescents; disease, pregnancy and exploitation leads are just a few of the potential problems. Those adults in charge have a tendency to just pretend that young people are asexual until the transform overnight into full fledged adults. When they do so, they also tend to label the search of adolescent’s for sexual identity problematic. Whether they use the word sinful or inappropriate or perverted, they all have the same underlying meaning: people are not supposed to even notice their sexuality until they become ‘adults’. Of course this is nonsense.
Into the gap between the onset of sexual development and the age at which maturity allows for good decision making, falls sexting. Sexting allows for young people to explore their developing sexual bodies, desires and identities from a safe distance. The only difference between my time in the mid 1970’s and now, is that instead of writing erotic poems or talking sex on a telephone, is they can now take and send photos of their new “bits”.
Herein is what really upsets the old people. The photos. God forbid someone see their 15 year old daughter naked. How it could be misused! And what about the lurking pedophiles?
Both of these are red herrings to hide the discomfort of the older generation. Let me take them one at a time.
Can naked photos be misused? Certainly cyber bulling is an issue and it needs to be addressed. However, the cyber bully will find a way to harm people sexting or not. On the larger problem of having naked photos show up one day, it is function of uniqueness. In the 80’s even married couples were warned never to make sex tape because if anyone found out they had it they would be disgraced. Now home sex movies are the norm. Unless they are of celebs, no one cares. And as this generation moves into adulthood, naked photos of them as teens will become a non issue as well. Surveys say over 70% of all teens do it. Thus, for this generation, it is and will be the norm not the exception and so the photos loose their “blackmail” power.
When our daughter was 14, another parent became enraged when they found out she was video chatting topless with their son. Was my daughter a perv? Did she need to be jailed? No. Our response was that in itself, there was nothing inherently evil about showing her new breasts to a boy; but, the parents of the boy did have rights and we needed to respect them. Further it gave us a first time to talk explicitly about the age of consent. We pointed out that as she would not be at the age of consent until she was 16, she should not do that again until that time.
In the last few years some local D.A.’s have prosecuted teens who are of the age of consent for taking their own photos and sending them to others. This is a huge issue. These people seek to say that while teens may legally consent to fuck their brains out at 16 (almost everywhere in the US), but photographic virtual sex (with no risk of disease or pregnancy) at the same age is tantamount to child pornography. This is absurd. In the end, I’m sure reason will prevail in the courts; however, for now the best advice for now to teens is to not show your face in nude photos until they are 18 until this problem is resolved.
This issue of pedophiles is not a light one. I worked full time with sex offender treatment for several years and have a good handle on the issue. What most people don’t understand is that pedophiles can just as easily use photos of children from the Sears Catalog as fodder for masturbation. Moreover, the serious pedophile doesn’t look for photos of adolescent girls, but rather pre-pubescent girls and that is another matter all together. There is no question that it is unwise for young girls or boys to post photos of a sexual nature (clothed or nude) on social media that has potential access to their personal information. But that it true for adults as well.
Sexting does do something else very important to society and the developing teens. It provides a avenue for that pubescent and adolescent population to see what real girls and boys look like at their age. Only three-quarters of a century ago among that same 11-15 year old group, single sex and co-ed skinny dipping was not uncommon in rural America. I would suggest adolescents prior to WWII had significantly more first-hand experience regarding what others of their age looked like naked than they do today. What this age group doe see today are movie stars and porn stars. Neither of which make a good baseline on which to compare one’s own body.
Adolescence is the age at which all of us develop an internal vision of what is sexually arousing and what is not, as well as what we ‘should’ look like. The most common images seen by today’s adolescents are of chiseled men with huge penises and skinny women with huge breasts. These images are so far outside the norm as to leave 95% of the population in the “unattractive” group. Once this generation moves through this period of life, those images of sexual normalcy become forever fused with their adult sexual personhood to their detriment. They will forever judge themselves and others by that vision of normal.
I make the case for sexting as a positive activity in the lives of teens (and yes for adults too).
1) Sexting is a safe and appropriate way for teens to explore their developing sexuality.
2) Sexting is a “real” counterbalance to the media fantasy about human bodies.