Issues of sexuality, pressure and consent for young people continue to make the rounds in the media and for good reason – these spaces are far murkier than they were in the time when most readers of this article were their age, and as such, we may not fully understand the challenges facing teenagers today.
Sexting is one of these issues – by no means do I consider myself old, but when I was in high school we didn’t all have mobile phones, and we had no idea of what social media was. Giving someone a racy photo was unthinkable – the attendant in the photo developing place would see it!
Phones and various social apps make connecting much easer and as a result are breaking our previously held limits and boundaries. Additionally, these devices are exposing children to sexualized images in more easily accessible ways, where in previous generations they would only be viewed in printed media.
Here is a shocking but true statement – for many young people today, sexting is something they consider to be a normal part of a relationship. In fact, according to boyologist Maggie Dent, around half of our young people are sexting.
Why do they sext? Perhaps the answer comes in the simple desire to be accepted and liked. This is powerful for both boys and girls. Girls may feel suggestive pictures and messages is “the way” to keep a boy’s interest (or another girl – sexting is an issue for teens of all sexual orientations), and boys may feel this is a way to prove they are manly and desired – ironically to other boys. We need to challenge both these mindsets. Boys are not naturally more sexually aggressive than girls – although admittedly the pressure to engage in sexting seems to be coming largely from boys. There are however, examples of the opposite often from girls and young women entering new relationships, after a previous relationship had a strong focus on this. This can be confronting for unworldly boys as the reverse is for shy girls.
The impact of this is that our children then make the assumption that this is how relationships are formed. But real, respectful relationships cannot be built upon unhealthy ways of connecting with each other.
There are serious consequences to sexting that we need to make young people aware of – both for girls and for boys. For girls, the consequences they fear tend to be more social, the fear of photos being shared or of reputational ruin. Given the differences in how the genders tend to view and use sexting for social acceptance, the consequences for young men may also be legal – especially if images are ever shared. You can be prosecuted for forwarding on explicit images, and there is also prosecution pressuring someone into sending explicit images– something all people need to be aware of.
So is there a solution to this issue? Although we may immediately go to the proverbial panic stations and want to frighten our teenagers into compliance – shame is not the answer.. not to this issue, nor any related issues. Ultimately – sexting can be a part of a healthy relationship – where there is trust and sensitivity involved. Perhaps qualities that are only developed, when they reach maturity. Instead, we are better to focus on teaching the young people we live and work with to be confident in making their own decisions – and to feel absolutely free to deny anything that feels wrong to them. Teach them to listen to that little voice or feeling of doubt, and to take their time to understand what is right for them. Show them the implications of posting images online – the longevity of these images and just how widespread they can actually become. Remind them too, that is not ok to pressure anyone into anything they are uncomfortable with. This is bullying behaviour.
We need to teach boys and girls that it is not ok to pressure people to do/send anything. If someone doesn’t answer initially in the affirmative, then stop asking. This is an issue of consent – and consent must be a resounding yes – not a yes after several pestering and increasingly pressing text messages.
We can also challenge the idea of illicit pictures being a status symbol. When discussing this issue with young people, we need to talk about trust, intimacy and privacy. These are not to be shared, nor is it fair to view them if not intended for you. They should feel empowered to state – “this is not for me so it is not appropriate for me to see”.
This will go a long way to combatting a culture of sharing these images.
Social pressure is the enemy here – and so education and parental understanding and guidance have strong roles to play in ensuring that young people feel empowered to act in their own best interests – and in ways that protect others.
Here are some further resources you might find useful:
Photo by Adrienn from Pexels