There have been several stories in the past couple weeks about technology, and how it affects our relationships. Many writers believe, in essence, that social media hasn’t really changed the way we interact, at root: it just gives us new manifestations of old societal patterns or tendencies.
Hanna Rosin’s cover story for The Atlantic, “Why Kids Sext,” is about technology’s effect on relationships—but it focuses on a more concerning vein of technological change. Rosin tells the story of high schoolers in Louisa County, Virginia, whose nude photos (“sexts”) were posted to a public Instagram count. These pictures had been collected from boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, and others. Some girls had submitted the photos themselves. Many others were unhappily surprised by the photos’ appearance online. But the truth remained: almost every student at the school admitted to having sent sexts—indeed, most said they had sent sexts to over half the student body.
The girls Rosin talked to reported feeling at least some pressure to send the sexts. Many who sent the pictures to a boyfriend had subsequently asked him to delete the picture (though these requests are, as the Instagram account demonstrates, rarely obeyed). Girls often seem to seek affirmation or security through sending sexts. They may be single and seeking a boyfriend; they may have a boyfriend, or prospective boyfriend, beg them for a photo. Whatever the case, there is a lot of peer pressure involved here—and a strong double standard. Rosin reports that boys who get nude photos from girls are likely to call the girls “sluts,” yet if a girl refuses to send them a picture, they decide she’s “stuck up” or a “prude.” Boys collect these photos like baseball or Pokemon cards, says Rosin, their way of “showing off.”
Yet what is Rosin’s response to this phenomenon? She acknowledges that parents may be “creeped out” or “upset” to find out how common sexting is amongst their kids and their friends. Yet she seems to credit this attitude more with out-dated prudery than with well-founded concern:
… That such a photo should come to light doesn’t mean the girl and the boy are having sex, or that the boy is a stalker, or that the photo is going to show up on the Web. … The research suggests that if your child is sexting but not yet in high school, you should worry more. And that you should do the same if your daughter has no real relationship with the boy she’s sending sexts to, but is pursuing a relationship, or just responding to repeated requests for a photo. Sexts don’t create sexual dynamics; they reveal them. Parents should use the opportunity to find out what those dynamics are, lest they accidentally make things worse.
It could be that this new technology isn’t necessarily changing the way high schoolers interact, but rather just “reveals” the sexual dynamics already at play in their lives. But it is true that the consequences of a teen’s actions now have incredibly public and long-lasting ramifications. These photos don’t just “disappear.”
At the same time, the entire story seems to confirm the fact that sexting is incredibly harmful to the reputation, happiness, and social wellbeing of the girls involved, while there are little to no consequences for the boyfriends and boys who view and pass around these pictures. The girls are the ones who truly suffer, and who often regret their decisions. They are the ones whose bodies are passed around in photos like baseball cards, who often send intimate photos in an act of “trust,” as one girl Rosin interviewed put it, only to be ignored or passed over by that trusted boy the next week.
Yet the modern issues of sexting and sending nude photos are usually only discussed in the language of “consent”: if the girl willingly sends a photo to a known receiver, then everything is fine. This was true in the recent Jennifer Lawrence / Reddit photo scandal—Lawrence was angry the photos were released to the web without her consent, but when she talked about the photos in an interview with Vanity Fair, she posed for a nude photo shoot. This seems like a strange double standard—unless, as Megan Garber stated in her Atlantic article on the subject, Lawrence is making a statement about the nature of her complaint. “Lawrence wants us to look at her—on some level, she needs us to look at her, she writes. “But she wants us—and she needs us—to do our looking in the way that she specifies.”
But there seems to be a problem with this framing, with “consent” being the only constraint worth considering. What if you are too young and vulnerable to properly consent? What if your original consent eventually leads—as it did to so many Louisa County high schoolers—to an abject neglect of consent and privacy?
The rising prevalence of sexting seems to have alarming implications for where young women rest their value, and how they approach romantic relationships. Sexting does nothing to show women that they are more than mere bodies—that their worth transcends the sexual, and that they deserve respect and care. Sexting does nothing to show a girl her worth on an emotional, intellectual, or spiritual level.
Sexting does nothing to teach girls about an intimacy that is more than merely sexual, that treasures a person’s entire character, that can be profoundly meaningful—and profoundly respectful—without the trading of sexually compromising and potentially exploitative pictures.
Sexting does none of these things. Parents who talk to their daughters about sexting shouldn’t merely try to ascertain the “sexual dynamics” involved. They should try to make sure their daughters understand the long-term consequences involved. And they should make sure, first and foremost, that their daughters know they are valuable, prized, and beautiful—no matter how many times they have to tell a boy “no.”