The discussion surrounding young people and sexting is fast becoming a matter of moral panic. In the last month, The Telegraph has reported how one in four teenagers send sexual text messages, Hollyoaks featured a sexting plotline, the BBC posted a series of open letters from parents to their children, and even Kate Middleton broached the topic. Notably, what they all have in common is their depiction of sexting as overwhelmingly negative.
Certainly, sexting can be a negative experience. There is obviously an appropriate age in which sexts should be sent and received, and nobody, child or adult, should feel pressured into engaging in such activity (or any activity). Likewise, using intimate images or texts sent by someone in order to blackmail them, or spreading them around without consent, is a violation of trust and of boundaries. None of these things are acceptable, and all of them need to be tackled. But they are not an inherent part of sexting.
The media time and again fails to acknowledge the fact that sexting is not in and of itself a bad thing. Statistics reported, those in The Telegraph included, often provide information about the number of young people who have sexted without even making a distinction as to those who did so of their own free will. The teenagers in The Telegraph study, for example, are aged 15 to 18. In other words, young people who will be, at a perfectly natural pace, becoming sexually curious and sexually active. There is no reason why, in an age as technological as this, that sexting would not be a part of this. It allows the exploration and appreciation of each others’ bodies from a comfortable distance, and it can be exciting and pleasurable – and, crucially, it can be safe. Yes, there is a huge amount of trust involved in the exchange, and young people should be aware that there are risks, but to actively discourage them from ever participating in it is to place the onus on the wrong party.
If the problem with sexting is that some people feel pressured into doing it, or that those messages and images might be spread or used for blackmail, then it is a problem that rests with those who carry out such abuse, and only them. They should be discouraged from behaving in this way, and condemned for doing so – not the people innocently trying to explore their sexuality. In all likelihood, the complete lack of respect for consent and people in general that they have shown will be mirrored elsewhere in their lives; that needs to be changed fast. Vastly improved sex education is probably, as it so often is, a good place to start. But not, as Diane Abbott MP has suggested, because British culture is becoming “increasingly pornified” and his needs to be undone; teenagers having an interest in sex, and wanting to explore their own and each others bodies, is perfectly fine. Sex is fine. And this is the kind of message that should be expressed through sex ed., with a stress on the importance of consent and safety.
Sexting should absolutely be able to form a healthy part of this. When The Telegraph makes reference, with an air of bewilderment, that potential consequences of sexting, like “getting a bad reputation or being blackmailed” apparently don’t deter teenagers from doing it, you have to ask – why the hell should it? There shouldn’t be negative consequences. Sending sexts, and even having someone (or lots of people) see your messages or images, should not result in a bad reputation. There should be no shame in being naked or being sexual, and it should not be used as a weapon against those who are. Undoubtedly, these things are the case now, but we should not assume that they are natural; we should work to tackle them.
Teenagers who are just becoming aware of their desires, of all people, shouldn’t be made to feel like sex, and the outlets like sexting that they use to explore it, are bad. This kind of repression occurs enough throughout society, especially to young women. Including, apparently, from their own parents. Several of those featured in the BBC article refer to the lack of “respect” that their children are supposedly showing themselves by sexting, as though simply being sexual – and being seen to be sexual – is bad. One mother even suggests that her daughters would be showing a lack of self-respect even if they had been emotionally blackmailed or pressured into sending naked photos. This is victim-blaming, and the unhealthy and unhelpful views that these parents have about sex will surely negatively impact those of their children.
When one of the mothers asks her daughter to think before sending a sext, “would you post this on Facebook?” she’s rather missing the point. Her daughter probably doesn’t want to have sex with all of her Facebook friends. But she wants to have sex with the person that she’s sending the sext to, and that’s the point: sexting is merely an extension of sexual activity. The fact that people feel pressured into doing it, and that they may become victim to blackmail or have them spread across school or the Internet, is undoubtedly a huge problem – but the answer is not to discourage young adults from sexting, and certainly not to shame them for it. Sexting is not the enemy. That will always be those who choose to abuse – and at the very core, deep-seated negative views about sex. Dismantling these is the real answer here; not shaming teens for their sexual urges.