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The 'sexting' phenomenon - and why we need to keep talking

Rachel Gardner

18 Nov, 2016


Research shows 'sexting' is a fast-growing phenomenon amongst young people. How can adults respond helpfully and sensitively, without resorting to shaming or just feigning ignorance?


It seems that when it comes to stopping teens sexting, the horse has already bolted. (Or, to be more accurate, the sext has already been sent.)

Academics in Australia have recently called for an end to Government-funded, abstinence-only sexting education. Why? Because simply telling teens not to sext doesn’t work. Even worse, it seems to be loading shame and judgement on the very people it’s trying to help. Instead of a reduction in nude-selfie-sharing, Australian teens seem to be ramping things up and of course they’re not alone. The global phenomenon of ‘sexting’ (a term coined as recently as 2005) isn’t going away. In fact, it’s absorption into young people’s daily lives is an indication that when it comes to ‘sexting’ we’re not talking about the 21st century version of the underwear section of the BHS catalogue! Young people are engaging in digital sexual cultures, and like all sexual activity, there are real consequences.

The sexting schism

For any of us working with young people, it comes as no surprise to hear that the way we often try to tackle the conversation of digital sexual culture doesn’t always compute with what’s really going on for them. The authors of Beyond Sexting; Consent and Harm Minimisation in Digital Sexual Cultures (Yfoundations, Sept 2016) are right to highlight the growing schism between professional’s understanding and interventions around sexting and young people experiences. And they're right to challenge the approach that says, ‘If we terrify young people with the legal or shame implications of sexting, then they’ll avoid it!’ It’s just not that simple. (And it’s not acceptable to open up any conversation about God’s great gift of sexuality by leaning hard on young people’s fear of humiliation, rejection and punishment.)

But is any work with young people in this new technological territory we’re in, simple? If it was, wouldn’t that be a sign that we’re missing something? And just because a message isn’t ‘working’, does that automatically mean its not right, or has no place? It might mean we need to work harder at understanding not only our message but also our audience.

I see enormous potential in the strategies currently being developed by academics and professionals around effective harm-minimisation strategies for young people engaging in sexting. But I’m still not ready to give up on the idea that we should be raising awareness among young people that sexting is something they don’t need to engage in. Hearing us validate their capacity for resisting something potentially harmful is a good thing - surely. It matters that we don’t increase the likelihood of harm, or weaken the resolve, of those young people who would have said no. Hearing ‘Your choices matter and your no is enough!’ is a powerful message. Learning the tools and accessing the support to empower that choice, even if it takes ages for a young person to act out that choice, doesn’t diminish the rightness of it.

Taking control

But I also know that ‘how-to-say-no’ education isn’t enough - and this isn’t a new dilemma for us. If I had a penny for every time a christian youth worker has asked me, ‘Is it enough for me to equip young people in how not to have sex, or do I need to help them know how to stay safe if they do?’ I’d be able to employ another Romance Academy worker. (Now...there’s an idea!)

When it comes to sexting, as with all things we engage with in youth culture, our task is to help young people feel more in control of their actions. To be more engaged with their emotions, more invested in their community, more aware of their value, more confident of their values, more inspired by their potential, more empowered by their hopes, more informed in their choices and more committed in their relationships.

Gareth Cheesman of ACET UK (and a leading thinker in this area) frames it brilliantly when he says ‘It’s a fact that young people are developing their personality and sexual identity online. Our job is to equip them with the tools to develop in healthy ways. Our focus should be on empowering young people to set boundaries in all their relationships; online and offline.’

The harm-minimisation approach championed by the Australian academics is worth studying. I think you’ll find some helpful ideas as you develop work among your young people in this area. But I’m not sure that as yet we’ve fully understood the complicated relationship young people have with internet technology. And maybe those dial-up kids among us never will!

Gender injustice

But there’s much we do understand very well, that is directly applicable to the sexting conversation. More applicable in many ways than the drugs-harm reduction approach the ‘Y Foundation’ use. Take gender injustice for example. We need to recognise the power structures in society that are played out in sexting.

‘We mustn’t engage in double standards when working with young people,’ says gender justice specialist Natalie Collins. ‘Suggesting that boys are inevitably sexually uncontrollable and that girls are a) shamed for their sexual choices or b) responsible for boy’s choices is dangerous and perpetuates cultural messages that normalise harmful sexual behaviour and choices.’

I see this in my own youth work. The girls I support are under immense pressure from the boys in their lives to share sexual images. These images are then, mostly, shared round by the boys. Yet it is the girls who experience peer humiliation and shame. It’s the girls, not the boys, who are ‘slut shamed’ by peers and adults alike. And although I want to push against the injustice of this, I wouldn’t be doing these girls justice if I didn’t help them to survive living in the reality of it.

Sometimes that reality looks like helping them explore how they can minimise harm (‘Don’t meet anyone off-line you’ve met on-line without informing parents and taking a friend with you,’ ‘Avoid taking nude selfies that can identify you’). But that also looks like empowering their confidence and critical thinking around consent so that they know they have the opportunity and right to choose not to share themselves in such a vulnerable and risky way. This is not only sex-positive, but girl-positive, boy-positive, tech-positive, relationship-positive and any other relevant SRE type word you may want to throw into the mix!

There is so much about this new sexual norm that we’re yet to understand. We’re just at the beginning of seeing the power of the Internet to define young people’s personality, habits and morality. So because of that I for one really appreciate any piece of research, report, insight, conversation and resource that helps me think and act better. (Big love to Sarah Long for doing exactly that when I was writing this blog!)

So let’s all keep talking!

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