Sexting: A Scandal?

Sexting: A Scandal?

By Lisa Olcese, Executive Director
January 11, 2016

Sexting has been going on for years. According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary, it first appeared as a term in 2007. This is the act of sending explicit messages or images via cell phone. Originally this was via text, but it quickly became an act of sending these messages or images via emails, social media messages and tweets as well. Most recently, there has been a lot of media attention on the topic of sexting among teens both in the US and abroad. These sexting “scandals” are far from scandals. 

Yes, what happened in Canon City - images of young girls being traded like baseball cards - is alarming and terrible. As a result, there have been mixed reactions as to how to address this. What makes this issue complicated is that sexually explicit images of youth is considered child pornography and is illegal. What also makes this issue so complex is the degree and types of actions a youth takes with regard to sexting. So what happens when teen age boy sends a picture of his genitals to his sweetheart or a teen age girl sends a topless photo of herself to her partner? What happens when a girl sends her picture to her boyfriend through a “secure app” and then the app owns it, or in the case of Canon City, what happens when a group of young people participate in a trading ring of explicit photos of their peers? A common reaction is to ban the use of cell phones in school, or to put parental controls on the websites or apps a teen can access. Some extremes include charging teens with federal charges for child pornography. 

What about education? 

At Colorado Youth Matter, we take the position that the act of engaging in sexting has become part of the sexual development of a young person. With the exploration and curiosity that comes with sexuality, beginning with the exploration of one’s body, to the exploration of what feels good, exploring ways of generating and satisfying arousal is normal. How this exploration is done is what needs to be talked about. 

Adults have a rather strange belief that sexual arousal, interest and activity are all experiences that lie dormant until youth suddenly turn 18, 21, 35 or have a ring on their finger. This is an incorrect belief at best and a very dangerous one at worst. Before we go around criminalizing young people for being sexual beings, for satisfying their curiosities and for doing what many of us as adults probably would have done had we had that technology, let’s talk about it. And let’s talk about everything that is part of sexting. This includes sex, arousal, pleasure, safety, boundaries, excitement, risk, and privacy. 

Research shows that when we talk about sex at a comprehensive level, where we include topics like safe relationships, boundaries, possible consequences, and contraception, youth delay the onset of their first sexual encounter and are more likely to use contraception effectively when they do have sex. So instead of simply outlawing sexting for teens, let’s talk with and educate them. In order to talk with them, we first have to listen – to what motivates them, piques their curiosity, excites and bewilders them. In order to educate them, we must first educate ourselves and not react out of fear, but out of love and concern for providing young people with the tools and information necessary for them to make the very best decisions they can about their own sexual development. And it’s ok to say “I don’t know – but I want to learn more” or “That concerns me – and here’s why.” There is only so much we can do as adults. But the best thing we can and must do is trust youth with information so that they’re best equipped to make responsible decisions - and to be there for them when they don’t.