There is nothing new about sharing a nude photo with a beloved. You just used to have to go to a seedy photography shop to get your film developed, or use a Polaroid and hand it over. The chances of lots of people seeing the photo were low. Remember needing to spring for double prints? Now, within seconds, thousands of people can see your nude photo depending on which app or website it gets uploaded to. Stats on the prevalence of sexting among teens are unclear, because studies range between 9%-60% (1, 2) of teens reporting that they have ever shared a nude image of themselves. But the stats are boring - what we really need to think about is WHY are teens sexting and are there differences in sexting between boys and girls that we need to pay attention to?
Bottom line, if sexting is the norm in a teen’s social circle, they will likely sext (3). By the way, teens don’t talk about sexting with the term ‘sexting’. The term they use is “sending/sent nudes”. Teens who both send and receive nudes tend to be more popular than teens who don’t (4). Many of the girls I talk with think if you send a nude photo without your face in it, then there will be no negative outcome. Similarly, because sexting occurs so often without consequences like jail or being completely socially ostracized, when teens hear adults say that these consequences will occur, it makes adults lose credibility, because they “know” those bad things will not happen, because they haven’t happened yet.
What we should really focus on as parents, teachers, and medical providers is WHY boys and girls engage in sexting, and there are clearly different reasons. Girls feel pressure to send sexts and are more likely to do so than boys (5). Boys feel more pressure to collect sexts and are more likely to receive sexts and share them with friends or post them online than girls. This poses an issue because it sets up a type of marketplace, where the boys are the consumers and the girls are the products to be consumed. And yes, sometimes boys are senders, but hetero girls are often not into dick pics. When I do trainings for schools who are in the middle of sexting scandals, I often hear a plea to get the sexting to stop! It is not that simple. We have to change the culture of a school that supports sexting to occur in the first place. A culture that says boys and girls should behave differently when it comes to sexual and romantic encounters.
The sexual double standard (the belief that men are sexual and women are not) is alive and well in sexting. We think nothing of a boy requesting a nude image or video, but when a girl participates, we think something is wrong with her. Instead of acknowledging that she too, is sexual. However, the sexual double standard has evolved some, but perhaps not in a way that is better for girls (6). Today, girls are expected to refrain from sexual activity, but be extremely sexually attractive and go to extreme lengths to prove it. Hello? Send a nude! Get likes for sexy selfie on Instagram! It is not enough to be pure, elegant and ladylike, you also need to be hot and sexually available to men without actually doing the deed. Yeah, not easily achieved.
So instead of taking girls who’ve sent nudes aside, and trying to figure out what’s wrong with them-why don’t we take some boys aside and try to figure out what’s wrong with them for sharing or posting a nude photo of an under-aged girl? Why don’t we try to have responsible men (teachers, coaches, and dads) tell boys that constantly asking a girl to send nudes is harassment…and posting the nudes online is a crime? Don’t get me wrong, girls need education in this area as well, but I think we can all agree it that boys are too often left out of these conversations and would benefit from learning greater respect for girls (even girls that make poor choices), greater respect for privacy when a partner makes a decision to share something private, and learning that sexting can be a really bad idea with broad-reaching consequences.
(1) Mitchell, K. J., Jones, L., Finkelhor, D., & Wolak, J. (2014b). Youth involvement in sexting: Findings from the youth internet safety studies. Crimes Against Children Research Center, 1-11.
(2) Crimmins, D. M., & Seigfried-Spellar, K. C. (2014). Peer attachment, sexual experiences, and risky online behaviors as predictors of sexting behaviors among undergraduate students. Computers in Human Behavior, 32, 268-275.
(3) Walrave, M., Ponnet, K., Van Ouytsel, J., Van Gool, E., Heirman, W., & Verbeek, A. (2015). Whether or not to engage in sexting: Explaining adolescent sexting behaviour by applying the prototype willingness model. Telematics and Informatics, (April). doi:10.1016/j.tele.2015.03.008
(4) Vanden Abeele, M., Campbell, S. W., Eggermont, S., & Roe, K. (2014). Sexting, Mobile Porn Use, and Peer Group Dynamics: Boys’ and Girls' Self-Perceived Popularity, Need for Popularity, and Perceived Peer Pressure. Media Psychology, 17(1), 6–33. doi:10.1080/15213269.2013.801725.
(5) Ringrose, J., Harvey, L., Gill, R., & Livingstone, S. (2013). Teen girls, sexual double standards and ‘sexting’: Gendered value in digital image exchange. Feminist Theory, 14, 305-323.
(6) Milhausen, R. R., & Herold, E. S. (1999). Does the sexual double standard still exist? Perceptions of university women. Journal of Sex Research, 36, 361-368.