News about sexting has become so nonstop lately that it’s almost like background noise. The coach accused of sexting his students. The doctor accused of sexting during surgery. The hooker who mistakenly sexted a cop. The Ohio teen who was almost arrested for sexting her boyfriend.
This list goes on. Because like it or not, sexting has officially become part of our culture, a part I see playing out in the backseat of my own car as I drive my middle-school daughter and her friends around. They whisper now, hands curled protectively over mouths, the wanton giggles and bubbly banter of their tween years all but gone. The word “nudes” snaked its way up to me in the front seat the other day, settling in like a dangerous, unwelcome hitchhiker. I felt it in my bones, my whole body suddenly on high alert. In my rearview mirror, though, the girls just gazed nonchalantly at their phones. Scrolling and scrolling and scrolling.
They are 13, and sexting just is.
I’ve talked to my daughter a lot about the dangers of sending out nude pictures. We’ve discussed digital permanence. And self-respect. And about how every single text or picture she puts out there is just one screen shot away from going viral. Which means the buck stops with her. For now at least, I think she gets it. But things move fast these days, and just as I’ve managed to convince myself that my kid’s got a handle on things, along comes an eye-opening new study from Indiana University that says sexting among teens may not always be a choice.
According to the Washington Post, researchers asked 480 young adults (160 men and 320 women) whether their most recent partner had pressured or manipulated them into sending sexual pictures against their will. The findings? One in five revealed that they had been coerced into sexting at some point by “repeated asking and being made to feel obligated.”
“I think it is a surprising finding,” developmental psychologist Michelle Drouin told the Post, adding that, “Because sexting is common among youth and young adults today, individuals may believe that sexting coercion is normal and even harmless.”
But it’s not. Drouin found that young adults who were forced to sext were more traumatized than the ones whose partners had coerced them into having intercourse. “Coercion into sexting caused more trauma, for both men and women … than coercion into actual physical sex,” she said, adding that for female victims, it was more traumatic than even “traditional forms of partner aggression like verbal abuse and physical violence.”
Worse than violence or being bullied into having sex? These results seem shocking to me. But Cindy Southworth, the executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, explains to the Post: “[A] nude picture lives in eternity—it’s an artifact of trauma, and an object of blackmail, that never goes away.”
So what now? How do we help our kids understand the consequences of being bullied or manipulated into sexting when the act may be done subtly and the perpetrator may be their own boyfriend or girlfriend?
By educating them about it, that’s how.
Common Sense Media offers the following tips on its website: Don’t wait for something to happen to your teen or your teen’s friend before you start talking about the dangers of coercive sexting. Start a conversation about the pressure to send revealing photos now. Let your kids know you understand how they can be pushed or dared into sending something sexual, and explain that no matter how big the social pressure is, the potential social humiliation and lasting consequences can be hundreds of times worse.
Sadly, even that is probably an understatement.