My relative nonchalance about teens and sexting didn’t come easily. I promise. I was duly shocked and afraid when I learned that kids, kids I know and love, were sending “sexy” pictures of themselves to each other. I mean, nipples live forever in cyberspace, and we can’t have that, now can we? Mind you, I’ve talked to countless teens and parents about navigating sexuality and can converse about safe anal sex without skipping a beat, but sexting and teens just freaked me out, as it does many people.
It is, essentially, porn. Right?
But wait, I love porn. I can also talk about safe consumption of porn without missing a beat, but sexting and teens still freaked me out.
My husband wasn’t nearly as bothered as I was by the idea. “So?” was all he said when we found out that a kid we knew was partaking in the sexy texts. He couldn’t figure out why I was so bothered. I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t.
So I turned to my daughter. At 17, she is the most mature member of our household and would surely be able to explain why this was all such a problem. “So?” was all she said.
I stammered around in confusion for a while. So let’s get a few things out of the way. I, personally, love sexting. I love it for me. It’s fun. It’s like emotional lube for me that gets me ready for whatever is to come, as it were. And it’s a pretty clear indicator for my husband of what I have in mind. I’m a fan. (Though I have to remember to either delete them quickly, or never to let my kids have my phone.)
That said, I’ve had my own close calls, which probably lent fuel to my fear. But really, this just means we need to help kids define safer sexting, same way we help them define safer sex. I did have one guy ask if he could film the two of us together. I said, “Sure, as long as it’s on my phone and not yours,” which didn’t interest him, so it didn’t happen. Sex also stopped happening with him, because that was a red flag for me. Then there was the time I accidentally sexted my mother-in-law. Thankfully, it was just hysterical, and I have never laughed so hard in my life. I’m grateful that it was words and not photos!
So yes, things can go wrong with sexting, and I think part of my fear was just that run of the mill parental fear. I want to protect my kids from anything and everything that could ever hurt them in any way, even though I know that’s both stupid and impossible. Kids, like the rest of us, learn in their own way, and a lot of the times that is by doing things that hurt them a little.
Over the course of the next few days, I kept asking my daughter little things here and there about sexting. Although her overall response was still “meh,” she did get out a few multisyllabic responses that started to bring me around. She pointed out that, amongst other things, if “everyone” is doing it (and I think almost everyone is), there’s not much room to shame and torment people with pictures of their boobs. I can’t really argue with that logic. I’m pretty sure that there was also a comment along the lines of, “Aren’t you the one who’s always saying you wished we lived in a world in which no one would be afraid of their body being seen?” And she’s right. In her blasé take on things, sexting was a step in the right direction.
I have no idea if my daughter engages in sexting. It’s none of my business and I know that, so I’m not going to ask her. However, I did see an opportunity to talk to her about some of the issues that surround sexting, and all sex things, really.
Consent: Just like any other sexual activity, one must have consent before giving or receiving. That consent is not blanket consent to share it with whomever. You consent to very specific things, with clearly defined boundaries and expectations.
The difference with sexting is that even if you think it’s just the two of you, it can be shared. So, how would you feel if it were shared with, say, the entire world? I try to make clear that if it’s OK with you, then it’s OK. But what I won’t do is catastrophize the potential for her. “Oh my God! What if someone sees you naked. What then?!” I mean, really, what then? So, someone sees you naked—big whoop. I’m starting to see it her way. And maybe this is a small step to that dream I have….
Motive: Why are you sending sexy pics? It’s important to know why you’re sexting someone, and if it makes you more vulnerable, emotionally, than you need to be. If you are doing it and “it” can be anything—sexting, sex, drinking, dressing a certain way—just to get someone’s attention, then you’re probably more vulnerable than you need to be. If it’s a sort of “hazing” or dare to “prove” that you’re “fun” then it’s a game and you’re the pawn. But if you’re into someone, you have a safe and happy thing, and you feel like sexting, then it’s within your rights to define some boundaries and enjoy it. It can also be a great way to learn how to talk about what you want sexually, in a way that sometimes feels a little safer than face to face—like communication training wheels, and I think that’s got some real value.
Repercussions: Sexting, like sex, can have unintended consequences. Go into it with your eyes open. Unlike sex, sexting can easily be shared—now, mind you, so can sex. Gossip is a powerful tool, and one that can make things much more juicy than they really are. I know that when I was in high school, a fruitless and fumbling hand job was turned into some wild sex (that I don’t think is even physically possible) when it was told to others. So, this is just another form of gossip, and I’m not sure that the truth of a photograph is any worse than the fecund imaginings of horny teenagers.
The law, on the other hand, is a swift and painful hand. Laws haven’t caught up to the reality of human behavior yet. As of right now, there are states in which teens can become registered sex offenders and child pornographers for possessing sext messages. I think that means that we need to make sure kids understand the laws, and that we need to fight to change the laws. No kid who sends their partner a picture of their body—consensually—should be labeled a pornographer or have a criminal record. That’s just absurd.
As for the social shaming that goes along with it, that’s on us, not them. I’m kind of impressed that they’re having none of it. Remember a little while ago, when someone tried to shame Marc Jacobs for hosting an orgy with people he found on Grindr. He shut that shit down, saying “Yup. I’m gay. Sometimes I enjoy sex. Sometimes!” He showed that you can’t shame someone who isn’t ashamed, that the person who owns their body and their image is a lot harder to bully than the person who fears what other people think of their body and their image. I can’t help but wonder if the “meh, whatever” attitude that kids have about their bodies being seen by other people might not be empowering in some way that we just don’t understand.
“Kids these days! I never would have been caught doing the things they’re doing!”—said every adult, ever, with varying degrees of honesty and outrage. Kids these days have been doing shocking things since there was an older generation around to be shocked by it.
Bikinis! Spin the Bottle! Playboy! What is wrong with kids these days? What is the world coming to?
I get it. I freaked out too, at first. But my own teenage daughter, and my unimpressed husband, brought me around. Yes, it’s a different world than we grew up in, which is why much of our hysteria is totally pointless. We are worrying about things and contexts that we know nothing about. Like it or not, they are creating the world that they will be adults in. We won’t understand it, and we don’t have to.
Their bodies, their lives, their choices, their world. God knows we haven’t perfected this world, but maybe they will. More of the same old shit we’re used to isn’t necessarily the right path. So, who knows, maybe this path is paved with naked photos for a short while, and then opens up to a brave new world in which no one gives a shit about anyone else’s nipples. I’ll miss the naked photos in that case; I kind of like them. But it’s probably better that we just stop giving a shit about the bodies and sexuality of other people altogether. Fixating on it sure isn’t fixing things.
I have faith in the kids. Kids these days, they’re alright.