Sexting: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

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Well, this sucks: Apparently when it comes to sexting, teen girls are doomed no matter what they do. According to a new study, adolescent boys label a girl if she does sext… and also if she doesn’t sext. Concluded University of Michigan researchers Julia Lippmann and Scott Campbell, “This indicates that sexting is a lose-lose proposition for girls; regardless of whether or not they sext, their behavior is evaluated in harsh — and often sexist — terms.” I think I speak for us all when I say: Yikes.

The study, which TIME notes is “appropriately titled ‘Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t… If You’re a Girl,’” asked 51 teens between the ages of 12 and 18 to answer an open-ended questionnaire about sexting. The questionnaire inquired both about the participants’ own sexting habits (or lack thereof), as well as what they thought about their peers who sext. Although both boys and girls admitted to sexting — defined here as “the transmission via electronic means of sexually provocative or explicit images or videos featuring someone known to the sender and/or receiver” — the most notable finding was “the extent to which girls, but not boys, were judged for their sexting practices.” The participants who made negative judgments were mostly male; they described girls who sext as “crazy, insecure, attention-seeking sluts with poor judgment,” and girls who don’t sext as “goody,” “stuck up,” or “prudes.” They didn’t acknowledge at all the fact that other factors may influence whether or not a girl sexts — including pressure from boys themselves — and the boys didn’t receive anywhere near the same level of social punishment as the girls did for either behavior.

Alexis C. Madrigal of The Atlantic notes that although smartphones have a wide variety of features that can create big problems for kids, the fact that the negative consequences, as always, fall “hardest, and nearly exclusively” on girls isn’t a technological problem. “The technology can’t solve this one,” he writes. “The culture’s gotta change.” And he’s absolutely right. The tricky thing, though, is how we can make that change. I think it needs to start with talking about the whole thing freely and openly with kids, the same way we need to with the topic of feminism — why do they feel that sexting makes a girl a “slut?” Why are they “prudes” if they don’t? Why don’t these standards apply to guys? Is that fair? Granted, I’m not a parent, nor am I an educator of teens, so maybe I’m way off the mark here — but I feel like so much of the time, these sorts of judgments are made because the kids (and adults, too) just haven’t thought through everything. To make a paradigm shift in the culture at large, we need to change our way of thinking — and knowing why we think what we do right now is a good place to start.

In parting, I’ll leave with the following observation from Hillary Crosley at Jezebel: “You know what would be awesome, if everyone was taught that sex is a natural human function and that shame and jugement don’t need to be assigned any time there’s an erotic feeling, and that includes sexting kids.” This should be a no-brainer, right? Then let’s make it our reality. Ayyyyyy-men.