Recent research suggests that adolescent boys hold girls to some striking double standards when it comes to sexting.
51 adolescents, a mix of both girls and boys, in three different American cities responded to several open-ended questions about sexting. Researchers analyzed their responses and found that boys judge girls’ sexting behaviors in one of two ways. First, boys think that girls who send sexts are “crazy, insecure, attention-seeking sluts with poor judgment.” At the same time, however, boys categorized girls who didn’t send sexts as “prude,” “goody,” or “stuck up.”
So, what’s a girl to do? Send a sext and be considered a whore, or not send a sext and be thought of as a snob? As parents, the answer is clear, but it’s not so clear to girls. Girls in the study said they feel that if they don’t send sexts to boys then they’d lose their chance to have a desirable relationship with a boy. One girl in the study said this about the pressure she felt to send sexts to her boyfriend: “I felt like if I didn’t do it, they wouldn’t continue to talk to me.” And another girl said that “if we don’t send them they will think we aren’t outgoing and get mad.” In other words, in their search for approval and acceptance, girls feel serious social pressure to send risqué photos to boys.
Ugh, so now what? This is where I leave research behind and share my own educated, albeit biased, opinion—and I encourage you to do the same, because we have to face these things head on by talking about them. First, I think the responsibility to teach kids about sexting falls on parents, not on schools or other forms of government. A school’s job is to educate, not to dictate right from wrong. I am highly against government censorship—yes, even of pornography—because allowing the government to dictate what’s right and wrong can lead to, well, most of the problems that we see in government policy today. That means we take the good with the bad. It also means that it’s not enough to teach kids about the legal implications of sexting—this is treating symptoms, not the cause. No, the fight against sexting has to be conducted on a much deeper level, and that means parents have to teach at a level that reaches as deep as a kid’s self-worth.
Now, we haven’t dealt with sexting specifically in our family. We have, however, tried to be preemptive about issues like this—we don’t do it perfectly, but we’re at least trying. In our house this takes the form of talking with our kids about what makes them valuable and special. We try to teach our kids that one’s worth is not, and never will be, based on their body or their appearance. Sure, we want our kids to practice good hygiene and to work hard to be strong and healthy. But we also try to teach them that it doesn’t matter what other people think of them. It matters more what they think of themselves. Kids—both boys and girls—need to be taught that it’s never okay to objectify or to be objectified—and that’s exactly what sexting does to girls. It objectifies them. It turns them into commodities, as visual representations of cultural ideals. Our daughters are not things, they’re not images to be exploited for a boy’s jollies. I hold to the pie-in-the-sky ideal that when boys and girls understand this, boys will no longer pressure a girl to send a sext, and girls will be empowered to overcome any pressure to send a sext.
Wishful thinking? Maybe. Worth the effort? No question.
How do you talk to your kids about sexting? What am I missing here in my discussion about parents’ involvement? Post your comments here or on the FB page.