The embarrassing political troubles of the unfortunately but aptly named former Congressman Anthony Weiner has catapulted the term “sexting” into cultural consciousness once again, prompting a sudden discussion on what, exactly, “sexting” is—and whether we should be worried about it. Dr. Keith Ablow, FOX News’ psychiatry expert, weighed in with a column entitled “What Weiner’s sexting scandal tells us about young women today,” concluding that it tells us that too many women are not having Private Part Pinups texted to them against their will. Rather, Ablow writes, “I can tell you that the average young woman no longer balks at sexting, watching pornography, or being the aggressor sexually in a relationship.” Slate.com noted that while the rates of boys and girls sexting—specifically, sending nude pictures of themselves—are pretty much the same, boys are far more likely to send these pictures on to their peers, resulting in often savage bullying that has culminated in tragedies like the recent suicides of several young girls. While Monsieur Weiner’s recurring predicaments have prompted a lot of snickering from the media, the “sexting” problem in general has become decidedly unfunny.
Some time ago, two of my colleagues and I were meeting with a group of high school students who had expressed interest in getting involved spreading the pro-life message inside their high schools. One of them mentioned, almost off-handedly, that the pressure on girls to send explicit pictures was constant—“they keep asking until you give in,” she told us. Wondering just how pervasive this phenomenon was, I sent a series of emails around asking various students whether or not that was true—and what sort of impact that had on the high school culture. What makes their responses even more shocking, I think, is the fact that all of these students attend either Catholic schools or private Protestant schools.
“I find that those who sext because of peer pressure or because they are trying to keep someone interested are most often young girls,” one girl responded. “I’m not saying boys don’t receive the same pressure from friends, but I find that it is most often the girl’s job to keep the boys interested, and what better way than to show them exactly what they want to see? In those cases of peer pressure or those of keeping someone interested, the people who had sexted most often tried to hide it. What always seems to happen, though, is that the people who receive the initial picture show it to all of their friends. Eventually rumors spread, and friendships are ruined and people are hurt in the process. It’s things like this that cause teenagers to hurt themselves or commit suicide.”
Dr. Arthur Cassidy, a social psychologist commenting on the “sexting” phenomenon in The Guardian, agrees: “I think it’s most dominant in young girls. Many more girls buy glossy magazines than boys, and there are more female sexually explicit icons. Statistically you also get more attention [on online social networking sites] if you put up a photo of yourself and the more explicit the photo, the more responses you get…Females have more sexual pressure on them now than ever before, so rather than focus on the inner person, it’s about looking at the body as a sexual image.”
That, of course, is the root of the problem: “It’s about looking at the body as a sexual image.” A thing, not a person. An object to be desired, not a friend to be made. Another high school student wrote that a huge number of boys in her classes were viewing pornography every night. When they arrive at school, of course, many boys are no longer satisfied with forming intellectual friendships with their female peers—they want to objectify them in the same way they objectify the faceless parade of porn stars they viewed the evening before. They want personalized pornography, a brand new sexual high. High school girls are pressured into thinking that in order to keep and maintain male attention, they have to provide the very tools the boys will use to objectify them and render them faceless.
“To be honest I was kind of happy he texted,” ‘Cassie’ wrote, “At least someone was thinking about me. We talked about everything from dogs to push-ups. He asked me to send him a picture. I’m not stupid and I know what he meant, but I asked him what he wanted a picture of. This is where I should have drawn the line or perhaps even earlier. I know that now and did then too but didn’t particularly care. He slowed my phone down by sending me hundreds of mega-bytes worth of pictures taken of his bare stomach and groin. I laughed. I don’t know why. He asked for a picture again. I sent him one of my face. His next comment was a long exaggerated ‘noooooooooo not that’ and then ‘you made a little mistake’ (another smiley) ‘I’ll give you another chance.’ Apparently finding it funny, that I were his student he was trying to teach. I then walked up a flight of stairs, went inside the bathroom, angrily took my clothes off, snapped two pictures exactly, and sent them.”
Sent, and irretrievable. Everything about this interaction shows what is actually at play in much of the gender dynamics surrounding sexting. He asked for a picture—she was “not stupid, and knew what he was asking for.” She sent one of her face—and, revealingly, that was precisely what this boy did not want. He didn’t want to see her; he wanted to see her body. The eyes may be the window to the soul, but that’s not the type of connection he was after. Rather, he was seeking something much more carnivorous—one-sided pleasure at her expense. And—thinking that “at least someone was thinking about me”—she complied. (The subtle social coercion in the underlying threat of “I’ll give you another chance” is unmistakable.) It does not take a social scientist to see that while there are two guilty parties involved in this transaction, exploiting the insecurities of females in a hyper-sexualized culture for sexual gratification is, at best, predatory. And while girls are most certainly part of the problem, it is the girls, most often (just as in so-called “recreational” sex), that pay the highest price.
And that reality impacts the high school culture even subliminally. “It’s hard to walk into school every day knowing that people there had seen something they never should have, knowing that it would be almost impossible to live it down, forget it and move on,” ‘Lindsay’ wrote, “You’d always get smirks and snide comments, shouts in the middle of class or in the cafeteria, even in the hallways walking from place to place. You’d see it all over Facebook, comments you know couldn’t be about anyone else. You wouldn’t be able to just leave your problems at school because they would follow you home. It’s terrible what one little mistake can do to your life. And it’s worse that there are even demands for pictures still, after all that has happened to other teens because of it. I don’t think these teenagers realize how much this can affect their lives and the lives of the other people involved.”
Searching for self-esteem and whatever they define as “love” (unfortunately fulfilling the old maxim that boys use love to get sex, and girls use sex to get love), girls are increasingly collaborating with our culture’s attempt to reduce them to sex objects in the vain hope that it will bring them what they’re looking for. If “sexting” brings them the attention they crave, many mistakenly think that it’s the type of attention that will be fulfilling—as ‘Richelle’ wrote, “When they are asked to participate in that, they don’t think twice because someone is finally ‘valuing’ them and showing interest in them. They use it as a Band-Aid solution to what they are dealing with because reaching out to others seems to have failed.” From music videos to “teen” magazines to Hollywood films to TV shows targeted towards their age groups, girls are being conditioned to think that their physical appearance is what gives them value as people. Probably (I hope) without even realizing it, the boys are taking advantage of this cultural conditioning by requesting—and in many, many cases receiving—the personalized pornography that they seek. (In many cases, it bears mentioning, these pictures constitute child pornography.)
The problem of sexting seems to be a hard one to address, in spite of the fact that several high-profile bullying cases resulting in suicide have highlighted the problem and oh-so-briefly outraged the public. Teenage sub-culture is hard for adults to penetrate, especially since teens are now connected to each other without any adult oversight. One girl warned me that, “If you’re trying to change the minds of teenagers with this article, it probably won’t work.” And there’s probably a lot of truth to that. Especially when requests for explicit pictures stem from pornography addictions, it’s going to take a lot to convince teenagers in high schools that this behavior is self-destructive, demeaning, and an attack on the dignity (self-inflicted as it often may be) of the girls sending the photos as well as the boys receiving them.
But there are a few things I can say that I hope will at least resonate with a few teenagers. Girls: If a guy asks you for explicit pictures, he’s implicitly told you what he wants from you. The answer is it’s not you. He wants your body, and in this scenario he doesn’t even want you physically present. By sending him these pictures you’re voluntarily reducing yourself to a one-dimensional sex object, without a personality, without aspirations or intellect or even a voice. You are a person with a body, not a body with a person. If the boy you’re talking to doesn’t recognize that, then drop him hard, and wait for someone who does. There will be guys who want to spend time with you, not just your body.
Guys: If you’re asking for these pictures, think for a minute about what you’re saying about girls and women in general. You’re revealing something about yourself that’s pretty distasteful: Namely, that the relationship you want is one defined by your particular sexual wants rather than the presence of another person who demands—or should demand—mutual respect and understanding. If you’re asking for these pictures, you’re not acting the way a man should, by respecting (and many some cases protecting) the women in your life. You are acting like a predator, and a cannibalistic one to boot. And if the pictures are sent to you unsolicited, you should delete them and tell her she’s worth more than that.
The genders were created to live in harmony with each other. As long as boys and girls choose to treat each other as sexual objects for sexual gratification as opposed to potential friends or spouses for mutual self-sacrifice, our culture will continue to become even more twisted than it already is. But if instead boys and girls start seeing each other as potential friends or spouses for mutual self-sacrifice, we can instead begin the work of making our culture a much better place to live.