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The Rise of Sexting

Not too long ago, I went to a workshop on sexting in Middlesex it was titled: Building a Prevention Framework to Address Teen Sexting Behaviors-wanting to be hip and cool I decided to go since I work with teens and I needed to learn whatever I could about them.  Not fully understanding what sexting was, I went ready to learn about this new world of images and symbols, since basically all I knew was that it rhymed with texting.  I learned that according to Massgov website, sexting is the act of sending, receiving or forwarding sexually explicit messages or photos, or images via cell phone, computer or other digital devices. This made me think of what I was doing with technology when I was a teenager, and when I think back to that time I realize that all I had access to was a pager. If you can remember those little black square pucks that flashed red when you needed to call someone back. I don’t think you could have even done a ringtone on that let alone a naughty one. Of course, times have changed, but to imagine that that was the access I had at that time is surprising. Someone in my family might have taken a polaroid of me doing something a little risky and then my aunt would stop the picture taking process by saying, “stop acting so fast,” and that would put an end to my flight of expressing myself.  But the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy along with Cosmo did a study in September of 2008 that reported that 90% of teens and young adults are online. That’s a lot, though that doesn’t say anything about sexting, it does show how much time is being spent online by teens. This same study states that teens (13-19) have sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves.

The breakdown looks like this: 20% of teens overall have sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves, 22% of girls, 18% of teen boys, and 11% of young teen girls (ages 13-16).  When it comes to how many teens are sending or posting sexually suggestive messages it goes like this: 39% of teens are doing it, 37% of teen girls, 40% of teen boys and 48% of teens say they have received such messages.  Now there have been lots of studies done on the topic of sexting, some studies suggest that sexting is not that prevalent nationally, but have  watched their numbers go up once their definition of sexting was broadened. Nonetheless, all of these studies have shown me that sexting is happening. Some of them are happening within the context of boyfriend girlfriend relationships and a smaller portion is happening with teens randomly posting images or text to Facebook, Myspace, or other social media, but I want to think a little bit more about “Why?”. Why is this happening? I won’t pretend that I know all the answers, but I have picked up some insight since going to the conference which took place in Middlesex, a county here in Massachusetts. 

To help answer this lets go back to when I was a teen…there were beepers and I watched 90210 and I was looking for anyway to express myself. My mom used to make me dress in the ugliest clothes and I remember walking to school thinking that as soon as I got to the bathroom I was going to do a Clark Kent and get out of those clothes, because they weren’t cool and not only that, they weren’t me. It’s the same with teens today, but expressing sexuality becomes even more complicated with the increased access to media.  Some therapists who work with teens would say that the mind of a teenager is like the mind of someone on LSD. Sounds horrible, but it’s true. Mary Pipher’s classic book, Reviving Opheilla says that “…the best way to understand teenagers was to think of them as constantly on LSD…People on LSD are intense, changeable, internal, often cryptic or uncommunicative and of course, dealing with a different reality”    (Pipher, 57). Think about where your mind was when you were a teen. What types of things did you get mad at? How did you handle stress, and moreover how did you handle being sexual? How did you handle wanting to up your bra size, or when you saw that half of six pack peeking through?  Also, how did you want to express it? What was available to you to show all that newness off?  Well, right now it’s not the Polaroid. Combine all of this with the accessibility to cell phones, flip cameras, computers, Youtube, Facebook, Myspace, digital cameras and some other stuff that I don’t even know, you can guess that the likelihood of  something like sexting happening is more than possible with teens.

With that said, it’s important to note that sexting is a serious offense and illegal. Though instances in sexting come from various age demographics there should also be the recognition that each case is complicated and unique. There are laws that vary state to state on this topic and it can affect teens while they are trying to express  their autonomy. Is it realistic to have teens not use their cell phones? Probably not. You can go down the story trail of telling them about your access to pagers when you were young and how you communicated to your friends with upside down letters--that was so clever, or you can help them to think through the responsibility they have with social media. This conference made me think of all these things; I feel like I have some tools under my belt. The conference that I went to also focused on hearing from teens about this issue. It’s really very interesting. They don’t even name this thing. For them it’s not called sexting. When they heard about it being called that they said there is no title for this type of communication. They also knew that some of these things happen under the coerciveness of their romantic relationships. But the thing that struck me about the responses was that teens said that they are more likely to be open to other perspectives on these behaviors when they don’t feel judged or shamed. There’s a lot to tackle in the wide array of sexting, and that makes sense to me and probably the most important piece I got from this conference.


Written by: Claudia, Youth Sexual Violence Prevention Mass- Promise Fellow

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Posted by stacey

Stacey formerly served BARCC as the coordinator for Community Awareness and Outreach. Prior to BARCC, she worked for the Navy as a sexual assault response coordinator and volunteered for the DC Rape Crisis Center. She got involved with anti-rape work during college and has enjoyed doing both direct services and educational work.

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