In the wake of the shocking revelation of a pornography ring targeting Australian schoolgirls, many schools are looking to address the issue of sexting with their students. Here we suggest four conversations that can help to promote safe and respectful relationships.
First, some context. Sexting is a general term used to refer to the creation and digital sharing of sexually explicit conversations and media. In the world of teenage relationships, it is seen as a normal part of dating and sexual expression. A 2013 Australian study reported that 50% of sexually active teenagers (aged 15-17) had sent a nude photo or video and 70% had received one.
While many teenagers see sexting as normal behaviour, they are also quick to express their concerns about being pressured into it and the risk of images being shared with others. The Perth schoolgirls that I speak with each week are often dismayed by requests and pressure from boys for nude pictures of themselves. And for those who are comfortable sharing images with a trusted boyfriend, they want secure knowledge that these images will not be shared with others or online.
Is such a world possible? I'm not sure. At the very least, these concerns help us to identify some of the key conversations we need to be having with teenagers on the issue.
- Objectification and Empathy. At the heart of the sexting issue is the male belief that women are sexual objects for their pleasure. The portrayal of women in this way is prevalent in movies, music video clips, gaming and especially pornography. Objectification reduces the ability for young men to respect and empathise with women. Without empathy and respect, young men are more likely to pressure young women for nude pictures and share them with others. Young men need to be trained to recognise and fight against objectification, choosing instead to respect women as equals.
- Pressure. In the same way that we educate boys that "no means no" when it comes to consent, we must teach them that it is not okay to repeatedly ask and pressure girls into sending nude pictures. This pressure is a form of sexual harassment. Girls often don't know how to respond to requests and pressure from boys and can be encouraged to brainstorm strategies for saying no that work for them. It can be difficult to say no when their is the risk of losing a friend or boyfriend. For one creative example, see Sexting? Send this Instead.
- Trust and Sharing. I often ask girls in our presentations, How can you know for sure that a boy won't share your image with his mates? After a few good suggestions about how to recognise trustworthiness, it often dawns on them that they might never be able to completely trust him. The "revenge porn" phenomenon that sees teenagers sharing images to take revenge on their ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend illustrates that trust is often short lived in the teenage social scene. It is also a reminder of the permanence of images in our online world. The video Your Photo Fate is a great resource for girls to consider the trust dilemma. For boys, it is helpful for them to consider just how much trust a girl is placing in them to protect their images. They also need to be reminded of the legal and social consequences of passing on images without consent.
- Fallout. What should you do if your photo has ended up where you didn't intend it to be? Or if this has happened to a friend, how can you support them? When images are shared beyond the intended person, there can be damage to a person's social standing and reputation as well as their safety. For those involved in sinister behaviour there can be social and legal consequences. The government's esafety website can help teenagers, parents and teachers understand and manage the fallout when things go wrong. The most important message for girls caught up in the mess is that it will be okay and there are people to help and support them during the difficult stages of the journey.
To read more about this issue, check out this great article by Sarah MacDonald for the ABC.
Did you know that we discuss sexting in all of our presentations? We believe it's an important conversation to have with teenagers when promoting safe and respectful relationships. To check out a list of our programs and to see if they might be right for your school, click here.