With the accessibility of technology, coupled with natural curiosities for sex, it’s no wonder that sexting has become a basic part of life for the rising generation. In case you didn’t know, they ask for, send, and receive semi or fully nude pictures of themselves or friends on the regular.
The latest assessment says 27% of 12 – 17 year-olds receive sexts and almost 15% send them, but we know that’s only the tip of the “send nudes” iceberg. Additionally, 12% of teens have forwarded a sext without the consent of the person involved and 8.4% knew of one of their own sexts being forwarded without their consent. (A different report said 44% of both teen girls and boys say it is common for sexually suggestive text messages to get shared with people other than the intended recipient.) Yikes.
These numbers seem like sexting isn’t actually that common, that only a minority of teens participate. Yet, many people in the rising generation report that sexting is normal, that “everyone does it.” And if a teen thinks sexting is normal, they are more likely to join in doing it.
Often sexting is brushed off as harmless, or even considered a fun, normal way to flirt and explore a new relationship. In practice, this isn’t the case. The researchers from the same study noted “non-consensual or coerced sexting (just like non-consensual or coerced sex) is linked to poor psychological health.”
Considering the potential risks of images being forwarded or posted online, it may seem shocking that teens are still up for it. But saying “no” is not always so simple. As we will see, there are a number of different pressures teenage boys and girls face when it comes to sexting.
Why girls sext
We’ll give you a couple of pretty common scenarios.
Boy sends a text asking for a pic. Girl is hesitant. The adults around her in her family and at school say it’s not okay. But this is not the first time she’s been asked by a boy at school. Maybe right then she decides to send a pic because she’s flattered. She’s caught the attention of a boy she likes, and hopes that responding to his requests will catch his attention and lead into a relationship.
Or maybe she attempts to get around the request. When refused, the boy gets upset. He continues to ask. Messages from the boy and now the boy’s friends, are all pushing her to just “send a pic already.” The girl is worried about the possible repercussions, but those thoughts are quickly overshadowed by the immediate pressure. She complies.
According to a report from Northwestern University analyzing stories young women posted online, they do not have the tools to navigate this type of challenge. They hear conflicting advice from adults who say “refrain” and peers who say “send,” with some boys coercing girls through persistent requests, anger, and threats. Girls feel the pressure to comply, even though they face a double standard of being called either a “slut” or a “prude” depending on their response to the request.
A simple “no” does not always end the issue, but upon compliance, girls run the risk of their photos being distributed. Many girls reported that the latter resulted in social isolation and bullying. They wrote things like, “Everyone was looking at me and laughing,” and, “I’ve lost friends and I get harassed on Facebook.” Not okay.
Why boys sext
Girls have a more negative attitude toward sexting and experience more negative social pressure to sext than boys do. That being said, a better understanding of why teen boys feel like it’s okay to repeatedly ask and pressure their peers into sending pictures is needed.
As with girls, boys likely also receive the message from adults that they should refrain from sexting. They also receive pressure from their male peers to sext, but obviously in a different way. Megan Maas from Michigan State University wrote:
“Boys feel more pressure to collect sexts and are more likely to share them with friends or post them online. This poses an issue because it sets up a type of marketplace, where the boys are the consumers and the girls are the products to be consumed. And yes, sometimes boys are senders, but hetero girls are often not into dick pics.”
Instead of boys learning about respect and the boundaries of consent, some seem to be taking cues from porn. Girls will eventually give in to their requests and they will be rewarded with bragging rights.
In another article exploring the differences between teen girls and boys sexting, the authors found that some boys accumulated ‘ratings’ by possessing and exchanging images of girls’ chests. Building off of the marketplace metaphor, these images operate as a type of currency. Nude pics are becoming like the new trading cards.
Why this matters
In the digital world, a guy’s social status can be elevated by whatever sexts he’s nabbed. What is a girl to do? Again, Megan Maas wrote, “Some unconsciously decide, ‘If I can’t beat ‘em, I can join ‘em.’ Then they begin the process of self-objectification.”
Sometimes girls think it’s a safer option to crop their face out of the picture of their naked body—if the receiver posts the image online, it’s not identifiable—but this is still objectification, the consumption of a body instead of the respect of a whole person.
Let’s be clear: there’s no issue with being attractive or wanting to be liked and thought of as attractive, but sending that nude pic of yourself is still centering female sexual expression around a male’s approval. It suggests that as a girl, your worth is your body because that’s what is being asked for.
On the other side, sexting culture confirms to boys that a girl is a sexual object for their pleasure. It opens the marketplace at an early age for boys to buy, sell, or trade instead of learning about respect and boundaries of consent.
That doesn’t sound like a world we want to live in would you?