The recent sexting scandal at a high school in Cañon City, Colo., demonstrates how parents, schools and the legal system need to change their approach to sexting.
Many schools and parents respond to sexting by promoting abstinence: Just don’t sext, they advise, and you’ll be safe from harm. The legal system likens it to child pornography: Under current U.S. law, a minor who takes an explicit photo of herself could face conviction, even if she never distributes the image.
These approaches likely won’t work. The reality is that many teenagers are already sexting. In recent years, studies have found that up to one-third of teens send sexual images, and among young adults, the rate is up to about 50%. Studies have found that abstinence-only sexual education can backfire and contribute to high rates of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. If abstinence-only education doesn’t work for sex, it probably won’t work for sexting, either.
Instead, we need a harm-reduction approach that acknowledges that some teens (and adults) will sext, and that we all need to work on developing skills to make informed decisions about the risks.
What is missing from the current conversation on sexting is the recognition that consensually sharing a photo of yourself with a peer is very different than violating someone’s privacy by sharing that image without permission. The crucial distinction is consent. Coercion, harassment and privacy violations are serious problems that we need to address, but consensual sexting is not inherently harmful.
Criminalizing sexting means that teens who have experienced a violation have few options to address the harm they’ve suffered. Victims who report the incident to police or schools could be punished in the same way as the perpetrators who shared their private images without permission. Schools and law enforcement must not punish teenagers who have done nothing more than share images consensually with willing partners.
What they need to focus on instead is reducing privacy violations. In the U.S., we have a number of copyright laws that protect companies from the unauthorized distribution of their intellectual property. No one tells studio executives that the simple solution to piracy is just to stop making movies. Yet this is essentially the message we’re sending to teens about their personal privacy online. We should develop laws that protect users’ privacy at least as well as they currently protect copyright.
Perhaps even more important, we need to continue to work on dismantling the double standard whereby girls who sext consensually are harassed and shamed while boys who do the same thing are often overlooked. Schools and parents who fail to resist slut-shaming send a dangerous message that a sexting scandal is the victim’s fault.
The recent scandal in Colorado offers an opportunity to reignite much-needed conversation about how we address nude selfies. With sexting, as with sex, consent is key.
Amy Adele Hasinoff is an Assistant Professor in the Communication department at the University of Colorado Denver and author of Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent.