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How to Change the Abusive Culture of Teen Sexting? Start by Putting the Responsibility on Boys.

Over the weekend, Marykate wrote about a new study that looks at the culture surrounding teen sexting. The study–which focused exclusively on heterosexual couples–found that boys often use anger, threats, and other forms of coercion to elicit nude pictures from young girls. The study found that “Young women attempted to navigate young men’s coercive behaviors yet frequently resorted to compliance. Refusal was often met with repeated requests or threats.”

As the author of the study wrote, all of this illustrates “a need to support young women to negotiate these situations with greater agency and teach young men relationships skills, like respect, consent and boundary acceptance.” Yet traditionally, the impetus is put on girls to regulate their own behavior. That pressure is not just unfair, it’s doomed to be ineffective. Especially when boys’ role in these interactions is entirely ignored, as it so often is.

Psychologist Lisa Damour talked to CBS This Morning about the importance of including boys’ actions in the conversation about teen sexting and coercive behavior. “[Girls] sometimes face harassment, they sometimes face threats, they’re sometimes cut off from relationships, and this has been going on among teenagers for a while,” she says. “It’s something that teenagers and teenage girls have largely dealt with alone.”

On the most basic level, while we are constantly telling young girls not to send nude photos to boys, “We have not made a practice of saying ‘Don’t ask for nude photos.” Sure, this is an uncomfortable conversation for parents to have with their teenage and preteen children. But parents are starting to find it necessary to overcome that discomfort and talk to their daughters, because they see the effect that the exchange of sexualized photos can have on young girls. That conversation needs to involve their sons as well. In a recent NYT article on the same subject, Damour wrote,

In talking about sexting with both daughters and sons, parents might say, “We don’t want you to share nude photos of yourself — even with someone you really care about and trust — because doing so puts you in a terrible position. The relationship might change, or that person could simply lose track of their phone. It’s just not worth the risk.” To that we should add, “And it’s not O.K. to request naked pictures because then you are putting someone else in a terrible position. Don’t do that either.”

Setting rules and strict guidelines for boys’ actions regarding soliciting these pics could go a long way towards changing behavior. Damour says that while rules won’t erase a problem, they do make a difference. “For starters,” she writes, “they articulate norms.”

“We advise adolescents not to share naked pictures because we worry that minors may not recognize the full scope of the potential personal, and possibly legal, consequences of creating and distributing sexually explicit content,” she explains. “But when we say next to nothing against the practice of soliciting sexts, we miss the opportunity to help teenagers see why that might also be a bad idea.”

Rules can also serve as useful behavioral speed bumps. Adolescents are impulsive by nature and gaps can readily emerge between what they know they ought to do and what they actually do. Teenagers who are asking, much less harassing, peers for sexts almost certainly realize that they are crossing a line. But if that line is never stressed or enforced by adults, they are far less likely to heed it. I’m also sure that plenty of boys would appreciate having a clearly articulated rule upon which they could blame their good behavior when they are pressed by peers to obtain illicit images.

Additionally, she writes, “Shifting the norms about soliciting images could helpfully shift the balance of power. If parents and schools have made clear that the requests are a violation, girls would feel that they had the option of taking screen shots of them and seeking help from adults.”

The original study included quotes from teen and preteen girls reporting their experiences with boys asking them for nude pictures. Their words are highly upsetting. They speak of direct threats and emotional manipulation. Helping girls learn to resist that sort of abuse and maintain agency over their bodies is important. But that should not be the starting place and it shouldn’t be the sole goal. Why wouldn’t we want to instill in young boys the kind of decency that dissuades them from threatening and coercing their female peers into sending them sexualized pictures of themselves?

(via CBS, NYT, image: Shutterstock)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.