Let’s Talk About Sex…ting
‘That’s just silly’
Finishing my last week of school less than seven days ago, I can hope to reliably voice the worries of teenagers, as the pressure to send nudes is greater than ever, and the issue continues to be worryingly ignored by most adults. Teenagers are not taught the dangers and risks of sexting, but more importantly the choice they have in it. A young man, aged fifteen, involved in a ‘Not in our community’ survey said: “Sometimes if you don’t want to do it [sext] you might get called names like a pussy by your mates. It can be embarrassing to say you don’t want to do it”, showing the obvious pressure weighing on him to sext, so as to feel included and accepted by his mates. Youths are not given the opportunity to express these feelings, encouraging an even greater sense of humiliation for the victims of sexting gone sour.
Adolescence is a bloody fight for acceptance, and inclusion – throughout these years we begin to discover what it really means to be our individual selves. Understandably, the inclusivity of and connectivity to the virtual world provides us with can be a reassuring space in a harsh and judgmental society. Countless young people, including myself, have appreciated the security the internet appears to provide, researching difficult topics without fear of rejection or disapproval, when expressing fears and worries in a ‘safe’ space, and hearing about people from all walks of life.
This constant connectivity and idealised security is not without drawbacks. As our daily lives grow increasingly digital, as do our romantic, and none more so than for teenagers. I can advocate the pressure young people may experience to sext, especially from their friends, and the regularity of the issue. Lots of young people are encouraged by their friends to believe sexting a harmless amusement, an exploration of sexual identity, a means for validation and reassurance through a time of insecurity, with little consideration of the genuine risk it poses to those involved.
Images are often shared trustingly, with boyfriends, girlfriends or partners, and not as uncaringly as an adult might assume. Too often, the images are then shared again by the recipient, ‘as a joke’ or simply in bad taste and end up circulating social groups or online communities. Once the picture is sent, regardless of how, the control an individual has over it is lost. In a few clicks, an individual’s life can change forever; the consequences of this issue are not to be taken lightly, effects ranging from emotional and physical, and the almost clichéd example of ‘would you employ someone you could find naked pictures of?’ does helpfully reflect the extent someone’s life can be affected.
Having ‘The talk’…
“Don’t share anything you wouldn’t show your grandma!”
However awkward, a discussion must be had about the increasingly problematic habit of ‘sexting’, especially amongst teenagers. Whilst I was always taught to consider my grandma before sending off anything I might regret, other young people were not so lucky, with 46% of five hundred young people, surveyed by ‘Not In Our Community’ in 2014, agreeing that sexting is part of everyday life, and this figure is only increasing since.
Pressures from friends and other close influences now see many teenagers expected to sext, and I do not think enough young people understand how to say no, and their right to refuse. I firmly believe that what we do with our bodies is a decision as diverse as each of us, but a decision none of us should ever be denied.
Sexting is usually the exchange of sexual pictures, videos or messages between individuals. In the UK, it is considered illegal to take or distribute indecent images of any person under the age of eighteen – where indecent means having nudity, genitals or sexual activities pictured in them – which makes teenage sexting illegal. Sexting could lead to the criminalisation of many teenagers ignorant of the current legislation against what they consider to be the harmless norm of many relationships. Even having an indecent image of yourself on your own phone if you are underage could land you in legal trouble.
Before recent searches, I was not aware of any services for sexting or other closely related issues yet, like ¼ of children (NSPCC), have previously received unwanted images about sex. Teenagers are not urged to seek help, should an issue such as this arise, embarrassment alone may cause them to feel unworthy of help.
Too many young people have experienced this exploitation, acting on inescapable pressures of their lives, and a misunderstanding of their right to refuse the demands. What’s more with the scarcity of services available, probably, denied them the support they needed. Our young people demand a change to be made to the measures in place, and now.
Although I consider it is important to tackle young people’s lack of preparation for being approached sexually online, and to clarify legal proceedings, it is imperative that the stigma around discussion of the issue is broken. An understanding between generations must be found, to prevent the further suffering of so many.
Legal age of consent is sixteen, and it is not made clear to young people that this consent does not extend beyond basic permission for sexual activity. Even if the primary sharing of the ‘nude’ was entirely consensual, if the person is under the age of eighteen, this could be considered criminal activity. It is not obvious to young people that criminal charges can be given to any individual above the age of twelve who has taken or shared these images, regardless of intent or context, and this ignorance just cannot continue.
One in three internet users are children (NSPCC), making the internet ripe with vulnerability, and the lack of approach to the issue terrifying. What must it take for this problem to be recognised?
I acknowledge the reform of RSE (the changing of statutory education about sex and relationships in schools), and although I will not benefit from its renewal, I sincerely hope even a few others do, though we cannot stop here.
Doubtlessly, stigma must be broken around the victims of this issue. Young people must be urged towards support, and help must be provided. We cannot continue to allow our young people to be isolated by the current taboo of this issue. A change is needed today.
As teenager myself, and not an all-seeing oracle, I could not pen a perfect solution to this issue, but do believe I can suggest thoughts worthy of investment and consideration:
A campaign was launched a few years ago about the closely related issue, consent. The video compares consent for sex to making someone a cup of tea, outlining the issue in a light-hearted but frank manner. The video was extremely impactful yet accessible and understandable, clarifying a muddled issue well. I think a similar campaign would be very beneficial if issued for sexting. I love the idea of using a mundane and relatable idea for something which could be considered awkward. The phrase which has hugely affected my decisions online seems very relevant: “would you show your grandma?”. Young people must be educated about the ownership of their bodies, the choice and control they have over what is done with it. A clear message must be issued about sexting, and soon.
As the enormity of this issue grows, the educative sources available for issues of this nature grow more and more outdated, since it may be inferred that those who have not grown up with such technology-based lifestyles do not understand or even acknowledge the pressures now facing young people. The lack of open discussion about sexting results in fear of consequence and disapproval of victims from ‘misunderstanding adults’. Information is simply not provided about what you should do if you are sent a ‘nude’, or if asked to send one, leaving us teenagers unprepared and vulnerable to a seemingly unavoidable situation. This generation gap must be bridged so that our young people can be helped, fears resolved, and voices heard.
Essentially, we must create a shift in attitudes towards sexting, inform young people of the consequences and risks of sexing, but above all, support those needing our help. Young people must come to understand that the pressures they may experience to sext are unfortunately normal, but that they do have a choice in their involvement. We must empower a generation of those in control of their choices and bodies, not ashamed or fearful!
Awareness shifts attitudes, so we must generate the change we wish to see.
Services currently available which may help anyone affected by any issues I have raised include:
Childline: help and information about sexting and the opportunity to discuss issues confidentially.
ZipIt: a ChildLine service for help and advice if approached sexually online.
NSPCC: help and information about sexting.
KidsHelpLine: help and information about sexting.
Child Law Advice: information and advice about the exact laws relevant to sexting.
Brook: information and advice about sexting and the opportunity to ask any unanswered questions anonymously.
Be the change you wish to see!