Sexting: What Do We Make of It?
A phenomenon undreamed of when the feminist revolution began is the practice of sexting which is now quite common. Stasko & Geller (2015) reported that 80% of people surveyed on line from ages 18 to 82 (more than half of whom were female) sexted. Many females sexted as part of a committed relationship, and more than 40% sexted as part of a casual relationship. The number of girls and teens sexting is not clear. What is typically reported is that a majority of teens are sexting. When girls, as well as teens, are calculated, the percentage appears to vary from 50 to 80 %. (The latter figure is offered by Gadson, Griggs, & Duan, 2014). Sexting appears to increase with age.
The Atlantic Magazine (Hanna Rosin, 2015) did an in-depth study of this topic. Sexting refers to sexual messages delivered, and now, often accompanied by photos. Girls send nude photographs of themselves because, in most instances, they are pressured to do so by boys, sometimes friends, sometimes boyfriends. Her article covers sexting in middle school (6th through 9th grade) and through high school. In most cases nothing untoward occurs for these young females. However, for some young girls who feel coerced to sext by a boy, they discover that their picture is then shared with many other males without their consent. A small number of these girls are so humiliated that they commit suicide. (Rosin, 2015, p. 74; See also Bauman, 2015). The humiliation is understandable in that when photos are shared the girl is often labeled a slut or ho (whore) or a thot (that ho over there). Boys, by contrast do not experience any aftermath of criticism or shame whether they sext or not. For example, Haasinoff (2015) reported on a case of two cheerleaders who were suspended from school for sexting. The recipients of these photos distributed them without permission and they received no punishment. Despite the serious violation of these young girls privacy no penalty was exacted from the perpetrators. A double standard for the sexes still exists.
In the male pursuit of nude photos there is an implicit objectification of females. As contemporary research reports, “To sexually objectify women is to mentally divide her body and mind in order to o focus on her sexual body parts. Her body parts and their functions are no longer associated with her personality and emotions but are seen as instruments to be used by others (Bartky, 1990)” (quoted in Ramsey and Hoyt, 2015, p.151; Weiner, 2015). Objectification appears to be ubiquitous in our culture without the recognition of the subtle, insidious effects it can produce in females (Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997; Ramsey and Hoyt, 2014). Objectification can have a demeaning, overly self-conscious, and shame-inducing effect on susceptible young women’s ideas about their bodies.
Some data supports the idea that it is the more vulnerable girls who respond to sexting pressure (Bauman, 2015; Drouin & Tobin, 2014; Drouin, Ross & Tobin, 2015; Reyns, Henson, & Fisher, 2014). Middle school girls who are sexting are more likely to be engaging in sexual activity, a bit surprising for this age group (Houck, Baker, Rizzo, Hanock, et al, 2014; Rice, Gibbs, Winetrobe, Rhoades, et al 2014). Older teen-agers who sext may do so because they have problems with substance abuse, and other personal issues which lead to high risk behavior (e.g., unprotected sex). (Crimmins, Seigfried-Spellar, 2014; Drouin & Tobin, 2014; Temple, Le, van denBerg, Ling, et al (2014).
The positive feature of sexting is that it appears, for many girls, to be a normal feature of sexual experimentation and young women are actively taking advantage of exploration. They are pleased with their bodies and are willing to exhibit them. There is also a sense of freedom and independence and resisting conventional norms. Characteristic of this teen age position, one young girl commented, “This is my life and my body and I can do whatever I want with it. I don’t see any problem with it. I am proud of my body.” (Rosin, p. 67.)
My summarizing of the literature on sexting suggests a complex picture of sexting. Middle school girls appear to be more troubled by sexting. They experience shame especially when their photos are dispersed without their consent. Reputations can be seriously blemished with negative name labeling associated with girls who sext. Age appears to be a relevant consideration. Some studies report that female college students sext more frequently and have serious mental issues such as impulsivity, drug and alcohol use, insecure attachment relationships, and poor self-image. Although there may be an increased use of drugs and alcohol consumption, for many students, it is accomplished in the social context of a sanctioned college environment. As Hasinoff (2015) has opined, sexting is a form of”interpersonal intimacy and communication” (p.1) She maintains that teens need protection from “malicious peers and overzealous prosecutors” and there is need for recognition of girls’ agency and choices when there is consensual sexting (p.2).
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Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.