Sexuality, like virtually every other aspect of human life, has taken to the Internet in the form of sexting. Unheard of even a decade ago, it refers to the practice of sending sexually explicit messages, often in the form of nude photographs of bodies or body parts. The practice certainly isn’t limited to teenagers but is practiced by teens at estimated rates of 50 to 80%. Girls, in particular, may participate because they are pressured by boys, sometimes friends and sometimes boyfriends.
When it comes to evaluating the consequences of sexting, Doris Silverman, Ph. D., in her summary of the literature (“Feminism: A Revolutionary Call about Female Sexuality” in A Womb of Her Own: Women’s Struggle for Sexual and Reproductive Autonomy. Routledge, in press.) suggests that a complex picture emerges.
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. p.75
What does it mean for young people who are just entering the world of adult sexuality? Are there any benefits? Can it be managed in productive ways by parents or by teens themselves? A very obvious feature of sexting is that, as Silverman states, it inevitably objectifies the person who is sending the message. It focuses on body parts, whether male or female, and separates them from the person’s mind and emotions or from any semblance of feelings in relationships. Females in our culture are already subject to objectification so that sexting could easily enhance that possibility. If a young girl feels pressured to participate in sexting by male friends or acquaintances, her experience of exploitation would only increase. If photos are shared without her consent or even her knowledge, the humiliation could escalate for an already vulnerable young women.
In the chapter mentioned above Silverman also reports on an article in The Atlantic (Rosin, 2014.) The article covers sexting in middle school (6th through 9th grade) and through high school and points out that when sexually explicit pictures are published without the consent of the girls, they are subjected to humiliation from peers that doesn’t extend to the boys who published them. Girls may be regarded as sluts or “hos” while the participating males remain unscathed. The findings point out that a double standard in regard to sexuality still exists even in the modern context of sexting. The article goes on to say, however, that sexting is, for many young women, an opportunity to express pride in their bodies and pleasure in showing them off. The key factor seems to be the issue of agency or choice. If a young woman freely chooses to express herself in this way, the results need not be destructive.
It seems unlikely that sexting or any other as yet unheard of form of Internet sexual expression will disappear any time soon. It means that we as parents need to be prepared once again to talk with our teens and be involved in their lives. Our best course of action is to provide the kind of loving sounding board that allows them to make the best possible choices in an ever-changing world.
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.