John C. Havens calls on Men and Dads to think deeply about the complex topic of ‘sexting’ and how to model behavior for our children to help them navigate this world of digital intimacy.
How, as Dads, can we teach intimacy? How can we imbue our kids with an understanding of what it means to cherish another person so deeply that they’ll eschew the curent zeitgeist and social norms and work to genuinely connect with the person they adore? And how can we demonstrate that intimacy doesn’t have to involve sex, or even romance?
I ask these questions, because this past weekend I listened to an interview on WNYC (NYC’s NPR affiliate) with Hanna Rosin who wrote the November cover story for The Atlantic, called, Why Kids Sext. The WNYC interview was titled, ‘Why Kids Sext’ Describes Nude Photos as ‘Social Currency’ Among Teens. I highly recommend reading the article and/or listening to the interview, as Rosin has done some thorough and important reporting with her work.
Intimacy hinges on trust. When you’re willing to expose a part of yourself you consider innately precious to another person, that’s a huge deal. Much of this type of exchange happens between friends, especially when we’re young. This is when bullying can be at its most fierce—the wounds inflicted by betrayed trust run much deeper than a black eye.
While the issue of sexting is complex and highly nuanced, it’s the notion of intimacy I keep reflecting on. While I realize two consenting individuals (teens or adults) sending naked sexts is a form of digitized intimacy (where technology is merely the medium), the trend of teens coercing sexts from other teens denotes a perversion of why intimacy can or should be such a huge deal. If it’s a form of “currency” to gain and trade sexted images, then the trust that’s been broken goes beyond the boys (or girls) perpetrating such behavior and their victims.
That’s on us, Dads.
If we’ve raised sons to believe it’s okay to pester a girl for naked photos for any reason, then we need to ask ourselves what behavior we’re modeling (or not) that would make this seem acceptable. More importantly, we need to face the deeper issues underlying these actions—why are boys not understanding that the premeditated shattering of trust in someone else exemplifies a massive lack of confidence and character in oneself?
I believe the real reason sexting is such a difficult issue is that men and Dads have to model behavior that will keep our sons from betraying girls. And I’ll be honest, a big reason I’m writing this article is I’m not entirely sure how to do that in this day and age. The moment I start talking about ‘how dating was different when I was a kid’ I feel irrelevance seeping from my pores. And for kids engaging in consensual sexting, I’m more concerned for the legal and safety issues they face versus enforcing my moral convictions on anyone else.
So, fellow Dads and men who influence teens (meaning, all men) – I’d love your help putting together a “Sext Education” Booklet that we can utilize when thinking about how to talk with kids about sexting. For my purposes, I’m not focused on adults who sext, but on teens or minors who on top of all the emotional issues involved have to face the fact that sexting is considered child pornography in (I believe) every state in the U.S. This actually makes our job as Dads/guys a bit easier as we can open discussions about trust and intimacy by focusing on being technologically savvy and aware of the law.
Below are some top issues I think should be a part of our Sext Education. I welcome your feedback and links to other resources I’m sure may already exist. For my part, I’d be happy to consolidate feedback to create a second article in this series. So thanks in advance for your thoughts in the comments section below!
The Issue of Consent
Coercing girls to send naked sexts is a not uncommon activity for boys, aged 14 or 15 and up. As the title of the NPR interview suggests, getting these pictures is akin to collecting baseball cards – each new photo is a feather in the cap of the boy who gets them. While not as frequent, girls also exhibit this type of behavior. A particularly disturbing example Rosin cites in her article involves a number of teenaged girls who convinced an autistic boy to photograph his penis so they could then send it on to their friends.
This one’s easy. And I think it’s the most important part of this whole issue we need to address as men of integrity trying to raise boys to be solid young men: NO MEANS NO. In the case of sexting, “no” also means honoring a girl’s first decision about whether or not she wants to send you a naked selfie.
In the interview, Rosin points out that guys typically pester girls 15 or 16 times to send a picture. If and when they finally relent, this is when the photos become currency to be traded, and the girls who sent them often earn the title of “whores” because of their actions. While Rosin notes a lot of girls have the confidence, or make the choice, to ignore the boys who make these requests, as Dads we have a responsibility to teach our sons and their friends to not make these types of requests in the first place. I firmly believe this behavior is a sex crime. Coercing the photos is already a violation of a girl’s time, psyche, and emotions. To then post them publicly is utterly violating and criminal.
So guys – how do we best imbue our sons with a sense of respect for girls/women on this issue? How do we empower them without demeaning them? How do we teach them that ‘currency’ should be earned by guys respecting girls/women and not objectifying them by the trading of their pictures? And how can we involve teen guys in the discussion to include their perspectives on these issues so we don’t just create some bullshit PSA’s that they can mock while sending more sexts?
THIS is the part of the sexting issue that’s the clarion call for every Dad.
The Legal Issues
Outside of my personal (moralistic/cultural) feelings towards the idea of seeing my child’s naked picture in a public forum, the consequences of having these photos on your phone or online is dire. Rosin points out a number of times that the legal issues surrounding sexting are muddled at best. For one thing, two kids sexting each other in a consensual relationship are treated the same as kids in a situation where one coerced a picture from the other. There are also no standard consequences for kids who publish photos gathered without consent on an Instagram page or other public format. And for all these situations, it’s typically male policeman who investigate any sexting issues made public which means older guys (albeit in a professional context) are looking at pictures of predominantly teenaged naked girls. It’s the threat or actual involvement of police that brings a greater amount of shame for most kids than their naked sexts being seen by peers.
I’m not equipped to provide legal counsel here on a professional level, but have the following observations:
- Laws don’t change due to awareness alone. As Dads, if we want to protect our sons and daughters from the potential of serious legal issues including incarceration, we need to figure out ways for police/government to enforce child pornography laws that protect our kids while providing them ways to also identify/help dumbass kids doing stupid things so they don’t go to jail.
- Kids are still breaking laws. For me, Rosin’s manner in the WNYC interview felt a bit forgiving of teens that coerced photos from girls and published them without their permission. To her credit, I think that’s because she’s a solid journalist being objective in her reporting, and my goal in thinking through legal issues around sexting is to protect kids, not jail them. That being said, in NO WAY should kids (boys or girls) who coerce naked photos and publish them without permission be treated lightly. In Rosin’s article, she points out that the police gave kids in this situation, “a stern talking to.” I appreciate the police didn’t prosecute in the scenario described, but in NO WAY should the people who posted pictures without other’s consent be simply given a “talking to” without further repercussions. Whether it’s community service or some other punishment, I firmly believe kids who engage in this type of behavior should be punished in a way that will deter others.
- It’s still child pornography. Pedophiles and anyone else searching for child/teen pornography assumedly love the sites kids use to post public sexting pictures. The actions of teens who do this posting enable pedophilic behavior, and the potential for bad actors surrounding the digital porn industry as well. These are unintended consequences for kids posting pictures as a prank, but still very real. Kids need to understand how their actions can deeply affect the people whose photos they reveal.
The Issue of Intimacy
Here’s where I feel old-fashioned, or maybe just old. But in listening to this interview, while I sympathized with the plight of teens that are over scheduled and use sexts as a way to express trust and intimacy with their boyfriends or girlfriends, I still couldn’t help but be despondent. Would I have sexted my girlfriends in High School? Maybe. I’ve struggled with weight issues all my life, so I certainly would have applied some serious Instagram filters in the process. But in our modern digital times, one simple fact is that a lot of the sexts kids send simply aren’t safe because they’re so easily made public. So I feel this provides an opportunity to discuss what intimacy can look like for kids/teens who live largely in a digital context.
So what pragmatic tools can we provide kids to show them what intimacy looks like? Here are a few ideas:
- Write Lettrs. That’s not a misspelling – my friend created the company Lettrs to celebrate long-form missives people can write on their mobile phones. Drew (the founder) was inspired to start the company after writing love letters to his wife before they were married, as well as receiving lengthy letters of instruction and support from his grandmother he treasures to this day. The site allows you to write digital letters and have them sent via the actual U.S. Postal service, or you can digitally send right away. While sex and romance can be great at creating intimacy, elucidating your affection via words goes a long way. As Dads, inspiring our kids to write love letters is an old school practice we should also do more of ourselves.
- Watch Proposal Videos. Yes, I’m a MASSIVE cheese ball, but when friends post proposal videos on Facebook I always watch them and often get teary. One of my favorites is by a guy who had his girlfriend sit in the back of a slow moving car as he blasted a Bruno Mars song and had all of their friends and family lip synch as they drove. It’s hilarious and touching, but also proves the following:
- He Prepared A LOT. If you’ve ever studied the idea of Love Languages, you’ll know what it means if your wife/partner has an Acts of Service love language. This means you can tell her/him you love them until the cows comes home, but taking actions to prove your love often mean more than words.
- He Involved Her Family. I’m assuming her parents and friends are in this video. That demonstrates the groom (to be) has serious class and involved people important to his wife (to be) were involved.
- He Took a Risk. In most of these proposal videos you’re pretty sure the person being asked is going to say yes, but that doesn’t mean the person asking isn’t taking a risk. Outward demonstrations of this kind harken back to a chivalry of respecting someone else enough to face potential public humiliation when proving private aspiration.
It’s Time to Get Sext Education
Like I said, I think the real reason sexting is such a difficult issue is that men and Dads have to model behavior that will keep our sons from betraying girls.
I’d welcome your thoughts on how to do this better so our kids don’t have to fear jail sentences or never experience the joys of intimacy separate from a mobile phone.
Dads/men – what do you think? Because in terms of sexting, it’s time we get in the picture.
(Photo Credit: Associated Press/File)
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