Sexting is a term emerging from the combination of the words sex and texting (Chalfen, 2009). It refers to the interpersonal exchange of self-produced and sexually suggestive texts, photos or/and videos through technological means such as computers, phones, social media, etc (Döring, 2014; Barrense-Dias et al., 2017).
Sexting is a relatively novel concept; it was listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary during 2012 (Drouin, Ross & Tobin, 2015). The exact prevalence of sexting is still under academic debate. Yet the dominant discourses appear to associate it with adolescents; this association exists partially due to the media stories conveying negative consequences and moral panics regarding adolescent suicide cases as a result of sexting (Dobson, 2017). Another contributing factor to the current panics around adolescent sexting is that it raises child protection and legislative issues. Sexting under the age of 18 is illegal in the UK according to the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
Yet, recent qualitative studies challenge the dominant discourses in relation to sexting. They indicate that adolescents construct sexting positively, despite the prevalent discourse of negativity; they suggest it offers them sexual autonomy, intimacy and helps them explore their sexuality (Van Oytsel et al., 2014). However, it appears that sexting under pressure is not uncommon, as 70% of adolescents have experienced sexting coercion (Englander, 2015). The coercion is underpinned by gender dynamics, as girls are more often coerced in relationships than boys, whilst boys are more likely to perpetrate coercive behaviour (Kernsmith, Victor & Smith-Darden, 2018).
Research and sexting education are often considered and presented as the antidote to sexting risks. However, the existing studies, as well as educational attempts, are (amongst numerous criticisms) predominately portraying and referring to heterosexual adolescents (Doring, 2014).
Yet it appears that LGBTQ visibility is pivotal when it comes to discussions on adolescent sexting. The few existing studies on the subject suggest that LGB adolescents are more likely to engage in sexual conversations online or send sexually explicit pictures, compared to their heterosexual peers. A potential explanation could be that digital media consist the means for sexual minority adolescents to attempt the intimacy/sexuality exploration other youth engage in offline (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2016). It is quite common for LGBTQ youth to resort to the internet for information regarding their sexuality and to bond with potential partners, which often makes them vulnerable to online risks exposure (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2016). The internet can also provide an anonymous space for adolescents who might want to protect their identity-especially if they haven’t disclosed their sexuality to their peers or family.
Whilst research on consent and coercion in relation to sexting is still in its infancy, what we do know is that LGBTQ adolescents experience coercive sexting. More specifically, compared to their heterosexual peers, LGBTQ adolescents are more likely to receive requests to sext and to be pressured into sending a sexually explicit image of themselves (Van Ouytsel Walrave & Ponnet, 2019). However, it should be highlighted that sexual minority adolescents are not more likely to perpetrate non-consensual sexting compared to heterosexual adolescents (Van Oyets, Walrave and Ponnet 2019). LGBT young people are vulnerable to online sexual aggression as they are often marginalized, harassed, and isolated in educational settings. Moreover, they might not be able to disclose such incidents or rely to their family for emotional support as their heterosexual peers do (Pascoe, 2011).
Furthermore, sexual minority adolescents are more likely to believe that sexting will cause them problems in school, compared to heterosexual adolescents (Gewirtz-Meydan, Mitchell & Rothman, 2018). This is problematic as schools should be safe, nurturing spaces where adolescents can seek support. Schools need to provide a reliable environment for adolescents to ask sexting related questions and adopt effective anti-bullying measures. Naturally, this is a reflection of the generally occurring power inequalities in our society.
To create more inclusive and nurturing spaces where adolescents can seek support, sexting education campaigns need to present more diverse representations of adolescent sexuality, by addressing the issues of coercion, pressure and harassment rather than emphasizing prohibition, shame and punishment. This could be achieved by informing adolescents about the effects of power dynamics, sexual double standards, victim-blaming, sexism and homophobia. Moreover, educators need to obtain an understanding of the latest applications adolescents use, as well as their motives and the challenges they face. This could potentially improve their credibility and the trust adolescents show to them.
Pervasive questions regarding adolescent sexting and safety remain. The focus of educators and policy makers needs to be on how to create educational campaigns that emphasise respect and diversity both in and outside of schools. Criminalization, stigmatization and moral panics cannot be the panacea to adolescents and sexting.
Disclaimer: the author is conducting research on adolescent sexting and consent
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