Earlier this year, in traditional, rural, central Virginia, the Louisa County community was rocked by the discovery of hundreds of pictures of local high school girls on Instagram; many of which, if on the big screen, would have merited an "X" rating. Although the county is not immune from common problems in certain quarters such as drug dealing, teen pregnancy and gang activity, what surprised the local sheriff was that the girls in the photos were not the usual troubled youths. They came from "[a]cross the board… [from] every race, religion, social and financial status in the town." This, then, was not some isolated problem relegated to some unfortunate minority of people, but something that touched most families in the area.
In addition to the breadth of the problem, several other surprising issues arose in Hanna Rosen's investigation published in The Atlantic . First, most of the girls had willingly shared a photo with a boyfriend, or someone they wanted to be a boyfriend - highlighting just how heavily the practice of sexting has become in teens' relationship rituals. Second, several of the teen girls were indignant that their sharing of photos was being seen as a problem: "This is my life and my body and I can do whatever I want with it," some said. When the sheriff's office attempted to explain the serious legal consequences of their behavior (given child pornography statutes) the teens' reactions were described as "strikingly blasé." They seemed not to care about the impact their choices had on others, let alone on their own future. Some reviewing the phenomenon are beginning to suggest that the behavior is normative for youth. Research has even been put forth claiming that many teens who sext do not experience horrendous consequences, at least by their own reporting. At the same time, however, there is evidence of increased risks - dating violence and high-risk sexual behavior - for those who have been pressured into sexting.
Surveys consistently find that roughly one-third of teens have sexted, making it common enough that most teens know of the phenomenon, and many have had some personal contact with it either directly or through the experience of close friends. Most situations seem to remain relatively-private affairs, though there are other situations that cause considerably greater distress because of what is termed "reckless circulation" akin to the case in Louisa County. These situations can lead to blackmailing among teens or can catch the attention of sexual predators - teens and adults. In addition to the obvious horror and real physical danger of reckless circulation, even the private disclosures have important implications for the youth involved. Teens who sext often have issues with their self-worth, and sexting is motivated by a hope of becoming more popular, appearing more self-confident, or, in the case of teen girls, gaining a boyfriend. The research shows that those hopes are woefully misplaced.
Researchers from the University of Michigan surveyed urban teenagers regarding their perception of sexting. They found that the girls who are involved in sexting are presumed to be sexually available, while those who do not, are assumed to be "stuck up or prudish." Boys, however, seem to be immune from such classification. Aside from this asymmetry, Hanna Rosen learned of another dysfunctional aspect of the whole sexting/dating ritual from males she interviewed. The boys described their efforts to coerce a girl of interest into sending a photo, restlessly hoping for a glimpse of the forbidden. In an attempt to please the boy, the girl complies. Yet, when the longed-for photo arrives, the boys all seemingly concur that the girl is now no longer of interest. Her very act of complying has placed her in in an undesirable category: the un-loveable and un-dateable. Apparently unaware, some girls are saying that sexting is a way of dating without getting in trouble, a dubious conclusion. It is more likely that sexting kills the very thing it was hoped to secure. After sexting, it is unlikely that anything approaching dating, and certainly not genuine intimacy, will occur. And there's the bigger problem.
Ms. Rosen suggests in her conclusion that "Given how inundated and unfazed they (teens) are by sexual imagery, perhaps the best hope is that one day, in the distant future, a naked picture of a girl might simply lose its power to humiliate." I pray, for everyone's sake, that this is not our "best hope." Ms. Rosen's statement reflects an inevitability which lacks proper hope in the goodness and potential of young people. While they are not a strong majority , there are many young people who practice abstinence and believe in the integrity of their bodies, as well as the virtues of modesty and prudence. These teens have at some level foreseen that compromising themselves at a young age has implications not only for their current well-being but also for their future. Some, I would venture, are also cognizant of the impact of their choices on others. What the sexting teens seem to miss, and what caring adults involved in their lives may need to provide, is clarity about what is also missing from relationships based on technology and kept at a distance. This is really the big problem: the lack of true intimacy and emotional connections which bring true joy to life. Sexting is merely a recent and more provocative example of that which has challenged mankind in the past, and will continue to challenge generations which follow: What are you willing to do, and sacrifice, to be able to look into the eyes of another, with no distractions - no bells or whistles, no videos or pixels - and simply be with a beloved? Answer this, and you will find hope.