People have been using media to talk about sex for a long time: love letters, phone sex, racy Polaroids. There’s even a story of a girl who eloped with a man that she met over the telegraph in 1886.
Today we have sexting. And I am a sexting expert. Not an expert sexter though, I do know what this means, and I think you do too! [it’s a penis]
I have been studying sexting since the media attention to it began in 2008. I wrote a book on the moral panic about sexting, and here’s what I found: most people are worrying about the wrong thing. They’re trying to just prevent sexting from happening entirely, but let me ask you this: As long as it’s completely consensual, what’s the problem with sexting? People are into all sorts of things that you may not be into, like blue cheese or cilantro.
Sexting is certainly risky, like anything that’s fun, but as long as you are not sending an image to someone who doesn’t want to receive it, there’s no harm. What I do think is a serious problem is when people share private images of others without their permission, and instead of worrying about sexting, what I think we need to do is think a lot more about digital privacy.
The key is consent. Right now, most people are thinking about sexting without really thinking about consent at all. Did you know that we currently criminalize teen sexting? It can be a crime because it counts as child pornography if there’s an image of someone under 18, and it doesn’t even matter if they took that image of themselves and shared it willingly. So we end up with this bizarre legal situation where two 17-year-olds can legally have sex in most US states, but they can’t photograph it.
Some states have also tried passing sexting misdemeanor laws, but these laws repeat the same problem, because they still make consensual sexting illegal. It doesn’t make sense to try to ban all sexting to try to address privacy violations. This is kind of like saying, “Let’s solve the problem of date rape by just making dating completely illegal.” Most teens don’t get arrested for sexting, but can you guess who does? It’s often teens who are disliked by their partner’s parents, and this can be because of class bias, racism, or homophobia.
Most prosecutors are, of course, smart enough not to use child pornography charges against teenagers, but some do. According to researchers at the University of New Hampshire, 7% of all child pornography possession arrests are teens sexting consensually with other teens. Child pornography is a serious crime, but it’s just not the same thing as teen sexting. Parents and educators are also responding to sexting without really thinking too much about consent. Their message to teens is often, “Just don’t do it,” and I totally get it.
There are serious legal risks, and of course, that potential for privacy violations. And when you were a teen, I’m sure you did exactly as you were told, right? You’re probably thinking, “My kid would never sext,” and that’s true; your little angel may not be sexting because only 33% of 16- and 17-year-olds are sexting. But, sorry, by the time they’re older, odds are, they will be sexting. Every study I’ve seen puts the rate above 50% for 18- to 24-year-olds. And most of the time, nothing goes wrong.
People ask me all the time things like, “Isn’t sexting just so dangerous, though? You wouldn’t leave your wallet on a park bench. You expect it’s going to get stolen if you do that, right?” Here’s how I think about it: sexting is like leaving your wallet at your boyfriend’s house. If you come back the next day, and all the money is just gone, you really need to dump that guy. So instead of criminalizing sexting to try to prevent these privacy violations, instead, we need to make consent central to how we think about that circulation of our private information. Every new media technology raises privacy concerns; in fact, in the US, the first major debates about privacy were in response to technologies that were relatively new at the time.
In the late 1800s, people were worried about cameras, which were just suddenly more portable than ever before, and newspaper gossip columns. They were worried that the camera would capture information about them, take it out of context, and widely disseminate it. Does this sound familiar? It’s exactly what we’re worrying about now with social media, and drone cameras, and of course, sexting.
And these fears about technology make sense, because technologies can amplify and bring out our worst qualities and behaviors. But there are solutions, and we’ve been here before with a dangerous new technology. In 1908, Ford introduced the Model T car. Traffic fatality rates were rising; it was a serious problem. It looks so safe, right? Our first response was to try to change drivers’ behavior, so we developed speed limits and enforced them through fines.
But over the following decades, we started to realize the technology of the car itself is not just neutral. We could design the car to make it safer. So in the 1920s, we got shatter-resistant windshields; in the 1950s, seat belts; and in the 1990s, air bags. All three of these areas: laws, individuals, and industry came together over time to help solve the problems that a new technology causes, and we can do the same thing with digital privacy. Of course, it comes back to consent.
Here’s the idea: before anyone can distribute your private information, they should have to get your permission. This idea of affirmative consent comes from anti-rape activists who tell us that we need consent for every sexual act. And we have really high standards for consent in a lot of other areas. Think about having surgery. Your doctor has to make sure that you are meaningfully and knowingly consenting to that medical procedure.