Sexting: Is It Actually That Bad?

SEXTING. Many people, when they hear this word, think immediately of racy pictures, sent to people who then turn around and exploit them. We read stories of people whose lives were ruined when their nudes were leaked. But how much of a problem is it, and how much of it is misogynistic hype designed to make women ashamed of their bodies?

When I attended the annual Amnesty Human Rights Conference a few weeks ago, the first workshop I listened to was presented by a lawyer from the Nassau County Human Rights Commission, a woman who works on cases concerning juveniles and sex crimes. She was intense, at times scary- pelting the audience (who were mostly high school students) with laws and statutes about sexting. Now, it is clear that her intent was to educate us about the dangers of sending sexually explicit messages, and to discourage us from making poor decisions. However, even though I recognized the good intent behind her lecture, it reeked of misogyny and a culture that shames women for existing as sexual beings.

I do not disagree with laws that protect young girls and boys from engaging in sexual activity, such as sexting. There is a clear necessity for consent laws that protect young teens from being pressured into sexual activity. Furthermore, it’s obvious why a 30-year old man possessing sexually explicit images of young girls is a criminal. But when a teenager is engaging in sexual activity of their own volition, with another teenager, how is that a crime?

Telling a teenage girl that she is a criminal for sharing images of her body with a romantic partner serves to slut-shame her. Contrary to many adults’ beliefs, it is possible for a teenager to engage in sexual activity simply because they want to – they can be capable of understanding the risks, consenting, and enjoying it. Sending “sexts”, as they are frequently called, is a way to connect intimately with your partner and demonstrate interest. And while many adults will argue that teenagers are too young to be sexually active, that’s simply untrue.

Girls (not boys) are taught from a young age that their bodies are pure, until they become sexually active- then, they become “damaged goods.” As Jessica Valenti points out in her book “The Purity Myth”, a female’s worth is predicated on whether or not she is a virgin.

How does this connect to the issue of underage sexting? Well, more often than not, the person being shamed for sending sexts is the girl. Why is a girl engaging in voluntary sexual activity with a partner a criminal? By instituting laws that make her one, we tell her that she is incapable of making responsible decisions, and furthermore, we treat her as a child. Teenagers are capable of being in safe, mature, and even loving relationships, and as many adults know, sexual activity (both in-person and through messaging) is a healthy part of relationships.

Of course, there is a time and a place for laws that prevent sexting. When one of the people involved is a adult and the other a minor, there is a clear violation of the law (except in Romeo-Juliet law cases). If a boy shows a picture of his girlfriend or hookup and she becomes bullied for it, that is a different story. But, in my opinion, simply sending a picture to your boyfriend or girlfriend should not constitute a crime. In an age where we constantly tell girls to be ashamed of their bodies, why should we punish the ones who are not, and who are healthy, sexual beings?


The Myth of “Innocence”

*Author’s Note: This article focuses on the experiences of women because the author is a female, and so has direct experience with that perspective. This is not intended to say that men do not also suffer from related issues, but that this specific problem is primarily felt by women.

The dictionary defines innocence as “freedom from sin or moral wrong; harmlessness.”  This is the traditional meaning of the word. Society has created a second meaning; An “innocent” girl is one who is not sexually active. This second definition is incredibly prevalent in school communities, like Friends Academy; Female students that are not perceived to be sexually active are seen as innocent and good.

Why is a woman’s worth so directly tied to whether or not they are sexually active? And why is a woman who isn’t sexually active seen as superior to one who is? These misguided and outdated beliefs likely stem from a variety of issues, such as a lack of comprehensive sexual education in high schools and media sources that reinforce the idea that women who are sexually active are “sluts.” But it boils down to the fact that society as a whole continues to maintain that sex is bad…if it’s a woman who is sexually active.

The cold, hard truth is that a woman owning and even *gasp* being proud of her sexuality scares people. Women who engage in consensual sex, especially while in high school, often get a reputation among their peers as “slutty” or “promiscuous;” Yet, men who are sexually active are applauded for their actions. Furthermore, women are encouraged to retain their virginity and remain “innocent”, whereas men are applauded for losing their. Why are women shamed for doing the same thing men do? Why do we still buy into this horrifyingly sexist double standard?

As a society we should be striving to be progressive, and to be fair, we have taken steps in this direction. But no society can honestly call itself progressive while it still enforces this double standard for men and women. Unfortunately, these sexist beliefs are so deeply ingrained in our culture that we do not notice even when it affects our behavior. We give women this ideal of innocence to strive for in order to be seen as “good.” In this way society reinforces the harmful notion that women should be ashamed of their sexuality.

Innocence itself is not the criminal here. It is a word, and a word only has the power that we choose to give it. But this word is far too often used to praise women who are not sexually active, helping society to maintain a sexist double standard. Someone’s “goodness” should not be based on whether are not that person is sexually active. All women should be respected, regardless of their perceived “innocence.”

How Fraternities Are Promoting Rape Culture

It’s the end of August, which means that college freshmen are leaving home for the first time and moving into their dorms. Their parents are nervous- which is understandable! Their kids are on their own. They don’t need any more added stress, like driving up to campus and seeing banners saying things like “Rowdy and Fun. Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time!” hanging from fraternity houses. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened at Old Dominion University just last week.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Wesleyan University has a fraternity known amongst the students as the Rape Factory. According to a lawsuit leveled by one student against the university, the administration was well aware of this fraternity’s reputation. To give you yet another example, a student who attended Tulane University tells of how girls would be warned about fraternities that were notorious for spiking girl’s drinks. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, police are investigating a fraternity after women were found labeled with red and black X’s on their hands, hospitalized with memory lapses from intoxication.

While some argue that fraternities promote brotherhood and friendship, I’ll argue they promote something different: rape culture. Pledges are urged to have sex with women, even those unwilling to do so. Pledges at the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity at George Tech University received an email titled “In luring your rape bait.” Men are told that they must treat women as objects of sexual conquest, because that conquest is essential to proving manhood.

Not only do their actions, like calling themselves the “rape factory” and hanging insulting, sexist banners, promote rape culture, they are responsible for a lot of sexual assault that happens on college campuses. One report states that men who are in fraternities are more likely to rape than men who aren’t, and that frat boys may perpetrate 70 to 90% of college gang rapes. In a time when rape rates on college campuses are soaring, and colleges are struggling to fight these crimes (leaving out the ones who actively cover up rapes), fraternities are only making the situation worse.

This problem can’t be solved by telling women to protect themselves, or dress less provocatively. We have to change the conversation, and get men involved. We need to teach men not to rape. Instead of it being a woman’s issue, it has to also be a man’s issue. This is not to say there hasn’t been any effort. There have been successful campaigns, like the “Don’t Be That Guy” posters.
These are working. But they aren’t enough. This conversation needs to be more widespread. However difficult it may be, we have to seek to change frat culture. It will take time- these old, deeply ingrained beliefs about manhood and masculinity are a part of the problem. Colleges need to teach men that it doesn’t make you a “real man” if you take advantage of or assault a woman- it makes you weak. Ending rape culture on campuses and in society in general may be difficult, but we can start with fraternities.

Why Rape Jokes Are Never Ok.

“Dude, that teacher sucks. She should get raped for giving me a C on that essay!”

How I wish I had just made that line up in my head for the purpose of this post. But I didn’t. This is one of many rape jokes I’ve overheard in my school hallways. I often hear my male friends laughing along when their peers joke about drugging a girl, or raping a teacher they find attractive. The fact is, these jokes aren’t funny. Not now, not ever. And here’s why.

Making sexual assault a punchline detracts from the seriousness of the matter. By cracking jokes, we normalize it. We tell victims and survivors of assault that what happened shouldn’t upset them, because jokes aren’t designed to upset people- they’re meant to draw laughs. Rather than laughing, we need to talk about the issue seriously. Sexual assault is becoming increasingly pervasive in our society. The Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs reports that somewhere in America, a woman is raped every 2 minutes. Of these rapes, 54% of them go unreported. Why do so many women choose not to report what is, by law, a violent crime? Perhaps part of the reason is the prevalence of rape jokes.

When someone who has been sexually assaulted hears a rape joke, it further enforces the culture of victim blaming that they have no doubt already been exposed to. Rape jokes are a way to perpetuate the idea that men are entitled to a woman’s body, and if she doesn’t go along with his desires, well it’s her fault for whatever happens. After all, he’s a man, he just couldn’t help himself.  This ingrained belief of sexual entitlement is part of the problem. When you tell a rape joke, you add to this belief. You tell women that you getting a bad grade on an assignment is the same thing as being assaulted and physically harmed. You tell survivors that what they experienced is a laughing matter. You tell them that rape is funny…which it clearly isn’t.

Oftentimes, the person making the joke doesn’t actually understand why it’s wrong. That’s because this type of “humor” is so deeply entrenched in our society that many people overlook it. It’s in the television shows and movies we watch, the magazines we read, the songs we listen to… Just look at some of the lyrics from Blurred Lines, one of the most popular songs of summer 2013: “I know you want it/But you’re a good girl/The way you grab me/Must wanna get nasty.” It seems innocuous when you hear it on the radio, but when you really listen, Robin Thicke is singing a song that encourages male entitlement- since the girl is grabbing him, she clearly wants to have sex. Although listening to songs like Blurred Lines won’t turn a man into a rapist, it normalizes the issue of sexual assault. Society surrounds us with media such as this, constantly inundating us with messages that tell us women are less than men, and sexual assault is something to laugh about.

The fact is, rape jokes aren’t funny. Instead of laughing, we need to stand up and say something. So the next time you hear a rape joke, stop the person and ask why they think sexual assault is funny. Vice President Joe Biden said, “It’s not good enough not be an abuser.” It’s no longer good enough to say you’re not committing the crime, it’s not your problem- it is your problem. It’s everyone’s problem. It will continue to be everyone’s problem until there are no more victims of sexual assault. So use your voice to let people know: Rape jokes are not ok.