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?