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.”

What Prince Charming Teaches Women

Most of us grew up watching the classic Disney movies: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Lion King, Mulan, etc. As young children, these fairytales were fun to watch, entertaining us for hours. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve slowly become aware of just how sexist most of these Disney movies actually are.

In nearly every Disney movie (although, the company is making some improvements with more recent films), there is a Prince Charming. He does not get a name- he is simply Charming. This shows you just how shallow this character really is. In none of the movies does the Prince develop a complex character, or think for himself; rather, he sees a woman that he desires and decides that she must belong to him.

While that is certainly problematic, the main issue with Disney’s films is that the main female character’s sole purpose in the story is to find a man. Let’s take Cinderella. She slaves away in the house all day, but instead of dreaming of getting out and running her own business, for example, she dreams of finding a prince. Another case: Sleeping Beauty literally will never get to live out the rest of her life unless her “true love” finds her.

What this is teaching young, impressionable girls is that they should strive to get a man’s attention. Very few Disney movies focus on the female character’s brain, or personality. In my evaluation, nearly all of these characters are horrifically vapid; they have no personality, and the sole point of their story is to find their prince and live happily ever after. We tell girls that they should work hard, not to do well in life and be successful on their own merit, but to get a prince to marry her. These stories continue to reinforce the message that a woman needs a man in order to have a “happy ending.”

Now, there are some Disney movies with redeeming qualities. One example that comes to mind is Mulan. She dresses up as a man (incredibly progressive for the time the movie was made), and fights in the army. She saves her country, and gets national recognition. While certainly an inspiring role model, even SHE ends up seeking the approval of a man.

I’m not saying no one should watch Disney movies. There are certainly appealing qualities to them- they are fun, they make us believe in magic, etc. But while watching them, especially when our children are the viewers, we have to be aware of this inherent sexism at play. We want to make sure that young women know they have more to aspire to than to be the wife of some “prince.” They are not required to get their happy ending the Disney way; any ending is happy, as long as the woman is satisfied.

The Harmful Concept of Friendzoning

“Dude! You just got friendzoned.”

How many of you have heard this statement (or something similar)? Probably a lot of you. It’s become really popular these days. Urban Dictionary defines the term as, “A state of being where a male inadvertently becomes a ‘platonic friend’ of an attractive female  with whom he was trying to intitate a romantic relationship.” Seems harmless, right? It’s what happens when the girl you are interested in rejects you, and instead says she thinks of you as a friend.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem harmless. The problem begins when you delve into why males feel they got put in the friendzone. When one listens to guys talk, they often say that they were “so nice” to this girl they were interested in, and she still rejected them. What this reveals is that men feel that they should be entitled to a woman’s romantic and sexual interest, simply because they were nice to her, or spoke to her, or spent money on her. Know what this sounds like? Male Entitlement.

Male entitlement is the belief that a man is owed something, just because he decides that he should have it. By believing that they are entitled to a woman’s interest simply because they did x, y, and z, they are taking away a woman’s status as an autonomous being, with the ability to make her own decision about whether she is interested in this guy or not. Instead of realizing that the girl might just simply not be interested, or that he could have done something that put her off, the male blames the woman for not accepting his advances. He cannot understand why he cannot have a woman simply because he has decided he wants her.

Furthermore, this entitlement is also a part of rape culture. When a male feels entitled to a woman’s body, regardless of her rejections of his advances, it can lead to sexual assault. Teaching men that they should expect a relationship (sexual, romantic, or both) after spending time with or giving attention to a woman reinforces the belief that men are owed something for simply being good people.

The concept of the “friend zone” is dangerous. It creates a sense of male entitlement, in turn contributing to rape culture by teaching men that women inherently owe them sexual/romantic relationships simply for acting the way a decent person would. Instead of blaming a woman for “friendzoning”  you, simply accept that she is not interested in a romantic relationship with you, for whatever reason, and turn your attention elsewhere.

**This article uses he/she language, often saying the woman is the one doing the friendzoning and the male is the one getting friendzoned, simply for convenience. The author is aware that both males and females can do both: be friendzoned and do the friendzoning.

The Problem with Dress Codes

When you’re getting dressed for school in the morning, what do you think about? Are you thinking about your homework, or a conversation you had the day before? Or are you worrying about whether the length of your skirt will abide by some arbitrary guideline set out in your school’s dress code? Given that 54% of all public schools, and an even higher percentage of private schools enforce a strict dress code, the answer to that question is probably yes.

Administrators, parents and other adults claim that there are many benefits to dress codes. One of the largest ones is that they prevent students from being distracted in the classroom. The problem is, what exactly is distracting?

When asked this question, the thing most schools state are bra straps, too-short skirts or dresses, and low-cut tops. This proves that dress codes apply unfairly to girls. Most boys (of course, not all, but most) aren’t wearing skirts or dresses. They certainly aren’t wearing bras or dealing with cleavage. School dress codes exist to punish girls for their bodies.

When young women are punished for wearing a bra, or having cleavage, it tells them that their bodies are something to be ashamed of. When a teacher admonishes a young girl for “distracting” the boys, it tells her that her education is less important than that of a young man. It also reduces boys to sex-crazed, slobbering fools who lose all ability to focus at the sight of a bra strap. This is damaging to both young men and women.

Of course, there are some things that aren’t appropriate for school. I’m not saying show up in just a thong and a crop top- it is a professional environment, just like a workplace. But by telling young women that the way they dress is inherently distracting, you’re reinforcing the idea that their bodies exist solely for male pleasure, which is detrimental to their mental health. Instead of dress codes, let students dress how they want. Teach them that they are at school to learn, not to worry about whether they’re committing a dress code violation. After all, what’s more important- whether their bra strap is showing, or whether they will get into college?

The Broken Concept of Virginity.

Society obsesses over the concept of virginity. Young girls are inundated with the message that the determining factor in our “purity” and “cleanliness” is whether or not we have had sex yet. Placing so much importance on what is, in its essence, a social construct designed to perpetuate a culture of slut-shaming and rape culture is dangerous to young girls’ health and well-being.

The truth of the matter is, there is no medical or biological definition of virginity. There is no real definition of virginity. The dictionary says it is “the state of never having had sexual intercourse.” But the problem with that definition is that it doesn’t mean anything. Because “sexual intercourse” refers to penetrative sex. So what about all of the people who have plenty of sex that isn’t penetrative? Can they not lose their virginity? How “far” can you go until you’re engaging in sex? Does masturbation count? Oral? What about the use of sex toys? The truth is: Different people define sex differently. So this one definition we have of virginity doesn’t even work.

We’ve established that there can’t possibly be one true definition of “virginity.” So, why does such a concept still exist? It exists as part of a larger societal problem that stems from a desire for everyone to conform to heteronormative concepts. It diminishes the experiences of people who identify as LGBTQ* or other- clearly, women in relationships with other women have never had penetrative sex, so how could they ever lose their “virginity”? What about men who are in sexual relationships with other men? The concept of virginity erases their sexual experiences by continuing to perpetuate the idea that the only “real” sex must be penetrative sex.

Furthermore, the concept of virginity creates a society hell bent on slut shaming; or, more particularly, women shaming. Girls who keep their virginity until a certain age (perhaps until marriage) are seen as “pure” and “good”, whereas girls who lose their virginity earlier than society has deemed appropriate are seen as “dirty” or “slutty.” Why are we telling women that choosing to engage in healthy, consensual sexual relationships makes them dirty, when we tell men that doing the same thing makes them “cool” or “players”?

The concept of virginity serves another purpose: to add fuel to the fire that is rape culture. When we tell girls that they are “dirty” for having sex, we tell women who have been assaulted that the violence they have survived has marred them. Instead of helping them, society tells them that because a man felt entitled to their body, they are no longer “pure” or “good.” We wouldn’t tell a victim of gun violence that they are dirty or unclean for how someone chose to attack them; so why do say that to victims of sexual assault?

The broken concept of virginity is sexist, non-inclusive and contributes largely to slut-shaming in our society. By continuously telling women that their worth is determined by whether or not they have had sex, we reduce them to sexual objects instead of people. Virginity is a social construct that needs to be abolished if we are ever to achieve gender equality.