The mythology of teen sexuality

The media can't seem to decide whether youngsters are "sexting" devils or "textually" innocent

Topics: Teenagers, Sex, Love and Sex, Parenting,

It can be hard to keep straight from day to day: Are teenagers horny little devils or precious little angels? This week, according to the dominant media narrative, it seems to be the latter. After years of hand-wringing over the trend of teenagers texting each other naughty photos, the release of a new study on Monday prompted a flood of headlines like “‘Sexting’ Not a Common Practice for Young Teens” and “Only 1% of Teens Are Actually Sexting.”

So, what is it with the schizophrenic coverage?

More than anything, the coverage of this latest finding should highlight our cultural inability to look at teen sexuality with any nuance. The narrative tendency is to swing between the extreme poles of corruption and innocence. They are either hormonal, sex-crazed maniacs or innocents in need of protection. Take, for example rainbow parties: In 2003, an episode of Oprah sparked a panic over the supposed trend among adolescents. Some two years later, the New York Times exposed it as an urban legend. Cultural panics over teen sex tend to follow the arc of a classic horror film, and perhaps we’ve reached the dénouement of the sexting scare (although, beware the false ending). The coverage of the latest research allows us to believe that we have either slayed the scary beast of teen desire or simply awoken from the nightmare of it.

This isn’t to say anything about the validity of this latest study, which found that far fewer minors are digitally sharing their naughty bits than was commonly believed (roughly one teen in 100). The results, which contradict a past survey reporting that 20 percent of teens had sexted, likely differ so dramatically because of the study’s distinct methodology: Instead of surveying teens and young adults, researchers interviewed only those under 18, and they specifically focused on material that was graphic enough to be considered child pornography and behavior that had taken place within the last year. It’s also possible that sexting has actually decreased over time, thanks in part to growing media coverage and parental concern.

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What’s suspect, though, is that this finding is being treated as a revelation when the reality is that single-digit percentages have already been reported in past research on the topic. Two years ago, the Pew Research Center reported that a mere 4 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds had copped to sending a naked snapshot of themselves to someone else. However, most coverage at the time of the study’s release instead highlighted the finding that 15 percent of teens have “received sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of someone they know via text messaging on their cell phone.” The dominant narrative was still: Kids these days! And now, suddenly, it’s: The kids are all right! You can blame biased researchers or media fear-mongering for this inconsistency, but the underlying issue is the black-and-white view of teens and sex. The truth is that when it comes to sex, teenagers are not either-or but both — as are we all.

Tracy Clark-Flory
Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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