Sexting’s perverse double standard: Why girls are set up to fail

It's a natural expression of teen sexuality, so why is our culture using it as a new excuse for slut-shaming?

Topics: the daily dot, Sexting, Sexism, Sexting Culture, Rape Culture,

Sexting's perverse double standard: Why girls are set up to fail
This article originally appeared on The Daily Dot.

Being a teenager is tough these days. Being a teen girl is even tougher, because every gross social expectation heaped upon women rests on your shoulders, along with the pressure and culture of your peers at an age where you’re struggling to figure out who you are and who you want to become. Teenagers live in a climate where they live and die (sometimes literally) by the judgment of their peers, and just like adult women, teen girls are caught in sexist doublebinds when it comes to sexuality and behavior.

Sexting, the latest iteration of the dirty note and the cause of much adult moral panic, is a prime example. The media are constantly up in arms about the epidemic of sexually explicit messages supposedly sweeping through the phones of our youth, but how common is the exchange of sexual content, and who are they really worried about? If you believe the media, the answer to the first question is “widespread,” and the answer to the second, of course, is girls. It’s girls “ruining their reputations” and having their lives destroyed by sexting, while boys, as usual, get a pass — and here’s where the actual problem lies.

In a recent study, Julia R. Lippman and Scott W. Campbell took a look at the actual numbers on sexually explicit messages between adolescents, and they examined sexting culture. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…if you’re a girl” is a refreshingly nonjudgmental paper that makes some sharp points about how we talk about this issue in America, and who is targeted for negative commentary when it comes to discussions about teen sexuality and how teens explore their bodies and identities.

In their literature review, Lippman and Campbell note that according to the studies they looked at, sexting is actually not as common as you might think. One study concluded that a mere 2.5 percent of 10-17-year-olds had sent sexts, while 7.1 percent had received them. At the highest, another study, focusing on 13-19-year-olds, found that these numbers were 19 and 31 percent, respectively. Hardly an epidemic, in other words, and, notably, the researchers didn’t find a significant difference between genders, meaning that girls and boys send such messages roughly equally (the studies didn’t account for non-binary teens or those of other genders).

You Might Also Like

Furthermore, the few studies on the issue discussed in the literature review, including “Sexting: A Terrifying Health Risk … or the New Normal for Young Adults?” and “Sexting as media production: Rethinking social media and sexuality,” suggest that, contrary to belief, risks associated with sexting are relatively low. If sexting were treated as what it is, which is a natural behavior adapted to a new technology, that would help break down the stigma that surrounds it.

Media discussions of sexually explicit messages exchanged by teens frame them as a monstrous horror coming to steal our children, suggesting that nearly all teens are sexting and that most of these messages involve passing around images of young women who are nude or partially nude. In fact, as we can see, the behavior is both not as common as cited, and not as gendered as believed. But the sexist double-standard in the way that people talk about sexting still stands: Girls are the ones who shouldn’t sext because they might look “slutty,” they might not know where their pictures could end up,they could look desperate.

But it’s boys who are actively soliciting these images. Boys interviewed in the study made derisive comments about girls who send sexts, but the study also shows that boys demanded explicit images from their girlfriends or girls who are interested in them.

“This is common only for girls with ‘slut’ reputations,” said an 18-year-old male participant. “They do it to attract attention … [it’s inappropriate, but] it’s the fault of the girl who sent them. That she is being seen like that.” Another boy, 14, said: “I have received some pics that include nudity. Girls will send them sometimes, not often. I don’t know why they think it’s a good idea but I’m not going to stop it . . . I like classy girls so I don’t like them as much anymore it makes them look slutty.”

Meanwhile, girls reported: “…my boyfriend or someone I really liked asked for them. And I felt like if I didn’t do it, they wouldn’t continue to talk to me.” “…guys ask for them and if we don’t send them they will think we aren’t outgoing and get mad.” So, you’re a “slut” if you sext, but you’re a prude if you don’t, point out the authors of this study. For young women, there is simply no way to win.

By framing the exchange of sexy texts as something wrong, media and society are both overlooking the fact that it’s a natural expression of teen sexuality and curiosity (adults do it, too!), and the fact that attitudes about sexting say a great deal about how we think of young women. The problem here isn’t that sexually curious young women send pictures of themselves, and it shouldn’t be. It should be that people respond to sexually explicit images and texts with censure, in a way that feeds a sex-negative culture that harms women.

Women and girls are “sluts” and “whores” for being sexual, and thus are “asking for it” when it comes to being pressured into sexual activity; if you’re the kind of girl who sexts, you’re easy, “slutty,” the kind of girl who “puts out.” More troublingly yet, in the world of rape culture that we live in, men and boys are never held responsible for their actions. Thus, boys demanding sexually explicit photographs of girls can walk away from their responsibility and actions without comment; boys are just being boys, and exploring their sexuality. It doesn’t take long for that to progress further, as boys learn that women have no boundaries that can’t be broken down with a firm push.

Unfortunately, girls who choose (and are pressured, in many cases) to exchange sexual messages with boys are caught in the position of not being able to explore their identities and sexualities without judgment. An honest approach to this particular aspect of adolescent sexuality would push teens to explore why they think of their female peers as “sluts” for engaging in it, while boys aren’t challenged for the role they play. This research illustrates that the real problem isn’t sexually explicit messaging, which is simply a normal expression of adolescent sexuality. It’s how we’re raising our boys, and what we’re telling them about girls.

s.e. smith is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Bitch, Feministe, Global Comment, the Sun Herald, the Guardian, and other publications. Follow smith on Twitter: @sesmithwrites.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...