Last month, I wrote about a handful of teenagers being punished for sharing pornographic self-portraits taken with their cellphones, and suggested that "sexting," as it's now being called, is more common than one might think. Now, there is proof: An online poll has found that 20 percent of teens and 33 percent of young adults age 20 to 26 have sent or posted online nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves.
A total of 1,280 teens and young adults responded to the survey, which was commissioned by CosmoGirl.com and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The majority of these "sexting" teens intend the X-rated offering for a boyfriend or girlfriend, who they will spend forever and ever with -- but, what do you know, they often end up being shared with others. "A third of teen boys and 40 percent of young men say they've seen nude or semi-nude images sent to someone else; about a quarter of teen girls and young adult women have," the poll found. Most teens and young adults understand that sharing nudie pics can have "serious negative consequences," but 22 percent think everyone should just chillax because it's "no big deal."
Even more common than pornographic photos, are sexually suggestive text messages: 39 percent of teens and 59 percent of young adults report having sent them. And, generally, about a quarter of teens and young adults report being "more forward" in their digital lives.
As someone who came of age during the Internet boom, and who falls within the survey's "young adult" category, these findings are utterly predictable. For young adults, technology can offer a means of intimacy or performance, or both. For teenagers, the Web -- namely, Google searches, chat rooms and free porn -- offers a comfortable and familiar channel for sexual experimentation; for them, it offers what a girl holding a mirror between her legs once did. Of course, when teens start sharing pornographic photos of themselves, some legitimate dangers are introduced -- and that's the only part I find seriously concerning. (As for young women sharing racy photos with their boyfriends, we should be as concerned about that as we are about any other aspect of what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms.)
I will admit that, while I generally think it's natural and healthy for teen girls to be sexually motivated and curious, our culture, online and otherwise, largely guides their exploration. And, maybe you've noticed, neither realm is all that favorable to (or concerned with) female sexuality. Young dudes' sexual schooling is just as sadly limiting. But our youthful sex lives are so often full of foolish and misguided experimentation -- a trying on of various roles that can fail spectacularly. The majority of teens are "sexting" their boyfriend or girlfriend -- not (at least intentionally) their entire school. This seems less an issue of young people being made into amateur porn stars by our sexed-up culture, than it is that virtually every aspect of their lives has gone digital.