Adults in the small municipality of Cañon City, CO, have obtained a huge cache of pornographic photos featuring teenagers. The voyeurs aren't interested in statutory rape. Rather, they are law enforcement officials conducting a criminal investigation into youth sexting: the furtive trading of underage photos by underage exhibitionists known to send adults into perennial alarm.
The sexting allegedly involved at least one hundred youths and hundreds of photos at a school where many parents reportedly work as guards at nearby state and federal prisons. So many players on Cañon City High School's varsity football game were involved that they forfeited their final regular season game. Fremont County District Attorney Tom LeDoux declared that consent is irrelevant, and that "it is a possibility that students will have to register as sex offenders."
It is the sort of lurid scandal — “the children are having sex!” — that media can't resist. To be fair, much recent coverage has been substantial, questioning the wisdom of treating self-pornographing teens as criminal child pornographers.
What is typically lost in the discussion, however, is why teens sext; what, exactly sexting and the panics that ensue have to do with American sexual culture; and, more to the point, in what ways sexting might result from the near-non-existence of truly comprehensive sex education in public schools.
Sexting can no doubt be an unwise idea. Not because it is shameful to consensually share one's body, or an image thereof, with another person. But because it is sometimes not a great idea for teenagers to trust their peers so much. Meanwhile, the advent of social media can take the stakes of high school meanness to new scales of humiliation.
The adult conversation around teen sexting, however, makes little distinction between the not-at-all inherently wrong practice of sharing a nude photograph and the malicious and not-consented-to sharing of those photographs. The latter can be very harmful, particularly to young women. So can the adult response.
“People are panicking about the wrong thing. People tend to panic about sexting in general and often don't make any distinction between consensual sexting and privacy violations,” says Amy Hasinoff, a communications professor at University of Colorado Denver. “This is a continuation of longstanding gendered double standards about sexuality. Meaning we tend to shame and criticize women and girls who are being sexually active and expressive. And the same behavior among men and boys is seen as an expected thing.”
The thing that is perhaps most stupid about sexting and the scandals that follow is that teenagers, like the adults who scold them, are often so ignorant about sex: Cañon City, for one, does not offer much in the way of sex education.
“There's actually a Colorado sample health curriculum,” says Cañon City Superintendent George Welsh. “That's what we follow.
In fact, it is not so much a fully-fleshed-out curriculum but rather just general standards, says Lisa Olcese, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter. And those standards, according to the state Department of Education, are largely limited to lessons like: “How can a personal choice to become sexually active affect one’s future goals and options?” and “How might a teen encourage and support a peer in their decision about sexual abstinence?” Skills to be taught include: “Demonstrate ways to encourage friends to remain sexually abstinent or return to abstinence if sexually active.”
The word “orgasm,” for one, doesn't appear in the standards, reflecting a refusal to acknowledge that teens will continue to have sex, and sext; and that teens might have sex, and sext, because they enjoy it, and that it might even be a positive part of their sexual and romantic lives.
In Cañon City, high schoolers, typically as sophomores, receive just one year of health class, says Welsh, often taught by physical education teachers. There are no specialized sex ed instructors.
“I don't see the necessity for it,” says Welsh. “I mean, we don't necessarily bring a nuclear physicist in to teach a high school psychics class.”
Colorado is not an abstinence-only state. For example, it suggests lessons on how “family, media, peer pressure, and culture influence sexual health,” and “the consequences and benefits of contraception, including condoms.” There are far more conservative environments where youth can not receive a real sex education.
“We address body changes, and what that means; reproduction, and ways to put that off, from abstinence to contraception,” says Welsh.
But there is nothing, as far as I can glean, about how to achieve sexual pleasure which, it seems, is at least part what people are often after when they have sex—and sext.
As sex educator Elizabeth Schroeder wrote at RH Reality Check, “people engage in particular behaviors for a reason. Without addressing the benefits a person gets from engaging in particular behaviors, sexual or otherwise—including unhealthy behaviors—it will be impossible to support healthy practices relating to those behaviors.”
In most Colorado classrooms, as in many nationwide, sex is all danger and no fun. And so, when it comes to actually flirting, making out and having sex, kids get no advice from experts at school.
“Correct,” says Welsh. “I'm not sure we get into technique.”
At worst, the lesson is don't do it. At best, the lesson is if you must do it, take every precaution so you don't die. But that's not good enough because it is that very question of technique that people find so confusing about sex.
“When we're focusing solely on sexual behavior and negative outcomes rather than talking about sexuality as being healthy...and part of that is pleasure and should include pleasure...it's no wonder that young people are going and seeking other forms of information and other ways of engaging,” says Jesseca Boyer, interim president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
That other form of information is often ubiquitous internet pornography, which often does not present women in the most dignified or empowered light. 43-percent of 13- to 18-year-olds report viewing pornography online, according to a recent survey by Northwestern University's Center on Media and Human Development School of Communication. That could be a conservative figure. Many would be wary of admitting to viewing pornography, even anonymously. It is not easy for teens to talk about sex.
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Teaching pleasure in sexual education is rare in the United States save for some elite liberal private schools. But it doesn't have to be this way. In the Netherlands, for example, sexuality education kicks off at age four singing songs about crushes, talking about hugs. Gender stereotypes are addressed at age 8. Sexual orientation and contraceptives at 11.
“For girls, I think the Dutch put a lot more emphasis on the fact that women can make choices,” Amy Schalet, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Alternet. “It’s not like it’s perfect, but there’s at least a conversation about, ‘what do you want? What do you feel?’ You can also see it in the fact that the Dutch are one of the few countries that really openly talk about masturbation for both sexes [during sex education]. It’s often thought that that’s one way that women can really become empowered about their sexuality, when they know about sexual pleasure and their own bodies. That’s not usually part of American sex education.”
Most Dutch teens report consensual and pleasant first sexual experiences, according to PBS Newshour. They have very low teen pregnancy rates, and very high rates of contraceptive use. And low rates of sexually transmitted infections too.
Sexual ignorance contributes to people making such bad decisions about sex, from maliciously sharing explicit photos to sexual harassment and assault—part and parcel of a culture that prioritizes male pleasure as the principal goal of sex and subjugates women as that pleasure's object.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, just 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education. Only 18, plus D.C., require that information on contraception be provided. 37 states require that abstinence be covered, 25 of which require that it be stressed.
Colorado does not even require that sex education be taught, according to the Guttmacher. But it does require that if it is taught, that it be medically accurate.
George Welsh, who is 51, says that the big problem is not sex education but “digital citizenship.” In this view, sexting is on par with plagiarism: new technology has made certain problematic behaviors more possible than ever before. When Welsh was a child, “if I wanted to get naked pictures at school or anywhere,” he would have had to “buy a magazine. My family was too poor to afford a Polaroid camera, but I suppose that could've been an option.”
It is no doubt true that digital communication has outrun our social norms. But the problem is also probably rooted, as Welsh concedes, in the “taboos” around sex in American culture. But American culture, he says, just won't allow for too much sex ed at schools.
“I get that in many communities in the country parents feel like, this is my role to be educating my kid about this,” says Welsh. “It's always a gray area of how deep you can go into it...what the community's willing to stomach.”
But if adults can't stomach sexting, they need to start thinking more about sex. In the meantime, kids will keep hitting send.