Laura argues that it’s the sexism rather than the sex we should be worried about when it comes to young people "sexting"

 Tuesday night’s Channel 4 News lead with an extensive piece on the findings of the NSPCC/UK Safer Internet Centre research [PDF] into school children’s experiences of sexting, defined as “the use of technology to share personal sexual content”.

The research involved 120 year nine (13-14 year old) and 80 year six (10-11 year old) pupils at eight different schools, with participants split into small single-gender focus groups. The Channel 4 News report focused on the year nines, as there was little evidence that year sixes were exposed to sexualised content or asked to generate images.

Across all schools, the year nines reported that sexting was highly prevalent to the point of being mundane, and this was inevitably the primary focus of the Channel 4 feature, which was entitled “Generation Sex”. However, for me what was most striking both when watching the news item and reading the report was not that teens are engaging in sexual activity, but the gendered and sexist nature of their actions and attitudes, which was – thankfully – flagged up by one of the researchers being interviewed.

It seems the norm is for boys to badger girls to send them sexual images, with boys far more likely to send unsolicited images than girls. It was considered “highly unusual” for girls to request images from boys, and the girls were “clear that boys called the shots”. The boys generally did not view this as coercion or malicious, rather that they were just “trying their luck”. Both the boys and girls interviewed for Channel 4 said that girls could just say no if they didn’t want to respond, and fortunately the research found that many girls did feel able to do this.

Despite this, the attitudes displayed are worrying. When a researcher pointed out to a girl that if a man were to repeatedly ask a female colleague for sexually explicit photos in the workplace, this would be sexual harassment, she said she’d never considered sexting in that way. The boy interviewed in the studio told Jon Snow that although girls can just say no and boys would usually listen, girls don’t always say no clearly enough – they might say “not now” or something similar that would make the boy think he could keep asking her.

There is clearly a lack of respect, proper communication and understanding about consent underpinning sexting, all wrapped up in the sexist assumption that sex is something that men have to persuade women to give up to them. These are exactly the same issues that plague heterosexual interactions in the offline world.

From my perspective, the problem here isn’t sexting itself – which can be consensual (i.e. non-coercive), mutually enjoyable and respectful – but the gender power imbalance and sexism in the way it is practised by young people.

This sexism is also apparent in the attitudes towards girls who share sexual images of themselves. Boys who left abusive comments on the sexual status updates of one girl admitted to feeling bad about it, but also felt she was “asking for it”. Girls reported losing respect for pop star Tulisa after her ex leaked a sex video of her without her consent. And it is normal for girls to be mocked or bullied if images they take are sent around school or social networks.

So although girls are repeatedly encouraged to share sexual images of themselves, they are castigated when they do. Again, sexting isn’t the problem here, but sexism in the form of slut-shaming, which predates smartphones by centuries.

So what can we do? The young people themselves were very clear about what’s needed. Instead of restricting their access to smartphones and the internet, they want adults to give them the space to discuss issues like sexting, pornography and peer pressure. They want sex education to focus on social interactions instead of being forced to sit in embarrassed silence and absorb the facts of life from a video.

The kind of sex education they want is very much compatible with helping young people explore issues of sexism, abuse and gender in sex and relationships, as well as the importance of consent, communication and respect, all of which would go a long way towards tackling the issues raised by the report.

Girls would be much less likely to end up sending images they regret if boys didn’t think it was OK to pester and harass them. They would be much less likely to feel regret at all if women’s sexuality wasn’t wrapped up in shame: what reason would there be to bully girls who are known to share sexual images if there was no shame in being sexual? Besides, sexual images would not get any further than the intended recipient if young men were encouraged to respect their female sexual partners rather than view women as sexual objects for consumption and the possession of explicit images of female peers as a means of proving their masculinity.

Teens will always engage in sexual activity, and in the digital age it’s inevitable that technology will be a part of their early explorations. There’s nothing wrong with either of these things; we just need to help them ensure that their sexual activity both online and offline is safe, consensual and respectful.

Photo of a black speech bubble shape made out of the keys from computer keyboards, by olalindberg, shared under a Creative Commons licence.