After this week’s discussion, I recalled a story I heard a few months ago about a junior high school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Edward B. Shallow Junior High School suspended a record 32 students for sending what they considered sexually suggestive messages and/or pictures. The school’s zero-tolerance policy for this kind of behavior applies even to messages exchanged outside of school grounds/hours, which naturally raised the brow of many a civil liberties advocate and legal scholar. The article also mentions that the city of New York issued 500 total suspensions for sexting behaviors last year.
What this article, as well as countless others like it, suggests is that not only are a large percentage of young people engaging in this behavior, but for whatever reason they are incapable of taking responsibility for their own actions; they are not to be trusted. I find these assertions problematic for a number of reasons, but nonetheless they have spread like an infectious disease through the discourse surrounding youth media use. The Huffington Post quotes one mother who told The Post that “while she monitors her children’s social media and cellphone activities, her busy working schedule prevents her from having complete oversight and therefore supported the school’s efforts because it was better to be “safe than sorry.” So it’s better for your child to be suspended from school for trying to explore their natural curiosity around sexuality just because you didn’t have the time to teach them personal responsibility? Let’s check that attitude at the door, please.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a group more marginalized, disenfranchised, and stifled in any modern Western society than youth. It might sound absurd, but for what other demographic is it acceptable to simply say things like “they don’t know any better” or “they can’t be trusted to think for themselves”, let alone put almost complete control of their lives into the hands of others without a second thought? I’m not suggesting that all children be liberated from the oppression of parental influence. However, it’s become too simple to say that adult regulation of youth is for the greater good, that taking away freedom of expression and essentially all agency is the best way to go.
The panic over teen sexting probably stems from the thought that if teens are sending sexually suggestive messages, then who’s to say they aren’t engaging in sexual behavior? The argument over abstinence-only vs. comprehensive sex education is a whole separate discussion, but the underlying premise of adults trying to “protect” youth by stifling their behavior and expression is the same. In “Sexting as media production: Re-thinking dominant ideas about teen girls and sexuality online”, Amy Hasinoff asserts that if adults really wanted to protect adolescents, they’d shift their worries from the supposedly sex-crazed behavior of youth to issues of consent and the unlawful distribution of any sexualized images created by youth. She argues that fear-mongering pundits have implied that “taking a naked picture of oneself virtually guarantees the attention of a predatory professional child pornographer. This sort of victim blaming is similar to what’s existed in the discourse surrounding rape for a long time now; Hasinoff goes on to say “why blame her for the images she posts online? By focusing on girls rather than the male perpetrators of sexual violence, these legislative debates and safety campaigns assume, contrary to the empirical data on sexual violence, that girls’ behaviors – not adult men’s – most need to change.”
So what is the solution? Parents want to protect their kids, kids don’t want to worry about their parents creeping on their media usage, and no one wants pictures of anyone’s naughty bits being sent around without consent where they don’t belong. If, as Hasinoff suggests, we view teen sexting as a creative outlet of expression using digital media and therefore legitimize the practice, we can begin a discussion of how to best protect young people from sexual discrimination, abuse, and non-consensual activities. If adults continue to perpetuate an environment of fear and distrust among the younger generation, these issues will never cease to exist because, as we all know from experience, teens are experts at keeping things hidden. Adults need to make the effort to embrace these new uses of media and technology by teens; that’s what will really serve the greater good.