Sexting has become common and we need to address it as part of our larger, ongoing conversations about sex and relationships. Here’s how.
By Shafia Zaloom, Hannah Schrank (18) and Sarah Blachman (18)
14 min read
Jason and Lexi meet at a party. Jason gets Lexi’s snap. Later that night she’s at home when he snaps her.
Jason: Ayyee nice talking to u tn (tonight)
Lexi: haha yeah 🙂
The next day Jason and Lexi periodically exchange various face pics of sassy and cute expressions via Snapchat- the Snapchat version of flirting.
Jason: when can I see you
Lexi: haha whenever – wb next weekend?
Jason snaps a quarter face in the bottom right corner of the screen.
(snaps again/double snaps) wanna show me a preview 😉
Lexi: haha wdym (what do you mean) cutesy face pic
Lexi sees Jason snaps, waits two minutes, sees he snaps again, waits two more minutes and then opens his two snaps at the same time
Jason: lolll idkk ;;)
(snaps again/double snaps) do u send nudes
Lexi snaps a mirror pic naked from the waist up with emojis (🔥or 🌸or 💖) over her nipples.
Jason snaps a jaw line pic with smile crease lines and 😫😫😫(expression associated with orgasm) and: can’t wait for next weekend
Today, most adolescent girls are steeped in a culture that hyper-sexualizes bodies, glamorizes hooking up without emotional connection, and encourages casual relations and relationship building through digital devices. It’s tough to make good choices in an atmosphere that normalizes unwitting objectification and veils misogyny with humor. As parents and caretakers, if we’re not talking to our kids about sex, we’re the only ones not talking to our kids about sex. From Lexi and Jason’s perspective, they are merely “talking.” They express their attraction for each other using the algorithm of Snapchat for brokering a hookup. Caught up in this dynamic, they are not thinking about their behavior as illegal, or potentially consequential months or years down the road; they are looking to explore the possibilities of ascribed status or personal validation based on appearance and attraction, or to acquire “experience” to talk about with their friends, or to satiate their curiosity of what all the hype is about. Of course, in their minds it’s far less complicated than that: they are simply looking to hookup.
It is important, now more than ever, that we engage in ongoing conversations with our children about sex and relationships. We need to talk to them about what they see, hear, and feel, and guide them towards healthy relationships grounded in authentic connection built through shared, real-time, in-person experiences. We also must help heighten their awareness of, and provide strategies for, navigating the cyber landscape so many of them are exploring.
As we approach these conversations with our girls, it is essential to remember that adolescents need an environment free of judgement, guilt, and ultimatums if they are going to share with open honesty. As parents, we are most effective when we lead these conversations with real information, empathy, and curiosity. Sexting — sending or being solicited for explicit nudes and/or receiving dick pics via digital device, including text messages and social media platforms — has become common and parents need to address it as part of our larger, ongoing conversations about sex and relationships. (Note: In general, “explicit” means showing any body part that would typically be covered by a bathing suit.)
As parents, most of us grew up before sexting was a thing, so we may assume that it’s something our child would never be exposed to, much less engage in. Afterall, it is illegal to send and accept underage sexually explicit photos, and many would say it’s morally wrong as well. So, if our girls are approached in this way, they’ll know enough to “just say no” — won’t they? Not necessarily. It’s important to understand that sexting is very common among teenagers today; it’s not an activity that only older or edgier kids engage in. And saying no is more complicated than parents may think. For many teenagers, saying no to dick pics or requests for nudes means saying no to, and essentially rejecting, the person asking or offering, and the relationship context and/or social standing that is an integral part of the dynamic. Young people are developmentally programmed to seek the acceptance of their peers and in many instances socialized to value themselves based on the attention they receive from others.
Many of our girls are socialized by the greater popular culture to protect the male ego, never emasculate a boy, and to avoid rejection as well as vulnerability. And if relevant, to justify same gender to gender sexting because it doesn’t fall within a heteronormative context. Research by Common Sense Media found that teens who watch stereotypical gender representations in the media are more likely to value masculine than feminine traits, have more tolerant views of sexual harassment, support the belief that women are at least partially responsible for sexual assaults against them, and use media representations of romantic sexual relationships as their own expectations for exploring sexuality with others. Teens are bombarded by cultural messages that glorify impersonal sex and create the mindset that “social media is life.” This complicates the sexting issue.
Parenting children isn’t easy as we strive to provide our girls with the tools and strategies they need to stay safe, thrive, succeed, and live happy and fulfilled lives of integrity. If we only put a hammer (just say no) in the proverbial toolbox, we limit the options they have when trying to navigate the complexities of teen world, especially human relationships. Instead of advising your daughter to just refuse such interactions, help her navigate them in an ethical, age-appropriate, and realistic way.
Consider this scenario:
Trevor and Natalie are already “talking” through Snapchat and have a “thing,” and there’s some sexual and/or romantic interest or chemistry between them when they hang out at school.
Natalie: hey wu
Trevor: nothing wbu
Trevor snaps a pic with his shirt off
Natalie snaps a pic with a quarter of her profile, and a bare shoulder with a bra strap sliding off
Trevor snaps a mirror pic of his abs.
Natalie snaps a pic with her shirt lower and angled at her breasts with a caption: “ooo”
Trevor snaps an above-angled selfie in the mirror with just his boxers and a brief snap video of himself rubbing his crotch
Natalie snaps a pic back of herself in the mirror in just underwear with her hand cupping her breast and covering her nipple
Trevor sends a dick pic
Natalie snaps back her bare back, as she glances over her shoulder and: “let’s save it for in person”
Some teenagers find themselves swept up in a dynamic similar to the above. The images and banter represent a sexual flirtation and a game of response. The context of Snapchat is experienced by many teens as very casual and somewhat “safe” because they believe the images disappear permanently after being viewed briefly. Because girls can pause to figure out what their response will be, they also feel a sense of control and security. Of course, in the back of their minds, many also know that the digital world is not private and that images can always be screenshot, harbored, and forwarded later. Trevor and Natalie are sexually curious about each other and their actions reflect negative cultural norms of objectified and commercialized sexuality, and the misconception that relationships can be authentically built in cyberspace rather than in person.
We all want our girls to have sexual agency and hope they would have the perspective and confidence to reply to requests for nudes or dick pics with something like, “i’m not into that,” or “that pic is illegal and makes me uncomfortable,” or to send a picture of themselves “nude in the dark,” or to simply block the person soliciting the photos. Our girls should have those direct and assertive refusal skills in their tool box. Girls are certainly capable of this, especially if the solicitor is someone they don’t know or aren’t a part of their social network. However, we need to also provide more nuanced ways by which our girls can diffuse such situations, and refuse a picture or sexual text while still saving face. The social dynamics can be complex and our girls need help navigating this tricky terrain.
When talking to girls who are attracted to and interested in other girls only, or in addition to guys, they will tell me:
Some guys ask for nudes and if a girl says no, it isn’t taken as a limit or not wanting to participate but as up for petition. The guy can continue to say “but why not” or “come on just your tits” and push. Some won’t stop until you give in to what they want or until you block them. But blocking a guy or really blocking anyone, including other girls, is a really huge social move because it indicates anger and in some cases being a “prude” or playing “too hard to get” in a way that might be communicated to other guys and girls who the girl might like, and this may limit her social potential to develop relationships with guys or girls in that circle or in the social scene at all.
When solicited by another girl for a nude, many girls report that their limitations and boundaries are typically respected, and that many girls are empathetic of other girls’ experience trying to say no, and will honor the threshold. However, other girls share:
I’ve “talked” with girls who make me really uncomfortable and constantly say sexual things or ask for nudes, but I don’t feel like I can block them because I don’t want to come across as dramatic, so I just kind of say “oh later” or “oh not right now” or “im busy” and just put it off, hoping that maybe they’ll just stop there or get bored. There’s this weird persistence, though, that just pressures you into doing what is wanted.
What are your options as a parent trying to advise and support your child?
You could start by sharing this article, or at least some of the above scenarios, and discussing them with your daughter. Don’t lecture; instead, explore the topic together and ask questions. You could ask questions like, for example,
- “What do you think about scenario “X”?
- “Have you experienced or witnessed anything similar?”
- “What are you and/or your friends concerned about?”
- “What are you or others going for with sexting?”
- “What would happen if you didn’t send a requested nude or dick pic?”
- “What are some of the influences impacting your decision?”
- “When does sexting become sexual harassment?”
- “What are some ways you can manage what’s going on?”
- “What do you feel is at stake if you were to block the person asking?”
- “What would it take to block someone?”
- “What if this was your friend asking for advice—what would you say?”
If your girl’s relationship to the person asking for nudes or sending pictures of their genitals is important to her, and she doesn’t feel comfortable simply shutting the conversation down, brainstorm other approaches. For example, help her recognize when an exchange is escalating to the point of nudes and/or dick pics (some indications would be messages that sound like this: “show a little more” “nudes?” “a little lower?”), and suggest she end the exchange and say, “My phone died” “Wifi went out” or “Let’s save it for in person.”
Our girls need to know that body pride is beautiful, and if they want to share their body with someone they trust and feel safe with, that’s positive. However, they also need to know that taking and sending nudes under the age of 18 is a federal offence, and can carry real consequences. The federal government considers taking, sending, and forwarding nudes as the trafficking of child pornography, even if you are taking and sending pictures of yourself. States have created teen sexting laws that address this because federal law can be severe in how it impacts a young person. Those sexting laws vary from state to state.
Your child’s safety:
Even if your girl is 18 or older, there is a privacy issue at stake. It is important to think of the digital space as an extension of one’s personal space. A smart phone with a camera is different than a regular camera. A digital photo sent out into cyberspace has the potential to become the billboard of your child’s life. It is also important to remember that there is a false sense of security when sending anything over social media. Has your child read the Terms and Conditions of the Snapchat or Instagram accounts they set up? The reality is that nothing that we send belongs to us. AND once anyone sends a picture of themselves, it can be screen shot, forwarded, posted, and/or exploited in many ways. Autonomy is an important aspect of healthy sexuality. It means we get to control our own narrative. When we lose that control our images can become objectified. And when anyone is solicited for nudes or sent a dick pic without asking, it may qualify as sexual harassment.
In addition to the above information, consider telling your daughter, “If you are thinking about sending out a nude, stop and ask yourself: Would I want a college admissions person to see this? My future partner? My future boss? My future in-laws? Once you send something out into the digital space you lose control and ownership of it. If you feel empowered with body pride and want to own that, keep it for yourself and those you choose to share it with in person.”
Prevention and consequence:
Substantive dialogue with your girl that is informative, supportive, and non-shaming will encourage sexual agency and empowerment. As parents and caretakers, we need to affirm the realities and challenges of today’s adolescent world. Be clear about your family values as they relate to healthy relationships and ask questions that provide guidance. Take her through a critical thinking process with questions to teach how to assess risk and anticipate consequences.
You may discover that she sends nudes despite these conversations, so consider ahead of time what kind of consequences you are prepared to impose. As parents and caretakers, it is our job to set limits. Be clear and concrete when you communicate your expectations. Be thoughtful about what’s reasonable and focus on responsibilities and safety. Think about what the age-appropriate consequences may be. If you decide consequences are appropriate, they should align with the infraction that evoked them, for example, losing phone privileges for a reasonable amount of time. You may also want to consider how you would respond to finding inappropriate sexts to your daughter from someone whose parents you know. Would and should you tell them? How would you engage in a productive conversation? How would your daughter feel about that and how much influence would she have on how you decide to exercise your adult responsibilities? Each situation will reveal itself differently. Think about various scenarios and how you would respond constructively. Afterall, we are asking this of our daughters, so we should take the responsibility to do it ourselves as well.
Ultimately, we want to encourage our girls towards age-appropriate romantic and/or sexual relationships that are grounded in authentic connection, effective communication, shared experience, intimacy, and care, because it won’t be her GPA, where she goes to college, or the kind of job she has that will determine the quality of her life. It will be the quality of her relationships. Conversations about activities like sexting, and the reasons, realities, and implications of such behaviors, will help her understand what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like —and the risk of letting social media take the place of genuine human interactions.
Shafia Zaloom is a health educator and consultant whose work centers on human development, community building, ethics, and social justice. Her approach involved creating opportunities for students and teachers to discuss the complexities of teen cutler and decision-making with straightforward, open, and honest dialogue. In her twenty-five-year career, Zaloom has worked with thousands of children and their families in her role as teacher, coach, administrator, board member, and certified outdoor educator. Zaloom is currently the health teacher at the Urban School in San Francisco, and she develops curricula and trainings for schools across the country. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, NPR, and PBS.
She lives in California with her husband and three children. Her book Sex, Teens, & Everything in Between is available September 3, 2019. Pre-order here:
Indie Bound.org (A community of independent book stores)
Visit shafiazaloom.com to learn more.
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Can you recommend books to read WITH my daughters? They hear things differently coming out of a book or from another adult than they hear coming from their mother. Thanks for this very interesting and informative article.
Dorothy Ponton, Digital Marketing Manager
Hi CJ, here at Girls Leadership, we’re huge fans of reading books with your girls! Check out posts from our Girl & Grown-up Book Club here. And if you sign up for Book Club (it is free) and you’ll get instant access to our entire archive of recommended books listed by grade level. We also have toolkits with meeting guides & discussion questions if you’d like to have a book club meeting about any of the books. The 2019-2020 school year book recommendations are launching in September.
Sexting needs to be addressed more in schools.
Being a devoted Mom of three girls, 18, 15, 11, I find your above article deeply supportive. THANK YOU‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️
Dorothy Ponton, Digital Marketing Manager
You’re welcome! Shafia Zaloom’s insights are so valuable here. For navigating this topic with your tween, check out this MEDIAGIRLS post for tips on having this conversation before your kid even has a phone. Their perspective is more of a “just say no” approach, but it also may be helpful for you.