Interesting Debate on Sexting

On a listserv comprised of the top sex educators and counselors in the US, if not the world, there is an intense debate going on as to the potential harm of sexting, More specifically, the discussion revolves around a case in which a teenager (read: a legal minor) is engaging in some form of sexting (not clear from the original post) with an out-of-state adult (again, age unknown, but not a minor). The simple question posed to the listerv: What should this counselor do?

Clearly, there is no easy answer. And thus the debate. Some say it’s a form of sexual abuse. Some say it may be harmless. Some insist on contacting Child Protective Services due to the poster’s status as a mandatory reporter, while others say no as there is no clear and immediate danger. One person suggests the minor contact a rape crisis center.

Others are asking whether there are any laws to draw from. Other than ones about distributing child pornography (which potentially would only get the minor, not the adult in trouble), we come up empty.

And, as I said at the beginning of this post, this debate is going on amongst the cream of the crop experts on issues related to sexuality. If they don’t know the answer, who will? How are we going to figure out the best way to react to this situation? Because it probably happens a lot. But is a sexting relationship between a teenager and adult as potentially harmful as a face-to-face one between the same parties? An intereting question to ponder, if only it were hypothetical.

A Game of Dress-up


Whether it be as a Disney princess in grade school, or as a naughty nurse in college, girls have always enjoyed playing “dress-up.” However, what happens when a 13-year-old “dresses-up” as an 1p-year-old and initiates a sexual encounter with a man 15 years her senior? Trouble.

In early July, Scott Knight, an Aurora, Oregon man was arrested on charges of statutory rape after a 13-year-old girl talked to authorities. After the two allegedly met on Flirt and supposedly talked through MySpace, they then met in person. Knight claims he asked for ID from the girl and then the rest of the details become muddy.

I came across a MyCrimeSpace blog summary of the incident that stuck to the released information, but the comments on the blog prompted me to start thinking, what makes teenage girls seeks out men like this? According to Justine Cassell & Meg Cramer from Northwestern University’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior (who I quoted in a previous entry) most likely this girl has “a greater tendency for conflict or lack of communication with their parents; high levels of delinquency, including committing assault, vandalism or theft; have a troubled personality due to depression, peer victimization, or [has experienced] a distressing life event.” The very first comment asked “what would she gain from setting him up?” A few answers – public attention, “fame” on the news, a book deal, a Lifetime movie even!

I remember being 13 and wanting to be 23, wanting to have an older boyfriend, wanting to be a grown-up; I don’t remember ever thinking that the Internet could be used like this, though. A little part of me is surprised at the lengths this girl would go to in order to make a connection with Knight (finding an internet dating site, getting a fake ID to lie about her age, working to draw in a man who would “fall” for her act) and then a bigger part of me isn’t so taken aback. This girl, rather than turning to her parents (who aren’t mentioned in any story that I can find), she turned to the internet and found adults there.

Is social networking to blame for incidents like this? Probably not. Frivolous Electrical Conversation explains that people blamed promiscuity on the telegraph, the telephone, and even the automobile.

“The telegraph provided users with faster responses to their communication with others, more frequent interactions, and more access to others around the world. It improved access to goods and services, and to knowledge of all sorts. And yet, even while the telegraph (and the internet) led to a revolution in business practices, it also gave rise to new ways to commit crimes, and it was quickly adopted beyond business to the communication needs of everyday people. In the techie magazines of the times (such as Electrical World, the historical parallel to PC Magazine) many authors alluded to a possible loss of a world they idealized, a world threatened by new modes of electrical communication. Media critics of the times described the telegraph as used by ‘talkative women’ who had ‘frivolous electrical conversations’ about ‘inconsequential personal subjects.’ Novels, like the 1879 Wired Love, and other popular culture texts expanded on this theme. The women portrayed in these narratives were näıve and incapable in the face of technical advances, and when they made forays into the world of the telegraph they ended up needing to be rescued, to be protected from technology, in sum. … technical ignorance was a virtue of ‘good’ women. The moral was that women’s use of men’s technology would come to no good end.” Justine Cassel & Meg Cramer in High Tech or High Risk: Moral Panics about Girls Online

Sound familiar?

Then we must ask “Who is responsible?” Another commenter later in the list of postings had a very good point; “they are both responsible for their behavior.” When does a person become “of age” for their own personal responsibility? Minors are held responsible for murders, being tried as adults in courts when faced with such serious charges, but incidents such as these are brushed off as solely the adult’s fault. Whether the adult blamed is the minor’s parent or the adult in the sexual relationship, it’s rarely the minor’s fault. Should parents be punished for the behavior of their teenagers? “At what point do the girls have to take some responsibility about what happened?” So, I ask you, “Where do we draw the line when playing dress-up?”

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Frivolous electrical conversation

irdImage via WikipediaI truly believe that most teens know what they’re doing when they begin playing online. They don’t get into a chat room, end up on a pornographic site, or visit with strangers without knowing they’ve done it. However, the media explosion of shows like To Catch A Predator and news headlines reading “Man has sex with girl he met on MySpace” has made it seem as though teens use the internet without knowing what they could get into. After 23 pages of “High Tech or High Risk: Moral Panics about Girls Online” (authors Justine Cassell & Meg Cramer from Northwestern University’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior), I wanted to go and hug these women. Finally a well-written, easy-too-read article that I agreed with!

First, some general statements from Cassel & Cramer that I think always need repeating:
– “… family members and friends … are still the most frequent perpetrators of child sexual abuse.”

– “… offenses against children … numbers have been diminishing … since the advent of the internet.”

– “… the majority of these sexual solicitations … were not from adult predators, but instead came from other youth.”

– “Often, children who do begin online relationships with an abuser fit a particular profile … ‘a greater tendency for conflict or lack of communication with their parents; high levels of delinquency, including committing assault, vandalism or theft; have a troubled personality due to depression, peer victimization, or a distressing life event.'”

Second, some statements regarding the history of “moral panic” with “the compromised virtue of young girls”

– “… the panic over young girls at risk from communication technologies is not new rhetoric in America. There has been a recurring moral panic throughout history, not just over real threats of technological danger, but also over the compromised virtue of young girls, parental loss of control in the face of a seductive machine, and the debate over whether women can ever be high tech without being in jeopardy.”

– This is later addressed as the scares the telegraph (yes, the telegraph was apparently scary) created; “Media critics of the time desicribed the telegraph as used by ‘talkative women’ who had ‘frivolous electrical conversations’ about inconsequential personal subjects.'” Stories written during telegraph-time were morality tales expressing the opinion that “women’s use of men’s technology would come to no good end.”

– Even the telephone was lambasted for it’s use. “Despite companies’ efforts to direct how th telephone was used, women nevertheless cultivated their own purposes or ‘delinquent activities’ as they were thought of – primarily social interaction.”

– “… the politics of both the Victorian era and the early twentieth century – of rapid modernization and technical advancements – has many parallels with today’s societal response to the advent of the internet.”

– With regards to the definition of moral panic “the media relies on bias, exaggeration and distortion to manufacture news.” If you read the first four quotes I pulled from the article, you can see how the media exaggerates what studies actually say.

Third, tomorrow: “What girls do online.”

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