Is Sexting by any other Name Still Wrong?

It’s still all over the news, but in case you’ve been avoiding media or vacationing in Fiji for the past few weeks, here’s a summary: Congressional Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) sends randy photos of himself through social networking to young women. Denies it. Then says computer was hacked. Then ‘fesses up and loses job. Journalists are all over the story, and one wonders if his name didn’t contribute exponentially to interest in the incident.

And with this juicy news item comes a lot of commentary about how to address sexting with youth. Because, you know, even though Weiner is a full-fledged adult, the story always comes back to youth making stupid mistakes. Adults apparently don’t need to be told about the dangers of the internet, though I am coming this close to suggesting that Congress hold a mandatory orientation on social networking and its proper usage.

Among all the usual comments about the importance of talking to your teen about sex and sexting (though a tired mantra, I do support the idea that this news story is a GREAT icebreaker for parents to talk to their kids about what can potentially happen if you send a photo to someone online) are danah boyd’s reflections, which are particularly insightful, as they address full-on the complexity of the issue. Her talk is long, but it contains TONS of great information. I think the important takeaway here is that we are still immersed in laws that punish the sender of erotic images, even though the motives for sending them can vary tremendously.

I believe that investigating the motives behind the act of sexting is crucial to crafting effective laws and policies related to this behavior. I commented about the importance of differentiating between different types of sexting before, but it bears repeating. Two essential questions:

1. Is the person sending pictures of themselves or others? If self, it’s possible that no punishment is necessary (unless that person was coerced into sending the picture — then punishment may apply to the person doing the coercion). If others, the incident needs to be looked at more closely.

2. Was was the intent behind the sending? boyd provides case studies of several motivations behind sexting including to gain approval, to be romantic, to shame or hurt someone. There are countless other reasons, but considering a few of the major ones can help shape policy.

Knowing the answers to the above questions on a case-by-case basis can help us come up with solutions as to “what to do about it.” It also might cause us to reflect on the “it” — sexting — and conclude that we should expand our vocabulary to call out the different types. Most crimes don’t have names that can be used for legal and illegal acts: “murder,” ” stealing,” “espionage” — these terms are pretty much used when someone breaks a law.

So perhaps “sexting” can be the legal term, and we can come up with a term for sending sexually explicit pictures illegally. Or maybe it’s best to do it the other way around, since “sexting” has such a negative connotation already. Whatever the solution, creating labels to distinguish categories can help the public see that this behavior is more complex than many realize.


Salon’s "Hysterical" Quote of Day

According to, there was a Congressional hearing on sexting. While some of the testimony report is truly touching and points to the need to address this issue constructively, some speakers were more prone to dramatics, as was the case with Kayla Barclay, Miss Utah 2008.

As quoted on’s Broadsheet:

“Barclay recalled an early experience in her life, when she tried to log on to her Hotmail e-mail account but accidentally typed ‘hotmale’ instead. She said that the explicit photo that appeared on her screen sent her screaming away from the computer.

‘A picture of a naked man showed up on screen and, at that time, I was so appalled and I ran downstairs in tears to my mother thinking I was going to be in trouble,’ she said. ‘I did not go onto the Internet for six months after that.'”

Thoughts on this quote? Helpful for Congress to hear it? An overreaction or an understandable feeling?

PS While I am not sure when Barclay committed this typo, I replicated it just now in Google. While indeed there is reference to gay porn and other forms of sexuality, I was not barraged by any images whatsoever. Hmmmmm.

The Personal and the Private Goes Public (Health)

It’s all over the news, so it’s not exactly private. The 17-year-old daughter of Republican VP candidate Palin is 5 months pregnant. The Republican take on this is “at least she is marrying the father and keeping the baby” — they have to put a positive spin on this somehow. Democratic candidate Obama wants the rest of us to leave the families of politicians alone: “I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories,” quotes the New York Times.

But, I can’t back off. It’s the hypocrisy here that kills me. The Republican platform advocates for abstinence-until-marriage “sex” education — clearly, Palin’s daughter did not follow her mother’s belief system. She had sex before marriage, which according to her mother is the only option for persons when deciding what to do about their sexuality.

The Republican platform also tends to stress the role of the family and how it is up to parents to ensure that their children are responsible, successful human beings. Now, I am not saying that a pregnant teen cannot grow up to be successful. But I can’t help thinking that, if it were a Democratic candidate’s teen daughter who was pregnant that the Republican’s wouldn’t be shouting “this candidate has failed as a parent! I bet he will also fail as a leader. If he can’t control his family, who can he control?” Yet, here the talk is of course supportive: “Good for Bristol for keeping the baby!” “Good to hear she is marrying the father!” Is it? Studies show that people who marry at younger ages tend to have much higher divorce rates. And given the public spotlight of this particular relationship, I don’t think the odds are good for this young couple. Supporting a legal union between these two smacks of politics more than true concern for these two young persons who are trying to make the best of a tough situation.

It’s personal, but I am curious to know if these two used any contraception, and if so, did they know how to use it consistently and correctly? True, a woman can become pregnant using even the most effective forms of contraception. And it’s a shame that this young person is faced with an unexpected pregnancy — and unexpected baby — whether or not she used “protection.” I just wish that somehow this incident can change the Republican agenda which strives to teach children LESS about sex and contraception. Can’t Palin look at her family and think “maybe talking about sex isn’t such a bad idea after all.” “Maybe young persons should learn about different contraceptive methods and their effectiveness at preventing pregnancy?” After all, learning about different ways to prevent pregnancy — including, but not limited to abstinence — reduces the likelihood of an unwanted pregnancy. Can’t we use this incident to open up dialogue related to healthy sexuality?

Rewriting the Dictionary

Apparently, I am leaving all the “on topic” posts to Sarah, while I vent on issues that are at least somewhat related to this blog. I guess I can get away with it since I started it :-).

Many people ask me how and why I got into this field (broadly speaking, adolescent development, and more narrowly adolescent sexual health, and then of course there is the focus on technology that is supposed to drive this blog). One of the reasons is that I had a crappy adolescence. Another reason is that I am a research nerd, and I get very upset when people ignore established findings and instead go with what they think “feels right.” And the majority of our sex education and approach to young people’s sexuality dismisses research and educated theory and instead leans towards moral righteousness and panic. Example: I get mad when I hear about abstinence only curricula and policies mandating its implementation because there is no evidence that abstinence until marriage changes young people’s sexual behaviors. Another example: I am frustrated with the panic about the alleged dangers of social networking and how they are destroying young people’s relationships (though see this article which provides evidence of the benefits of social networking).

So you can imagine how I feel when people take the liberty of changing the definitions of words in order to suit their needs. This is what I read about today. According to the New York Times, Bush has decided that “abortion” means “any of the various procedures — including the prescription, dispensing and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action — that results in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation.” That definition is completely wrong. According to the medical professions an abortion is “when the fetus is expelled from a woman’s uterus” (yes, a “miscarriage” is just a more delicate way of saying “spontaneous abortion”). Here is the key difference: an abortion can only occur if there has been implantation. Bush seems to forget that essential component and instead broadens his own special version of the word to incorporate anything that interferes with a fertilization.

I understand Bush is anti-choice. I understand many people are. That is not what is at issue here with me right now. What I am concerned about is when politicians decide to redefine words in order to suit their own wishes.

All but one: 49 states sign off on MySpace safety rules

MySpace and 49 U.S. state attorneys general agreed on some safety guidelines for protecting youths on the Internet. According to Reuters, measures include creating an e-mail registry that would allow parents to prevent their children from creating an online profile for the network and making the default profile setting for 16 and 17-year-olds “private” “so they can only be contacted by people they know, making it harder for sexual predators to find them.”

Texas was the only state to abstain (gee, I see a trend with that place….)

Although I appreciate the sincerity behind creating these guidelines, I still feel they aren’t taking us in the right direction — and potentially leave people with a false sense of security. Creating a registry to prevent a youth from creating an online profile? Wow, that’s a stumbling block. It’s so hard to get a new email account to bypass this hurdle. It might take 5 minutes out of a youth’s busy day! And it’s not like there aren’t other options. Only MySpace is a part of this deal. What about the other social networking sites? Or is MySpace the only trouble area in the eyes of the attorneys general?

And making the default setting for older teens “private”? I haven’t looked into this (not being 16 or 17 myself, thank goddess), but I am assuming the default can be changed by said youth if desired. Or, the oh-so-difficult process of lying about one’s age can overcome anything that is perceived as a barrier. That is, if one wants to have a public profile. Many teens choose to keep things private. So, these aren’t the youth that will benefit from this change in regulations. They are already protecting themselves!