On Teen Sexting: Same Sexism, Different Technology

A new study finds adolescent girls and boys are equally likely to sext, but girls face harsher repercussions from their peers. 
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One of the oldest, most outrageously sexist ideas presents sex as a lose-lose for girls: girls who have sex are slutty, while girls who don't have sex are prudes. This was stupid in the era of black-and-white television, and it is just as stupid in the era of the smartphone. 

Which brings us to a new paper on sexting among adolescents. It's called "Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't ... If You're a Girl." 

The key finding is that both girls and boys send and receive naked or semi-naked pictures of themselves with some regularity, but only the girls are socially punished for it. "Boys in our study described girls who did send sexts as 'sluts' or 'insecure,' whereas they characterized girls who did not send sexts as 'prude' or 'stuck up,'" University of Michigan researchers Julia Lippman and Scott Campbell write in the Journal of Children and Media . "This indicates that sexting is a lose–lose proposition for girls; regardless of whether or not they sext, their behavior is evaluated in harsh—and often sexist—terms."

Here are some examples of what the boys told the researchers about girls who sext: 

  • A 12-year-old boy: "One time this crazy girl who liked me sent me a nude picture of her for no reason... [she] was just insecure." 
  • An 18-year-old boy: "This is common only for girls with 'slut' reputations. They do it to attract attention...[it’s inappropriate, but] it’s the fault of the girl who sent them. That she is being seen like that."
  • A 14-year-old boy: "I have received some pics that include nudity. Girls will send them sometimes, not often. I don’t know why they think it’s a good idea but I’m not going to stop it...I like classy girls so I don’t like them as much anymore it makes them look slutty."

These boys laid the blame firmly on the girls who sent the sexts, a point the researchers rightly highlighted.

"According to these accounts, then, girls who send sexts are—to use some of our male participants’ words—crazy, insecure, attention-seeking sluts with poor judgment," they write. "Nowhere in these responses did these participants stop to consider the ways in which forces external to the girls (including the boys themselves) might be contributing to girls’ decisions to send sexts. Indeed, one of these boys even wrote 'I’m not going to stop it,' implying that on some level he enjoyed receiving sexts, even though he expressed no qualms about denigrating the girls who sent them."

Meanwhile, some girls felt pressure from boys to sext not because of "sluttiness or attention seeking," but "a desire for approval and social acceptance." The catch, of course, is that the boys do not give them that acceptance for engaging in the practice and other girls are "critical of female sexters for lacking self-respect."

The study consisted of open-ended questionnaires of 51 young people, aged 12 to 18. Previous research into sexting among teens and pre-teens had found that the activity was common, if not ubiquitous. It had also found that sexting tended to be correlated with increased sexual activity, although it is not clear if there is a causal relationship running from sexting to sex or vice versa. 

What the researchers wanted their qualitative study to tell them wasn't how prevalent sexting was, but how teens felt about it, and why they did or did not do it, given the risks that their communications could be shared. 

What they found was that these technologies—mobile phones, cheap and ubiquitous cameras, etc.—don't change the underlying culture of sexism in which these kids find themselves. The pioneers of the Internet might have hoped that network technology could transform culture, but instead the tools have become another outlet for the dominant cultural mores to express themselves. 

And smartphones have some new features—private communications can be spread far and wide with stunning speed—that create difficult problems for kids. But while all kids struggle to figure out the right boundaries and behaviors, the negative consequences fall hardest, and nearly exclusively, on the girls. Same as it ever was. The technology can't solve this one: The culture's gotta change.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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