As a sex education teacher in San Francisco and a national consultant on teaching about healthy relationships and consent, I’ve been hearing from my students that teen sexting is on the rise. Based on conversations in my classes (held via Zoom), many teens in romantic relationships are trying to keep their sexual intimacy alive by sexting in ways that are more explicit than they would be if they were able to have physical contact.
When I asked one girl, a college freshman from Ohio, who said she isn’t usually into sexting, why she would entertain it now, she explained, “It just feels good to know people aren’t forgetting about me.”
Teenagers who have gotten used to a certain amount of independence may be finding that the only place they can flex their autonomy and act out a bit right now is online. Others don’t want to be asked for nudes, and the uptick in solicitations stresses them out. Either way, it’s an important time to talk about digital consent. It can be an awkward conversation for parents and kids alike — in classes, I often start by talking about French fries.
Think French Fries
I’ll ask, “What happens when you sit down with a big plate of fries at a table with a bunch of friends?” A common response is some version of, “Hands dart in and pick off the fries.”
Then I ask, “You OK with that?” Most of the kids shake their heads no. They say, “They’re mine. They belong to me.” “Yeah, they didn’t ask.” What’s so important about asking? “It shows they respect you, and care about how you feel about sharing something that’s yours.”
So what gets in the way of saying something? “I don’t want to be judged or create tension,” or “They’ll discount my feelings and I’ll feel bad,” or “I’ve been taught to share and it’s just expected.”
I tell my students, “Just as your fries belong to you, your body does too. You’re responsible when you choose to touch, and you get to choose how you’re touched because your body and sexuality belong to you.”
This sexual agency is essential. When teenagers text naked pictures of themselves, they lose their capacity to be agents of their own sexuality. And when a teen sexts someone sexual words or images that weren’t asked for, it may be experienced as the recipient having fries shoved down their throat.
What Is Consent?
Consent is an agreement. It gives people agency and autonomy, or the capacity to choose what someone has the right, ability and power to do or decide. Sexual consent cannot be given if someone is incapacitated by substances, or coerced with persuasive language or an unbalanced social power dynamic, or in some states if an individual is under the age of 18. Asking for and giving consent is a means of educating others on how to treat us and listening for how others want to be treated.
Intense adolescent emotions and suppression of social interaction because of the pandemic create a charged environment where teens may make mistakes. Many won’t consider whether or not their behavior is illegal or potentially damaging years down the road; they are looking to find an outlet for sexual feelings and tensions right now.
Let Your Teen Be the Expert
My students have great advice for adults when it comes to these conversations: Stay away from judgment and shame, and talk up (versus down) to your kid. Avoid “why” questions that connote judgment, and stick with “how” and “what” questions that encourage reflection.
For example, rather than, “Why would anyone send nudes?” you might say, “I read that some adults are sexting more right now — do you think it’s the same with teenagers?” It is most effective to raise these issues in short discussions, and to scaffold this ongoing conversation over time rather than having one big talk.
Encourage Critical Thinking
Start with questions that will help teens assess the risk and anticipate the consequences of sexting. For example, “How come people sext?” “What would happen if you didn’t send a requested nude?” Help them problem-solve how to handle tricky virtual interactions by asking questions like, “What are some ways you can manage what’s going on?”
If you discover that your teen is engaged in sexting, remind them of the real-world consequences: “Would you want your teacher to see this? Your friend’s parent? Your coach?” Be clear with your teenager about your family values, expectations and potential consequences when it comes to sexting.
Ways to Say No
Sexting is common among teenagers today, and saying no is more complicated than many adults might think. For many teenagers, saying no to requests for naked pictures means rejecting the person asking, and the relationship context or social standing that is an integral part of the dynamic. Teens 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.
Furthermore, if adolescents are feeling insecure about their friendships or socially disconnected because of sheltering in place, they may be more open to requests. One student told me that she’s feeling emboldened because she’s safe at home and probably won’t ever actually see the people soliciting her. Another mentioned the validation that comes with attention — albeit digital — because she isn’t getting validation at school anymore. Yet another explained, “People are bored, it’s something to do — it’s a distraction from what’s going on — people get caught up in the challenge to get creative and entertain with emojis, filters and photos.”
Telling teens to “just say no” limits the options they have when trying to navigate the complexities of teen world. We want our kids to have sexual agency and the confidence to reply to requests for naked pictures with, “I’m not into that,” or “that pic is illegal and makes me uncomfortable,” or to send a picture of themselves “naked in the dark,” or to simply block the person who’s asking.
Our children should have those direct and assertive refusal skills, and they need ways to refuse a sext while still saving face. Many teenagers don’t feel comfortable sending nudes because they recognize the potential consequences, or fear the possibility of exploitation. At the same time, they are concerned for their reputations or the solicitor’s social influence, and want a response that will diffuse the situation without rejecting the person outright for fear of social retaliation. For example, “My Wi-Fi went out” or “let’s save it for when we all get through this.”
Be the Askable Parent
Recently a student who lingered after our virtual class ended asked me, “What happens when shelter in place is over? Will people be expected to deliver on all of those built-up sexting expectations?” Teenagers should know that “talking” with someone online may not feel the same when with them in person, and that sexting does not equal consent face-to-face. Consent may be revoked at any time when engaged in sexual activity.
Parents can reassure teenagers that they will offer support as we all emerge from sheltering in place and reconnect. If teenagers find themselves in a sexual situation that is uncomfortable and unwelcome, let them know that you will suspend judgment and respectfully listen. Let them know that you are available to talk, even if the conversation is awkward or difficult.
Shafia Zaloom is the author of “Sex, Teens and Everything in Between.”