When I was a preadolescent boy, I had a “relationship” with a neighborhood girl of the same age. We would ride bikes together, play Clue, talk about UFOs, build elaborate houses out of blocks, argue passionately about forgettable things, and also, from time to time, steal away to a dark corner and “play doctor.” While my memories of these risque games may be a bit degraded over time, I do remember them always being respectful and mutually agreeable. These were our little secret times alone, when we pretended to be husband and wife and explored our bodies, our desires, and our emerging notions of intimacy–and no one knew about it. However, I think if we had had access to a digital camera or a cell phone with photo capabilities, we, as naive children, would have likely snapped a few pictures for posterity.
At risk of offending nearly everyone who remains squeamish about the mixing of childhood and sexuality, I am dredging up this bit of personal history to provide commentary on the latest controversial flame surrounding the practice of “Sexting.” For the uninitiated, “sexting” is the act of sending, receiving, or forwarding naked, or scantily clad, photos of yourself or others through your cell phone. This “sexting” craze has apparently gained tremendous popularity among teens who, while hormone-addled and working through their various identities, like to look at naked pictures of themselves and others. Budding technology + budding adolescent sexuality = rampant moral firestorm. I think we all should have seen this one coming.
Obviously, the “sexting” trend, enabling bazillions of pictures of naked teenagers to orbit haphazardly around the telecommunications sphere, has been cause for a great deal of concern for parents, teachers, school administrators, legislators, and yes, even teenagers themselves. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy recently published a study suggesting one in five teens had sent or posted images of themselves in various stages of undress. The proposed solution to the problem has ranged from confiscating mobile phones and making them forbidden on school grounds (thus driving the issue entirely underground in revival of that flawed “don’t ask, don’t tell” logic) to prosecuting offending teens on child pornography charges, forever marking temporarily dumb and hormonal teenagers as sex offenders.
Many child development experts, as well as child psychologists, would argue that both preadolescents and teenagers engaging in this behavior are emotionally and mentally unable to thoroughly grasp the consequences of their actions. But even if they were, by electing to criminalize “sexting” among teenagers as a form of child pornography, we are overlooking the fact that most of these teens are not sexual predators and likely have grand plans of producing or distributing child pornography. The laws currently on the books pertaining to child pornography endeavor to protect children from the dangers of sexual exploitation. These same laws should not be modified to prosecute and unfairly stigmatize imprudent and unthinking children as sex offenders themselves. Sure, in cases involving threats and harassment, “sexting” should be prosecuted, but really this should be the exception to the rule.
The larger issue here is not the existence of naked pictures or the technology that enables these images to leapfrog from mobile to mobile with the press of a button. The issue is the problematic oil and water muddle that is sexuality and children. As parents, and adults, we are just about as mystified and ham-fisted in dealing with child sexuality as our children are. What results is discomfort, awkwardness, and bewilderment that is not only passed on to our children, but something that is internalized and that effectively casts them astray in a sea of uncharted human sexuality.
In the near future, I plan on delving into the hornet’s nest issue of child sexuality and how we could better prepare our children to make the right choices (I am not only talking about teen pregnancy and abstinence here) and take ownership of their own sexual identity. Until then, I would love to hear from parents, adults, and even teen readers of this blog (presuming they exist) about this issue of “sexting” and what is happening with the contemporary dialog between parents and children about sexuality. Have we progressed into a realm of a natural and conscientious mutual understanding, or are we still treading the same old dark waters of ignorance and personal embarrassment?