The revelation that New Zealand children as young as six or seven are posting sexually explicit images of themselves online may come as a shock to many, especially parents. The reality is that for many teenagers today, engaging with explicit material is not uncommon.
Research conducted in Australia in 2015 found that 49% of a sample of 2,243 young people aged between 13 and 18 said they had sent a “sext”, a sexual picture or video of themselves, to another individual. More than two-thirds of the respondents had received sexual material.
Media framing of teen sexting as scandal
In New Zealand, sexting among teenagers is becoming a growing issue. The evolution of technology has brought a change in how youth communicate with each other and how much they share.
Research shows that almost one in every two teens sext but that few are harmed by the behaviour. In the media, however, we can see how language and phrasing can shape readers’ perceptions of teen sexting.
This is reflective of the wider attitudes and opinions around teens, technology and sex. This framing can be limiting as it denies scope for the formation of a critical discussion around sexting.
The framing of sexting has a particularly gendered dimension, which tends to focus on girls as the protagonist and boys as passive recipients. This assumption is problematic, as the evidence is inconclusive.
Rape culture and sexting
Generally, there is little evidence to suggest girls send more sexts than boys. However, by creating the narrative, mainstream media are able to play into the wider moral panic about teenage girls and sexualisation.
According to the sexualisation perspective, girls who sext are victims of a hyper-sexualised popular culture and in need of protection. However, the problem with this approach is that it fails to take into account female autonomy and the possibility that sexting may be part of normal sexual expression.
For boys, sexting is generally framed around the legal consequences. For example, overseas headlines frequently refer to boys receiving sexts and then being charged under child pornography laws. However, in cases where boys send sexts, they are framed as “boys being boys”.
For example, early in 2017 the New Zealand soap opera Shortland Street had an episode in which a teenage boy, Harry, sends an intimate picture to his girlfriend. His dad discovers the picture and the episode ends with the now-infamous line: “Please, tell me that is not your penis.”
Maxine Fleming, a producer on the show, said:
When I read the script, I was like, that is the cliffhanger of the year for me. It is a comedy story, but like all good comedy there’s a truth at the core of it, and it is social commentary, that story.
While media commentary on the show did offer advice for how to keep teens safe online, it is difficult to imagine a sexting story where a female protagonist is portrayed in such a lighthearted way.
Challenging the dominant narrative
Several outlets have challenged society’s framing of sexting as inherently negative.
In 2015, comedian John Oliver ran a story on online harassment, which included “revenge porn”, on his HBO show Last Week Tonight. While the segment predominantly focuses on women whose images were sent without consent, Oliver highlights how our framing of sexting often fails to take into account the wider context of victim blaming and rape culture.
It should also be noted that teenagers are challenging commonly held assumptions on sexting. For example, Teen Vogue’s UnSlut has dedicated several columns to sexting and distinguishes between consensual and non-consensual forms of the behaviour. The column also challenges society’s expectations of teenage girls.
In New Zealand, the website Em, which aims to help teenage girls combat sexual assault, also challenges the dominant narratives on sexting. Referring to the non-consensual sharing of images, the website maintains that the fault does not lie with the creator but rather the distributor.
By creating space for these narratives and listening to teens it may be possible to create a new, more nuanced framework through which to view sexting. What we do know is that young people rarely get to talk about what they think about “sexy” media – the common message is that sexualised media is always harmful and dangerous for young people.
It is important that we, as adults, engage with this debate. We must continue to have open and honest conversations with our young people, no matter how tricky, and to support them.
It is abundantly clear that there is a place for pornography, sexting and similar in the New Zealand curriculum. Rather than be shocked, this revelation should be a wake-up call to all of us to listen to, inform and support our young people.
Authors: Claire Meehan, Lecturer in Criminology, University of Auckland