Sexting the Night Away: Responding to the Prevalence of Teen Sexting
Sexting isn’t just a way to destroy a political career. It’s also a pastime for youth and young adults. A recent article in The Atlantic about a teen sexting ring in Louisa County, VA, describes the overwhelming ordinariness of teen sexting, and explores responses from law enforcement, parents, and teens. In this month’s issue of Engage, young adults, theologians, and youth ministers respond to the prevalence of sexting.
Shari Oosting is the Assistant for The Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. She has worked in capacities including campus ministry, camp ministry, and small groups.
Let’s face it. Most of us feel at a loss when we talk about sexting – sending and receiving sexual content such as words, pictures or live interaction via social media. Some of us remain silent. Others resort to stressing legal consequences (which can be arcane) and forbid the activity completely, even though most of us know scare tactics and absolute bans on behavior rarely work. They don’t keep teens safe or empower them as moral decision-makers to live out their own values in complicated ethical situations.
Why Kids Sext? helpfully points out that sexting is a type of sexual behavior that is mainstream for many teens. The article cites a recent study that about 30% of sophmores and juniors have sexted (sent or received). These numbers are similar to the 2009 data from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life project. Both show similar trends. As teens get older, they are more likely to have sent or received a sext. Fewer teens send sexts than receive them, which means folks are sharing initial messages, photos, etc. And young women are more likely to send than receive, perpetuating gender inequality.
Additionally, most sexting does not result in major social harm or legal consequences. Teens’ daily routines often do not allow for unstructured free time. Connecting with friends and potential sexual interests is overwhelmingly mediated by a screen. Sometimes sexting can be a form of foreplay, a substitute for in-person behaviors, or a way to express you like someone. Teens (and adults) share their sexual desires and pleasures through virtual experience just like they have done for decades in-person; and both are very real!
Sexting is here to stay. But it doesn’t have to be a playground free of consent, respect, or mutuality. Nor should any teen feel they need to sext to “fit in.” In order for teens to believe this and live it out, we need to start talking about sexting in a way that helps teens make connections between their faith values and sexuality.
If I only had 3 minutes, here is what I would say to teens:
When I’m making choices about my sexuality and relationships, I believe that my Christian faith guides me. My faith reminds me:
- Our bodies are to be valued and respected as part of God’s good creation.
- The love commandment calls us to mutuality in sexual relationships.
- The imago dei in each of us is affirmed when we are seen as whole, complex human beings; loved for who we are, not who someone else wants us to be.
This means, before sharing with another person in intimate connections either in-person or virtually, we should ask: am I honoring my body or using it as an object? Is this mutual? Is this deepening our relationship with each other and God or is it benefiting one person?
Sexuality is an amazing part of our createdness. Teens need to hear more than “no” or “not now.” They want to hear how our Christian values and beliefs inform our sexual behaviors and relationships. Let’s start talking!
As an unapologetic Canadian, one of my secondary ministries is raising awareness and appreciation for the independent musicians of my home and native land. I’m thankful for this Princeton platform to shine a little light on Jeremy Fisher. He is a folksy, roots-inspired songwriter with pop-rock sensibilities. His song “Naked Girl” offers this melodic and wistful refrain: “Everybody wants to see a naked girl … Oh, the things we’d do to see a naked girl.”
The fascination of the world is the female form, especially in states of undress. Genesis 3 would emphatically remind us that nakedness is shameful and fraught with Original Sin. The earthling Adam and his companion, Eve, come to the knowledge that they were naked and fashioned for themselves some undergarments. The earliest interaction of humanity with the Divine establishes a precedent that permeates our cultural consciousness: nudity is an aberration, a deviation from what is moral, good, and ordered. But wasn’t the original intention of God for us to be unashamed and fully revealed to each other (and to God), with nothing to hide?
I am not endorsing whole-scale nudity or rampant sexting; at this point, I’m merely wondering how we got to this point. Given our hyper-sexualized society that offers sexy Halloween costumes for children, is it surprising that sexting among teens is so systemically commonplace? But you don’t need a typing head on the internet to tell you that because something is popular does not mean that it’s right.
What saddens me most is that these images are not respected or appreciated by the recipients as the expressions of intimacy and identity they were intended to be. The pictures are not even considered as fantasy fuel; instead, they are collectables, commodities to be traded and exchanged. With pornography so readily available, any semblance of a real relationship or a literal girl-next-door fantasy is too much work, investment or sharing of self. The pleasure of a sexual relationship is the relationship, of knowing and being known by another (sing out, Song of Songs!).
For the authorities and aghast citizens of Louisa County whose “teen sexting ring” was highlighted in The Atlantic, it would have been easier to take down the “sexting ring,” if only there was a nefarious conspiracy to exploit the vulnerable and innocent. If only there was a ringleader or scapegoat to identify and punish. But this blame-seeking absolution keeps us from acknowledging the ways that we contribute to the problem in the jokes we laugh at, the stereotypes we propagate, and the social norms we leave unchallenged.
I am left wondering about a gendered double standard: what if it were teen boys that were featured in a public web page? Would there be the hue and cry of protective parents and authorities? To me, it seemed that teenage boys are excused for being hormone-addled chumps; teenage girls are virginal saints and unholy ho’s, both. Sadly, this is a narrative that is as eternal and abiding as the ages.
If you were wondering, Jeremy Fisher does not have a song called “Naked Boy.”
Sexting definitely does not come up in conversation with my Christian friends. That being said, I know that the topic of sexting is eerily common. Living as a teenager in the 21st century is far from easy. Along with the bombardment of media on how to look and how to act, the advertisement industry seems to be using sex to sell and say, “This is what you need to do in order to be successful in life.”
As a Christian, I think there is a huge cloud of shame that goes along with sexuality. So most people, especially young Christians, don’t feel comfortable admitting that they are falling into it – even to their close friends. This leads to a never-ending silence because no one wants to be the person admitting to such an activity. Sadly, our society is numbing us to the fact that this is serious for teenagers. Sexting isn’t really even placed in the same “immoral” category as physical sex. Sometimes the thought process might resemble, “I’m not fully naked, so does that really count as sexting?” Apps such as Snapchat can be seen as a great way to sext because the photos disappear forever after seconds. But as youth in this technological age, we have to realize there are loop-holes to everything. Having varying definitions on what sexting is can really complicate things.
In addition to trying to construct an identity, the teenage years are a delicate time for faith. It is easy for a teenager to compartmentalize her life into separate groups, keeping the thought of Jesus in one and their social life in another. Sure, we are all human and therefore no one can escape being a sinner, but it is scary to think how much our world is telling us that something like sexting is okay… and that it is even expected of us. For girls, we desperately want to be loved and feel special. It is extremely hard not to go along with what your friends are doing or to resist believing a boy when he says he loves you and would never do anything to hurt you. There are also so many ways to manipulate a photograph to look “hot.” Ultimately, you feel good about sharing it … until it ends up in the wrong hands.
I feel it is important to instill in young people ideas about how to make choices for themselves. Honestly, no one ever really addressed the real world challenges (like sexting) that I was going to face that would test my faith. I still struggle with whether sexting, in all contexts, can really be deemed as sinful. Teens may seem too immature to fully grasp ideas, but we deserve choices. People who work in the church need to recognize that once we step off of church property and into the world, everyone else is drilling controversial ideas into our minds through music, movies, etc. A verse that helps me is 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” It is exhausting trying to fit in as a teenager, and adding the label “Christian” sometimes doesn’t help. I take refuge in the thought that I may struggle but God will never give me what I cannot handle.
When I was prompted to give a young Christian’s response to the prevalence of teen sexting, it was made clear that I wasn’t simply to point a judgmental finger at my peers, crying, “Sexting is wrong!” I’m glad of that. Such a response would deserve nothing more than a quick skim and a disregarding headshake.
Actually, part of my job was done for me. Being directed not to criticize those who sext is, in and of itself, one of the most appropriate responses to teen sexting I can think of. At the end of Genesis, Joseph asks his brothers, “Am I to judge instead of God?” He answers his own question. “It is not my place.” Aren’t Christians to agree with Joseph? Not all do.
Among many atheists, agnostics, and people of other religions, Christians have a bad reputation for being hypocritical, harshly judgmental, even hateful people. Shouldn’t they know we are Christians by our love? John 13:5 says so. What’s one way to respond to teen sexting as a young Christian? Do not look down on those who sext, and love them just the same.
But of course, we must not direct our focus only to those around us who sext. In our efforts to withhold condemnation of others, it is easy for us to become trapped in a godlike mindset of superiority, such that we forget our own fallibility and capacity for sin.
The truth is, I’m not aware of anyone, Christian or not, who believes that sexting is a virtuous act. It’s too evident in headlines like “Teen ‘Sexting’ Has a Double Standard, Study Shows,” and “Sexting Amounts to Child Pornography in the Eyes of the Law” that there is nothing edifying for the mind or spirit about sexting.
Allow me to approach sexting from a completely secular point of view. While I was in the process of gathering my thoughts about sexting, I asked a friend (who is a Christian) what she thought of the issue. Her answer was short, and required no Bible verses or references to Relevant for emphasis. She merely replied, “We just need to think logically about it.” I couldn’t agree more.
I wasn’t expecting a response as simple and clear-minded as this one. But simply and with a clear mind is the best way to respond to things like sexting, is it not? Theology aside, isn’t sexting something we plainly ought not to do? It’s no secret that sexting is dangerous. To sext is to relinquish one’s reputation and privacy, and not always just to the intended recipient of the sext. Moreover, it has become a legal issue, sometimes falling under the category of child pornography.
Sexting just isn’t a smart thing to do, for Christians and everyone else.
Unfortunately, there’s no eleventh commandment instructing us “THOU SHALT NOT SEXT.” It is better that we subscribe to the directions Paul gives to the Philippians in chapter 4, verse 8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, fill your minds with beauty and truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy.”
Our culture simultaneously idolizes and discards the female body. One has only to drive past highway billboards or watch a few commercials to witness it – women’s bodies are used to sell everything from liquor and gambling to shoes and appliances. The female body is so frequently used to market products that it shouldn’t surprise us that girls discover their ability to leverage images of their bodies in an attempt to obtain connection or attention or acceptance. Likewise, it shouldn’t be surprising that boys would solicit and be willing to trade on the status they obtain through collections of images.
Sexting seems like a new thing, but it is simply a new digital manifestation of our inherent longing for relationship. I remember realizing in high school and college that the female body or images of the female body could be used as a means to connect with someone, and the odd feeling of empowerment that accompanied the realization. Attraction is powerful because we were created for relationships. Sexting stems from this fundamental need, but it ends in objectification and isolation. Our longing for connection is easily distorted if we shortcut the daunting, time-consuming, and vulnerable task of forming real relationships. We crave connection, and even a superficial, fleeting digital high can temporarily fill the need we have to be together.
The challenge for disciples of Jesus is to move from naming the phenomenon, or simply critiquing what is commonplace, to claiming the gospel’s life-giving counter-narrative. If sexting is a prevalent social norm (and it is), then our challenge is to not only identify and name it as destructive (it is), but to construct for and with each other the alternative offered by God through Jesus. To do so will have implications, not limited to young people. Life as a disciple of the risen Jesus is about being claimed by God and being caught up into something bigger than we are – the narrative of redemption and new creation.
The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What is thy only comfort in life and in death?” The answer begins, “That I, both body and soul, in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.” These words challenge the assumptions of autonomy and individuality that can dominate the sexting discussion. The ideal of individual autonomy is a market ideal, not a gospel ideal. The premise that this is my body and I have the right to do with it as I want is a lie, and the proof is the bodily sacrifice of Jesus. I am not a piece of the market economy, whether by my actions or someone else’s. I am a child of God created to bear the image of God for the sake of the world. Long before the awkwardness of adolescence, the desperate longing for connections, and the stirrings of sexual identity began to form, God claimed me. God claimed you. We collectively have been claimed by God – before we were bodily formed, before the internet was a thing, before texting existed. Body and soul, in life and in death, unquestionably and unilaterally claimed by God. Being claimed by God challenges us to form relationships in ways that honor self, God, and neighbor.
Sexting is premature education – leading to trivializing one of life’s most beautiful experiences.
We need to remind teenagers that they (this generation) did not invent sex. If the earlier generations battled with girlie magazines and sex tapes, the subsequent generation battled with internet distribution of such content. The channels may have changed but the content has been around forever. With the advent of smart phones these sexual conversations took a visual turn. The least innocuous response is that it’s a harmless distraction. And on the far end of the spectrum is a hyperventilated, “Oh this is so immoral” type of righteous indignation. Whether it’s just as a concerned parent or a youth pastor, the answer lies in raising sexuality to a more respectful and almost sacred plane. Parents and authorities need to educate kids about the journey, the excitement, and the adventure of discovery that can be found in sex without the secret thrills of trespassing forbidden terrains. At best, these distractions hurt teenagers for a while. At worst, they lead to more complicated issues of addiction and behavior problems. Young and old alike need to know the joy of managing the tension between short-term gratification and long term pleasure.
Sexting destroys innocence and wonder – leading to an impoverished expression of self.
Our teenagers are the most gadget savvy generation of all time. Even schools are lowering the age bar to introduce gadgets to kids at earlier years than ever before. While we have the most advanced, digitally smart kids, we may also be raising the most illiterate (D-uh) generation as far as their sense of wonder and imagination goes. A total dependence on smart phones has given birth to a new language called texting; full of TLAs (three letter acronyms). Just as texting has confused them about spelling and has almost reduced language to a mere functional tool, sexting will confuse them about the roles of sexuality and partners.
Sexting hurts – leading to a loss of reputation and sometimes life.
Sadly, when a reputation is lost, it is the end of the world for many young people. The stories of teenage imbecility are all too familiar but when combined with the potent force of sex and sexual images, we have a surefire recipe for disaster. Al Vernacchio popularized this notion: There are circles of intimacy in every sphere of life, and we tend to live in a circle of intimacy with the individual being right in the epicenter. The immediate concentric circle represents the friend or close friends with whom we share our intimacy and sexting happens in that intimate circle. The danger of sexting is that often it gets beyond the last concentric circle because someone violated that all too important element called trust. And once it gets beyond the concentric, that is where it gets uncontrollable because images or videos can grow legs of their own, and often go “viral.” The most famous bullying incident in recent years happened at Rutgers University when Tyler Clementi committed suicide. The fine line between horseplay and bullying can be easily crossed because of cavalier attitudes towards sex and sexuality.
In short, the mystery and the messaging around sex needs to be reclaimed. Whether it is across dinner tables or in pulpits, the time has come to talk about the secret fruit. I think that as youth ministers, we need to develop an alternative form of communication – where teenagers are allowed to converse about things like sexting without being judged. We must clarify without creating guilt and strive to raise the consciousness that breaks through the din of their surroundings.
“Everything is about sex … except sex. Sex is about power.”
In a chilling moment of honesty, Frank Underwood, the main character in the popular political drama, “House of Cards,” makes a claim that is true about his pursuit of political power and his understanding of how the world works.
As I read the recent front-page article in The Atlantic about teen “sexting” I couldn’t help but reflect on this quote. The interviewed teenagers admitted that the pictures they share aren’t “a huge part of their sex life” or “a springboard for fantasy”, but are a kind of “social currency.” Essentially, sharing and collecting nude photos of peers is a way of furthering their own position, undercutting the position of others, and successfully navigating the social pecking order.
What’s striking to me about this story is that both male and female teenagers describe willing participation in this practice and the exchange of pictures.
While these “sexting” stories often involve bullying, peer pressure, and other oppressive circumstances, instances of mutual participation involving both genders are also common. What many participants in this practice share in common is what all humans share: the temptation to use another human being as a tool for our own gain.
You could say, “Sexting isn’t about sex. Sexting is about power.”
As we talk about “sexting” and our role as youth workers in this discussion, I wonder if talking about “power” is where our conversation should start.
The reality of our human existence is one of great power and responsibility. Being made “in the image of God” is a term of royalty that carries with it the capacity to create, steward, and care for, as well as to destroy, waste, and harm. We all have been given divine power.
My experience in youth ministry has taught me that teenagers can be more aware of this sense of power than any other age group, but are often lacking in examples of and environments for the proper use of this power. When the majority of the world exercises power for personal gain at the expense of others, we shouldn’t be surprised when individuals dehumanize themselves and others by using their bodies and phones to create their own social currency.
When it comes to addressing the issue of “sexting”, the temptation we all face as youth workers is to focus our energy on very pragmatic conversations about rules, boundaries, and blame. Parents will want us to help “fix” their kids, volunteers will want to know how to “change” the behavior of their students, and we as youth workers will feel the weight of what seems like life altering and risky behavior among those in our communities.
I want to affirm the desire to protect and shelter the young people we’ve been trusted with. But methods of “sin management” and “behavior modification” won’t capture the imaginations of our young people. This method of entering the conversation will undermine the power of the Biblical Story and will ultimately miss an opportunity to cut to the heart of the issue: That the purpose of the power that has been extended to each of us, based on the nature of our very existence, was intended to serve and bless all of creation. We were made to extend the same sense of beauty and dignity to others that God has extended to us, and I think our young people are craving a vision and environment to use their God-given power to make the world a better place through their relationships with others.
Our opportunity as youth workers is to avoid becoming one more adult that is setting himself or herself on fire over the latest calamity that has struck the teenage world. Maybe the teenagers we know aren’t looking for someone to “fix” them, but are waiting for someone to tell them a better story about what it means to be human.
- What does culture teach about human bodies? About sex and sexuality? How are these ideas communicated?
- What does the Bible teach about human bodies? About sex and sexuality? How, and in what context, are these ideas communicated?
- Is sexting as common as these articles claim?
- Is there a correlation between sex and power? If so, how does this play out? What role does gender play?
- What does it mean to be created in the image of God? How is this related to sexting and our other uses of digital media?
- Does our faith inform the choices we make about sex in our lives?
- What is the difference between celebrating sexuality and exploiting sexuality? Can you come up with examples in society of exploitation and celebration of sexuality? Can you come up with examples from the Bible? Do you see any patterns?
- What would it take for us to define sexting as “sinful” or “redemptive”?