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Sex has always sold, whatever it is one is selling. This can be particularly true when the sex in question is somehow scandalous or atypical. Not surprisingly, then, sexting, which informally can be described as sending nude or semi-nude photos over an electronic device like a smartphone or computer (3), has been the subject of much media attention and public discussion. This has especially been the case with respect to sexting done by young people since the practice combines our discomfort with new forms of technology and with childhood sexuality. Indeed, sexting by young people has created something of a moral panic and media frenzy in the past five or six years. This is what the authors of Sexting and Young People seek first to understand and critique before then proceeding to offer guidance on how society—including parents, teachers, police, and the legal system as well as teens themselves – ought to deal with the issue. While the researchers all work in Australia and completed their empirical research on sexting and young people in that country, their book refers regularly to research done in other parts of the world and hence has application far beyond the borders of Australia.
Part I of the book sets the conceptual stage by examining the current literature on the sexting of young people and theorising about what the appropriate conceptual framework(s) for the practice(s) ought to be. Notable here is the authors' claim that sexting by young people involves a wide variety of practices: e.g., between similarly aged teens sexting each other to ones with a significant age variance; from a boy to a girl and vice versa – both from within and without a relationship; whether a sext is sent on to a party for whom it was not intended; whether the practice is dealt with through legal means or not (which could include incarceration for making and distributing child pornography and/or being put on a sex offender registry for an indefinite period of time); and so on. As a result of this diversity of practices and issues, determining whether sexting creates a social problem and how we ought to deal with it socially, educationally and legally becomes more difficult. Sensibly, Crofts et al. urge us to avoid oversimplifying sexting between young people and to treat what are substantially different aspects of the practice(s) differently.
Part II examines various aspects of young people and sexting discourses; namely, media representations of sexting, sexting as child pornography, factors determining whether young people are prosecuted, and sexting education. The hot button issue regarding sexting and young people involves concerns about the victimization of some young people, and particularly young girls, who may have been coerced into sending sexts which then get distributed to other people. There are horror stories that fit this description exactly. For example, in Canada, we have the case of Amanda Todd from British Columbia who eventually committed suicide after a topless photo of her was distributed through social media. Clearly, such cases that combine cyberbullying and non-consensual sexting (at least in terms of the wide dissemination of the sext) need to be dealt with sternly, most probably through the police and legal system. But attempting to deal with all cases of sexting between young people within this paradigm is badly distorting, and can lead to misuses of the legal system. Many of the attempts by educational institutions to deal with 'teen sexting' have also been wrong headed. Too often such programs mirror the 'abstinence only' sex education policies particularly popular in the U.S.; i.e., just don't do it. But research has shown that this has little effect on the sexting behaviors of young people (just as abstinence only programs have had no 'success' in getting young people to abstain from sex). Part of the issue here is failing to recognize that the firm distinction between 'public' and 'private' lives that many older adults grew up with simply does not exist for young people anymore. Young people's lives are now typically lived online in 'public.'
Part III of Sexting and Young People constitutes the empirical heart of the book. It provides information on the rather large online, quantitative survey the authors conducted in Australia in 2013. The results of this survey are often unexpected. For example, there was no statistically significant difference in prevalence rates of sexting between young males and young females (110) and both boys and girls responded that the number one reason they sent sexts was "to get attention" (118). Moreover, while young people worry to some extent about their sext being sent on to third parties, evidence seems to indicate that this happens infrequently (125-126).
Qualitative studies were also carried out by Crofts et al. in eight focus groups with young people aged 18 to 20. An important result of this research, according to the authors is that "[y]oung people's digital identities are carefully crafted and maintained…. [Y]outh are aware of risks and challenges their non-terrestrial identities bring to the fore, including risks of surveillance and limited privacy and [hence] often engage in carefully planned and executed self-censoring practices" (142).
Crofts et al. use Marcel Mauss' work on the nature of "gifting" to help explain sexting. While Mauss's ethnographic and anthropological research examined non-Western 'traditional' societies in particular, Mauss argued that the "obligation and spontaneity of the gift" also applies in a much broader context (19). Hence, many respondents in both the qualitative and qualitative studies referred to their motivation to send sexts as a sort of gift. For example, as one young female university student said, "[F]or a woman it's this really personal thing to reveal herself to a man in this private setting and on the basis of that devotion, yes, you can have it, it's like a gift" (171).
This isn't to say that the authors of Sexting and Young People believe that 'teen sexting' gives rise to no concerns. Rather, we need, they say, "to understand sexting risks both positively and negatively. That is, it may be the attraction of this risk taking that draws young people to engage in the practice. In this sense our attempts to suppress sexting may indeed be inciting sexting behaviours in young people" (178). Understanding this will, in turn, help us to understand why we should not typically treat sexting among young people as instances of child pornography.
Sexting and Young People is a terrific book. The topic is timely, the authors' research, both empirical and conceptual, is broad, rigorous, and insightful. And their advice is completely sensible. I urge anyone who is interested in the topic to read it.
© 2016 Robert Scott Stewart
Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Cape Breton University (Canada). His most recent work has mostly been in the area of the philosophy of sex including two books: R.S. Stewart, ed., Talk About Sex: A Multidisciplinary Discussion (CBU Press, 2013) and Laurie Shrage & R.S. Stewart, Philosophizing About Sex (Broadview Press, 2015).