by Georgia Luckhurst

I have always been the most inept person I know at flirting.  Short of an actual cartoon wink-wink-nudge-nudge scenario, I essentially smile inanely and make excessive eye-contact if I want to catch a crush’s attention.  However, once I hit adolescence, I found out that when it came to my (blatant lack of) skills, I shouldn’t have worried.  Everyone around me was using phones, Skype calls and Facebook chats to engage in conversation with whoever they fancied – easy, exciting and totally embarrassment-free.  There was seemingly no problem – until the trend went a little too far.

The term “sexting” was first used in publication in The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, in 2005, and ever since it has featured heavily on the adult’s list of “Problems with Today’s Youth” right under the X Factor and squirty cheese.  Sexting is one step further than technological flirting: it is the act of sending someone you like, or someone who may actually be your girlfriend or boyfriend, nude or partially-nude pictures of yourself, or just sending them verbally-graphic texts, usually after one person  has requested the pictures.

There are problems with sexting, from the risk of the messages being shared or forwarded to the psychological effects on young people who feel pressured into sharing them.  Many teenagers suffer from anxiety or depression if they feel their crush to be judging them, or that their crush didn’t like the pictures.  More importantly, ownership of such pictures can actually be classed as ownership of child pornography.  So with recent reports discussing their damaging effects, especially on young women, why is it that nearly 30% of US teenagers have engaged in sexting, and roughly 40% of UK teens doing likewise?

A major contributor to high sexting statistics is the sexualization girls face from such a young age, the exact issue we at SPARK are trying to address.  When girls are faced with extreme pressure to wear bikinis instead of one pieces and to focus solely on their love life, as well as many other things, they – we – often feel forced into sending provocative texts when requested.  Being surrounded by objectified photographs and advertising campaigns, young women not only think that not sending sexts is almost neglecting duties, but simply don’t question why they shouldn’t.  Overt sexiness is everywhere: on magazine pages, in jeans adverts, on album covers and billboards, so there can’t be any problem with it.

Having seen close friends distressed and maddened when asked to sext, or told that they “have” to in order to continue a relationship, I believe that we can’t blame those who do sext; we should be blaming a culture that makes them feel they have to, and that they are worthless if they don’t use their sexuality.  As one girl described in this article, the nature of sexting is essentially a vicious cycle – girls feel obliged to sext because “it’s just normal”, and yet, on returning to school after having her semi-nude picture shared amongst her peer-group, Sophie admitted that people felt no shame in calling her “slag and slut.”  Like with actual sexual acts, if one isn’t sexting they are “frigid” or prudish.  If one is, then they are automatically “slut-shamed.”

Perhaps the most terrible thing about this whole sordid business is that while girls, as Sophie acknowledges, are slammed for sending sexts even when cajoled into doing so, boys instead receive high-fives, popularity growth and status as a “legend.”  If a boy were to send a nude or semi-nude picture without a request for one, he would be “hilarious” and a “total lad.”  And if a girl does it? She’s “desperate” and “clingy,” according to the boys. (In truth, sending unsolicited sexts is a form of sexual harassment that all should avoid.)

It’s another example of the contradictions girls and women face.  We are either “boring” or “slutty”, “desperate” or “frigid.”  It’s dangerous enough using these terms in regards to sexual activity – applying it to sexting, and a younger audience, has an ever greater impact.  Girls are left feeling that their own body is out of their control: something no-one should ever have to feel.

After the recent suicide of Amanda Todd, many posted tributes and pieces in remembrance of her across the internet, the horrifically tragic story catching many students’ and parents’ eyes.  Yet days after the news hit the web, tons of negative responses came to light.  Memes dedicated to slamming her previous suicide attempts stormed the social-networking sights, and the word “slut” was linked more commonly to her name than even “tragedy.”  What was Todd’s crime?  She had, under pressure from an older man her friends had encouraged her to talk to over the internet, dared to flash her chest.  This form of sexting, engaged in over the internet, might not be quite the same as the text-version, but the point is the same: young girls are being pressured into complying, mocked if they don’t, slandered if they do.  If there has ever been cause to feel trapped, this is it, and the problem isn’t going away.

Whilst adults and parents slam teenagers for sexting, they miss out on the basic point: we shouldn’t be trying to bully teenagers into “behaving,” we should be working on changing the society that makes sexting feel not only expected, but as the only conceivable option.  Slut-shaming is not part of our mission here at SPARK, and we believe wholeheartedly that girls and boys should be happy with how they look, act and feel. Becoming sexually active is part of normal human development, but sexual harassment or pressure is not—at least it shouldn’t be. This isn’t about yelling at hormonal adolescents.  It’s about changing the wider-picture and making the world a safer, happier place.