Girls and Sexting

Friends Using Smart Phone While Leaning Against Wall

I am writing to you today from the annual conference of ATSA, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.  I come every year to ensure I stay on top of all the latest research and to make sure that the methods we use to treat people at SATS are state of the art and evidence based.

Each year, in addition to traditional talks, there are poster presentations.  Today, Marion Desfachelles, a Ph.D. student at the University of Montreal, presented a poster on her research on girls and sexting.

Because this research is from Canada, I will take a moment to explain how Canadians handle teenage sexting.  Sexting is divided into two categories, Primary and Secondary.  Primary sexting is defined as sending or receiving sexually explicit content in a private context.  Secondary sexting is defined as distributing the image or video to the public.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled this year that to establish an intimate photo exception to the juvenile pornography laws.  This exception allows “two youths, who engage in lawful sexual activity, to consensually record their own lawful sexual activity as long as that recording is made or possessed for their personal use.”

As most of the research on secondary sexting is focused on boys, Ms. Desfachelles wanted to look at how girls engage in primary or secondary sexting.  To do this, she looked at the arrest records of 27 girls who were arrested or suspected to be involved in cases of juvenile pornography.

What did the study find?  Girls are sometimes the primary sexter and the secondary victim, meaning a girl may have taken an image for a partner but it was then distributed outside the context of that relationship.  Girls also distributed sexual imagery to others.  An interesting finding was that the girls did acknowledge that sending these images would be hurtful to the victims, but the girls thought that the victims of the secondary sexting were responsible for the situation.

The study found three main motivations for secondary sexting.  The most common motivation was that of revenge or hurt.  The other two motivations seen were goodwill and fun, meaning peer pressure.  Boys continue to be most frequently the originators of the secondary sexting, but girls sometimes start the process and definitely participate in the secondary sexting.

We know that there is significant emotional damage to the victim of secondary sexting.  Prevention campaigns often focus on not sexting at all.  The author suggests that, as sexting is becoming a more normative behavior for teens, the prevention efforts be moved to focus on prevention of secondary sexting.

Help teens understand that they should keep something that was sent in the context of a relationship private.  Teach teens about consent and that consent also applies to distribution of images sent with the expectation of privacy.

As always, parents should be talking to their children about sexting.  We also need to expand our discussions about how, if their child does engage in sexting, they can do so in a safe and respectful manner and to understand the risks involved in sending an explicit image to another person.

For more information on the effect of sexting on children, please see my book, The New Age of Sex Education:  How to talk to your teen about cybersex and pornography in the digital age.

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