The #MeToo movement has brought much needed attention to the experiences of women, of any age, of sexual abuse and harassment. If you look behind the sensational headlines, the movement has sparked a much-needed conversation about consent. I have previously written about how we teach consent in our practice in a blog on the topic. The #METOO movement combined with some recent research published in the Sexuality Research and Social Policy journal can help us shed some light on how young women navigate sexuality and consent in the digital realm.
Dr. Sara Thomas recently published a research study in the journal of Sexuality Research and Social Policy that looked at how young women handled pressure to send them a nude or semi-nude photograph from a peer. Dr. Thomas’ study analyzed stories from teenagers about their experiences of digital drama. She then identified three main dilemmas that young women experience in relation to sexual photographs. These were interpersonal negotiations, consequences and self-concept. She then identified six different categories of behavior for how women were induced to send nude photographs. These were desire, personal gain, asked, relational scripts, bombardment and coercion.
One of the first dilemmas faced by a young woman is the decision of whether to send a photograph. The study found that 2/3 of young women reported that they engaged in this ongoing struggle to decide if they should send a picture, if so to whom and when should they do this. When a woman decided to send a nude photograph, the motivations ranged from it being consensual to giving in to pressure or threats from the person asking for the picture.
The young women in this study knew that if they chose to send a nude picture there could be consequences. These consequences ranged from the picture being seen by people they did not want to see (mass distribution) to social ostracism, rumor spreading, legal consequences, emotional distress and getting in trouble with parents. The study found that the biggest concern was the possibility of the image being spread without consent.
Why do young women send nude or sexual photographs? In this study, only 8% of the young women sent the photograph because they wanted to. If they didn’t want to send the image, why did they?
Compliance: The study found that many young women were sending nude images because they wanted to please the person asking for the image or because they wanted to avoid negative consequences from the young men that were asking for the images. One of the troubling findings from the study was the tacit nature of the compliance by the young girls. The young women justified the compliance by saying that they liked the young man who was asking for the image.
“..compliance was frequently accompanied by an assertion they liked the young man who requested them. These stories did not express coercion by the asker, but they also did not express a desire to send them. Rather the decision to send was a compliant “so I did” to a male-initiated request for a photograph.”
Coercion: The majority of the women in the study experienced some form of coercion. The level of this coercion ranged from milder “If you loved me” statements from the young man requesting the image to more intense forms coercion. When a woman was unsure of sending an image, they reported feeling guilty that their partner questioned their love by not sending a nude image.
Many of the women had experiences of coercion that were more intense. The study found that some young men pressured, threatened, got angry or cut off contact with the young woman in order to try to obtain nude images. The women also experienced threats of blackmail. Some of these women were blackmailed into sending more images after they sent a first image. The blackmail threat was often that the images would be mass distributed. The young women who experienced these situations didn’t feel like they had any options and that they had to send the images.
Can young women refuse? The answer to this is yes. In the study about 30% of the women refused to send a sexual image. Of those 30%, 79% of those women faced consequences for not sending images. Partners would get angry. Relationships would end. Based on the consequences, several of the young women reported they ended up sending images to the young man who requested them. Only 12 women in this study refused to send nude images and did not experience any negative consequences for holding their boundary.
What does this study show us? In this study, 25 of 314 young women engaged in sexting with a partner because they truly wanted to, and the experiences were devoid of compliance or coercion. This means that most of these young women engaged in sexting that was truly without consent. Their behavior was induced by compliance or coercion.
We, as parents, teachers, educators, need to do a better job at many things. First, we need to teach all young people the true meaning of consent. We need to empower young women to say “no” to coercion and to feel strong enough to not feel the need to comply to an unwanted request. We need to give young women access to resources to help them make decisions about their sexuality.
The young women in this study did not seek adult help but turned to peers for advice. They often cited fearing an adults’ response as why they didn’t talk to parents or another adult in their life. As adults, we also need to create an environment where our children feel safe to come to us with their challenging dilemmas and we need to react calmly and lovingly.
Thomas, Sara. (2017) “What do I do?”: Young Women’s Reported Dilemmas with Nude Photographs. Sexuality Research and Social Policy.
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