Why do teens sext?

Twenty percent of teens have sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves, either over the Internet or through cell phones. The question many adults are asking is what motivates this kind of behavior.

A couple weeks ago danah boyd spoke at Columbia University for The ReadWriteWeb 2Way Summit. Her presentation was entitled, “Teen Sexting and its Impact on Tech Companies.” While most of her talk dealt with the complexities of technology companies coming up with good policies in response to sexting, some of what she says is very relevant for parents.

Boyd offers three stories to illustrate what she called “the cultural logic behind teen sexting.”

Some teens sext because they are seeking fame.

The first story boyd tells is of a 15-year-old Hispanic girl, Traviesa, from L.A. Her MySpace profile was littered with “artistically-styled but explicitly sexual nude and semi-nude photos of herself.” Why? Because she was inspired by “MySpace Queen” Tila Tequila who used MySpace to kickstart her modeling career.

Traviesa was not concerned whether her risqué photos would lower her chances of getting into college. Boyd reports, when she asked Traviesa about this, “She laughed in my face, poignantly telling me that there was no way that she was getting into college in the first place. From her perspective, fame was the only way out of her community.”

Some teens sext because they are expressing themselves sexually.

Boyd also shared a story about a group of young women she spoke with in Boston about online safety. About half of the women in the group admitted to sending sexy photos, while others thought the practice was “slutty” or disgusting. For those who were not opposed to sexting, some thought it was only appropriate when in a relationship, while others thought it was a good way to flirt and attract a guy.

“They believed they were strutting their stuff and sexting was just another practice in a long line of practices meant to signal that they were cool, sexy girls,” boyd states. “It was pretty clear from their makeup, perfume, and dolled-up-hair that fashion was another way in which they proudly displayed their sexuality. They saw the digital environs as a space to take it one step further, without worrying about the lurking purview of adults.”

Some teens sext because they are spreading viral slander.

Sexting not only refers to something done by the creators of the explicit photos, but those who pass them on to others.

Boyd tells another story about a girl named Jade who lived in a wealthy community and was the daughter of a headmaster of an elite private school. “One day, Jade’s mother received an email from an alumnus pointing her to a pornographic website that he had ‘accidentally’ stumbled upon. There was a video of Jade masturbating. Apparently, Jade had been video-chatting with a boy. She knew that he was watching her when she masturbated, but she did not know that he was recording her act, let alone that he would upload the video to a pornography website. Needless to say, this incident caused massive uproar in this privileged community.”

Boyd says in nearly every school she visits she hears the same types of stories of sexting gone awry. The stories “quickly became formulaic,” she said. “Formula #1: Boy and girl are dating, images are shared. Boy and girl breakup. Spurned lover shames the other by spreading images. Formula #2: Girl really likes boy, sends him sexy images. He responds by sharing them, shaming her.”

Furthermore, boyd says the viral chain usually involves boys sharing pictures of girls with other boys, girls sharing pictures of boys and girls with other girls, but never boys sharing pictures of boys with other boys (out of fear of being labeled as gay). This means usually pictures of girls spread further and faster.

Addressing the Root Issues

At the root of sexting practices are one’s beliefs about sexuality.

Girls like Traviesa, says boyd, are mirroring what they see in adult pornography. The photos “are Traviesa’s response to a sex-saturated society and a series of messages telling her that the only way that she is likely to succeed in this world is by using her body to get attention.”

Girls like those in the Boston group don’t see sexting as a risky practice but as something considerably less risky than the alternative. For teens, sexting is a form of safe sex: a way to distance themselves from the risks of pregnancy and STDs. In other words, for many teens sexual norms are processed through an unexamined cost-benefit analysis: Of course I’m going to express myself sexually, they think, but I want to do it in a way that poses the least risks.

And for boys like the one who uploaded Jade’s video, there is again the mirroring of what is seen in our sex-for-sale culture where women’s bodies are treated as commodities, something to be bought, sold, and shared in the virtual marketplace.

For parents, putting a stop to sexting must involve nothing less than teaching children to be countercultural when it comes to sexual norms and beliefs. Parents need to prepare their children to respond to a pornified culture. (Sexting is, after all, becoming someone else’s pornography.) Parents need to be able to offer their teens a powerful alternative: that our sexuality ought to be guarded not because it is shameful, but because it is good.

Feminist author Naomi Wolf puts it best:

I am not advocating a return to the days of hiding female sexuality, but I am noting that the power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time. In many more traditional cultures, it is not prudery that leads them to discourage men from looking at pornography. It is, rather, because these cultures understand male sexuality and what it takes to keep men and women turned on to one another over time—to help men, in particular, to, as the Old Testament puts it, “rejoice with the wife of thy youth; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times.” These cultures urge men not to look at porn because they know that a powerful erotic bond between parents is a key element of a strong family.