Sexting: Shifting the Focus from Victim-Blaming to Respect and Consent

Matthew JohnsonFew issues capture our anxiety about young people and digital media so perfectly as sexting. As with technologies at least as far back as the telegraph, much of this anxiety has focused specifically on girls and women.

Such focus makes sense to a certain extent: though boys and girls send sexts at roughly the same rate, and sexts sent by boys are more likely to be forwarded, there is undoubtedly more social disapproval of girls who send sexts and, as a result, more harm done to them when sexts they have sent reach a wider audience than intended. That harm, however, is itself the result of the way girls who participate in sexting are framed – in media coverage, in many educational programs, and by youth themselves – both as guardians of their sexual innocence and, if they should stray from that role, as being responsible for any consequences they might suffer as a result of their actions.

This gendered view of sexting appears to be common among Canadian youth: MediaSmarts’ 2013 Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III study, one of the first research projects to measure rates of sending, receiving and sharing sexts by Canadian youth, identified a “moral blind spot” with regards to sharing sexts. While young Canadians are less likely to engage in other forms of cyberbullying if there is a rule in their homes about treating people online with respect, the presence or absence of this rule has no effect on how likely youth are to share sexts.

While there’s growing evidence that sending sexts is not, by itself, a harmful activity, there can be no question that sharing a sext without the consent of the subject – whether it’s posting it on a “revenge porn” site, showing it to a single one of your friends, or anywhere in between – is both deeply harmful and morally wrong. So why do youth who receive sexts decide to share them? Why do they – and, in many cases, their peers who may not share sexts themselves but nevertheless choose to blame the victim for having sent it in the first place – see themselves as doing nothing wrong?

To answer these questions, MediaSmarts and researchers at University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work conducted a study to examine how attitudes, experiences, knowledge and moral beliefs of young people impact their decisions to share or not share sexts they have received. What we found is that a significant number of youth appear to be part of a “culture of sharing” in which non-consensual sharing of sexts is not only tolerated but normalized. Funding for this study was provided by TELUS.

The Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth study examines the relationship of sext-sharing with four factors:

Gender stereotyping: Previous research on sharing sexts has generally found that gender roles, and attitudes towards them, play an important role in decision-making. As well, holding traditional attitudes on gender, such as believing that “men should be more interested than women in sex” and “a woman cannot be truly happy unless she is in a relationship” has been associated with the belief in “rape myths” that excuse perpetrators and place blame on victims of sexual assault.

We found that how strongly youth held these attitudes had a powerful relationship with how likely they were to have shared someone’s sexts: half (53%) of those who scored in the top third on this scale had shared a sext, compared to just over a sixth (18%) of those in the middle third and only one in ten (9%) in the bottom third. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this effect was more powerful among the boys and young men in the study, but it was significant among the girls and young women as well.

Moral disengagement: Moral disengagement – a term for the ways in which we convince ourselves to do something that we know is wrong or to not do something we know is right – is well-established as a factor in cyberbullying, sexual harassment and rape-supportive attitudes. To find out if youth are using these to absolve themselves of responsibility when they share sexts, we asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements designed to test the different moral disengagement mechanisms, such as finding a way to justify an action as being actually positive (“When a girl’s sext gets shared, it shows other girls the risks”), denying the harm of the action (“Sharing sexts is so common, nobody cares about it”), shifting responsibility on to someone else (“If a boy shares a text he received with one friend and that friend shares it, then it isn’t the first boy’s fault”) and blaming the victim (“A girl shouldn’t be surprised if her sexts get shared after a breakup”).

This turned out to have a very similar relationship to sharing sexts as believing traditional gender stereotypes: half (53%) of those in the top third of moral disengagement scores had shared a sext, a sixth (17%) of those in the middle third had, and one in ten (11%) of those in the bottom third had. What was different was that the effect was the same for both boys and young men as it was for girls and young women.

Social norms, peer pressure and reciprocity: How common young people think sexting is has been identified as one of the strongest factors influencing whether they send sexts. To see whether this applied to sharing sexts as well, we asked participants how common they thought sending and sharing sexts was among their peers, as well as how many of their close friends had done either. While this did have some relationship with their own sharing behaviour, a much stronger association was found with whether or not they thought their friends would expect them to share any sexts they received and, even more powerfully, whether they expected their friends to share sexts with them.

Few other factors had a significant relationship with whether or not participants had shared sexts. While older participants were more likely to have sent and received sexts, they were not any more likely to have shared them – in fact the 16-year-olds in the study were actually slightly more likely to have shared a sext than the 20-year-olds. Similarly, whether or not youth had rules in the home about sending or sharing sexts, whether or not they had experienced any programs at school about it, or whether they knew that sharing intimate images without the subject’s consent was a crime in Canada all had essentially no relationship with whether or not they shared sexts. Even the number of sexts that they had received was not strongly connected to the number that they had shared.

Each of the sharing behaviours we asked about, though – showing sexts to others in person, forwarding them electronically to individuals, and posting them to a publicly accessible space – were powerfully correlated to each other, whether those sexts had been solicited by the recipient or not. In other words, all kinds of sharing are concentrated in a group that consists of about half of those who have received sexts, who share sexts often (an average ratio of 1.4 sexts shared per sext received), and who do so within a culture that normalizes, justifies and even encourages sharing.

Rather than being challenged, this culture is often reinforced by educational efforts related to sexting. A review of ten widely-adopted campaigns found that nearly all focused exclusively on the creator and initial sender of the sext and that half contained only abstinence messages, ignoring the point at which the most harm is done – when sexts are shared without the sender’s consent – and eliding the responsibility of those who share them.

While it makes sense for interventions directed at sending sexts to be focused on comprehensive sex education programs, encouraging healthy, respectful relationships, and teaching youth how to minimize the possible harm of having sexts shared, these programs still focus on changing the behaviour of the creator and initial sender of the image, leaving the responsibility with the originator of the sext and absolving the person who made it public.

Our research points the way forward for sexting interventions by showing that efforts in schools and in the home – and policy around youth and sexting – must focus on countering the roots of the culture of sharing by teaching youth to recognize and avoid ways that we excuse sharing behaviour, and by challenging the stereotypes that can lead to blaming victims and ignoring perpetrators when sexts get shared.

Resources for Parents

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Resources for Law Enforcement

Where’s The Line? Online Safety Lesson Plan
This workshop intended for School Resource Officers equips students in Grades 6-8 to make safe and ethical decisions online, and helps them identify strategies and supports to assist them with issues they may encounter, including sexting. Produced with the support of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).