Parents and educators expend a lot of energy trying to stop kids from sending each other nude photos of themselves. They run workshops on “digital citizenship.” They preach, frequently, about online reputation and good judgment and the long-forgotten value of “self-respect.”
But they might be missing the real, and really dangerous, sexting scandal — the one that few people, besides kids themselves, see. According to new research from Indiana University, as many as one in five sexters are actually coerced into sending sexual texts by threats or manipulation from their partner. The practice is so widespread among young people — and so deeply traumatic — that the developmental psychologist Michelle Drouin thinks it constitutes a new form of intimate partner violence.
“I think it is a surprising finding,” Drouin said. “Coercion into sexting caused more trauma, for both men and women … than coercion into actual physical sex.”
Let’s repeat that quote again, because it’s a pretty alarming conclusion:
“Coercion into sexting caused more trauma, for both men and women … than coercion into actual physical sex.”
Drouin’s study, which appeared in this month’s issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior, asked 480 undergraduate respondents whether their most recent partner had pressured them into having sex or sending sexual pictures against their will, and how he or she had done so. It also measured the impact these experiences had over time — whether the victim had developed depression, for instance, or whether they sometimes cried without knowing why.
Of the students surveyed, 71 percent had sexted — and 20 percent, one in five, had been coerced into sending the messages.
More surprisingly, when Drouin ran the numbers on the rates of anxiety, depression and trauma symptoms among her respondents, she found that victims of “sexting coercion,” male and female, were more traumatized than people whose partners had coerced them into actual, physical sex.
For female victims, sexting coercion was more traumatic even than “traditional forms of partner aggression,” like verbal abuse and physical violence. That toll makes sense to Cindy Southworth, the executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, who points out that a nude picture lives in eternity — it’s an artifact of trauma, and an object of blackmail, that never goes away.
“[It’s all] a part of the intimate partner violence construct,” sums Drouin. In other words, even among quote-unquote kids, sexting represents a traumatic and under-studied well of partner abuse.
This is not, of course, breaking news to advocates for domestic violence victims, who have warned about technology’s surveillant and coercive capabilities for years. But if you read through any recent reports on sexting, it’s painfully, blindingly obvious that most of America doesn’t share that understanding here.
In the Kansas City suburb of Liberty, Mo., locals are currently at war over why eight boys were suspended for passing around nude photos, but none of the girls in the photos were. (Aren’t they just as guilty as the boys? demanded the peanut gallery.) In Ohio, a 14-year-old girl could end up on the sex offender registry for sending a nude picture to a boyfriend who repeatedly pressured her.
“He kept asking me to a picture to him and so finally I did,” the girl told Dayton’s WHIO. Soon after, she found herself in the school principal’s office, being read her rights.
What message does that send to other young adults? Both researchers like Drouin and advocates like Southworth worry that it normalizes abusive behavior — it tells other kids, essentially, that they won’t be punished if they bully their boyfriends or girlfriends into taking nude photos. Everybody does it, right?
“Because sexting is common among youth and young adults today, individuals may believe that sexting coercion is normal and even harmless,” Drouin’s paper concludes. And that, frighteningly, could not be further from the truth.
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