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From the humble bicycle to the latest in blue-tooth mobile phones young people have long been harnessing new technology to promote greater sexual freedom.  Speaking at the latest ASSERT NSW Education Evening journalist and social commentator, Nina Funnell, told us how young people today are incorporating mobile phone use and social technology into their dating lives.

In particular she looked at the way “sexting” (the production and dissemination of nude photographs via mobile phones) is affecting the way people interact and the implications and challenges associated with this new form of communication.

Not that young people have a monopoly on “sexting” (Nina says they never refer to “sexting” but use terms like “selfies” or “nOOdz”). In fact a content study of media articles over a six-month period revealed that the biggest group using “sexting” is actually adult gay men. However, from the more than 700 articles Nina studied not one mentioned this group. Instead all the media attention focused on the “dangers” of “sexting” for teenage girls.

Perceived concerns for girls sending naked photos on their mobile phones included: shame, humiliation, embarrassment, bullying, school change, pregnancy, prostitution, self-harm, suicidal ideation etc. Whilst these concerns revolved around the young women’s reputation and character the concerns for boys revolved around their “legal character” and included fears of prosecution and porn addiction.

Noting this “double standard” Nina stressed that the actual concerns apply across the sexes and include, ease of production and reproduction of images, speed at which images travel and permanence once on line. Gone are the days when snaps taken at a drunken party meant a “cool off period” when the film needed to be developed therefore offering time for reflection (along with the added “editing effect” of knowing the person developing the film would see the pictures). Today uploading to the internet is almost instantaneous.

Nina says there are some very real dangers citing the case of Jessie Logan, an American teenager who suicided after naked photographs were posted after the break up of a relationship. This is a “cautionary tale” often used in schools to denote the dangers of new technology but, as Nina points out, not one of the 2000 plus articles written about the case mentioned that Jessie had been to a funeral of a friend who had suicided the morning she took her life ie. it is “too simplistic a narrative” to blame only the use of new technology.

There is no doubt the use of technology is presenting new challenges both legally and personally. The recent Australian Air Force Skype scandal where cadet “Kate” was live streamed having consensual sex with another cadet sent shock waves around the country. Whilst the scale of dissemination has increased enormously the concept of someone filming another person on the sly and then propagating the pictures is hardly new. As Nina points out the 15 year-old movie, American Pie revolved around the illicit filming  (and sharing of that film) of a female exchange student undressing! Nor is “peeping Tom” behaviour new – the name was coined in the eleventh century when tailor Tom “peeped” at a naked Lady Godiva as she rode her horse through Coventry. Today, thanks to mobile phones, everyone can (and often is) a member of the paparazzi!

But it’s not just celebrities that suffer. The advent of the tiny
“spy-cam” cameras have seen the rise of “creep shot pornography” and “upskirters” with whole websites devoted to pictures taken in public places and without permission. This impacts on women far more than on men and whilst it is “grossly unethical and non-consensual” the law has yet to catch up with the public distress.

Indeed the law is confusing. It is legal, for example, for a couple to have consensual sex once they are 16 but illegal for them to send one another naked photos of themselves! Nina quotes the recent case in Greensburg Salem High School, Pennsylvania, where three young women sent such photos to their three boyfriends. The boys did not publish the photos but kept them to themselves. However when their phones were confiscated in a separate incident and the headmaster viewed the pictures all the youngsters were charged with the production and distribution of child pornography. Eventually the charges were dropped but had they not been these teenagers could have had their names on the Sexual Offenders Register for life!

In Australia nude sexual content is considered to be child pornography if it involves someone under 18 even if it is consensual. In doing so we are “grouping sexually curious teenagers with convicted sex offenders” says Nina. She asks how someone can be both victim and perpetrator and claims this serves to dilute the power of the Sex Offenders Register. Because technology is evolving so rapidly we need an inquiry into the laws governing this area, says Nina.

So how can teenagers protect themselves? Abstinence based education ie.  “Saying no sexting” and demonizing new technology do not work and Nina suggests educators have made a “framing mistake” in teaching about “sexting” in the context of cyber safety when in fact it should fall under part of dating and relationships. What is vital is to teach skills in “techno ethics” along with understanding the role that “sexting” has in dating.

Nina says “sexting” often starts in a group situation (at a sleepover for example) as part of a “truth or dare” situation. Young boys often start even younger when they take (non-sexualized) photos of their bottoms amidst great hilarity. (As Nina says there is “nothing funnier than a bottom” to young boys!)

Girls reported to Nina that sending a nude photo actually made them feel in control of what the receiver sees and offered a “safe” way of flirting with no risk of STIs or pregnancy. It also “protects them from the expectation to perform…a way to do it without doing it”.  Girls reported that “sexting” is a way of testing their desirability as well as admitting they are visually stimulated by what they see when boys send back naked shots of themselves.

For gay youngsters, says Nina, “sexting” can be a safe way of coming out to selected people and older people often use it to maintain intimacy and vibrancy in their sexual relationships, especially when apart.

Young people are also using this technology to circumvent the restrictions of culture and religion for example “Blue Dating” in the Arab Emirates where teenagers can engage in dating in public places without the knowledge of adults.

For many young boys there is pressure to produce pictures of sexual encounters simply to prove it happened ie. “Pix or it didn’t happen”. They have no intention of doing harm or of committing a crime. Interestingly girls reported that having a picture taken without permission while they are asleep can raise greater questions of consent and trust than “sexting” can.

Many young people attempt to minimise the harm of posting nude shots by producing headless shots. But what else can be done to protect teenagers? Nina asked youngsters what they want and discovered they would like to: set time limits on the photos, a means of preventing copying or taking screen shots or forwarding and storing photos and the ability to recall messages early.

With this in mind she has produced an Application called SIZZLE aimed at putting control back into the hands of the young people who are using “sexting” as part of dating. (We will post details on the ASSERT NSW site when this is launched).

Meanwhile Nina has promised to return next year to report her latest findings about this fascinating area.

And, if you are still wondering about the bicycles – the advent of the bicycle is often associated with female emancipation and is considered to have played a major role as a means of communication and independence especially for women. Not only were many in the establishment horrified at the freedom the bike provided but there was such horror at the thought that women might experience sexual stimulation whilst riding that special “hygienic saddles” were produced with a split down the middle so that no part of the saddle would come into contact with the clitoris!


Next ASSERT NSW Education Night is November 20  (7pm at the Teachers Federation Building, 23-33 Mary Street, Surry Hills), when relationship counsellor, Liz Dore, will talk about the challenges of dating and sexuality issues for young people with disabilities.

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