There was a new moral panic last week. Teenagers are “sexting” each other and, using magic new distribution channels, sometimes these images are distributed way beyond their original recipients. There’s concern that once set free, sexts are being seen by paedophiles. As the Mirror newspaper puts it: “Sex texts sent by teens found on pervert websites.”
Paedophiles again eh? They’re everywhere! The Reds have long since ceased to be found under our beds, and this group now cosy up with the equally disparaged – and by and large mythical – terrorists. They’re all so busy that I doubt they get to meet much. In reality I expect that paedophiles’ supposed connection with sexting is tenuous at best, as unfortunately they have no need to content themselves with grainy mobile phone videos, and they have been inserted into this story to obscure unacknowledged disapproval of teenage sexual relations and to bolster the sense of outrage.
Not that it’s not worth pointing out the dangers of engaging in this sort of thing. I’m sure that some teenagers have found themselves severely embarrassed when compromising pictures of themselves have been widely aired, and we all remember what happened to Tommy in Trainspotting. But I find it hard to suppress my feeling that for these unfortunate few, and painful as it is, this could well be the sort of life lesson that we all have to learn from time to time about considering the possible future consequences of one’s actions and sexting will be as passing a concern as happy-slapping was a few years ago.
But to leave the discussion here is to miss the greater issue. This week there’s an advertisement all over London for Chelsea Handler’s E! show in which someone with a baseball hat is looking up her skirt. Last year there was a popular film called Zac and Miri make a porno. In my local gym they offer pole-dancing classes, and in every newsagent there are countless soft porn mid-shelf magazines. Inevitably all this raunch has been marketed to us as a way for women to empower themselves but it’s not clear exactly where empowerment ends and good ol’ sexual exploitation begins. A market driven society which views people as consumers and uses visions of sexual availability to sell products has led the young to view themselves as equally consumable. When one of the most prominent models for femininity is the sex kitten, is it surprising that lustful teenage boys, now see nothing wrong about requesting revealing pictures of women of their acquaintance, or that their female peers, who do not yet have the sense that adulthood brings, feel compelled to comply?
BBC: Police warn of teenage sexting
Guardian: Don’t you know what sexting is?
“I don’t think what I’m doing is anything different to what Britney does in her new video. Plus, I love the attention” – Nancy, 14
Comment is free Guardian: Why I welcome the decline of the Twittering classes
Stephen Ginn is a psychiatrist in training working in London. He writes the blog Frontier Psychiatrist.