Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources
There are photographs of just one naked girl on his cell phone — his girlfriend. Greg, a junior, is the only person meant to see these pictures, and he respects that wish. The photographs and videos of 18 other girls on his removable memory card, however, are a reminder of his single days.
Sexting, the act of sending sexually explicit pictures of oneself via cell phone, has become increasingly popular among teenagers as the technological age advances. According to a survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 20 percent of teens say they have sent or posted nude or semi-nude videos of themselves. As this new phenomenon takes hold, child pornography laws have begun to stretch into the realm of cell phone usage. But despite the harsh legal consequences for sexting, as well as other potential repercussions, some Blazers don't hesitate to press the send key.
Rules of the game
When Greg, a junior, exchanged his first photos with a long-term girlfriend in middle school, the content was simply an extension of their intimate relationship. "We just missed having sex, so it was just another way," he says. As that relationship came to a close, other doors opened. Girls he hardly knew began to send him photos of themselves, and he would casually pass the pictures on to a few friends. Soon he was sexting multiple times a week, getting a better grasp of the game with each photo he sent. "If I send [a girl] a body picture, they'll send me a body picture," he says, flipping his phone open and closed. For the girls that he knew well, sending nude photos generally meant that intercourse was already a part of their relationship.
Today, Greg sexts exclusively with his girlfriend, but these old photos and videos remain on his memory card, which he removes from his phone for safekeeping. He says his girlfriend is fully aware of his habits and takes no issue with them as long as the photos are not stored on the phone itself. To Greg, the photo exchange is casual fun and nothing more. "It's just girls I hardly know so it doesn't matter to me," he says.
But with teen pregnancy on the rise for the first time in 14 years, Bill Albert of the National Campaign believes that parents and teachers should work to halt the accelerating trend toward impersonal sexual relations. "I don't think we need to be any more casual than we currently are about sex," he says. "Call me old-fashioned, but I thought the way you develop relationships is face-to-face."
‘The ultimate trust exercise'
Anna, a sophomore, views sexting as an extremely personal experience to be shared only when a healthy and intimate face-to-face relationship already exists. "There definitely has to be a basic level of trust," she says. "It has to be someone where I wouldn't mind if they physically saw me in that state." Though she has been sexting since seventh grade, she has only sent photos to four people, and she says she is certain that they will travel no further.
Even with full trust in the receivers, the fear of photographs leaking lingers in the back of Anna's mind. After seeing a widely circulated picture of a peer on a friend's phone, she says she began to recognize some of the dangers of careless sexting. "I'll walk down the hallways and be like, ‘That's that girl,'" she says, "and I would hate to have that happen to me." Anna says this prompts her to be very careful in her photo relations, never sending suggestive material to anyone outside of her closest companions. "I wouldn't know what would happen to those pictures," she says.
Yet Anna remains playful about sexting as a whole. "I like to be cute. Not necessarily unclothed, just not wearing as many clothes," she says with a slight smile. And she says she firmly believes that sexting can be a healthy part of a relationship when distance makes face-to-face meetings impractical.
Not all students are able to settle so easily into the new medium of sexual communication, though. Matt, a sophomore, says he does not think that sexting will necessarily harm a relationship, but that it will not add much, either. He had his first and last experience with sexting earlier this year. His girlfriend of three weeks, someone with whom he says he is very comfortable, suggested exchanging pictures, and Matt complied. As soon as the pictures were sent, though, Matt says he felt uncomfortable about the situation. "It just felt really really weird and slutty and not something that I would really do," he says. "I didn't feel scared or anything; I was just like, this is kind of outrageous." The next time his girlfriend brought up photo exchanges, Matt says he politely declined. He says the strangeness of the situation turned him off of the idea of sexting. "I don't regret it, but I wouldn't suggest it," he says. "I would absolutely not do it with someone I wasn't involved with." And much like Anna, he is unnerved by the idea of the pictures slipping away from their intended viewer. "It's like the ultimate trust exercise," he says. "If anybody else gets it, potentially everybody gets it."
Out of hand
This fear of photos spreading seems to be grounded in truth — the National Campaign's survey recently revealed that 36 percent of teen girls and 39 percent of teen boys say that it is common for nude or semi-nude photos to be shared with people other than the intended recipient. Mary, a freshman, had been dating a boy for four months in eighth grade when he asked her to send him pictures. Although she was initially reluctant, many of her friends had recently engaged in sexting without consequence so she assumed that no harm would come from sending just a few pictures. "Everyone else was doing it, and he was like, you should too. I didn't think it would be that big a deal," Mary says. But Mary's casual compliance is one of the greatest concerns of sexting, says Albert. According to the survey, 51 percent of teenage girls who send nude or semi-nude photos or videos do so because of pressure from a boy, while only 18 percent of teenage boys say they are pressured into sexting by a girl. "No young woman should be taking pictures like this and sending them because she's being pressured," he says. "Once you press send it is out there in the ether...It's not like a diary entry that's under your bed."
As Albert warns, the act of sending a picture can turn a simple case of peer pressure into a much greater ordeal. Although Mary herself is still unsure of the details, her boyfriend told her that one of his friends took the picture off of his phone while he was on a camping trip one. A picture that was intended for her boyfriend fell into the hands of complete strangers, and when Mary came to Blair, she found that many more people knew about the explicit pictures than she originally believed. Seniors whom she had never seen before approached her in the hallway and said, "Hey, you're sexy." She says the realization that strangers had seen the intimate pictures trapped her in an image as soon as she stepped through Blair's doors. "When people came up to me, I felt really bad about myself, and mad that I had done it, because it was like I was already being defined as something before I even met them," Mary says. She says she thoroughly regrets sending the pictures in the first place. "If I had known what would happen I wouldn't have done it," she says. " It was not worth it at all." But Mary does not blame her boyfriend for the spread of the picture. "I trusted him and I don't think he did anything wrong with it," Mary says.
Albert says that teenagers often do not understand the extent of the danger until it is too late because they depend on this kind of blind trust. "Too many people are making assumptions that this is a private ‘mano a mano' activity and it's not," he says. Albert says that the true risk emerges after a bad split occurs, stirring up a desire for revenge that may provoke one partner to spread the picture. Eighteen-year-old Jessica Logan's suicide in July 2008 finally brought the hazardous emotional effects of such circulation to the public eye. Logan had sent nude pictures of herself to her boyfriend, who e-mailed them to other high school girls after the two broke up. As the pictures disseminated through the school, Logan's began to harass and taunt her. Soon, she was skipping class regularly. Just a short while after the break up, she hanged herself in her room. Stories like Logan's have haunted millions across the nation with news programs' recently booming attention to sexting.
Nothing but the truth
Over the past few months, a new issue has surfaced in the midst of the sexting hype: the law. Recently, six students from a Pennsylvania high school were charged with manufacturing, possessing and disseminating child pornography for exchanging nude pictures of themselves. In another incident, Ting-Yi Oei, assistant principal of a Northern Virginia high school, had to battle his way through child pornography possession charges that destroyed his career after he kept a copy of a student's sext on his computer for further investigation into the situation. Since these legal issues, much like the term "sexting," have arisen so suddenly in the news, Matt says, most teenagers are not aware of the consequences of their actions. "When people smoke weed, they know they're breaking the law — they're hiding in a bush," he says. "When people sext, they're not consciously breaking a law."
But the consequences are not all legal. Mary says that after her boyfriend requested pictures, the relationship almost automatically rose to a new level without consent from either Mary or her boyfriend. "It made it more intense," she says. Not only did the intensity of their relationship change, but her perspective on the nature of the relationship as a whole began to shift. "I feel like he didn't want me as much, and just wanted to see that. I feel like if I hadn't [sent pictures] it would have been different."
This change in perspective is familiar to Greg, whose respect for a recent acquaintance changed dramatically when she sent him nude photos. "I thought this girl was like nice and prude but then she sent this picture to me and I was like, ‘That's kind of skanky,'" he says.
But although she acknowledges the grave implications of sexting, Anna says she is honest with close friends when they ask her about her habits. "I'm not particularly quiet about it," she says. "It's your life. You shouldn't be doing anything that you have to hide. That's when you know it's wrong."
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