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We need to equip our teens with strategies to deal with sexting

If you have a teenager, it’s highly likely that at some stage they have been sent a nude image.

There’s also a strong possibility that they’ve sent a nude image of themselves to someone they trust.

And it isn’t just the teens who engage in other high-risk forms of behaviour, such as drinking and experimenting with drugs, who are sexting. Writer and women’s advocate Nina Funnell believes that the practice is in fact, now normalised among teens.

“Having spent several years investigating the phenomenon of what motivates nude image sharing, first in an academic setting and then as a journalist, I can tell you that it is more prevalent than ever. Educators and police have been preaching to teens about the dangers for almost a decade now, yet the words of warning just aren’t resonating,” she says.

These warnings may be going unheard as they rely on scare tactics; the messages often present young people as either callous criminals, or vulnerable victims. While it is important to be clear that sending, possessing or forwarding sexually explicit photos of underage photos of an underage person is a criminal act (even if that person is you) there is a wide body of research that shows campaigns that rely only on fear as a motivator are both counter-productive and ineffective.

It’s important for teenagers to know that being caught up in a sexting situation doesn’t mean they’ve destroyed their future. (Pic: Supplied)

The doom-and-gloomers also lose credibility quickly with teens who see such messages as alarmist, and possibly out of step with their own often more complex experiences.

What approaches do work? Acknowledging that at some stage our teens may be sent an unsolicited nude image, and providing scripts on a range of ways in which they can deal with this (everything from delete and block, to reporting the sender, to using humour — the mother of a 16-year-old girl recently shared an image her daughter automatically sends to any guy she knows who send her a “dick pic.” It shows a sharp knife next to a sliced cucumber).

Allowing teens who have sent nude images a safe, shame-free space to discuss why they sent these, and how they felt about this afterwards (especially if they were coerced into sending the image) can also be illuminating.

Blogger Jae Schaefer reflected on why she sent nude photos of herself at sixteen, and how she felt when these were then distributed around her school and workplace. “I had total strangers tell me I had ‘destroyed my future’… (but) life goes on. I don’t share naked photos anymore. Not because I think it’s immoral or dangerous, but because I don’t crave the attention like I used to. I got really honest about why I was doing it… now the exhibitionist within me is expressing herself in a more conscious way (through writing).”

It’s important too that when we talk about sexting we don’t present it only within a cyber-world framework. The discussion needs to also cover broader real-world issues such as what a respectful relationship looks and feels like, why it is that female nudity in particular is so often associated with shame and loss of reputation, on how we can be ethical bystanders, and on how we can always move beyond any mistakes we may make.

When adolescents are only ever told about possible catastrophes, threats and dangers, any opportunity for an open dialogue with them is shut down.

And we urgently need to not only continue talking, but to listen. Because when it comes to the relationship teens have with sexting — it’s complicated.

This article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, and was shared online by RendezView 8/4/17 

Porn crackdown: It’s not an invasion of privacy. It’s parenting

Further to last week’s post on an alarming new type of lewd cyber scavenger hunt, I thought I’d share this Opinion piece by author, columnist, journalist, semi-retired academic and social commentator, Dr Karen Brooks. It was first published by The Courier Mail and is reproduced here with the authors permission. I was pleased to have contributed to to the discussion.  

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According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 40 per cent of all sexual assaults in Queensland are perpetrated by school-age children, while the number of young people under 19 committing sex crimes in Australia has almost doubled in five years; 770 are under the age of 15.

Experts believe the shocking increase can be attributed to easy access to online pornography, which is giving young people distorted and unhealthy ideas about sex and relationships.

In the past, for a child to sneak a peek at an adult magazine or movie was risky. These days, all young people need is a smartphone and that world is theirs. Only, it’s changed: it’s more graphic, demeaning, sadistic and brutal — especially towards women.

Currently, 80 per cent of teenagers access porn.

Kids are copying the sexual behaviours they’re viewing — whether the exposure has been accidental, involuntary or deliberate (for example, an older person showing them) — and at a time when they’re naturally curious and wanting to experiment with their sexuality, to test the boundaries.

As a result, they’re developing toxic relationships with sex, their bodies, and each other.

But it’s not only through pornography they’re being exposed to warped ideas about sex. Popular culture inundates them daily (through music, fashion, ads, movies, TV etc), and the idea that sex sells — even acceptance from peers.

When well-known celebrities, such as the Kardashians, Katy Perry, and Madonna willingly share naked pictures of themselves, claiming they’re aspirational, for a political cause or to self-promote, or US congressmen send “dick pics” as a form of flirting, is it any wonder the kids are baffled and the lines between sexuality, acceptability, and pornography are being blurred?

For young people, sending a naked selfie/sexting, has virtually become part of contemporary courtship/friendship and even a rite of sexual passage.

Yet, not only are we seeing confusion around issues of consent and privacy with this, but a growth in predatory behaviours, where young men especially bully and blackmail girls into sending nude pictures, and the girls, believing it’s a way to be noticed and liked, acquiesce.

What often happens is that trust is broken and the image is shown to a wider audience and slut-shaming occurs. The consequences of this can be personally and publicly devastating.

Not only can a young person’s reputation be shredded, the image left in cyberspace in perpetuity, but both the sender and recipient can find themselves facing criminal charges and labelled “sex offenders” (even if what they’ve done is consensual), because they’ve made and distributed child pornography.

So, what are we, as parents, adults, as a society, to do about these and the invidious effect they’re having on young people’s digital and real identities?

Firstly, it’s important to understand and accept that young people exploring their sexuality is perfectly natural and normal.

Sexting has become one of the ways to do this.

In a harrowing article in Qweekend, Frances Whiting cites Detective Inspector Jon Rouse of the Queensland-based Argos Taskforce, who reminds us, “We are not dealing with criminals, what we are dealing with is innocence, naivety, sexual exploration, and using technology to do that.’’

The “Young People and Sexting in Australia Report” (2013), states we need to “recognise that sexting can be an expression of intimacy… Framing sexual expression only as a risk does little to alleviate anxieties or feelings of shame that young people may experience in relation to their sexualities.”

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, who works with thousands of young people across the country, agrees. She warns against moral panic and shaming. She also knows the abstinence approach — with sexuality and technology — doesn’t work.

She argues, “We urgently need to teach all young people about what respectful relationships look, sound and feel like.”

But when we provide them with very little in terms of “relevant, engaging relationships’ education”, we fail them.

We need to rethink sex education, at home and schools, and focus on intimacy, emotions; how we feel as opposed to what (not) to do. We need to have frank discussions about power, control and how pop culture exploits our sexual insecurities as well as entertains. How technology can be both positive and misused — the choice is ours.

But when the adults in a young person’s life and the popular culture in which they’re submerged can’t role-model healthy relationships, with each other, sexuality or technology, then how can we possibly expect our kids to have them?

Rouse says there’s only so much authorities can do. He warns parents, “you’re paying for these devices (phones etc), you’re providing these devices… take some responsibility for what’s happening on them… it’s not an invasion of their privacy, it’s parenting.”

Rouse believes we’ve let kids down.

It’s time we step up.

Dangerous games: ‘Girl on girl porn score the most points’

The following post was the lead Opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph 30/0/16.

In it, I discuss a game teens in the Newcastle area are playing. It may shock you. It certainly shocked me. In an OpEd piece like this you don’t have enough space to unpack in any detail what needs to be done ( 700 words doesn’t begin to cover explaining what is happening AND presenting a plan for moving beyond this stuff).

But we can do the latter here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and brainstorm solutions.

I’ve been working with teens for over 22 years. I thought nothing could shock me. I was wrong.

Earlier this week NXFM radio hosts Nick and Sophie contacted me to discuss something they’d seen while out for dinner with friends in Newcastle. They’d spotted a young man running through the streets naked. Moments later, they saw two teen girls streaking too.Sophie’s friend, a social worker, later saw the girls (now covered up in robes) and asked them what it was all about.

Cash.

Apparently, a number of schools in the area are engaged in a scavenger hunt (organised via a closed Facebook group) as part of their end of Year 12 celebrations. The object of the game is to post increasingly risqué images online in order to score points.

Entrants pay to compete and the winner of the competition earns the prize pool, currently reported to be $2,000.

The girls explained they were going home to film themselves engaging in explicit sex with each other and upload this as “Girl on girl porn score the most points. We just want the prize money.”

End of school high jinks and nudie runs may seem like harmless rites of passage in Australia.

Viewing explicit porn is sadly also a rite of passage for this generation who have grown up with it; the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11.

Watching p#rn is common for teens. (Pic: iStock)

Almost one in five young people aged 16-17 say they, or a friend, have received sexually explicit images of someone else.

But teens producing and uploading their own naked and sexually explicit images to a social media site in order to win a competition is a recent phenomena fraught with the potential for deep regret.

If participants are under 18, sharing naked images online may see them in trouble with the law (while the age of sexual consent is 16, anyone who produces, possesses or distributes images of anyone under the age of 18 may be convicted on child pornography charges and placed on the child sex offenders registry — even if the image is of themselves).

 Regardless of the age of those involved, as we have recently in the news with the revelation that there are Australian web sites aimed at collecting sexually explicit images of teen schoolgirls (images often taken without these girls consent) once such images are uploaded, it is virtually impossible to delete these should those pictured later wish to do so.

While news of a sexually charged online competition may have shocked me and the colleagues I discussed this with, police and educators in the area have seen this type of game raise its ugly head before.

Back in 2013 local news reports warned of teens filming themselves performing lewd acts as part of a scavenger hunt competition held that year. Alleged incidents brought to the attention of authorities then included vision of young people engaged in group sex, and a film of a student with a mobile phone vibrating in their anus.

Yet despite stern warnings from police and school administrators, it seems the stakes have only been raised higher.

Our challenge is to look beyond a “just say no” plea for restraint; an approach we know is rarely effective in changing behaviour. It is to look beyond our own shock and instead to examine a culture that tells young people that sex sells. A culture that tells them fame (or indeed infamy) is aspirational, regardless of the price paid for the social media hits.

Hollywood film Nerve, a current favourite with teens, explores what happens when young people compete to post outrageous videos. The movie unpacks the complex psychology behind this kind of dangerous risk taking and the impact it can have on real life.

The movie argues that the only way to win in a game that encourages you to be a social conformist is not to play in the first place.

It takes real courage to not be a player, or a voyeur.

And it takes real courage to realise that although some of the conversations we need to have with our teens may be uncomfortable and confronting, the need to have these is urgent.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

The Sunday Telegraph’s “Agenda” section recently ran a cover story entitled “The Invincibles”, a startling exposé on this generation of young women who, we are told, show no fear about “the dangers of sex, booze, or even the sun”.

Whilst I am as pro-slip-slop-slap as the next person, it seemed odd to plant statistics about how many young women wear hats outdoors (18%, compared to 38% of young men, in case you’re curious) alongside statistics on binge drinking and sexually transmitted diseases.

Some of the statistics were presented in a way that painted a particularly bleak picture of girls: we were told 39% of females move out of home before turning 18, compared to 28% of males, as if this is evidence of girls’ risky behaviour. It might equally be evidence that girls are more willing to live independently — possibly even to study rather than party!

The clincher, though, was the revelation that 54% of young women don’t always use condoms. Hang on a minute . . . if this is the case, then surely there must be an equally alarming statistic on the number of young men who don’t always use condoms. And why does there seem to be an assumption that contraception and protection from sexually transmitted diseases are solely young women’s responsibility?

If we are to believe articles like this, she is probably too busy worrying about her tan or next Bacardi Breezer to bother being sexually responsible.

Shame on her.

Or rather, shame on the media. This article could have helpfully unpacked the very real issues that research shows us many young women (and men) do struggle with — binge drinking, relationships and body image being just some of them.

Instead, it became yet another diatribe against girls. And as such, it was sadly by no means unusual.

If the times we live in are toxic for girls in many ways — think of the huge pressures on them to be not only thin and hot but to be smart and successful; to be everything, all at once — then equally toxic is the way in which the media and our society choose to engage with young women.

I recently spoke to Herald Sun columnist Miranda Devine about my new book aimed at teen girls, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo (to be published March 1st by Random House). Ms Devine obviously is deeply concerned about the plight of girls, seeing them as “easy prey for a sick society”. I was pleased that despite her concerns Ms Devine recognises that there is a way forward:

In her latest book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power, Miller dispenses commonsense advice to girls and their mothers about how to navigate the rocky road of adolescent hormones in an unforgiving era.

And, just as importantly, despite her obvious alarm, she acknowledges my optimism and pride in the way the majority of young girls are making sense of the world: “Miller also pays tribute to this generation of girls and teenagers, who she sees as remarkably resilient . . . We need to credit the girls who are making healthy choices and aren’t running off sexting and binge drinking.”

Stories about girls in crisis are valid and valuable for they alert us to the challenges we face — but make no mistake, for every anecdotal media report of a girl in crisis, there are stories aplenty in the real world of remarkable young women doing extraordinary things. Some sail off to explore the world, Jessica Watson style. But there are plenty more everyday girl heroes.

There are a few at my place right now.

My daughter, Teyah, 12. Teyah is a naturally shy girl and finds meeting new people challenging. But at the start of this school year she set herself a goal: to say hello and talk to at least two new girls every week. So far she has made four wonderful new friends (there is a sleepover with one planned for this weekend). Teyah also set herself some academic goals — to exceed the excellent results she achieved last year in English, history and science — and she has been working solidly at this since the first day back. She has also put in a truly sterling effort at arguing with me articulately about why she should be allowed to move her bedroom into the upstairs attic. (I am holding out. Just.)

My stepdaughter, Jazmine, 17. Last weekend she had her first surfing lesson. She got up on her surfboard on the second attempt. Jazzy also impresses me with the strong, positive, platonic friendships she has nurtured with four great young men who treat her with such kindness and respect. (Case in point, one popped in yesterday when she was sick, just to check she was okay.)

Jaz and her buddies at their Yr 10 school formal.

Jemma Ryan, 17. I met Jem when I presented at her school in 2009. After seeing me speak at a girls education conference in Melbourne, she had successfully lobbied to have Enlighten present at Clonard College, where she was school captain. Jemma and I have stayed in touch ever since, and she flew to Sydney last week to stay with me and my family to help me in the office before commencing her uni studies in journalism. “Anything you need I will do, no job too small!!” she emailed me beforehand. “My goodness, it’s an opportunity, a privilege I am so, so, so lucky to have!!” How is that for a go-get-’em attitude?

Jem and I. I love mentoring young women.

Jemma also writes for her local paper; she has been doing this since she was 14. When I asked Jemma how she had fitted in studying, her role as a student leader, her part-time job at Bakers Delight and writing, she explained patiently, “Well, I just have to be time conscious, I guess. My current boyfriend and I, for example — well, we decided just to be friends until I completed Year 12. There was no time for distractions.”

The choices made by girls like these don’t sell papers — but they do deserve our recognition.

Girls, the numbers are in.

You are 100% awesome.

Sexting: the big picture.

On Thursday last week I attended the Sydney launch of Big Porn Inc, Exposing the Harms of the Global Porn Industry. This important collection of essays by leading experts and activists is edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray. The talks given, particularly by Ms Bray, were deeply moving and the personal toll that contributing to this book has taken on the writers was visibly apparent; what brave women they are to delve into the darkness so that we may see the light. Inspired by the contributors’ resolve, I committed to reading this book over the weekend and whilst I cannot say I enjoyed it, for it is (in parts) absolutely harrowing, I did find it deeply thought provoking. Works like this, which dare to challenge the rhetoric of porn as liberation or nothing more than a bit of fun, have the potential to help us reclaim and reshape our sexuality – which has unarguably been hijaked by an industry that increasingly views woman as nothing more objects to be used and abused for sexual gratification. 

Nina and I at the launch of Big Porn Inc

This week I wish to share with you an edited version of the chapter contributed by Nina Funnell. Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010 for this work.

Sexting and Peer-to-Peer Porn

Historically debates about children and pornography have tended to play out in two directions. Either children are discussed as being the victims used in illegal child pornography, or alternatively they are constructed as the damaged consumers of adult pornography which they inadvertently or deliberately access.

Both the “exploited victim” and “damaged consumer” approaches have produced a wealth of research that has contributed to public debates about pornography.

However, while these approaches have offered certain frameworks for understanding and discussing the harm caused to children, they have not been able to account for a recently emerging trend whereby young people are not merely accessing and consuming pornography, but indeed are now the active producers of pornography – specifically child pornography.

In recent years academics have been tending to the ways in which young people are incorporating technology into their dating, courtship and sexual socialisation practices. While many young people report that technology has enhanced their social lives, others have expressed concerns over the ways in which technology (such as digital photography, mobile phone cameras and webcams) has contributed to a paradigm where privacy is compromised.

The ease with which photos are now produced, the speed at which they travel, combined with the permanence of those photos once online has meant that young people’s private lives are now being shared and recorded in ways never seen or imagined before.

The advent of the smart-phone which allows users to access the World Wide Web directly from their personal phones also means that young people are now able to upload and retrieve digital information from anywhere and at anytime, with few time-delay barriers that might otherwise give an opportunity for reflective thought.

Of particular concern is the ways in which young people are now uploading sexualised personal content which is then immediately available for by peers and others. According to one study completed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in America, as many as one in five teenagers has electronically sent a nude or semi-nude image or video of themselves. This statistic, which has been widely reproduced in media articles, has alarmed parents and children’s rights groups everywhere.

Blended with the concern that young people may be jeopardising their reputations and employment prospects is the fear that such photos could fall into the hands of paedophiles as once those photos are online it is virtually impossible to control how they circulate or where they end up.

But beyond personal safety fears, there are additional concerns regarding the legal risks that children and teenagers face.

In 2009 three teenage girls in Greensburg Pennsylvania took nude and semi-nude photos of themselves on their mobile phones before sending those photos on to three boys. When the images were discovered on the boys’ phones, the girls (for photographing their own bodies) were threatened with charges relating to the production and distribution of child pornography, and the three boys were threatened with charges relating to the possession of child pornography.

In the media commentary that followed, a debate erupted over the definition of child pornography and the application of the law in cases involving teens who willingly photograph their own bodies.

On the one hand, some claimed that prosecution was an appropriate response that would serve to deter other teenagers from engaging in a behaviour now known as “sexting” (that is, the production and distribution of sexualised personal photos via mobile phone or online).

But there are other questions that should be raised Why, for example, are laws which were initially intended to protect children now being used to criminalise teenage sexuality? Is it appropriate to group sexually curious teenagers in with convicted paedophiles? How can a girl be both the victim and the perpetrator of the same crime? What possible good can come from labelling these teens as sex offenders and putting them on a sex offender register for the rest of their lives? Shouldn’t we preserve that register for criminals who pose a real threat to society?

Eventually the Pennsylvania case was dismissed after the American Civil Liberties Union launched a countersuit against the District Attorney for threatening to lay the charges against the teenage girls. But the significance of the case is clear: the laws have been utterly outpaced by the speed at which the technology had evolved and are now woefully ill-equipped to respond to the current paradigm.

The case also illuminated one other thing: that at the time when these laws were first developed no-one had comprehended the possibility of kids themselves being the ones producing the pornography.

There is a long history of children expressing curiosity over bodies and sex and there is nothing inherently wrong or unnatural about this. However when images are taken without consent or distributed to third parties without consent, the results can be devastating.

In May 2008 a young woman named Jesse Logan appeared on a Cincinnati television station to tell her story. She had sent nude photos of herself to her boyfriend who sent them on to other classmates when the relationship ended.

Logan was harassed and repeatedly labelled a “slut” and a “whore.” She became depressed, withdrawn and avoided school. Two months after agreeing to talk about her experience on television her body was found hanging in her bedroom. She was only 18.

In 2010, another eighteen-year-old student, Tyler Clementi committed suicide by jumping from the George Washington Bride. Clementi who was not openly gay had recently had a sexual encounter with a man in his dorm room.

His roommate Dharun Ravi and another student had secretly filmed and streamed the footage of the encounter. Clementi’s Facebook status at the time of his death read “jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” His body was found a short time after.

In 2011, another 18 year old female cadet in the Australian Defence Force Academy engaged in consensual sex with a fellow cadet. Unbeknown to her he was secretly filming and live streaming the footage to six other males in an adjacent room.

On learning what had happened the cadet, “Kate” stated that her “whole world came crashing down” and she was physically ill. Despite this, after speaking out she was subjected to more harassment and bullying from fellow cadets.

When all of these stories broke, the public responded with a mix of shock, horror and disgust at the ways the victims had been treated. Adults in particular have scoffed over the actions of the young people involved in these events.

But when we look further afield, the practice of individuals filming or distributing sexually explicit footage of other people without their knowledge or consent has a longer history and one that, in certain spheres, has gone largely uncontested.

Twelve years before the ADFA scandal a teen comedy American Pie (1999) was released. In it the protagonist sets up a webcam to film a female exchange student getting changed. The footage is live streamed to boys in a nearby home.

At no point is there any comment in the movie on the ethics of this behaviour or the likely emotional impact for the girl. In fact in American Pie 2 she returns as a love interest for the protagonist. In other films such as Porkies, Sleepers and The Virgin Suicides, groups of boys perving on women without their consent as a form of male bonding is depicted as normalized behaviour. Of course this isn’t limited to film.

In 2009 a sports reporter named Erin Andrews was filmed nude while alone in her hotel room. The video quickly became one of the most searched Google items. Video-blogging on Feministing, American writer Jessica Valenti, made the following comment:

You know you can see plenty of hot naked ladies on the Internet. It’s not that hard to fine. But folks want to watch this and people are interested in this precisely because Erin Andrews doesn’t know she is being filmed. I think that reveals something incredibly f–ked up about the way American culture views women. That what we consider hot and sexy is looking at naked pictures of women without their consent.

Looking further afield again we can see many other examples where internet users have swarmed to download sex tapes of women which were produced or released without their consent: Paris Hilton, Kendra Wilkinson, Pamela Anderson and Katie Price have all had sex tapes distributed without consent. Many adults have downloaded and watched these films.

It is erroneous to suggest that celebrities or people who work in the public eye do not deserve privacy. Such an argument falls into the trap of suggesting there are two types of women in this world: those you are allowed to abuse and assault, and those who you cannot.

Likewise, it is also problematic to expect teenagers to live up to a higher standard than we set for the rest of society. We need to be consistent in our approach to non-consensual filming and distribution of sexual content.

While digital technology and social media have no doubt enhanced many aspects of our lives, they have also extended the ways in which women and girls can be violated, humiliated and abused.

To deal with this will require more than mere education for young people about the risks associated with technology. It will require us to teach them techno and sexual ethics and it will require us, as adults, to also abide by the standards we set for them.

To do this, we need to acknowledge and redress the misogyny, sexism and deep degradation that underscores so much of our current culture.

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