When sexting isn’t
Both articles are about teenage girls who were — allegedly, right — sexually assaulted, were photographed by their assailants, had to face the humiliation of those photos spreading through their schools and communities, and subsequently committed suicide. The second article goes into more detail about how the victim was treated by her peers (atrociously) and tells how in that case the police did not press charges against the assailants.
So, firstly, this is horrifying, and a call to action. However, as I’m not sure what action it makes sense to take (Dan Savage suggests forbidding teenagers from having cell phone cameras, but that may be an overreaction) I’ll do my best to improve understanding of the situation instead.
What makes these stories stand out (neither sexual assault nor suicide being nearly as uncommon as they should be) is the “sexting”, the spreading of the photos of the assaults. So, what’s up with the sexting? Is it a minor detail? Something that amplifies the pain of the assaults? Or is it harmful on its own?
There’s some rather extreme stigma surrounding sex in our culture, especially so for teenage girls. Girls are shamed for sex they choose to have, especially if it’s outside of social norms (eg, hookup rather than relationship sex.) As irrational as it sounds, it’s not unusual for rape, assault and abuse victims to feel shame for what was done to them. So, the shame from being raped can be amplified by others knowing about the rape.
But this applies to consensual sex too: someone who voluntarily, consensually has sex who then has pictures of the sex distributed without consent is also going to be humiliated and shamed and generally discomfited by the experience (although probably not as much as if the original encounter was consensual.)
So now I’m thinking about what a sex act is, and what sexual assault is. Sex acts don’t always involve physical contact — phone sex can be sex, cybersex can be sex, exhibitionism can be sex. The reason people (of any age) swap sexy photos with people they’re interested in is because it is a sexual act — perhaps more like French kissing than intercourse, but still a sexual act.
Which means if it’s not consensual, it’s sexual assault.
That fits intuitively — when I empathize with the girls in the articles, the exposure of having the photos distributed is uncomfortable to me in a similar way to the rape itself.
And that’s why the word “sexting” is problematic: because “sexting” comes from “sex”, and sex is consensual. If it’s not consensual it’s rape.
I think at this juncture it would be helpful to have a linguistic — and legal — distinction between consensual sexting (sexting that the object of the photo does herself/himself/themselves or actively agrees to) and nonconsensual “sexting”. Rape texting, perhaps.
Because as far as I can tell, currently the only thing the teenage boys in both cases can be charged with (if there’s not enough evidence for the direct assault) is child pornography. But that ignores the consent distinction, and it does not cover similar situations for adults. Like Tyler Clementi, who was after all 18. Sharing sexual photos of a person without his or her permission is a sexual act, it affects the person, and especially for teenagers as we see it can have devastating consequences. It is wrong; I think there are completely reasonable grounds for it to be illegal as well.