Teenage sexting: who are we protecting, exactly?

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

This week, incompetent bellend Jeremy Hunt decided to wade in on the issue of teenagers sexting. This apparently terrifying activity could, he claimed, be stopped once and for all by blocking nude images from/to phones owned by under-18s, or using language filters to prevent cyberbullying.

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things,” he babbled, ignorantly.

Better people than I have already explained why, from a technology perspective, that’s absolute bullshit. But even if it were possible, it’s a ridiculous thing to do.

Can tech stop teenage horn?

When I was young, my equivalents of sexting involved flirting and groping, mostly. Over the phone occasionally but more often in person. My friends and I would hang out in gangs, causing curtain-twitches in the houses that surrounded the crappy park we messed around in. We’d chip in 20p each and buy a packet of ten cigarettes, perhaps a bottle of aggressively-awful cider if we had enough cash, then get underage drunk and fumble with each other until it was time to go home for tea.

I imagine that the technology industry at the time, if they put their mind to it, “could do really smart things.”

CCTV – this existed back in my youth, and it’s more than possible that a couple of well-placed cameras near the park could have driven us elsewhere. Fear of being caught on tape and subsequently told off might have pushed us to hang out somewhere we weren’t being recorded: a friend’s house, say, or in a local McDonalds.

Surreptitious recording – sure, the internet was in its infancy when I was young, but spy-gadgets like tiny cameras and voice recorders definitely existed. The tech industry, if they put their mind to it, could easily have come up with spy equipment marketed to parents which recorded every whisper, fumbled grope, and snog in the bushes. All it would have taken was one awkward conversation with my Mum, during which she played back my terrible teenage flirtation, and I’d have lost my horn quicker than if you dunked me in ice water. This would also have worked for the phone – if I knew my Mum were recording all the dirty conversations I had with my best friend, we’d definitely have kept things to PG-13 levels. We’d also probably have quickly got bored with each other and ended the friendship, given that 90% of our chat was about erections and tits.

Computer controls – although the net was in its infancy, it did still exist. And for me, that scratchy dial-up connection sound heralded not ‘homework research’ but ‘an opportunity to go on chat rooms and incompetently chat up men online.’ Keystroke loggers, blocks, and a whole host of other things were more than possible – and the ‘tech industry’ could (and eventually did) package at least some of this stuff as a means of preventing my raging libido from doing any damage.

Teenagers sexting: who gets to snoop?

The above solutions were all technically possible. They all – technically – would have had an impact on young me, and perhaps prevented her from doing much of the stuff she did that she knew her parents would disapprove of. But they’re also all solutions that, were they proposed to my Mum, would have caused her to either shriek with laughter or weep with despair.

I remember her explaining to me at the age of 14 or 15 why she wouldn’t sneakily read my teenage diary: “it’s important for you to have secrets from me. I’m always here if you’d like to talk about something, but I’m not going to be poking my nose into everything. You deserve privacy.”

Young people have less privacy than adults, and rightly so: there are certain things they haven’t learned yet, which they need guidance on. They also occasionally need protection – while I know my Mum never actually opened my diary, I’m sure that if she were genuinely worried about me and I wouldn’t open up to her, she might check it for signs of something to worry about: excessive drug use, bullying, or an eating disorder, that kind of thing. Because I was her child and she wanted to look after me.

Who are we protecting?

But when we talk about sexual activity, what are we actually trying to protect young people from? What’s the ‘worry’ here? It seems to me that Hunt simply wants to protect them from sex at all costs. Thinking about it, talking about it, exchanging pictures of people having it or getting naked. Even if it were technically possible to do this, why on Earth would we want to? Understandably we want them not to be exposed to things which will terrify them, at an age where they don’t know how to process it. But by preventing teenagers from any kind of sexual experimentation – whether it’s old school park groping like mine or more modern sexting – all you’re doing is teaching them that sex is bad and wrong. A monster that they should resist rather than a perfectly natural thing to be interested in.

What are we protecting them from? Maybe exploitation or non-consensual activity: a blanket block on exchanging nude photos may stop some of the more horrific examples of revenge-porn or cyber bullying – where arsehole kids send someone else’s nude selfies to the entire school. But again, these problems are much better dealt with by education. Talking to young people about consent, educating them on underage sexting and the law, giving them the tools to recognise what they do and don’t want, and support to deal with problems when they arise.

So, again: what are we protecting them from? The whispered conversations about erections that my best friend and I used to have? The cheeky flirting and groping? Their actual human desires? Sexting isn’t the monster that Jeremy Hunt is really scared of: it’s teenage sexuality itself. In trying to offer a tech ban as a ‘solution’ to horny teenagers, he’d have Silicon Valley pore over teenage diaries, exorcising any hint of sexual curiosity. He’d have them snoop and spy – not for the protection of children, but the protection of adults. 

Adults who fear both technology and teenage horn. Adults who aren’t able to have the conversations about sex, consent and risk that my Mum had with me. Adults, in short, who are scared of their kids growing up.

There’s some great sex ed advice for parents over at BishUK, and if you’re interested in comprehensive sex ed in the classroon, check out DoSREforschools too.


  • sarah says:

    as no one else has commented, i just wanted to say that i agree with you entirely here. it’s a cop out solution to something which isn’t really a problem in the first place. as you said, the true answer lies in education and providing a supportive and understanding environment should something go wrong

  • JoSmith says:

    As an adult who has open conversations to educate them about consent, sex and porn on the internet. I can tell you it doesn’t stop other kids sharing her pictures and ruining her life. You can educate people into not being assholes. OR perhaps I should ask, would you abolish the police in favour of educating society not to commit crimes. There’s a another problem. Education is a nebulous term. Its subjective, and in truth we don’t really know how best to educate people on these matters. Education is a complex thing, often built on trial and error. If it was an objectively knowable thing no parent would ever have a troubled child ever. You treat education as a holy grail to all underatdning and world peace. And yet we barely know ourselves. Humans are complex and education for one is different for another. There’s no magic education to fix revenge porn and never will be. Its yet another excuse for doing fuck all about dangerous technology. Like the gun lobby use to justify guns ‘its not guns that kill people its bad education’. Sorry people are not that simple. I agree hunt is a dick. I agree his solution won’t work. But I disagree there is nothing to protect people from. Not all porn is fun and harmless. And revenge porn is a symptom education may not be able to control.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Revenge porn is illegal.

      • JoSmith says:

        Your post asks what we are trying to protect people from. The assumption its just adults with unfounded fears is patronising and bullshit. There are REAL problems with sexting. Dismissing them as you do is harmful and neglects the reality if those effected. Revenge porn is one of those issues. Being illegal doesn’t stop it unfortunately. And nor does dismissing it with saying ‘educate’ your kids ad nausium. What might stop it is banning the sale of social media platforms to children. As we would guns and fireworks. Because nobody will do anything about porn culture, , ie those selling sexist violent fantasies openly to kids and adults alike with zero restrictions or legal responsibilities, and almost no moral self regulating ones. And then on to sell them products. in the process. Third wave liberal feminism has let down women and feminism disgracefully. It fails entirely to grasp the problem of reality for young girls and women in favour of marketing cool sexy fun times. Children are vulnerable. To pretend they are tough and smart and able to deal with adult themes undermines the idea they should be treated differently at all. Well their minds are undeveloped and parents need to guide them. But when faced with the onslaught of porn culture everywhere, and liberal feminists encouraging it they don’t have a chance. Parents , mothers need help. They need women to support them not throw them under the bus and dismissed as fearful prudes. Do you even know the age of the girls reading your site?

        • Girl on the net says:

          We’ve already had this conversation, and you didn’t engage really with any of my points, so I’m not sure what you hope to achieve by having it again. I’m gutted that so many arguments about porn seem to end up like this, and I’m frustrated that the problems with the porn industry are often ignored in favour of these blanket ‘porn is bad always’ arguments. Are you planning on popping over to my blog every now and then to see if I’ve mentioned porn and then restart the conversation? Because I think you’re as likely to change my mind as I am yours.

  • AD says:

    The assumption that we can just protect teens from revenge porn – an act that is almost always malicious – by just teaching them about consent is pretty ridiculous. Furthermore, minors under 18 taking nudes of themselves counts as making child pornography and can get them in very big trouble. Recieving it as well.
    You might say “oh but if their partner respects their consent, nobody will take them to the police” – and sure it might be true, until an overbearing parent finds compromising pictures on their child’s phone, or until “friends” or bullies get ahold of it and send it to the entire class.
    As someone who started having sex at a young age, and has no problems with teens being sexual themselves, you’re pretty damn irresponsible telling kids they can just send nudes willy-nilly. I will never spy on my daughter but I certainly will tell her that until she is 18, sexting is strictly text-only, and once she is an adult she should never show her face or be recognizable on her pics.

    • Girl on the net says:

      “telling kids they can just send nudes willy-nilly”
      Well, I have some great news for you – that is not in any way what I’m suggesting, and nor is it what anyone else is suggesting as far as I’m aware. What I’m saying is that we need to give young people the tools and information they need to navigate issues like this. Like this great advice for young people, from a sexual health professional: http://www.bishuk.com/porn/sexting/ It sounds pretty similar to the advice you’ve said you’d give your daughter, so we’re on the same team.

      Where you seem to have got the wrong end of the stick is that I don’t think we should pretend we actually *can* stop kids from sexting. Sure, we can give advice, but we can no more guarantee kids won’t experiment with sex – including sexual chat (sexts aren’t always images) than we could colonise Pluto. Young people will do things we don’t think they should. We need to understand that, and work out the best way to guide them in making good choices, rather than – as Hunt seems to want to do – create technological solutions which pretend to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ of experimental teens.

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