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.