Last month, law enforcement officers and school administrators launched an effort to crack down on sexting in one Cincinnati-area high school. Hundreds of students are suspected of distributing nude photos of their classmates via cellphones and the Internet. Just 10 girls will face discipline—the ones whose images have circulated most widely.
Officials may think they’re tracking the sexting problem to its root by punishing the girls who snapped and sent the photos in the first place. But they’re really just reinforcing the lopsided sexual standards of the adolescent selfie market. In a typical American high school, there are just as many guys posing for dick pics as there are girls lifting their shirts. But once those photos hit the schoolwide distribution system, girls’ photos travel further.
A new study, published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, illuminates that dynamic. Researchers surveyed 1,000 black and Latino 10th graders in a southeast Texas school district about their sexting habits. Among black teens, 27 percent of girls and 23 percent of boys said they had snapped a nude photo of themselves and passed it along. Among Latino teens, 20 percent of boys and 17 percent of girls had done the same. So selfies in this school district are split pretty evenly along gender lines. And though this study focused on minority teens, researchers said their sexting numbers lined up with rates recorded among “white private high school students” as well as more diverse groups of minors.
It’s in the distribution of these images that boys and girls’ behavior begins to diverge. When an explicit photograph hits their phones, the teen boys in the study were almost twice as likely as the teen girls to have forwarded it beyond its intended audience. And boys were much more likely than girls to have received one of these errant sexts from an oversharing peer.
That nonconsensual distribution could be fueling the perception that teen girls are sexting more aggressively than boys. A 2009 Pew report on sexting among American teens didn’t register a statistical divide in sexting behaviors among boys and girls, but it did record teenagers’ perceptions of a gender rift. “This is common only for girls with ‘slut’ reputations. They do it to attract attention,” one boy told Pew. “Sexting’s not common, but it does happen because girls want everyone to know they ‘look good,’ ” said another. And then there’s the female perspective: “If a guy wants to hookup with you, he’ll send a pictures of his private parts or a naked picture of him[self]. It happens about 10 times a month.”
When girls sext, they’re accused of publicizing their sexuality to attract attention; when boys do it, they’re assumed to be courting a sex partner (however ineffectively) one on one. That double standard persists even though, according to the study, boys were almost twice as likely as girls to publicly post their own nude photos online.
All of this should make the high school rethink its approach to dealing with sexting at school. Punishing 10 girls for a schoolwide phenomenon only reinforces the idea that girls who sext should be publicly shamed, while boys who sext—and share—are empowered to keep their selfies safely in their pockets. If the school really wants to mitigate the damaging consequences of sexting, it ought to crack down on nonconsensual forwarders, not self-exploratory photographers. Take the case of the sole boy who’s been caught up in the school’s sexting scandal: He stands accused of “masturbating on his family’s cat and on a relative’s toothbrush, videotaping that relative brushing his teeth and sending the images to friends.” He now faces a felony for “disseminating sexually explicit material to minors,” but the activity he filmed was not a sext—it was an assault.