The XX Factor

Maybe Sexting Is How Teenagers Will Learn About Consent

Learning to communicate about sex, one sext at a time.

Sexting has become a completely normal part of teenage dating life. So says Dr. Jeff Temple, an associate professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, who is one of the authors of a new study about teen dating habits published in Pediatrics this month. But, as KJ Dell’Antonia at the New York Times reports, there is no reason for parents to panic over this news. “The researchers found no link between the act of sending a nude image and risky behavior,” she writes, “but they did find that the odds of a teenager becoming sexually active within the next year were slightly higher among teenagers engaged in active sexting (as opposed to being the recipient of a sext) and that the sexting was more likely to come first—that it was, in many cases, an indicator that a teenager was on the verge of becoming sexually active.”

Sexting is, in the end, just another form of flirting, and flirting has always been something that can and does lead to sexual activity. Temple recommends that parents shouldn’t panic, but instead use the existence of sexting as “an opportunity to talk with that teen about sex prior to having it.”

But what if we saw sexting as not just an opening for The Talk, but as a truly positive development. Lately, there’s been a big conversation around the issues of sexual communication and consent, with feminists arguing that we need to teach people how to talk about sex and their expectations before they start having it. It’s not just for rape prevention purposes, either. “Confirming consent leads to much hotter sex,” writes Ann Friedman at the Cut, making the case that young adults, particularly women, need to “do more talking about what turns them on and gets them off.” Well, it seems that the sexting generation is ahead of the curve then, using their smartphones as a way to practice talking about sex and desire before they even start touching each other. 

Sure, as Temple admits, there are dangers, particularly around the ongoing problem of young people, mostly young men, using nude photos to publicly humiliate young women. But instead of combating this by telling kids simply not to sext, Temple recommends that parents “need to talk about it as something they’re going to want to do and present both sides, and give adolescents more credit than they are typically given.” After all, there are plenty of teenage boys who aren’t predators and can handle the responsibility of sexting without violating a girl’s boundaries—and there could be more if adults bothered to talk to them about the etiquette of sexting without getting judgmental about the fact that kids are going to explore.