NJ Sexting Bill’s a Step in the Right Direction

But I can't help but worry that sexting is more damaging to teen girls than teen boys

It’s an age-old debate: Why is there a double standard for men and women or, in some cases, boys and girls, when it comes to all things sex? Everyone knows: Women who engage in casual sex acts run the risk of being viewed as sleazy, loose or easy, and men who engage in the same are likely to be hailed as suave Adonis-like beings.

It’s because of this longstanding double standard that a bill passed Monday by the New Jersey Assembly decriminalizing “sexting”—sending or receiving sexually explicit text messages (most of which contain nude photos or video of some sort)—among teens makes me wonder about how extensively sexting can damage the adolescents who engage in it.

New Jersey is just one of a handful of states across the country that has decriminalized sexting among teens. According to the law as it stands where sexting is not decriminalized, teens can actually be charged with possession or distribution of child pornography if they’re caught sending or receiving explicit messages, which, of course, is a ridiculous interpretation of the law. How can teenagers who are legally still considered children themselves be convicted of something generally thought of as a heinous, strictly adult infraction?

So the passage of the bill in New Jersey is certainly a step in the right direction. I’m all for teens not having to explain to college admissions counselors that they’re registered sex offenders because they got adventurous with a boyfriend or girlfriend sophomore year of high school and sent a questionable photo or two that went terribly awry. But thinking about the legislation has me wondering who is being protected.

If you go back to that double standard, you see how sexting can be far more detrimental to a teenage girl than a teenage boy. How often do you hear of a teen boy’s nude photos being disseminated among a high school or community? Very rarely. How often do you hear about a teen girl’s? A little too often for comfort.

It seems that teen girls do more sexting—the kind that involves sending nude photos, anyway—than their male counterparts. According to “Sex and Tech,” a survey of teens and young adults conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl, 22 percent of teen girls, but only 18 percent of teen boys, reported that they have posted or sent nude photos of themselves. As for sending or posting sexually explicit messages (sans visual depictions), 40 percent of teen boys do it, but only 37 percent of teen girls.

Okay, so the gap between boys and girls who engage in it is smaller than I would have predicted—and boys even engage in sexting more than girls when it doesn’t involve photos. But engaging in the behavior isn’t really where the problem is; the reasons why young girls engage in it is. When asked why they send and post sexually suggestive content, 51 percent of girls reported “pressure from a guy” as the reason, while only 18 percent of boys blamed pressure from a girl. This is where it becomes not okay. I imagine that having a photo of herself scantily clad (or less) circulate among her classmates would be pretty damaging even to the most bold, push-the-limits teen girl, but what it would do to a girl pressured into it by a boy is unthinkable.

While decriminalizing sexting is the way to go legally, schools and other institutions that look after adolescents need to come up with a way to educate and protect them from the issues, like sexting, technology can create. We don’t want to turn our teen boys into registered sex offenders, but we should also work to avoid scarring our teen girls with the mark of that scarlet ‘A’ before they reach adulthood.