For many people the topic of teens and sex is an uncomfortable one. Recent press coverage around this issue has ranged from the absurd to the deadly serious. Both types say something about the challenges faced by young people today and both suggest how we, as a culture, could be doing more to support kids.
With the new school year underway, districts around the country are warning kids about the dangers of sexting. In L.A., the “Now Matters Later” campaign is focused on warning teens about the potential fallout from snapping and sharing explicit images. These include the possibilities of public humiliation all the way to potential criminal prosecution.
The threat of prosecution is one of the things that needs to be rethought. Consider the case of two teens in North Carolina. During a statutory rape investigation (for which no evidence was found), law enforcement found nude images on the couples’ phones that they had shared consensually. Because the teens were 16 at the time they took and shared the images but are now 17, they are being charged as adults; it is their 16-year-old selves who are listed as the victims.
Clearly, something is amiss here. Most people recognize this. According to media reports, legal scholars from across the country see this as a misguided use of a law designed to protect young people from exploitation. A conviction carries the possibility not only of prison time but also of being labeled as a sex offender. That makes no sense and reflects a disconnect between the realities of teen behavior in the age of mobile technology that needs to be recognized and addressed.
There are much more serious issues of sexuality and teens that need attention. A recent survey, conducted by the Association of American Universities and based on responses from more than 150,000 students at 27 schools, found that 23% of college women experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact. That is a staggering and sobering figure.
Rather than using scare tactics to prevent kids from sharing salacious selfies, more needs to be done to educate teens — and especially teenage boys — about the importance of sexual respect. Everyone from pro sports teams to Lady Gaga are getting involved to send the message that respect and consent have to be at the center of relationships.
Here in New England, the Patriots, in partnership with the State Attorney General Maura Healy, have introduced “Game Change: The Patriots Anti-Violence Partnership.” The program is intended to help prevent relationship violence and sexual assault and will provide training for students, teachers and coaches at 90 public high schools in Massachusetts.
Lady Gaga’s powerful new video, “Til It Happens to You,” presents a stark and sickening picture of the reality of rape and sexual violence on college campuses. It is rightly being lauded for creating an opportunity to discuss this troubling topic.
It’s terrific that athletes and celebrities are doing their part to educate teens about the issue of sexual violence. There are others, however, that also have the attention of teens, but that are not helping the situation.
The sexualization of youth and teens for marketing purposes creates a conundrum. For some, it’s a healthy recognition of the reality of teen life. For others, it’s an objectification and invitation to exploit this population at a vulnerable time of life. Given the many causes for concern around teens and sexuality — from the absurd to the dire — all who connect with this audience need to think long and hard about their voice in this critical conversation.
Sexual curiosity and exploration are terrific and teens have apparently figured this out. There’s no way (or any reason) to prevent teens from experimenting in healthy ways. Rather than criminalizing natural behavior, we all need to do more to help teens recognize and respect appropriate behaviors and boundaries.