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Week 17, Wednesday and Thursday Class, Sexting and Teenagers

A recent study has shown just how common it is for teen boys to coerce or threaten girls into sending nude pictures: an analysis of 500 accounts from 12- to 18-year-old girls about negative experiences sexting found that two-thirds of them had been asked to provide explicit images — and that the requests often progressed from promises of affection to "anger displays, harassment and threats." In an article about the study for The New York Times, psychologist Lisa Damour writes, "Teenagers are drafted into a sexual culture that rests on a harmful premise: on the heterosexual field, boys typically play offense and girls play defense… Most schools and many parents already tell teenagers not to send sexualized selfies. But why don't we also tell adolescents to stop asking for nude photos from one another?"

The study by Sara Thomas of Northwestern University found that less then 8% of girls shared explicit pictures because they wanted to; the rest did so because of a desire to please, acquiesce to, or avoid conflict with a boy. Moreover, while researchers found that both girls and boys send nude photos to one another, boys are nearly four time as likely to pressure girls to do so than the reverse. If the pair was already dating, the idea was often normalized with claims like "everyone else has a picture of their girlfriend," and if girls hesitated, some boys threatened consequences to the relationship.

In some cases, boys also used existing pictures to pressure girls to send more by threatening to broadcast the previous ones. Boys not in relationships also asked girls for pictures, and almost 12% of the stories reported a barrage of requests from multiple people that left girls feeling that "requests for photographs are inevitable and unavoidable." But most notably, Thomas found that girls seemed to have no framework for what to do: "while many young women took on the responsibility of negotiating these pressures, they also reported expressing confusion… [because they] lack the tools to do so."

Damour, who is also the author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood, says that parents and educators can make simple changes to help support young women in this situation, starting by focusing as much on the requesting as on the sending by requiring greater accountability from boys making such requests. "It is of course true that simply declaring a new behavioral code will not erase a problem," she writes. "But rules can make a difference." When an adult says "it's not O.K. to request naked pictures because then you are putting someone else in a terrible position," it sets what Damour calls a "behavioral speed bump" that both girls and boys can use to counter adolescent impulsiveness.

It also gives girls something they desperately need: clear guidance about what to do if someone harasses them about sending a nude picture. "If parents and schools have made it clear that the requests are a violation," Damour points out, "girls would feel that they had the option of taking screen shots of them and seeking help from adults." By doing so, Damour argues that we are "laying out high and equitable expectations for young people as they begin their own romantic lives [which] can only be a step in the right direction." After all, she observes, "In the wider culture, it appears we have suddenly come to the limit of our tolerance for the sexualized abuse of power by adult men. A logical next step is to recalibrate some of the toxic norms that have taken hold among teenage

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