Junk Science

If Sexting Is So Wrong, Why Does It Feel So Good?

For kids these days, sending dirty pics is as routine as breathing. Which kind of makes it hard to chastise Anthony Weiner, writes Lizzie Crocker.

In the wake of Anthony Weiner's latest sexting scandal, one question has emerged that’s particularly tough to answer: How can parents explain to their kids that Weiner was wrong, when your typical Snapchatting teen has likely been sexting for years? Rather than seeing sexting as gross or creepy, plenty of teens say it’s a routine part of adolescent life, like playing strip poker or flashing their peers in the locker room.

You don’t need to be in these kids’ inner circles to see the kinds of photos they’re sharing. A quick Google search of “snapchat balls” yields this tweet from Jacob Blythe,18, upon receiving a picture of his friend’s private parts: “Eli thought it would be funny to snapchat me a picture of his balls on my phone Everyone, Eli’s sack.”

With one click, “Eli’s sack” was immortalized on the Internet.

Blythe says he started participating in this share-your-balls game “probably less than a year ago, [sending photos] strictly to my guy friends to avoid any trouble.”

It’s not just guys, of course. Rihanna sexts. So does Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively.

Mary, 26, who asked that her last name not be mentioned in this story, sends her long-distance boyfriend roughly four illicit photos of herself every week. The two have been dating for 10 months, and the pictures have gotten “progressively more risque,” she says. The first time she sent a nude picture was on St. Patrick’s Day several years ago, after she’d been drinking heavily and her then-boyfriend asked for one. “I cut out my face, obviously, and made it kind of blurry. It was full-body nude, full frontal. I looked hot.” So hot, she reused the picture a year later with another guy. She’s more anxious that her current boyfriend might learn about the recycled photos than she is concerned about an old boyfriend distributing them with nefarious purposes.

Of course, your average teen or 20-something sexter likely isn’t dealing with the issue of power dynamics that comes with an older male figure preying on a younger woman, à la Weinergate. They’re also not being called out by the media on a public stage, nor do they have spouses who suffer the disgrace of being the good wife.

But given that the content of their sexts is pretty much the same as Weiner’s, if not worse, should we be worried? Or is it the opposite—has it become so mundane, it’s not even worth stressing over?

The jury’s out. “Sexting Linked to Increased Sexual Activity in Teens,” read a recent headline in the journal Pediatrics about a survey of 1,800 Los Angeles high-schoolers. The study found that avid teen sexters were more likely to be sexually active. But despite the alarming headline, the study authors stressed that it wasn’t clear whether sexting led to teenage sex or vice versa. Their findings were also limited because the survey wasn’t nationwide.

“In some ways there’s not much difference between a kid sending a nude selfie to her boyfriend and participating in a wet T-shirt contest on spring break,” says Pamela Rutledge, the director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston. “They are both demonstrations of youthful exuberance with no judgement, but technology has made it so that these temporary acts aren’t temporary anymore.”

That’s what terrifies some parents. “My biggest fear is that one of my kids is going to send something to someone who is going to choose to share it with everyone else,” says Tim O’Shea, who has a 13-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son.