'Abstinence only' is not the answer when it comes to teens and sexting

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 Photo: Getty Images

We often tell kids that when it comes to sexting, the best idea is to just not do it.

But abstinence is not the answer when it comes to young people and sexting, according to a new report.

Jessie Hunt, a youth health sector support officer at Australian organisation Yfoundations, recommends a harm minimisation approach, which prioritises consent over avoiding it altogether. 

Hunt notes that the practice of "sexting", or sending sexually suggestive or explicit images via digital means, has been a concern since the term first appeared in 2005. 

Those concerns resulted in what Hunt calls an "abstinence-only" approach, with campaigns aiming to discourage young people from sexting at all.

And yet, rather than curbing the practice, Hunt says that "sexting has been absorbed into other facets of young people's 'digital sexual cultures', including hook-up and dating applications, blogging and social networking sites".

When it comes to "digital sex education", Hunt notes that while curriculum resources do exist, they focus on hetero-centric narratives and contain elements of shame, as well as victim blaming – particularly for young women.

Hunt cites the federally funded, sext-education "Megan's Story", among others, as an example of this shame-based education. Designed for students in years 7-12, the video shows a young woman sexting a boy in her class. We then see the image shared among other students – ending up with the class teacher, too. 

The short clip focuses on the young woman and her feelings of shame and embarrassment – and not on the male student who circulated the private text.

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Hunt describes this shame-based model as sexist and heteronormative. She writes, "In shame-based sex education, it is young women who contend with the most shame: they are the designated 'gatekeepers' of young male sexuality, and, as such, are morally culpable for men's behaviour."

Hunt also highlights the concern that shame-based education – particularly when directed at young women – may prevent young people from accessing mental health, medical or youth help in times of crisis.

"If a young person does have private images 'leaked' by a peer, shame-based education has taught them that the incident is their fault – that it has happened because they shared images of themselves with a partner, and not because of the abusive actions of the person who spread the image," Hunt writes. And they need support, not judgement. 

Rather than abstinence only, Hunt says that adopting a harm-minimisation approach, which has proven successful for other complex health problems, ensures young people have access to facts and strategies to navigate digital sexual cultures "whilst accepting that these cultures are a key part of sexual and romantic landscapes".

And consent, she writes, is a key component – something prior campaigns have failed to mention. Instead, she notes, they position young women as somehow "culpable for having their privacy violated by partners or ex-partners".

When it comes to sexting, Hunt acknowledges that like any sexual practice, engaging in digital sexual practices can cause harm for some young people. 

"Relationships that utilise digital communication can be a site of violence for some young people – overwhelmingly young women," she says. "Moving forward, the key objective of digital sexual cultures harm minimisation education should be educating around giving, seeking and receiving consent, particularly through online or digital interaction. "

The overall aim, Hunt writes, is clear: young people need strategies to reduce harm when engaging in digital sexual cultures, without shame and from an "inclusive and sex-positive" framework. 

Last year, a study of more than 2100 Australian school students found that nearly half of all senior high school students had received a sexually explicit image via text. One in four students had sent a sexually explicit image of themselves, while one in 10 had sent a sexually explicit image of someone else.

Echoing Hunt's sentiments about the nature of sexting, the head of sexual health and young people research at the Burnet Institute, Dr Megan Lim, told Fairfax Media that young people see sexting differently from their parents and the media.

"They really don't think it is as bigger deal as it is portrayed in the media," she said. "They see it as a normal part of dating and getting to know someone – I guess flirting is kind of the best way to describe it."

Read more information on how parents can address sexting with their kids