Generation Sext

Last Updated: 30 Jun 2015
Anna Christensen

With the savvy of adults, but none of the foresight, droves of teens are sending sexy selfies out into the cyberverse. We ask the schoolkids of Perth who’s doing it, what they think about it, and why – or even if – we should care.

Shortly after I graduated high school, almost everybody I knew was bringing it up. "Have you seen the Applecross Girl?" they'd ask. Then, slipping their phone from their pockets, they'd press play.

A girl – fourteen or so, I guessed – was stripping to loud pop, masturbating with a zeal that was almost laughable. But I couldn't laugh. The video spread as viciously and as effortlessly as bushfire, and I could imagine her humiliation, her ragged reputation, her… well, nakedness.

Applecross Girl and her viral sex tape became something of an urban legend. Rumour had it that the girl's boyfriend had bartered the clip for a meat pie, that her principal had forced her to watch it in front of her parents, and that she had promptly moved interstate. Nearly a decade later, when I tell my boyfriend the subject of my current work assignment, he says, 'Ah, like the Applecross Girl'.

But a lot has changed in the intervening years. The percentage of Australian teens using mobile phones grew from 75 per cent in 2007 to almost 90 per cent in 2014. We have became obsessed with documenting ourselves ('selfie' was the Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year in 2013), and the term 'sexting' – used to describe sexy images or text messages sent through mobile devices – has spiked in the media. Apps like Snapchat – which sends images that then vanish like a cloud of dust – have revolutionised the way we think about communication and permanency.

With all this, I wonder if people's attitudes to luckless figures like Applecross Girl will have changed, too...

"I think nearly everyone in my year has [done] or is sexting at the moment," says Schnooby*, a 15-year-old Christ Church Grammar student. Year 12 Penrhos girls Spencer*, Aria* and Emily* estimate a third to half of the girls in their year sext, most frequently sending images through Snapchat. They put the figure for boys at their brother school, Wesley, at more like 99 per cent.

When I talk to the students, I dig for horror stories like Applecross Girl, visualising a scandalous story lead. I reason there must be plenty, with record figures like those, but they just shrug.

"I know of many cases where people have been hurt by pictures being spread around, or people being made fun of," says Schnooby, giving me perverse hope. "But they bounced back much quicker than I would've anticipated, usually in a few days. Reputations were all clear."

Damn. Is sexting – as a teen might type – NBD (that's 'no big deal', for the Luddites)? I'm starting to think so.

Sexting has become so ubiquitous it seems it has all but lost its power to destroy. From coy underwear-clad selfies, to raunchily worded texts, to full-frontal close-ups of genitalia (these are rarer, and usually from the guys), it seems nearly everybody's doing it. If pictures circulate, it's sort of like having your bathers fall down in the surf: embarrassing, but not terminal. Last year, Texan researchers conducted a diverse longitudinal study into the sexting habits of teens, and concluded texting nudie pics is just a common and normal part of adolescent sexual development.

"Sexting does seem to have lost its shock value because of what we see in the media, what's happening with celebrities," confirms Diane McGeachy, a psychotherapist for adolescents at the Cottesloe Counselling Centre. "A lot of the teens I work with say it's seen as common, and accepted among their peers. Adolescents' brains are still developing, which is why they tend to take risks, and not really think about the consequences. They're still trying to develop and figure out who they are. It's about acceptance and connection."

"It's the new kissing behind the bike shed," says Rachel Lee, a lawyer and University of Western Australia honours graduate, who last year wrote her thesis on teen sexting and the law. "Young people rely on technology as an extension of their identity, so they're engaging in what we would think of as normal interactions. But unfortunately they're falling into the scope of child pornography laws."

Say what? Here's a hypothetical snapshot: a fifteen-year-old boy asks his girlfriend, also 15, for a sexy snap. She pouts, points her iPhone camera at her braless chest, maybe copying what she's seen online, and captures the money shot, texting it as promised to her boyfriend. In just that one transaction, three offences have been committed: a request for child pornography, possession of child pornography, and the creation of it (yeah, the legislation doesn't exempt selfies). Then, if the boyfriend sends it to his friend, he's distributing it, and his friend who receives it will possess it. And on it goes.

"The searchability, the visibility, the durability of all those images is like nothing we've ever seen before, which is why it's a very different kind of crime that law enforcement has had to adjust to," says Rachel. "The police have developed their own approach, called the sexting policy, so they're exercising their discretion to not enforce the law in a lot of instances. A lot of it happens behind the scenes."

Just as well. If each case that's reported to the police – usually by anxious parents – was treated to the letter of the law, anyone who committed more than one offence, including those relating to the same image, would end up on the sex offender register.

"It's all about having an appropriate label for sexting, instead of saying these children are committing child pornography offences," Rachel says, "because what does that do to someone who is harmed by sexting? They don't want to report being harmed because they think they've committed an offence by creating it and possessing it."

The teens I interview don't seem fazed when I mention the legal storm brewing around sexting. "Yeah, we had a talk about it at school," they say, sounding bored, before moving on. One admitted, though, that his friend had been sent back to his homeland in Ireland because of an incident in Year 7.

It seems teens are more scared off sexting by seeing high-profile cases play out in the news. "Seeing celebs is the main thing that teaches us that sending nudes is wrong," says Aria. "We can see how many people judge them."

Of course, she's probably referring to female celebrities. When was the last time you saw a George Clooney dick pic circulating on the net? If nothing else, sexting seems to amplify gender double standards. Let's start with the (probably inflated) stats the students gave us on who's sexting: 99 per cent of boys, and maybe 40 per cent of girls. Who are these 40 per cent?

"You know, the girls that get around," says Spencer. "The popular party people."

"They're all, like, really pretty," adds Aria. "They all have a feature that is known, like one girl has really blonde hair and it's amazing. Plus girls who have supermodel bodies, they like to show it off. They go to the most parties, so they know the most guys. They're definitely the most sexually active."

Lucky for the anointed ones: the golden glow of popularity is a safer firewall than locking their devices. "If a popular girl gets photos out, it's not going to affect her," says Aria. "It's like she's safe from public shame. But if it was maybe someone of a lower social status, that can really ruin them."

"Even with a popular girl, it could affect a boy's opinion though," Spencer intervenes. "Sometimes, if they see a girl's nude, they won't go near her for a relationship." A trio of Year 10s from a leading boys' school confirms Spencer's suspicion. "Guys will be respected at school, but girls will be hated on," says James.

"I've had girls approach and ask me to send them nude images through Facebook," says Luke. "I think they're slutty." He adds that he has a friend in the boarding house with a collection of "all the popular girls" stored on his phone.

"It's sad, because it's become like a tradeable thing," says his friend Toby, ruefully. Kind of like X-rated Pokemon cards.

"When a guy has sex, all his friends congratulate him; if a girl has sex, she's a slut," says Aria. "It's the same with sending nudes. The girl is stupid, but the guy is a legend."

Spencer suddenly sounds indignant. "Yeah! We don't do it, because boys spread it around. If we wanted to do it, why couldn't boys just not spread it around?"

A 2013 US study on adolescent sexting – called, tellingly, Damned if you do, damned if you don't… if you're a girl – concluded girls are persistently pressured to sext, but lost out whether they caved to the demands or not: if they did it, they were 'sluts'; if they didn't, they were 'prudes'.

So what's a girl to do? Rebecca Cody, who advises hundreds of teenaged girls in her role as principal at Claremont's Methodist Ladies' College, has some idea. "Even though the technology may be new, working through humanity and the way people choose to interact is old," she says. "To me, it's never about technology, it's about the values people have and the choices they make. We're not here to judge."

MLC takes an education-centred approach – guest speakers, an information-laden curriculum, and assemblies peppered with real-life social media references – while steering clear of scare tactics. "It's natural to experiment and be interested in our bodies, there's nothing wrong with that," says Rebecca. "But I guess the ubiquitous nature of technology tends to normalise things that aren't actually normal: not everyone is doing this. What we want normalised is the talking about it. We don't want it swept under the carpet – if we make mistakes, there's support available."

This goes both ways, of course. "Education is not the responsibility of just the girls and the women," she says. "If we want to see any societal shifts around the way we act, then both genders need to be educated." For the record, we contacted several other local schools, including several all-boy schools, but failed to glean a response.

"I've certainly seen the misuse of social media and the hurt it can cause," Rebecca says. "But I've seen it for adults, as well – let's not just put the focus on the young people. A school is a microcosm of society."

Luke, for one, seems well aware of this. "Mum tells me sexting is bad," he says. "But I think she does it herself. She has lots of boyfriends."

"Everyone was really worried about Snapchat, there was this moral panic," says the mother of a 16-year-old, who would prefer to remain anonymous. "But mums have moved on past freaking out about Snapchat sexting. Now it's [dating app] Tinder we have to worry about." (Speaking of, the Year 10 boys told me it was common practice for boys to source new sexting contacts from the infamous app, so the two are probably linked. Sorry, parents.)

Last year, her daughter had a sexting incident, when provocative shots she sent through Facebook to an older boyfriend were unearthed. "It was more about the guy she was sending to," she says. "I was worried what he would do with it, like if it would end up on revenge porn. But now she's sixteen, she's the age of consent, so there's not really much I can do."

Psychotherapist Diane McGeachy offers concerned parents this advice: "Try not to harp on about the behaviour exclusively. Always look for the meaning behind the behaviour. What is my child needing or trying to attain by doing this?"

Of course, not every parent's fears are warranted. "There was an article in the newspaper about how Snapchat is only used for sending nudes," says Emily. "My mum goes to me, 'Oh my God, you have Snapchat!' and she went off at me. Literally all I send is ugly faces."

"I just take photos of, like, my iced chocolate," says Aria, gesturing to the frothy drink in front of her. "It's quite a new thing, so your parents can't tell you about their experiences and tell you not to do it. They don't really get it." Does she think her parents had an equivalent back in high school? Aria pauses. "Maybe they left, like, nude photos in their lockers. Like Polaroids. Ewww!" she squeals. "That's even worse!"

* Names have been changed. Yes, he requested the name Schnooby. And yes, the Penrhos girls' pseudonyms are characters in the show Pretty Little Liars.

Dealing with exposure

According to Cybersmart, the government agency dedicated to keeping kids safe online, here's what to do if you've sent a naked photo
and lived to regret it.

Stay calm and delete it
If you've sent it to a boyfriend or girlfriend, request that they delete it. If it's on Facebook, un-tag yourself and report it. Recruit trustworthy friends to help you hunt down images, and, if you feel comfortable, tell an adult at school who may be able to instruct students to delete private photos without naming you.

Report it
If someone's posted your pics online, report them to the service they posted it in. If they were posted at school, you can report to a teacher.

Try to relax
Easier said than done, we know, but if the pictures are out, stay calm and don't do anything rash. Call a service like Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) for support.

Tell your parents
It might feel like the last thing you want to do, but it's possible they'll find out another way. Prepare yourself for them to be angry or shocked, so potentially seek the help of another relative (like your sister or auntie) to break the news.

What if the police get involved?
Best to be honest, supplying the details of how the image was made and how it might have been posted. They'll probably want
to know who was involved and who consented, to make sure you and others involved are safe.

Respect yourself,Take care of yourself
Don't torture yourself by looking at the image and reading comments. Distract yourself with your friends and family, and stay positive. Remember, it's happened to plenty of people before you.

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