Last month, just for a change, the Daily Mail put an overly simplified and troublesome headline to a pretty complicated issue. Black and white, left or right journalism once more making out like there’s no grey area. The topic in question? Sexting and sexy selfies.
There’s always moral panic about something isn’t there and, normally, it has something to do with sex, the way we do it, who we do it with and representations of it. Sex, historically, is a fail-safe subject for moral panic and a sense that today’s youth are depraved, that everything’s gone to the dogs.
The Mail’s headline asked: ‘Just why do intelligent middle-class girls send explicit pictures of themselves to boys?’ and reassures them, ‘we investigate the terrifying new trend that has swept Britain.’
Now, first off, the idea that we should suddenly be concerned about sexting because ‘intelligent middle-class girls’ are doing it is a) classist and b) offensive. And, secondly, sexting defintely doesn't qualify as a 'new trend'. Kim Kardashian, for one, has been at it for quite some time and she seems to be doing OK doesn't she? In fact, she looks pretty incredibly in the naked selfie she posted on her Instageam this morning. Regardless of whether it's been edited or not, she looks hot.
Reading the Mail's so-called ‘report’ you’d think that they had just uncovered a new phenomenon in sexting. You’d think that the desire to take sexy pictures of yourself was something that only emerged when Top of The Pops ceased to occupy kids on a Friday night or that the photographic nude is still as novel as Instagram, not something that’s been recorded by humankind with whatever tools they have to hand, on pretty much any surface available whether it be a rockface or a Greco-Roman vase since, well, pretty much the dawn of time.
I grew up in the early 00s - and by grew up I mean went through puberty. We didn’t have smartphones, we had Nokia 3310s. Did this stop us from sexting? Absolutely not. Did this stop us saying things we shouldn’t or didn’t fully understand the meaning of to people via MSN once our parents had gone to bed? No, it did not. Did the lack of camera phones mean that we ever took naked or saucy pictures of ourselves let somebody take them? Nope. In fact I can remember one particular instance when a girl in my science class took some pictures of herself on a polaroid camera and they ended up in the wrong hands.
I also remember staying up past my bedtime once to watch ER, there was a scene where one of the young female doctors was taking pictures of herself in her underwear to send to a boyfriend in another country.
Did anybody watch Titanic? Do you remember the scene where 18 year old rose gets naked for a baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio and lies, provocatively, wearing nothing but diamonds while he sketches her?
Young people haven’t changed. The desire to take selfies, naked or clothed, is nothing new. The technology, which makes it easier to take and share such images today, came about because technology evolves to facilitate habits we already have and activities we already partake in. The selfie stick is testament to this.
In the Mail article they not only interview boys and girls in their late teens about the pictures they’ve sent of their own volition or felt pressured to send but also quote Andy Phippen, who they cite as Plymouth University’s ‘Professor of Social Responsibility’, indeed, he himself points out,
‘Teenagers have always wanted to explore their sexuality, and technology has simply enabled them to do it more easily. But playing Devil’s Advocate, why would they not?’
Teenagers haven’t changed. Technology has moved forwards and what hasn’t caught up is the sex education we provide young people with in schools. When I was a teenager chat rooms and forums were the thing, people you’d never met would want to have cyber sex with you using acronyms (so sexy). Was this ever mentioned in a PSHE lesson? No, it was not.
As things stand today, despite the moral panic around it, sexting does not feature in the National Curriculum. The government knows this, Nicky Morgan, the current Secretary of State for Education, said before Christmas that a ‘curriculum for life’ was needed, dealing with things like sexting and pornography. Incidentally, online pornography doesn’t feature either.
The legal system in the country seems to have caught on and got itself up to date, leaving our education system lagging behind when it comes to growing up, sexuality and online life. Last year revenge porn was made a legal offence, meaning that we’re making sure that people who do share naked, semi naked or explicit images of themselves during a relationship, however, brief, are protected should that relationship sour.
Of course, when it’s done with negative intentions or received by somebody with negative intentions sexting can be harmful, hurtful and, also, a breach of civil law. Sending and distributing ‘indecent pictures’ of under 18 year olds is illegal in this country. So it’s right that people of all ages are now also legally protected, and it’s time that our schools caught up. The NSPCC have previously reported that six out of ten teenagers have been asked for sexual images or videos and last year the National Crime Agency reported that sexting had become the norm for teens in the UK.
It’s worrying that some young people feel pressured into sending naked pictures, or feel that it’s a non negotiable part of courting, and that should be addressed. But, you certainly don’t need to go to a trend forecasting agency to be told that teenagers are experimenting with their sexuality and using their phones to do it. Young people will use any device available with them to explore their body. Hands up if you ever used a hand mirror or compact the check out your vagina? If you’ve ever taken a naked selfie just to see what you look like naked from different angle? Why shouldn’t people exchange sexy pics, under the right circumstances, with the right information about the implications of doing it and a code of conduct instilled in them about how to treat the images they receive (i.e. with care and compassion)?
Once again, it comes down to consent; to an understanding of consent as something which can be given, in good faith, and also withdrawn. Last year a German court ruled that a man, who had several sexual pictures of his girlfriend, taken during sex, had to delete them from his phone after the broke up. In a landmark verdict the country’s highest court, the Bundesgerichtshof, decided that although the woman had consented to the pictures and even taken some of them herself, her ex did not have the right to keep them because her consent was effectively withdrawn with the ending of their relationship.
Beyond this, why does the naked body, something we all have in common under our clothes, still inspire so much shame and fear in us? Isn’t the ultimate nightmare still the one where you have to give a speech in front of loads of people and you realise you’re not wearing any clothes? It’s even embedded in one of the oldest stories of all time – men and women were naked, they lived happily without clothes in the Garden of Eden and then, the apple fell from the tree, because Eve was tempted by Satan and humankind was, henceforth, condemned to be ashamed of their natural form, the original sin, for all time and cover it up with clothes.
Why does sex, again, one of the few pastimes we all have in common cause so much anxiety and panic? We’re all worried that we look weird naked, different to other people and that we’re no good or doing it wrong.
When all’s said and done though doesn’t nudity enlighten us? Doesn’t it remind us that human beings come in all shapes and sizes? Doesn’t it comfort us, don’t you check out the woman who strolls around in the buff in your gym changing room and heave a sigh of relief and think ’hey I’m not all that different to her’.
Today we live in a world where shame and anxiety are attached to our bodies by marketers, adverstisers, and journalists, the way tabloids report about celebrities and scrutinise their bodies is still seen as fair game. We live in fear – whether that’s having boobs that are too big/too saggy/too small, not having a flat stomach, being too skinny, not being skinny enough, having too much body hair, not having enough, having a spot of cellulite, being too pale, not being pale enough…the list goes on.
We also live in a particularly prudish country, I’m no nudist but, I have to say, on holiday in Iceland recently there was something quite freeing about going to the public baths and seeing how relaxed all of the other women in the changing rooms were about showing their bodies. It wasn’t even a thing. Nobody was struggling to perform the ‘knicker trick’ and falling over in the process in order to ‘preserve their modesty’, whatever that means.
Perhaps not when you’re 14 and some spotty adolescent boy is showing the other boys in the playground a picture of your boobs, but certainly as you continue to understand yourself and explore your sexuality throughout your life, can nudity, nude photos and the odd sexy pic be the ultimate test of self-acceptance? Surely it doesn't get much 'classier' than that.
Rather than writing scare-pieces about how immoral ‘middle class girls’ have become, shouldn’t we really be telling teenagers that we can report back from the other side of puberty and, the truth is, everyone looks a bit weird naked and there’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
As one user has commented on Kim's latest offering, 'boobs are just boobs fam, stop acting like it's the end of the world.'
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.