Earlier this week, I was reading the Boston Globe over lunch at work and I happened to find this interview with Andrew Harris, assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology (UMass-Lowell), about the sexually-explicit online and cellular behavior of adolescents.
Some of what he had to say was, I thought, fairly insightful. For example:
Q. Statistics on teen sexting run from 15 percent to 33 percent or higher. What figures do you use?
A. Again, it depends on the definition. What struck me about one survey was how common a dating practice this is among the 20-25 age group. If this is normative behavior for young adults, and teens do things at an earlier age than their parents would like, it makes sense they’re behaving like this at 16 rather than 19.
However, other sections were rife with frustrating assumptions. Take for example, this exchange:
Q. Do you see a double standard applied to girls and boys?
A. Kids know that when a boy sends something unsolicited to a girl it’s received very differently from a girl sending it to a boy. As a parent, I know that if my teenage daughter got an explicit picture from a boy, she’d be grossed out. But a boy getting one might be sharing it with his friends. We need that contextual perspective.
So I have no experience with this. I didn’t date as a teenager, and the closest I got to “sexting” was some extremely soul-searching negotiations in hand-written letters with a gay male friend of mine. We decided by mutual agreement that the sexytimes were just not a good idea. And we’re still good friends. Someday when we’re rich and famous, maybe, we’ll publish the collected correspondence … but until that point, my adolescent struggles are in no danger of being made public. And they never were.
But as a woman who was once a teenage girl, I’m struck by the assumption in Harris’ comment that adolescent girls, girls who are presumably straight or have some measure of fluidity, or (hell, let’s just say it) THINK BOYS ARE HOT would be “grossed out” by receiving sexually explicit text or visual material from their significant others. While boys are eagerly (and, the implication is, callously) “sharing” with friends.
I have to say, from experience in the field of adolescent life, teenage girls absolutely swap stories of sexual experimentation with their platonic friends … and boys can often be private and shy about their sexuality. So when someone starts talking about how girls are going to be repulsed and shamed by sexually-explicit material while guys are going to turn it into a locker room joke, I’m a wee bit skeptical. Not that it never happens … but that it is the dominant experience of teenagers.
And, more importantly, that the behaviors and attitudes break down this simplistically along gender lines. (The assumption in the piece is heterosexual relationships; he doesn’t get into same-sex couples and whether their behavior is different …. oh, now I’m curious about that data!)
I’m frustrated by the lack of analysis concerning why it might break down along gender lines, if indeed it does. Why would girls who lust after male bodies be horrified at recieving sexually-explicit materials? Oh … maybe because “nice girls don’t”? Why would boys who might prefer to keep their sexual experiences private fling caution to the wind? Oh … maybe because “real men” gain homosocial stature through talking up heterosexual exploits?
Nah … it’s just the way girls and boys are. Argh. Unpack your assumptions please! And interrogate your findings!