“YOUTH is subjected by our civilization to aggressive sex stimuli and suggestiveness oozing from every pore.” So declared the education professor Clark Hetherington in 1914, condemning the proliferation of racy movies and tell-all magazines. Lest adolescents succumb to the “indulgence” on display, he wrote, schools needed to teach “self-control” and “higher standards.”
Sound familiar? For the past century, we’ve been worrying that new forms of media are fostering sexual immorality in the young. And we’ve called upon our schools to stem the evil tide. Witness the recent “sexting” revelations at Cañon City High School in Colorado, where it is reported that 100 students traded naked pictures of themselves and one another. As the story went viral, critics have inevitably asked why the school hadn’t done more to educate students about sexting.
The schools are an easy target, but the wrong one. Public ambivalence about youth sexuality limits what the schools can do, nor do we have strong evidence that schools can affect teenagers’ behavior, in any event. And it’s hardly certain that youth sexting is the dangerous scourge that most adults imagine.
Let’s be clear: There are serious risks associated with teen sexting, including bullying and exposure to adult sexual predators. And we know that kids who sext are more likely to have sex than those who don’t. But beyond that, nobody has ever shown that the sexting induces kids to engage in riskier behavior. In a 2012 study of seven high schools in Texas, 28 percent of sophomores and juniors admitted that they had sent a naked picture of themselves over text or email. But these teenagers were no more likely than their nonsexting peers to engage in other risky sexual behaviors, like unprotected intercourse, alcohol or drug use before sex, or sex with multiple partners.
Nor do all sexting teenagers experience trauma or bullying, as popular reports suggest. Many teenagers regard sexting as a normal part of courtship — as necking in the car was for earlier generations. Back then, of course, what happened in the back seat stayed there and wasn’t splayed across the Internet.
What hasn’t changed is our reliance on schools, which have been called upon once again to clean up a perceived sexual crisis. In Texas, the “Before You Text” program warns students that sexting can yield “embarrassment, humiliation, fear, and betrayal.” A curriculum used in the Miami-Dade County public schools declares flatly, “Safe Sexting, No Such Thing.” But our kids already know that sexting can be embarrassing and humiliating, in certain situations. And they also know that it can be perfectly innocuous in others, as when a romantic couple shares intimate photos and deletes them right afterward.
What they need is someone to help them sort out which is which. And that is something our schools probably can’t do. A curriculum that honestly appraised the risks of sexting would draw fire from parents and politicians who think adolescents should simply abstain from sexting (and, for that matter, from sex). Surveys have repeatedly shown that most parents favor sex education in our schools, but they also differ sharply about what the subject should contain. So the safest course for school officials is to focus on so-called plumbing lessons and to avoid anything controversial. And even frank sex education in schools might not make much difference in the lives of our teenagers, who have always drawn their sexual knowledge more from the hated mass media than from their teachers.
That was certainly the case in the 1920s, at the dawn of modern Hollywood, when educators worried that students were taking their sexual cues from movie stars. With the rise of pornography and sexually explicit rock ’n’ roll lyrics in the 1960s and ’70s, schools again struggled in vain to impose order on world that seemed to be spinning out of control. “A 12-minute filmstrip is hardly a match for two years of ‘R’-rated films every weekend,” the director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals admitted in 1981, adding that “schools are a puny David without even a slingshot against the media Goliath.”
So how should we address the issue of sexting? What if we tried to meet the kids where they are? The most promising sex education initiatives right now are text-messaging services, which allow teenagers to submit questions anonymously and receive informed answers. In North Carolina and Texas, these services are operated by public health departments; others are run by organizations like Planned Parenthood. And they’re catching on quickly among teenagers, especially among those whom researchers believe are at the greatest risk. In Washington, a study of a statewide text-messaging program that connects kids to trained health educators found that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to use the service than other kids were.
So the best answer to sexual text messages probably lies in … other text messages. Parents, not schools, should be our primary sex educators, of course. But most of them grew up in a time well before sexting, so they’d be wise to introduce their children to a more up-to-date source. Instead of relying on David’s meager public-school slingshot, let’s look to the media Goliath’s most powerful club. It’s called a smartphone, and it got us to this crisis. It’s also our best hope for moving to a better place.