Sexting, Snapchat And The New Moral Panic

Studies have found that only 1% of teenagers have actually 'sexted'. So why are we having this conversation?

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This week saw the publication of The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving A Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled and Confused About Intimacy. Written by Donna Freitas, the book argues that contemporary society is creating “a generation who doesn’t know how to foster an awareness of human dignity at their parties and in their sexual decision-making.” But while she makes the occasional interesting point in an attempt to ignite an important discussion, mostly what The End of Sex does is fuel a lot of panic-mongering. Because there’s nothing that causes quite so much pearl-clutching as how the kids are having sex these days.

Is Your Child A Porn Star In Training? (Probably Not.)

Remember a few months ago, when the media discovered Snapchat? Currently the third most popular app on the iTunes store, Snapchat is the Mission: Impossible of image-sharing apps: the pictures or videos self-destruct after ten seconds. When you receive a message on Snapchat it comes with a clock. Once the clock counts down to zero the image disappears from the phone. Which is handy if you want to send no-strings-attached smut.

Nobody was much interested in talking about Snapchat in terms of its technological innovation. No; it was about the ways that Snapchat reportedly enabled ‘sexting’. And as everybody knows, kids today are all about the sexting. And the swearing and the Facebook and the rap music.

And lo, the reactions to the ‘sexting phenomenon’ have mostly consisted of moral panic. ACMA proffers the following advice to teenagers: “There’s no such thing as safe sexting, even if you think you can trust your current boyfriend or girlfriend.” Much like the stern policeman counselling the wayward sweetheart caught in a spot of petty theft, they warn that the images could come back to haunt you, or that you may be making yourself an inadvertent child pornographer.

‘Let’s Be Reasonable About This’, And Other Things You’ll Never Hear In A Moral Panic

Now, let’s not be coy: sex is the topic which most occupies our minds. If you’re not thinking about sex you’re thinking about food, or sleep, or your impending demise, and I grant you that while there might be a stray profound thought which flits across your mind, mostly you’re thinking about sex. And that’s part of the issue.

Social panics about young people and sex are an expression of a collective anxiety. If the current affairs programs on any of our esteemed commercial networks are to be believed, Australia’s young people are a bunch of over-privileged, binge drinking, narcissistic time wasters – the boys a collection of punch-happy hooligans in skinny jeans, and the girls a coven of loose-legged floozies – who don’t contribute to the economy, don’t know how to spell, and never move out of home.

Those of advanced years don’t know precisely what young people are doing, but they strongly suspect it to be both dangerous and wrong. All this ‘sexting’ and ‘hooking-up’ and the inexplicable popularity of flatform shoes are things they have trouble understanding. And when you add society’s general preoccupation with sex to the unexplored terrains of digital media and technology, what’s new begins to seem particularly disturbing.

People forget that sex has always been instrumental in the production and promotion of technology. Early photographic studios paid their rent by selling photos of naked ladies; the popularity of the VCR was largely due to the ease with which you could watch porn in the comfort of your own lounge room; and, as we all know, the internet is one giant vortex engineered for vice. Faster modems, video streaming and online payments were all developed because people very much enjoy looking at other naked people.

Towards A Defence Of Sexting

The thing is, studies have found that only 1% of teenagers have actually ‘sexted’. Previously, one study had reported the number to be around 20%, a numerical discrepancy accounted for when it turned out the researchers had included people in their early 20s in the study. The lesson to be learnt is that it’s not actually 14-year-olds who are sending smutty pictures. It’s people like me.

As a teenager, I never sent anybody naked pictures. I wasn’t that kind of teenager. While other girls were discovering boys and vomiting up Smirnoff Blacks in the bushes, I was in the art rooms reading Franny & Zooey and hiding behind my hair. But I grew up, and I now have a solid history of semi-respectable debauchery behind me. And when I think of all my excesses, the many compromising images of myself my ex-boyfriend has in his possession rarely cross my mind. Occasionally, of course, things can go awry. If you’ve ever seen a revenge porn website you may well have had the same reaction as me – the will to have somebody make you a cup of tea, and then pour a whiskey into it. These sites feature innocuous photos of women pulled from Facebook alongside their full names and explicit sexts their former sweethearts decided to share with the world.

But the fact that this is exceptionally rare is never mentioned. More frequently, what you hear is that this will happen, and that the experience will be both monolithic and axiomatically damaging. If you’re a women in particular, what you hear is that if your boyfriend has a compromising picture of you it will be shared, your reputation will be sullied, and then you will die jobless, unloved and alone in a damp bedsit with frizzy hair and itchy socks (in a manner of speaking). And all this catastrophising achieves is the production of unhappiness, confusion and hypocrisy, as if we had no choice or agency in our own sexual experiences. For someone like me, sexting was a positive part of my relationship, and all the aspersions on my ‘reputation’ didn’t, and still don’t, bother me. In 20 years time, the chances are high that all of us will have compromising pictures floating in the ether, and the panic about ‘sexting’ will have gone the same way as bobbysoxers and Elvis’ pelvis. As American sex columnist Dan Savage points out, “it’s a generational paranoia, because young people are doing something that old people didn’t – because they couldn’t – and can’t now, because no one wants to see them naked.”

The thing is, technologies that facilitate sex also facilitate sexism, harassment and general douchebaggery. Snapchat isn’t alone in this: for instance, there’s always the possibility that somebody could take a screen-shot, which you will be notified of, but won’t be able to do too much about. Part of being an adult is about making decisions while being mindful of the potential consequences. In the same way that you risk being hit by a car every time you cross the street, you risk savagery when you have a sex life. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, only that you should be mindful of the risks. Very rarely, if you’re unlucky, your foot will get run over and it’ll fucking hurt. Most of the time everything will be all right.

And that leads me back to what’s really worth talking about when it comes to Snapchat. When your life’s story is locked forever in the infinite archive of cyberspace and every drunken Facebook post can cost you a job interview and every time you ‘like’ something an advertiser earns a shiny penny, Snapchat says ‘fuck it.’ You can be as reckless as you want, and take as many pictures of your glorious naked form as you wish, safe in the knowledge that, this time, there will be nothing ‘coming back to haunt you.’ (But: beware of the screenshot.)

Madeleine Watts is a Sydney-based writer. She is a regular contributor to Concrete Playground and Broadsheet Sydney. 

Illustration by Matt Roden.