How should schools handle sexting? Not like they are now, Denver professor says

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Amy Adele Hasinoff, assistant professor of communications at the University of Colorado Denver. (Courtesy of Chalkbeat)

Amy Adele Hasinoff, assistant professor of communications at the University of Colorado Denver. (Courtesy of Chalkbeat)

By Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat 

The idea that it might be all right for teens to share sexually explicit cell phone photos is not exactly a commonly expressed belief.

Yet that is one of the arguments Amy Adele Hasinoff, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Colorado Denver, lays out in her 2015 book, “Sexting Panic.”

As long as the sharing of the pictures is consensual, Hasinoff doesn’t see sexting as the big problem it’s made out to be.

“We have to accept that teens are sexting,” she said. “When we get into 16- and 17-year-olds, 30 percent of them are sexting.”

The real problem with teen sexting, she says, is the tendency to blame the victim when sexts are shared without permission.

Chalkbeat sat down with Hasinoff to discuss how teen sexting should be addressed by the legal system, schools and parents. She also provides tips for parents and educators on her web page.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book is called “Sexting Panic.” Who is doing the panicking?

Everyone is doing the panicking. Parents, teachers, legislators, prosecutors, school principals…I’m not sure if teens are panicking.

The root of the panic is totally legitimate because people can harm each other with technology in completely new ways, which are at the same time very similar to the ways they could harm each other before. Adults are panicking because it’s newly visible to them.

Maybe before cell phones, if an intimate partner broke your trust, you might just be called a slut by everyone at school. It’s likely that adults would never find out about it.

But now with sexting, the same kind of thing happens, someone violates someone’s trust, and instead of them getting called a slut, they also have this photo circulating, which also leads to more harassment problems in the school and the parents and the teachers can find out about it because there’s this physical evidence.

But you argue that as a society, we’re focusing on the wrong culprit when sexting comes to light?

The problem is that people are going back to the victim of that violation and saying, “You shouldn’t have been sexting.” But what I think people need to focus on instead is the violation, and not the victim’s behavior.

Now, we’re saying, “You should have known better” or “Why did you trust that guy?” and that’s like saying to a rape victim, “Why were you out past midnight?”

I think most of us know that that’s a ridiculous thing to say. Being out past midnight doesn’t mean you should get raped.

A lot of adults panic about teen sexting because they’re focusing on this new technology, but what they’re forgetting is this is a broader societal problem with domestic violence and sexual assault. And I would put (sexting-related) violations of privacy in that category. It’s a form of intimate partner violence. I think we need to take it very seriously.

Right now teen sexters are often charged under child pornography laws and can end up on sexual offender registries. Why do you argue for the decriminalization of consensual teen sexting?

The main reason is because when sexting is a crime, it’s a crime for the victim and the perpetrator. That’s the problem with those laws. It criminalizes the victim and it shames the victim.

It’s like making dating illegal to try to prevent sexual violence. So saying, “Dating is just dangerous because a certain percentage of people will be sexually assaulted by their dates…Let’s just make dating illegal so we can stop this problem of date rape.”

That doesn’t make any sense.

Are there other problems with current laws on sexting?

Parents who are upset about who their kid is dating can use these laws against their kid. So, if you’re a parent and your kid is gay and you’re not happy about that, you can pick up their phone and look at their images and you can submit that as evidence to police.

There’s all of these racial and gender dynamics that go into it. It becomes a tool for parents to express their prejudices.

What did you think about last year’s proposed law that would have made sexting a misdemeanor in Colorado?

I was not in support of it. It was going to be pretty similar to laws that have passed in other states but I think those laws are the wrong approach. They’re very similar to child pornography laws in that the victim and the perpetrator are committing the same crime.

(Colorado’s proposed law) criminalized consensual sexting.

They were arguing it would protect teens because (it would make sexting) a misdemeanor and child pornography is a felony. They still want to send a message that sexting is wrong, dangerous and illegal and you shouldn’t do it.

How did Colorado’s legal landscape around sexting pan out in the high-profile teen sexting episode in Canon City schools last year?

In Canon City, the prosecutors probably would have loved to charge everyone with a misdemeanor. So what ended up happening is they didn’t charge anyone because child porn laws are too harsh. Had they had the option for a misdemeanor, my guess is victims, perpetrators and bystanders would have all been charged indiscriminately.

The only reason no one got charged is because they’re like, “Oh felony. That’s crazy. We can’t charge everyone with a felony.”

What kinds of policies should schools have about sexting?

The policies that I’ve seen that are written and available are like, “Don’t sext. Don’t go online. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Don’t participate.”

But you can’t really stop (students) from participating, whether that’s sexting, posting a blog, being on social media. This abstinence approach to technology is just not going to work.

It doesn’t really help anyone to say, “You can’t sext” because you have that victim-blaming problem. If I’m the victim of a privacy violation, why would I go talk to the counselor or principal about that violation if I know that I not only violated the law, but I violated the school’s technology policy or cell phone policy? I’m going to hide my injury.

I don’t think you need a policy saying, “Don’t sext.” It’s already illegal. Just have policies that address the harm that can happen—the privacy violations, the harassment.

How does sexting usually pan out?

Your nightmare scenario that your photo ends up online publicly is actually very rare.

Lots of people sext and nothing goes wrong. As a teacher or parent, if your kids are sexting and nothing goes wrong, you’re not going to know about it…They’re not going to say “Oh we sexted and nothing happened. It was fun. We were flirting and then he deleted the photos and I deleted the photos and now we’re broken up and everything’s fine.”

You’re never going to hear that story. You’re going to hear the story of someone violating someone’s privacy.

What else do schools need to do?

You have to design your school climate and community knowing that sexual harassment and sexual assault are going to happen and you should try to find ways to get students and teachers talking and thinking about that before it happens.

If 30 percent of your kids are sexting and research is showing that between 10 and 20 percent of those will experience a privacy violation, it’s happening at your school. The question is do you want to be reactive or proactive?
If you want to be proactive, you need to deal with slut shaming, rape myths, bullying and harassment.

Best-case scenario. You look at sexting and say “This is a problem. Where did it come from?” Let’s start there. Let’s have one session a month where we talk about slut shaming with the students and work on ways to fight that. That’s something that everyone participates in—girls and boys and teachers and principals.

What kinds of educational programs take a proactive approach to sexual violence and harassment?

One program — “Coaching Boys into Men” — focuses on athletes because often, not always, male-only athletic spaces can become very sexist very quickly. This program focuses on coaches as mentors and they deliver this sort of re-education: “Let’s think about gender norms, let’s dismantle these rape myths, let’s get away from slut-shaming.”

I don’t think a school needs an anti-sexting program. What they need is sexual assault prevention that’s evidenced-based and that works.

What message would you give a teenage relative about sexting?

The advice for sexting is the same advice for having sex: Think about who you can trust.

Figuring out who you can trust…that’s an ongoing project for all of us. It’s not unique to teenagers. If parents are wondering what to talk about with their teens, that’s one thing.

Also, you have to learn how to negotiate consent. You don’t want to be violating someone’s privacy, but you also don’t want to be sending someone a photo they don’t want. So, just like you shouldn’t kiss someone without figuring out that they want you to kiss them. You shouldn’t send someone a (sext) without figuring out that they actually want that. That consent thing is so important especially when you’re starting a new relationship.

Are there parallels between teen sexting and earlier trends that had adults similarly alarmed?

(With) every new media technology, there’s been a panic about girls and sex.

Ten years ago, we were panicking about online predators and girls blogging and posting stuff on social media. The panic about online predators was completely overblown because statistically, you’re going to be harmed by someone you know.

The online predator myth was this idea that predators would see girls online…and would then stalk these girls and assault them in real life, which has happened, but is really uncommon.

Our solution to that in 2005 were these girl power self-esteem campaigns that were like, “Don’t post your address online. Don’t post your photo online.” They would have advice like “Have a gender neutral screen name.”

So that’s our solution to violence against women? Like, “We can’t help you, just hide.” That’s really depressing to me.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.