Friday, September 24, 2010

Sex negativity considered harmful, but to whom?

For all our capacity for compassion, we humans can be rather bloody rotten to each other. It shouldn't be surprising that this duality is apparent in children as well. Indeed, it's disturbing to read this story on Salon about how a video of a teenage girl being raped was shared via the Internet by other teenagers. The rape of any person is a tragedy and an outrage; the continuing exploitation of a victim in such a manner nearly defies description.

The reason I bring this article up, however, is because of something far more subtle and insidious [emphasis mine]:
This is the typical predicament law enforcement faces when it comes to online child pornography: Once it's out there, it's usually out there for good. The digital trail is just too difficult to trace. We've seen a similar thing with teen "sexting." A boyfriend gets angry when his girlfriend breaks up with him, so he texts a naked photo of her to all his buddies, they send it to all their buddies, and so on and so forth. In the end, it's hard to know just how many people have seen the image and where it's ended up.
If that paragraph doesn't strike you as deeply wrong, then I suggest giving it another read through. How else other than "deeply wrong" is one supposed to describe the comparison between a brutal rape, child pornography and the fully consensual exchange of suggestive pictures between children. This latter phenomenon can go sour indeed when the relationship between two children changes, and can lead to abusive situations, but that's not what the neologism "sexting" refers to.

By equating the consensual activity to which "sexting" refers with the form of abuse described, the author communicates a decidedly sex-negative position, objecting to the very presence of sexuality in the lives of teenage children. I suspect that this is unintended, or a product of miscommunication and misunderstanding, but it is a common enough position to take that it's worth discussing, to be sure.

Many others have described much more eloquently than I ever could how sex-negativity such as the anti-porn movement harms adults, but children undeniably suffer as well. Even beyond the direct consequences, sex-negativity can tie into other problems, such as sexism, leading to young girls being shamed for engaging in a very natural aspect of human experience.

Perhaps more disturbing is that sex-negative motivated approaches to education leave children ill-informed about their own sexuality, leading them to engage in riskier behavior. Indeed, children often live in a virtual sexual Prohibition, so should we be surprised to find them drinking of moonshine? That this approach of keeping children in the dark is also being applied to higher education by sex-negative advocates is something that we should find very disturbing.

There's another way, however, of dealing with the complexities and problems inherent in teenage sexual relations: treat children as competent, but in need of education. Don't hide them from the complexities of sex, and don't fall into the trap of well-meaning but sex-negative approaches to education. I am glad to see that even a state like Alaska can work towards implementing sex and relationship education programs that deal with such complexities. Rather than engaging in the kind of sex-negativity which so harms adults and children alike by teaching them to be ashamed of their own sexuality, harm reduction based education starts from the radical view that children are people, too.


Saver Queen said...

Excellent post; I agree 100%. It is appalling that rape be contrasted to consensual sexual behaviour, even among children, and although the author was probably trying to make a point about how difficult it is to track images transmitted through the aids of modern technology, it diminishes the significance of rape and the magnitude of this kind of violence. Like you say, it is sex negative because it confuses two very different issues, problematizing consensual acts in ways the author shouldn't.

Also like you say, the risks and consequences of sex-negativity are many and they include a proven increase in risky sexual behaviour on behalf of youth, which is fundamental, because although I could wax poetic about how sex negativity has harmed women and LGBTQQI2S peoples, the very simplest counter-argument to sex negativity is higher transmission rates for HIV and other STIs.

S.C. Kavassalis said...

This is a really excellent post; thank you for writing it. It is absolutely baffling to me how the conservative side of society can compare "sexting" and pornography to rape so casually. The complete disrespect for women and misunderstanding for sexuality that it expresses is really disappointing.