How to Talk to Your Kids About Sexting, Rape, and Other Teenage Disasters

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
May 1 2013 10:53 AM

The Sext Talk

What to say to your kids so they’ll never end up in a Steubenville-like disaster.

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Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, another classic from 2002, pointed out that in cases where boys and girls dispute whether sex was rape, the community often doubts the girl. She doesn’t get sympathy because she’s a target. “The girls are sluts until the moment they kill themselves—then they’re victims,” she said. “The challenge is to help boys and girls understand the politics of slut-shaming and how gender norms lead to gender-based violence. Teenagers have to be able to stop in the moment and say, ‘That girl who everyone calling a slut, I learned something about who gets called that and how that supports ideas about masculinity and femininity I’m not going to buy into anymore.’ ”

That’s the longish version. There are also various decision points that call out for a media campaign—well-designed public service announcements with slogans pointing kids toward right-thinking actions. Along those lines, here’s a short video that Craig Stevens, school psychologist at Germantown Friends School (my alma mater), pointed me to. It shows a boy making a smart choice when he sees a girl splayed on a couch by giving her a blanket. Nothing fancy, just quick and concrete. (Another illustration: On the show Friday Night Lights, the football player Tim did a version of this for Julie, the coach’s daughter.)

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Stevens thinks teenagers would also benefit from a slogan like “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” that would push kids to designate a buddy when they go out for the night. (Something like, “Friends don’t let friends pass out and then leave them on the couch”?) And another one to encourage them to ask another person if they see something that could be disturbing but isn’t entirely clear. “Maybe you start by getting a second opinion,” he said. “Having the conversation creates a feeling of responsibility. It’s in between ignoring and intervening. Then if the other person agrees there’s reason to worry, you do more.”

Doing more doesn’t have to mean calling an adult, even if that’s the advice we reflexively tend to give kids. “Here’s a brilliant phrase for a fraught moment: ‘Oh, your mom’s calling you,’ ” Wiseman suggested. It’s made up, and “it’s the distraction technique. At that initial point when a friend or someone else is about to go in the wrong direction, you get them away from the group dynamic. That’s a really good thing about cellphones. You can say, ‘My mom just texted me, and your mom is looking for you.’ Or it can be a friend who isn’t there.”

Simmons and I started dreaming up a PSA about a shaming photo that’s circulating. “I think we need to reframe how to understand the act of forwarding,” she said. “It’s easy to fall into a crowd mentality and to think that when you forward something, you’re just part of a jet stream that already has its own momentum. But the fact is in that moment you’re being an active aggressor. Whereas if you delete or don’t forward, that’s doing something.” Stevens went further: “The right response is: ‘I don’t want this.’ You refuse the image and by saying that, you hold the person responsible. And you’re also embracing the victim.” Maybe the slogan is something simple like: “Delete it!”

The best messaging, of course, would come from teenagers themselves. Is there an app that could help here, too—not one that unwittingly helps a damaging photo go viral, obviously, but a way to recruit other people to help when sexting goes bad? Not SnapChat, which makes photos disappear seconds after you send them, but an app that rallies people. I’m not sure how that would work, but I’d love to see someone take a stab at it. Send ideas and resources to emilybazelon@gmail.com, and I’ll write more if good ones come in. Email may be quoted in Slate unless you stipulate otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let me know.

Correction, May 1, 2013: This article originally misspelled the name of the book Queen Bees and Wannabes.

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