The saddest story to appear in these pages in many weeks was Jan. 28th’s “A ‘Sextortion’ Case Reveals Silent Crisis for Teens.” If you missed it, here is a brief recap: a young teenage girl in Eastham was persuaded to act in a sexual manner and to be recorded doing so. Months later, the persuader turned into an extortionist, threatening to post the images online if he was not paid. The girl, after attempting unsuccessfully to deal with the situation herself, went to the police. (A small bright spot in this story is that the girl, who could not bear to involve her parents, teachers, or guidance counselors, did have trust in her local police.) Officers made an arrest, and it appears the girl will escape the worst of outcomes.
I can only imagine the terror and anguish this girl felt.
We have all acted foolishly (well, I have, anyway), but most of us have escaped real consequences. The distinction that this sad story highlights to me is that, in my day, we acted in real time and space, whereas now “…the real world blurs with the virtual one…,” as Josephine de La Bruyère’s well-written article puts it.
This is exactly where my incomprehension comes in, on this side of a drastic digital divide. I am not exactly a Luddite: my smart phone is a part of my life; I email and text and do Facebook and FaceTime and Zoom, and more, ad nauseam. But these are not now and never will be second-nature to me. I see even my seven-year-old granddaughter more at ease with technology than I am, and my teenage grandchildren are off and running, often giving me tips to enhance my electronic participation and performance.
Bottom line: I live in the here and now and that is what feels real. When I venture online I feel an artificiality that I can’t ignore. Some of my Facebook “friends” are actually friends; others seem to be nice people — but they are at a remove. There is no “blur.”
This, to me, is the divide: that young people could be so comfortable with a phone or laptop to use it as a means to express their sexuality. That they would venture unclothed, as it were, into the ether, to trustingly put themselves at the mercy of an eyeless electronic void, a universe that defies time and space, that exists indefinitely, that does not go away — as far as we know — ever. To be naked is in essence to be vulnerable; this can be an important element of a trusting relationship, even a temporary one. But to be vulnerable to the void is another matter.
I am not condemning the practice of sexting as much as I am simply trying to understand it. And I am not sure that I ever will. The extremely positive aspects of sexuality and sexual expression enhance the experience of living, and are to be cherished always. But shouldn’t people be in the same room?
Growing old is a strange business. Becoming a fuddy-duddy is a gradual process. One does not even realize that it has happened until he stubs his toe on a sentence (from the article) like this one: “Abstinence-only sexting education … makes it more difficult for teens to distinguish safe sexting situations from risky ones….”
Is there “a safe sexting situation” for a teenager?