The first day of my freshman year of high school in 1992, the most popular guy in the junior class walked up to my locker. Jeff* was the quarterback, an all-star tennis player and he wanted to know my name.
I was the new girl, petite and pretty with a thin veil of confidence that could be easily lifted. He smiled and introduced himself and immediately started to work his magic on me. We started dating shortly after. He was my first real boyfriend.
My loving yet strict parents weren’t thrilled with the idea of their 14-year-old daughter dating a 16-year-old. For the most part, I followed their rules. We couldn’t talk on the phone past 9 pm. I wasn’t allowed in his car (a black Mustang that was so freaking cool!). For our first date, his parents picked me up in their minivan along with Jeff’s twin little brothers.
But even with no cell phones and no internet, I managed to create a sneaky plan to take a 2 ½ hour road trip with the junior and his cool friends. When we arrived, there was a message from my mother on our hotel phone that said she knew where I was and to get home immediately. He broke up with me the next day.
I was desperate for attention
The author at age 14.
I would have done anything for Jeff, including lying to my parents to be with him.
I wanted him to love me, and I didn’t have the confidence to say no. Just like the time when he kissed me and then wanted more – I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I did what he wanted.
If cell phones had been around and he’d asked me for nude photos, I know I would have sent them. I was a smart girl from a stable, loving home with attentive parents – and yet I didn’t have the confidence to say no because I was desperate for attention.
Today, I am a confident, bold, grown-ass woman. I don’t mince words or play games, especially when it comes to dating or relationships. It’s taken maturity, time, therapy, becoming a mother and getting a divorce to fully realize my confidence and the power of the word no.
Why don’t we warn teens about asking for nudes?
But teenage girls today don’t have the luxury of time and maturity – and the stakes are much, much, higher than when I was 14. Cell phones, Snapchat and sexting are adding complex new dimensions to the already turbulent times of high school.
After reading this heartbreaking article about sexting in the New York Times, I was struck by the author’s simple question: “Most schools and many parents already tell teenagers not to send sexualized selfies. But why don’t we also tell adolescents to stop asking for nude photos from one another?”
According to research, nearly 40% of teens admit to sending these messages, and 48% of teens have received them. And while both boys and girls send naked images, boys are nearly four times as likely to pressure girls to send sexts as girls are to pressure boys to do so.
As sexting and nudes become more and more widespread, they join the age-old paradigm that puts girls in a lose-lose position: If you send them, you’re a slut. If you don’t, you’re a prude. The article goes on:
“We accept and perpetuate the boys-play-offense and girls-play-defense framework because it is so atmospheric as to be almost invisible. Indeed, as someone who cares for adolescents for a living I can say that it was painful for me to realize that many of my early career conversations with teenage girls boiled down to: ‘The adults are asking you to regulate adolescent sexuality. Because we’re not going to ask the boys.’ ”
If you’ve ever dated online, even for a minute, as a woman, you’ve probably been barraged with requests for “nudies.” I know I did when I tried online dating post-divorce. By then, it was easy to say no and block the idiots because I’d found my voice and my confidence.
But at 14? It would have been a different story. These girls are navigating the perilous balance of confidence and cool – and between intense peer pressure, fast-evolving social media and our lagging legal system, we’re setting them up for a fall.
Sexting is causing a legal evolution
More than 20 states have enacted legislation to help differentiate between child pornography and sexting by minors, but for those who don’t yet differentiate, there can be even more serious legal consequences.
Tennessee is one of the states that has implemented a “sexting law,” in 2017. Instead of minors ending up with felonies for distributing child pornography, now sexting cases can be handled in juvenile court.
The goal there, said Tennessee assistant District Attorney Jennifer Mason, is to get to the root of why a kid would ask for an inappropriate picture or send one.
“You would never hand over the keys to a car to a 15-year-old without training them to drive,” Jennifer says. “Yet we hand 12-year-olds phones without teaching them the tools to handle them properly.”
Jennifer and other experts recommend practical tips, like:
- Set boundaries around phone and online activities
- Keep phones out of kids’ rooms at night
- Research your kids’ online activities and apps
- Keep up with social media trends
- Talk candidly with kids about the social and legal consequences of sexting and nudes
Here’s what I’ll tell my daughter
As parents and caregivers, we need to be honest with ourselves about the dangers of sexting. It’s far too easy to believe that our kids won’t be the ones asking for or sending these images. But the reality isn’t that simple.
Ask yourself who you really were at 14, and the answer might surprise you. It’s not the “bad” kids asking for the pictures or the “slutty” kids sending them. All kinds of teens and tweens are desperate for attention – including good, smart kids with involved, caring parents.
As the mother of a 10-year-old daughter who will most likely have a smartphone in the next few years, I plan on having very open and honest conversations with her about sexting and its potential consequences.
I’ll tell her that no one is allowed to ask for pictures of her naked, or at all. I’ll tell her that when someone pressures you for a compromising image, it’s a sign that they don’t really care about you.
I’ll tell her that pictures are forever. I’ll tell her that she is beautiful and strong and healthy and that while there is no shame in taking naked pictures, no one deserves to see them.
I’ll tell her all of that, and I wish I could tell all teens that it’s never OK to ask anyone for an inappropriate picture. The consequences are just too great.
It’s time to respect the word no, the first time you hear it.
* Name has been changed for privacy