The Awl posted an interesting clip today by Australia’s ABC News that critiques an anti-sexting PSA made by the Australian government. In the PSA, a high school girl is shamed by her classmates for sending a naughty photo of her chest to a boy who then forwards it to her peers. At the end of the PSA, the girl’s teacher receives the photo via text and gives a disgruntled look of disapproval. Take a look at the clip of the PSA and ABC News’ critique, and then let’s discuss whether or not the PSA is meant to be “slut-shaming,” as The Awl suggests, or simply a realistic portrayal of high school life in the digital age.
Choire Sicha of The Awl reinforces ABC News’ criticisms of the ad when she writes, the PSA “relies entirely on convincing teen girls that they’ll be ashamed for sending someone intimate pictures of themselves. Because of course society’s totally innate values of guys being cads and girls being gossips are A-okay and just the way things are.” It’s clear that the PSA is one-sided, sure, and it would be great to see an anti-sexting PSA with a male protagonist and female antagonist as well, to really drive home the point that it’s a bad idea for anyone to be sexting and/or passing compromising images along.
But as far as the ad condoning “society’s totally innate values of guys being cads,” I’m not sure that’s the point. We’ve covered sexting a lot here a Strollerderby, and in each story we’ve written about, the victim of sexting bullying has been female. There is an element of “slut-shaming” involved in real-life sexting bullying, to be sure, but I don’t think the goal of this Australian PSA is to advocate that. (Note that ABC highlights a quote from the Think U Know website that reads, “If someone sends you a sext, show them some respect by not forwarding that image on to anyone else.”) I think the PSA is simply trying to illustrate the real-life consequences of sharing nude photos, and it does a great job of mirroring exactly what has happened to so many girls who have learned the hard way that sexting is a horrible idea.
For example, if you think the teacher getting the “sext” at the end of the ad is unrealistic or over-the-top, think again. In the case of NN, her principal confronted her with several images of her exposed breasts found on her phone and in 2009, Ohio mom Linda Tate forwarded naked photos of her daughter’s rival to school administrators and teachers. That same year, 13-year-old Hope Witsell committed suicide after naked photos of her were circulated at her school.
There’s no doubt that young girls feel more pressure to get naked in order to appeal to the opposite sex than their male counterparts do, and the PSA is constructed to reflect that dynamic. While I think it’s important not to make already vulnerable girls feel ashamed about themselves for engaging in sexual activity or sending risque photos of themselves to boys, I think it’s even more important to teach young girls that they shouldn’t be defined by their sexuality or desirability. It’s not that I’m prudish or that I think that teens won’t have sex (I lost my virginity when I was 16), but I hate knowing how many girls start performing sexual acts at an even younger age (12, 13) driven only by a need for approval, not a healthy sense of mutual love and respect.
The critique of this Australian PSA reminds me of the kerfuffle over the recent Swiffer campaign that depicted women as “dirt” and “mud” desperate for love. At the time, I thought, “But so many women I know ARE desperate for love.” That portrayal of the female condition wasn’t any less honest than the characterization of the sexting victim in this Australian PSA. If we don’t want to see ads like these in the future, what we need to do is empower girls to make better decisions and help them understand that finding romantic love is just one of many enjoyable parts of life, not the peak experience of a female’s existence.
Of course, concurrently, we need to teach boys that it’s not okay to sexually victimize women or to view women as objects. I’m not a man and I don’t have a son, so for me it seems much more feasible to talk to my niece and my daughter about valuing themselves and their privacy than it does to single-handedly dismantle the patriarchy. I don’t think male privilege is “A-okay,” but I do acknowledge that, for now, it still exists, and I do what I can to work with it/around it. I’m sure the authors of this PSA were trying to tackle the problem of teen sexting with those constructs in mind. After all, would a cheesy shot of a guy walking up to his male friend, saying, “Hey mate, leave Megan’s boobs alone!” seem realistic to you? It would be laughable, and kids would ignore it. This PSA, at the very least, has got people talking about the dangers of sexting and bullying in the digital age, and that’s the whole point.