One of our highest priorities at Relate 360 is to help our students see that they are so much more than simply physical bodies, and that their value is embedded in every aspect of who they are. Through our teaching mechanism which we call “The Whole You,” we attempt to get our students to think about who they are intellectually, emotionally and socially, and to reflect on their personal values. We want them to see that every aspect of who they are is worthy of being respected and loved.
Personally, I find it extremely liberating when I am able to remind myself that my physical appearance is merely a single facet of my entire being - and a small one at that. But, like most people that I know, I am not always able to do that perfectly, for I too am a product of a society that is hyper-focused on physical allure. In the midst of my high school career, I found myself needing affirmation, so my solution was to eat little and exercise much. As you might expect, this left me empty on two fronts: I deprived my body of necessary nourishment and my soul lacked an understanding of innate worth. Luckily, I have a wonderful mother who has always encouraged me to explore different passions, so I was eventually able to recognize the reason that I could not shed my feelings of unworthiness was because I was pursuing affirmation from something that only makes up a small fraction of my being. Not only that, but I also had an entirely misconstrued understanding of what it meant to love and respect my body. Knowing that my worth is not grounded solely, or even partially, in how I look has spared me a lot of grief, for I have been able to withstand the cajoling words of others who have attempted to get me to cross my own boundaries, telling me that I would only be ‘enough’ when I finally learned to be comfortable without enough clothing on.
Unfortunately, many of our youth have not been as lucky as I. They are battling the same doubts about their worth as I was, they are wrestling with the same misconceptions about the power of their physique to define their value as I did, and are desperately wanting to attain affirmation as I still sometimes do. The difference is, I was shielded by the affirmative words of my parents, the intrinsic understanding that I was not ready to engage in any form of sexual activity, and the reduced pressures that a lime green flip phone brought. Many of the students that we speak to today lack every aspect of the barrier that protected me in my high school years, and most lack at least one: the flip phone. Nowadays, teenagers are not only being bombarded with messages from media and their peers that they need to look good to be valuable, but they are also having to navigate the realm of sexuality and relationships with the added dimension of an all-access smart phone. They are being confronted with pressures to fulfill their desire to be acknowledged and accepted by means which I was not. Boundaries are harder to set and enforce because new forms of sexual expression are continually arising. So, while our youth are no less in need of acceptance, they are far more vulnerable to various forms of sexual exploitation.
Sexting is an intermediary between abstinence and sexual engagement. It is a step towards sexual activity without the risk of crossing physical boundaries, so it seems almost harmless. But it is a deceitful act of sexual intimacy. It circumvents the physical repercussions of STDs or unwanted pregnancies, but tricks a person into thinking that they are gaining social approval or relational advancement when in reality, they are only relinquishing their rights to very private pictures of themselves without requiring trust or commitment prior to such intimacy, thereby thwarting the very value they seek. Teens are trying to figure out what real love looks like, so they do not yet understand that if someone really loves them, they would never use their affections as a means of coercing them into doing something that they are not comfortable with or which could harm them. Students often perceive an invitation to sext as the first step toward a serious relationship. We want them to know that genuine love respects boundaries and is never forceful or coercive. And while sexting may seem safer to them than engaging in physical sexual activity, it is by no means an innocuous venture. Moreover, research has shown that the likelihood of engaging in sexual activity increases as a child begins to engage in the act of sexting, and that accompanying the act of sexting itself are a plethora of other repercussions.
At times, the pictures will get posted on social media sites for all to see. You might be thinking that this would be reason enough for a teen to choose not to release a sexually explicit photo of themselves to the hands of another. We thought so too. And yet, time and time again, we are contacted by school administrators concerning what used to be called ‘sexting scandals,’ but which now seem too commonplace to be a scandal at all. How could this be? Why is it that wonderful kids with reasonable intelligence are still doing something that we know could bear grave consequences? There is actually a good explanation for this. At this point in their lives, the area in a teenager’s brain that allows them to think through the consequences of their actions, the prefrontal cortex, is not yet fully formed. Thus, all that they can see sometimes is the immediate effect that they desire - acceptance and affirmation. Unfortunately, this lack of forethought and consideration for what will actually happen when they release a nude to the public eye, combined with their misunderstanding of relational intimacy, leads to increased rates of depression and anxiety. Likewise, the transmission of nude photographs from person to person could lead to legal allegations. We do not want to dismiss the duty that developing teenagers have to make good decisions for themselves, but we also recognize that at this stage in development, they still require the help of older adults to think through their decisions. It is for these reasons that Relate 360 presents to our students a comprehensive look at the harmful consequences of sending a nude to another person. We know that some students have parents who are speaking to them about all of this at home, and we are so incredibly grateful for those parents who have prioritized these conversations. However, we have good reason to believe that the majority of youth do not have anyone talking to them about this outside of school. We believe that every student deserves the right to have someone speak to them about the consequences of their actions before they have to figure it out for themselves. Every student is battling similar burdens of pressure to fit in and find worth, and those without strong and consistent parental affection are more vulnerable to peer pressure.
We understand a teen’s desire to be acknowledged and affirmed. That yearning is not a selfish desire to be seen, but is a human need. We all need to know that we are loved and cared for, we all need to be told that we matter. Some teens do not have anyone speaking their value to them at home, so when something like sexting, with such potential to cause emotional distress, springs up as a normalized means of gaining that approval, it is essential that our youth have adult voices assuring them that their worth is defined not by another’s approval of their body. They need adults telling them that they are beautiful, and so much more: lovable, creative, kind, strong and that they are valuable. In fact, they need to know that they are so valuable that sending a nude wouldn’t even cross their minds as being a means of attaining affirmation.
As a staff team, we can only do so much with the few days we see students, but we do what we can in that time to spark an understanding of their inherent worth. By presenting to them the inevitable consequences of sending a nude, and by affirming their intrinsic value, we hope that their desire to sext will diminish as their sense of security in themselves increases.