A recent study of teenage girls’ responses to young men who asked them for nude digital images highlights the powerlessness some young women today feel when it comes to rebuffing unwanted sexual advances. “Bombarded,” “coerced,” and “confused” are the terms Sara E. Thomas used to describe the most common experiences reported by teenage girls faced with repeated sexting requests from young men in her study, “What Should I Do?: Young Women’s Reported Dilemmas With Nude Photographs.” Thomas, a doctoral student at Northwestern University, said, "Teenage girls know the potential risks and are disinclined to [sext], yet they continue to share the images anyway. They struggle to say no."
Thomas analyzed about 7,000 stories posted to MTV’s anonymous online platform, “A Thin Line” between March 2010 and January 2016. Although it was not required, 62% of the posters voluntarily provided their age and gender; of those, the overwhelming majority were girls, and the average age was 15. The study focused on females who reported anything related to sexting, ending up with a total of 462 stories.
Over two-thirds of the girls in the sample reported being asked to sext. Thomas identified four primary tactics the young women used to respond: refusal, compliance, avoidance, and “what should I do?” Among the findings:
- Of those who sent the photos, “more than 90%...engaged in what could be considered unwanted but consensual sexting to either prove their affections or avoid reproach or conflict with their partners.”
- “coercion” was the most frequent experience, with young men “pressuring, threatening, getting angry, and/or cutting off contact with them in order to obtain photographs.”
- 31% of the girls refused to send the images. Most of those girls faced “consequences” for refusing, such as having the boy get angry, break up with them, or make more requests despite their refusal.
- Of those who initially said no, six girls eventually gave in.
- None of the girls who sent the photographs felt relieved or experienced a benefit. For some, sexting led to further doubts about themselves or fear about the future, such as whether the guy would send the images to anyone else or post them online.
According to Thomas, the “most common reaction young women reported in their stories was WSID [what should I do?]," emphasizing the confusion these young women felt about how to refuse, but also their desire for guidance. Unfortunately, only one of the teens reported asking a parent for help. As one girl wrote: “I don’t want to tell my parents, they will freak out.”
The study contains a number of limitations, which the author acknowledges. It is based on a small sample obtained from an online forum that solicited responses from young people who had faced “digital drama” in order to identify inappropriate online behavior. Therefore, it can’t speak to all young women’s experiences with sexting, or to their ability to say no. Furthermore, it contains no information about the demographic background of the teenage girls, which might be helpful in understanding their struggle to say no. Also, because the study only focused on adolescent girls, we know nothing about the young men who apparently believed it was acceptable to repeatedly pressure (and sometimes threaten) young girls to send them sexual images.
Despite these limitations, the study provides important insight into the struggle too many young women today experience when it comes to saying no to unwanted sexual behaviors, including sexting. The most striking finding is that most of the girls did not want to send the photos, but after repeated requests, many did not have the agency to refuse.
Equally disturbing is that these girls apparently seemed to accept the boys’ requests for nude photos and their aggressive behavior as normal. In the study, young women never refer to the boys as bad actors. In fact, the only negative comments the girls made were about themselves or other girls. Among girls who sent the sexts, some questioned whether they were “horrible” or described themselves as “weak” or “pathetic.” Even the girls who refused questioned their self-worth, such as asking whether they were “prudes” for saying no, or as one girl said, “I guess keeping your morals makes you a bad person.”
Even though the study did not provide much information about the men, other than their reported behavior, it’s clear from other studies that too many young men today view women as sexual objects and are confused about what constitutes acceptable behavior towards them. We should ask why teenage boys are apparently so comfortable treating girls this way, and what role sexually explicit media, including widespread Internet porn, is playing in warping young people's attitudes about sex and the treatment of women. How did we get to to the point where young women feel like, as one girl in this study put it, "It’s like I can’t have a real guy friend, or a real boyfriend without them asking for gross things"?
Thomas rightly concludes that her findings “point to a need to support young women to negotiate these situations with greater agency and teach young men relationships skills, like respect, consent, and boundary acceptance.” As our nation continues to grapple with the question of sexual consent, it's clear we have a lot more work to do as parents and educators to ensure that girls know exactly what they should do when they are faced with inappropriate or unwanted sexual advances. At the same time, as Peggy Noonan recently wrote, we need more young men who know how to behave like gentlemen and will treat women with the respect they deserve. Our goal should be a future where every young woman is empowered to view herself as worthy of respect—as worth waiting for—and equipped to protect herself from being pressured into sexual situations she does not want and will likely later regret.
Alysse ElHage is editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.