You would have to be completely unplugged to have missed the heightened reports of sexually coercive behavior among celebrities, prominent media figures, and politicians. Indeed, the seemingly sudden explosion of public knowledge of these deplorable actions might lead you to believe that we are encountering a new phenomenon. In reality, relational and sexual coercion have long plagued our culture. However, the power of technology has added transparency and urgency to this ongoing problem.
These changes create opportunities for important conversations with teens about coercive relationships and sexual exploitation, particularly in the digital realm. Smartphones and social media, after all, are the linchpins of teens’ social worlds. They are therefore often the most potent conduits for these coercive dynamics.
Given the limited research on these topics, and a tendency for the media to emphasize extreme cases, it can be challenging for parents to know when concern is warranted. Although adults perpetrate sexual exploitation with teens as victims, this post addresses coercive dynamics between teens themselves, and, perhaps most importantly, how parents can help. We’ll focus especially on sexual coercion and exploitation, sometimes called “sextortion” and “revenge porn.”
Sextortion involves coercing or otherwise obtaining incriminating photos or information from teens, and threatening to expose them if sex acts are not performed. Similarly, revenge porn describes the public posting of consensually created sexually explicit/pornographic images. In April of 2017, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker filed a bill to create criminal penalties for revenge porn since no such laws currently exist in the state. There is limited information available on how prevalent these forms of exploitation are, but the psychological effects can be devastating.
Setting aside technology for the moment, coercion and sexual exploitation fundamentally involve the misuse of power. Technology does not create this problem, but technology can definitely facilitate sexual exploitation. Given that teens live in an increasingly digital world, they may be particularly vulnerable. Adolescents are learning what healthy and intimate relationships look and feel like, and they are also learning this digitally. Thus, we have the cliché of the perfect storm. Teens exploring the ambiguous power of emerging sexuality using the not-entirely-understood power and impulsive behaviors that social media and texting afford.
As any parent will tell you, teens need our help in making sense of sexual and intimate relationships. Still, many parents feel ill-equipped for this task, especially in the unfamiliar technological space where relationships increasingly take place. In other words, talking about these things was awkward enough before it involved terms like “revenge porn.” However, these issues must be part of the conversation.
Becoming aware of one’s sexuality and its effects on others is a powerful experience. This, coupled with limited experience in relationships, can lead to teens not knowing when another teen’s behavior is frankly coercive. Additionally, psychological coercion is by definition insidious, difficult to name, and shaming – for adults and teens alike –and often leads those who have this experience or know about it to stay silent. Because teens are notoriously private about their smartphone and online presence, what should parents do?
Finally, it is extremely important to talk explicitly with teens about the two key ingredients of coercive relationships:
These two ingredients have been described as the “super glue” of coercive relationships.
Coercive relationships are insidious and deeply shaming, and even with good education and strong parent-child communication, teens can still be vulnerable to other peers whose attention they crave. Avoid self-blame and seek professional help when needed. Remember, even though the technology is new, these discussions have been around for a long time. We must continue to adapt our guidance to meet the demands that our culture presents.
With that caveat in mind, there’s one more key bit of advice: Don’t have these conversations via texting. That kind of defeats the whole purpose.