I would like to salute the courage and leadership of Miramonte’s journalism student, Sofia Ruiz, for her important work in researching and writing the article, “Lamorinda Nudes Dropbox Must Come Down.”
As The Atlantic Monthly established several months ago,* the practice of teen sexting has become a national epidemic from which no high school is immune. And yet, like so many problems, it’s only a symptom of something else. Our challenge is to look beneath the surface and learn from it, to use this situation as an opportunity for growth. Dysfunction can only thrive in secret. Through open, honest conversation, all things return to balance.
The first question to ask is why girls believe they have to share naked pictures of themselves in the first place? I’ve heard it dismissed as either “no big deal” or “empowering,” but neither of these responses go deep enough.
Today we can’t talk about power or empowerment without considering the larger context, the fact that we are just now emerging from millenniums of gender inequality, a situation in which women were reduced to the role of object or servant. It was a sad business and both men and women have suffered because of it. Now, of course, we’re ready to be done with it. But something so entrenched can’t be erased overnight. Even as we work to change the paradigm, it’s still being played out in social media, music videos, commercials, print ads, reality TV and what sociologist Frank Furedi has called the “pornographication” of popular culture.
While we don’t have to buy into it, we can’t ignore it either. Degrading images are everywhere, seeping into our unconscious minds (as only visual images can) and twisting our perception of “normal.” In this instance, girls unconsciously accept their objectification, while boys unconsciously demand it; everyone says they’re fine and everyone secretly knows they’re not. But if we want to stop being manipulated by unconscious forces, we have to become conscious of them. That starts with becoming conscious of ourselves, of what we’re feeling and needing from one moment to the next.
When you are allowed to feel what you feel—to be aware of yourself—you understand yourself: who you are, what you need and how to live with compassion and integrity. But when you are not allowed to feel what you feel, you become disconnected from yourself: confused about your needs and easily manipulated and controlled by others.
I believe we are powerful because we can feel and because we can imagine and because we can love. Love is the only real power. Everything else is just playing a game.
No healthy girl feels empowered by pornographic depictions of her body. Likewise, no healthy boy can enjoy a real connection with a girl whose body is reduced to a pornographic object. Every girl deserves to be loved, cherished and respected for who she is as a human being, just as every boy deserves to have a loving, respectful, grounded relationship with the person he adores. Like brightly colored candy, pornographic images titillate without nourishing. In the end, they just make everyone feel worse. And yet, you have to be supported in recognizing your feelings, before you can recognize something unhealthy.
This is not a discussion about nudity. (The human body is beautiful and deserving of reverence.) This is a discussion about what we’re feeling—and actually needing—when we make certain irreversible choices. Afterall, sometimes we think we’re hungry when we’re actually thirsty. And sometimes we crave junk food when we’re actually needing love.
We all need to be loved, accepted, and respected. The strategies we employ to meet these needs may be misguided—even dangerous or destructive—but the needs remain strong and always valid.
It is time for both girls and boys to stand in their strength and integrity and demand the kind of love and respect that is their birthright. And it is time for all of us to talk about what matters to us, what we value, what we long for, what we need to lead meaningful lives.
This conversation is so much bigger than sexting. This conversation is about creating a new way of living and relating with each other in the world.
In the words of the author Doe Zantamata, “In a world full of fear, be courageous… The world sees you. The world hopes for you. The world is inspired by you. The world can be better because of you.”
Elizabeth Perlman is the founder and Executive Director of The Intuitive Writing Project, an educational nonprofit that supports girls in finding their voice, discovering their strengths, and realizing their capacity for leadership.