Hope Witsell was a 13-year-old Tampa girl who, in 2009, made the terrible mistake of "sexting" seminude pictures of herself to a boy in her class. The boy passed the pics around, as teenaged boys are wont to do, after which Witsell was ceaselessly ridiculed by her classmates. Then she hanged herself. Now, Witsell's parents are suing the Tampa school district for infringing upon Witsell's civil rights by ignoring signs of the girl's depression.
I don't know if there's merit to the case. I hope so, perhaps irrationally. I hope the parents win and win big. The Witsell clan has lost enough without losing a lawsuit.
But the fact that their search for a culprit has led to the school district strikes me as odd, the district being the kind of banal pseudovillain one despises when reality has failed to provide something genuinely despicable. Regardless of the facts of the case, the relationship between Witsell's death and school district incompetence will prove inevitably, unsatisfyingly tenuous, and that suggests one very grim thing: As a society, we haven't the faintest clue how to think about teen sexuality in an era of adolescents' digital autonomy.
There are three, and probably not more than three, basic ways of dealing with the problems of sexting. We may change our technology, we may change our kids, or we may change ourselves. None of these choices are pursued with much gusto or precision because they seem so difficult and improbable. Anybody who seriously proposed them would look like a fool. But I've looked foolish on this blog before, so what the hell. Here we go:
1. Change our technology: Death to the gadgets. Kids are irresponsible, and very prone to do things they'll later regret. The more power they have to express themselves, the more likely they are to damage their reputations, anger the wrong people, and behave like idiots in front of people disinclined to treat their behaviors charitably. That's why Victorian parents liked their children "seen" and not "heard." A Victorian parent would be terrified to learn that today's 13-year-olds are broadcasting their adventures and opinions on YouTube, creating online identities, or transmitting potentially sensitive information to persons unknown via wireless networks. (They'd also be more than a little upset that today's infants are breast-fed.) If we want to keep kids from sexting, we can take away their Facebook profiles and replace their smartphones with Doro PhoneEasies. Better, smartphone manufacturers and social networking sites can create features that allow parents to peek at their children's photos.
But this will never work. There are already apps that allow vigilant parents to keep tabs on their progenies' texts and photos. Problem is, most parents won't think they need such a thing until after their kids get into trouble, and even the parents who do take such precautions will inevitably be outsmarted by the younger generation. Because kids are always, always better techies than old people.
2. Change our kids -- preferably into robots. Ban television. Start spanking our children early and often. Force them to take piano, chess, and tennis lessons. Put them on the debate team, and make them jog every morning. Keep videogames and sugar out of the house 'til the kids hit 18. Fill the children with a deadly fear of stepping out of line or failing to be perfect in any way. Let them know that if they misbehave, they'll be homeless, loveless, and broke.
Fortunately, most parents lack the heartlessness and freaky energy to sustain such an approach to keeping kids safe from their sex drives. But even if it didn't, kids would slip through the cracks. Because they'd rebel. Adolescents do naughty shit. And the more they've got to rebel against, the more lustily they set about doing it.
Despite the obvious impracticality of punitive discipline as an approach to the sexting problem, this is, in general terms, the strategy we Americans are pursuing at this instant. Until very recently, the accepted practice was to criminalize adolescent sexting and to treat offenders as child pornographers. I don't imagine there's anybody outside of bureaucradom who didn't think this approach was cruel, destructive, and dumb; it was the sort of strategy that was pursued in the absence of better ideas.
Not such a good reason, as it turns out. Fear of retribution, least of all from some faceless legal authority, is seldom sufficient to keep kids from doing what they want. If it was, neither you or your children would ever have smoked a joint.
3. Change ourselves, and stop freaking out about taboo body parts. Isn't there something creepily savage about perceiving certain body parts as so dirty, so nasty, that allowing pictures of them to fall into the wrong hands seems like a reasonable catalyst for depression?
It's pure superstition. We cower in fear and awe at the mere thought of certain fleshly bits, despite knowing perfectly well that they possess no power beyond that which we assign them. Penises, vulvas, bums and breasts may be marginally less hygienic than elbows, but there's nothing intrinsically special about them. The penis and the elbow are parts of the same animal, and seldom are they separated by more than 12 or 13 inches.
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We're pathologically body-shy, and we're reaping the fruits of our pathology every time a kid gets her year/adolescence/life ruined by an ill-advised snapshot of something everybody owns and everybody knows about. Why is that snapshot passed around classrooms of eighth-graders like a fabulous, dirty secret? Because we've taught those eighth-graders that it is one.
I'm a modern American with all the modern American hangups, and I know I don't want pictures of my junk floating around the ether. (At least, not unless I'm getting paid per click.) But I also know that my strong feelings about certain body parts and general indifference to others is purely irrational -- a vestige of a primitive taboo I'd be better off without. Most of us -- in particular, those of us not wearing a hijab -- understand this is, but we seldom talk about it. Maybe if we did, in ten or 20 years, if our kids are dumb enough to sext and should the experience go awry, they'll feel momentarily embarrassed over their naivete, learn a lesson, and get on with the business of growing up.