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This is a response to an Elephant Journal article I read this past week about how nude selfies are the new norm and all good.
Let me skip to the punch line: I object.
I’m a straight, white, married, sexually expressive, feminist mom of two teenage girls, and I am unwilling to start this conversation politely with “he raises a good point,” or “but among consenting adults,” or “I’m okay, you’re okay, let’s all be okay.”
Oh hell no.
But not for the reasons you’re thinking—probably.
Want to talk about the merits of d*ck pics and boob pics and naked selfies at the pub on Main after work on a Thursday, at a tall, sticky table, perched on bar stools, with a pitcher and french fries among us?
Cool. Let’s talk nude selfies.
Let’s swap stories and opinions and be titillated and giggly, or serious and reflective. We can talk politicians and celebrities. We can debate the shaming of women versus our sexual liberation and the muddied waters of morality. We can share whether we have, ourselves, or haven’t, and whether we like it, or don’t.
I have zero judgment about that. None. I’m interested in what you have to say.
Want to take that same conversation and publish the advocating side of it in a legitimate online magazine? With a legitimate following? One that is searchable online? By children and teens?
Double hell no.
Why? Because doing so contributes to the confusion that is ruining our kids, and completely dismisses the complexities they’re trying to navigate.
It is ignorant of how hard we are working as parents to keep our kids emotionally healthy and out of the crosshairs of cyberbullying and bad sexting decisions. We are working hard to keep our kids safe and alive in a time when suicide is not an unforeseen outcome of either of those activities.
And our next biggest fear? Let my kid please, please not be a sexual aggressor.
An opinion piece that touts the benefits of sharing nude pics gives any 14-year-old boy—all hormones and fumbling confusion, doing his best to figure out this intimacy/sex thing—an article in hand. He gets to show his buddies so they can all nod and grin in the locker room because an “authoritative source” that came up when he searched “nude selfies” says it’s normal and healthy to share below the waist flesh pics, and to ask for them. I can already imagine them thinking, “Girls probably even want to send them…and receive them, right?”
Articles like this give our young men, who are trying so hard to get it right, bad information. Destructive and harmful information. And it gives our girls, who are already struggling with hypersexualization and body dysmorphic disorder bad information.
Any young boy can now wave this source in the face of any 12 or 15 or 17-year-old girl as justification that she is “out of the norm” if she doesn’t want to share naked pictures of herself, or at least one in her underwear. She’s the weird one.
Taken to the logical next step, hormonal, self-conscious, still-figuring-it-out teenage girls shouldn’t dare to decline, lest they shame said boy for his tastes and requests. He’s entitled, as a normal, healthy, young man, to ask for naked pictures. Doesn’t she know? Hasn’t she heard?
Look, this Elephant Journal article clearly says so:
“If you search for polling data, you will find that anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of people have sent provocative photos to lovers, partners, husbands, and wives. While the data is not fully conclusive, there is no question that sending provocative photos via digital means is a common modern practice.”
My heart broke here.
As long as men are asking women for naked pics, or sharing their own, and those requests are published as normative in public spaces, boys will be asking girls for the same, with systemic support from our media.
So let’s talk about the consequences.
The consequences for our teens and tweens are not equally distributed, but they are real for all genders. The shame for a teenage girl on her first foray into that level of trust and vulnerability? For a young man who is just newly brave enough to share that he is gay? And having that trust breached with the circulation of those images? It is life-altering—if not life-ending. If you’re paying attention, you know this is true.
Naked pics are not just for kicks—they’re not tools for masturbation, or a turn on, and they’re certainly not for real intimacy. They are wicked sharp, excruciating, and accessible tools for cyberbullying and blackmail. And when they involve a minor, they are also—by the way—illegal.
The victimized 13-year-old girl who takes a picture of herself is in breach of the law, and can be prosecuted as circulating or being in possession of child pornography. Anyone else who circulates that photo? Same deal. And if you’re confused about how harsh the punishments are, this might make it more clear.
Still want to advocate for it being a normal, beautiful expression of human sexuality? To our youth?
As a human, I am tired of cleaning up the messes we’ve made for our children, for the next generation of leaders and creators and innovators. I’m tired. And as a mom, I want my daughters to have a healthy relationship with their own sexuality. I use those very words with them.
I want them to know themselves and their preferences. I want them to have healthy, mutually satisfying relationships because they are equipped to ask for what they want (sexually and otherwise) and because they are equipped to say no (and choose people who respect their boundaries). I want them to learn to recognize abusers and manipulators from a mile away.
My daughters and I talk about this when we consider book choices and movie choices, and we use it to talk about what can happen at school or with the misuse of their phones. I want them to know someone might ask for naked pics, and they should decline. I want them to know that this someone might get angry or hostile, acting like it’s owed to them. It isn’t.
I want them to know it doesn’t stop when they’re adults, so they need to learn to navigate it—now.
I recently had an old friend, a man, ask me for photos—reminder, I am married. He was a friend from back in my college days, when we were young and dumb together. He was mostly kidding, maybe—the guesswork is mine to do—but he still got a slap upside the head.
I want my girls to know that if they ever cross this line and decide to share pictures of themselves and it goes sideways, their dad and I have their back. We, their parents, will not add to their shame, but will help them navigate what feels like a terrifying, no-way-out kind of place. We will clean it up and sort it out and heal together.
Our kids are smart and trying to do well, but they’re also shortsighted. They don’t know to ask questions about that 50-90 percent who have shared nude pics. What percentage of those shared photos were consensual? How many of those are dudes sending pics of their “manhood” to women, who are gagging and dropping their phones on the other end?
And how do we possibly help our kids develop normal, healthy, adult sexual relationships and forms of sexual expression if they have been objectified and dehumanized since they were 12?
We, the parents who are paying attention, are sick of cleaning up after you. After ourselves and our own mistakes. Our youth are stumbling around in the dark looking for guidance, and end up turning to the internet more than ever. There are too many issues for me to tackle when it comes to our children and “nude selfies,” so let me pause and reiterate: I object.
I object to publishing articles like the one I read on Elephant Journal recently—and naming it an Editor’s Pick, no less.
But you should also know that as I write this, my chest is tight and my legs are numb. I’m writing slowly.
I’m concerned I will do a disservice to a super complicated issue by trying to address it in a single response. I’m nervous about pissing off sister feminists by not tackling all the issues (so, so many) that live inside this issue. I’m afraid of being labeled a prude, or a fanatic, or anything at all.
I’m afraid my words will be misinterpreted as judging or slut-shaming women who choose to share nude, semi-nude, sexy, or provocative photos of their own bodies.
But I am far more afraid for our children. For our teenage girls, who are trying to grow into sovereign women of substance and confidence in this age of media-supported hypersexualization. And for our teenage boys, who are learning that asking or pressuring girls for naked selfies and then reducing them to nothing more than what’s on a screen are what make them men.
And this time, they’ll have an Elephant Journal article in hand to drive the point home.
I love Elephant Journal, and am proud to be participating in the Elephant Academy this session, but I’m also disappointed that they chose to feature this article. At the very least, it should have been marked as “Adult,” in mindful consideration of those who could be impacted by the opinion piece. At the very best, it should be taken down.
A closing note for anyone feeling the pain of cyberbullying or considering suicide, please know that you are not alone. Support is available. If you need help, please call (in the United States) the National Youth Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website. If you’re outside the United States, a quick search for cyberbullying resources will help you.