According to a survey commissioned by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com, 20 percent of teenagers say they have sent nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves by e-mail or posted them on the Internet. Who knows how accurate that figure is? Presumably most kids won't actually admit to an adult that they have engaged in such behavior. But a recent piece in the Cincinnati Enquirer caught my attention. "If I were to go through the cell phones in this building right now of 1,500 students, I would venture to say that half to two-thirds have indecent photos, either of themselves or somebody else in school," one high-school resource officer told the reporter. A principal at another school thought about half at hers had.
Kids are supposedly using the pictures as pickup lines. (We've come a long way from "Happy Days.") Unsurprisingly, the national study also revealed that 44 percent of teens say it's common for "sexually suggestive text messages" -- sexting -- "to get shared with people other than the intended recipient."
In the Enquirer article, one high-school senior who understands this is not a good thing says: "And when a guy gets a picture like that, he's not just going to keep it between him and the girl. He's going to take that and show every guy that he knows that knows that girl. And every time somebody looks at her, it's going to be a loss of respect for her." R-E-S-P-E-C-T has not penetrated the psyches of these teenagers -- or the adults who are aware of what they're doing.
Worried about losing scholarships and being rejected from jobs after a potential employer does a Google search, "many kids have 'wised up,' taking photos of body parts, but not faces, to avoid detection," the Enquirer article explains. Wising up, of course, involves much more than leaving your face out of the picture. One can't help but think of the whole debate over sex-ed again. When young people have no context for understanding their own sexuality other than "sex is something you are programmed to do, so adults will provide mechanisms to help prevent the consequences and eliminate those consequences should they occur," it's not surprising that dignity doesn't have a place in their worldview. If abstaining from the exploitation of their own sexuality is not understood to be a normal, responsible, self-respecting thing to do -- and instead seen as only for prudes -- it's a wonder there are any limits to their behavior at all.
Odds are, the public-high-school kids who are sexting are not anxiously awaiting an evaluation of their behavior from the pope, but that's exactly who made a point recently that is remarkably relevant to their lives. Pope Benedict XVI talked about respecting the "ecology of man" -- our very selves: "The rain forests certainly deserve our protection, but man as creature indeed deserves no less." It's about respecting the natural order of things. He recalled Pope Paul VI's prescient 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which warned that disrespect for our bodies, and manipulation of our sexuality, would lead down a slippery slope.
As the pope was saying this, I happened to glance at the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Britney Spears -- no model of self-respect, sexual or otherwise -- was featured. So was a teaser for "Green Sex Toys" -- a story about sex-toy recycling programs.
Everybody wants to save the world, but what about man and woman? How about we stop toying around with this most beautiful gift we have, as precious as our lives?
While we get all apocalyptically worried about saving the earth, we give little thought to ourselves, beyond looking perfect. We could afford to put some more thought into the fundamentals of our existence. Love and marriage are a good building block. Figuring out this ecology is the stuff of religion, which is why we hear about it from Rome: Why are we here, and what are we here to do? But you don't necessarily have to follow the pope to get with the program.
Later in the Enquirer article, the director of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center's Postponing Sexual Involvement program observes: "Teens are trying to figure out how to express their sexuality appropriately. They are learning, and they are learning from adults."
If adults engage in sexual acts with little regard for the context of love, marriage and family, or casually keep pornography around the house, there's going to be little respect inculcated in children for sexuality. There's going to be little reason for them not to exploit and manipulate it -- instead of respecting themselves enough to honor their bodies and one another.
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