“Everything is about sex … except sex. Sex is about power.”
In a chilling moment of honesty, Frank Underwood, the main character in the popular political drama, “House of Cards,” makes a claim that is true about his pursuit of political power and his understanding of how the world works.
As I read the recent front-page article in The Atlantic about teen “sexting” I couldn’t help but reflect on this quote. The interviewed teenagers admitted that the pictures they share aren’t “a huge part of their sex life” or “a springboard for fantasy”, but are a kind of “social currency.” Essentially, sharing and collecting nude photos of peers is a way of furthering their own position, undercutting the position of others, and successfully navigating the social pecking order.
What’s striking to me about this story is that both male and female teenagers describe willing participation in this practice and the exchange of pictures.
While these “sexting” stories often involve bullying, peer pressure, and other oppressive circumstances, instances of mutual participation involving both genders are also common. What many participants in this practice share in common is what all humans share: the temptation to use another human being as a tool for our own gain.
You could say, “Sexting isn’t about sex. Sexting is about power.”
As we talk about “sexting” and our role as youth workers in this discussion, I wonder if talking about “power” is where our conversation should start.
The reality of our human existence is one of great power and responsibility. Being made “in the image of God” is a term of royalty that carries with it the capacity to create, steward, and care for, as well as to destroy, waste, and harm. We all have been given divine power.
My experience in youth ministry has taught me that teenagers can be more aware of this sense of power than any other age group, but are often lacking in examples of and environments for the proper use of this power. When the majority of the world exercises power for personal gain at the expense of others, we shouldn’t be surprised when individuals dehumanize themselves and others by using their bodies and phones to create their own social currency.
When it comes to addressing the issue of “sexting”, the temptation we all face as youth workers is to focus our energy on very pragmatic conversations about rules, boundaries, and blame. Parents will want us to help “fix” their kids, volunteers will want to know how to “change” the behavior of their students, and we as youth workers will feel the weight of what seems like life altering and risky behavior among those in our communities.
I want to affirm the desire to protect and shelter the young people we’ve been trusted with. But methods of “sin management” and “behavior modification” won’t capture the imaginations of our young people. This method of entering the conversation will undermine the power of the Biblical Story and will ultimately miss an opportunity to cut to the heart of the issue: That the purpose of the power that has been extended to each of us, based on the nature of our very existence, was intended to serve and bless all of creation. We were made to extend the same sense of beauty and dignity to others that God has extended to us, and I think our young people are craving a vision and environment to use their God-given power to make the world a better place through their relationships with others.
Our opportunity as youth workers is to avoid becoming one more adult that is setting himself or herself on fire over the latest calamity that has struck the teenage world. Maybe the teenagers we know aren’t looking for someone to “fix” them, but are waiting for someone to tell them a better story about what it means to be human.
This is from part of a panel response to the prevalence of sexting in the lives of youth that I was privileged to be a part of. Read the other responses here: http://iym.ptsem.edu/resources/engage/sexting/#tab-id-7