The St. Petersburg Times ran a story Sunday about a 13 year old girl who committed suicide over a “sexting” incident (or rather, she committed suicide after being unfairly punished and teased for taking and sending nude photos).

To summarize, Hope Witsell, a student at Beth Shields Middle School in Florida, had sent a nude picture of herself to an older boy she liked.  The picture got sent to almost everyone at the middle school and even the local high school.  Hope had to endure a ridiculous amount of teasing – kids calling her “whore” and “slut” – and even had to sacrifice her position as a student advisor for her school’s chapter of the FFA, which was a real blow to her.  Her parents punished her (although it was nothing overly harsh) and tried to get her counseling.  A few days before her suicide, Hope was sent to see the school’s social worker after someone noticed cuts on her legs.  She signed a contract saying she would stop self-harming, and the case was closed.  Her parents were never notified.  The next day, Hope hung herself from her bed canopy.

This is the second reported sexting-related suicide in America.  The first casualty was Jessie Logan, an 18 year old student in Cincinnati who sent her boyfriend nude photos of herself.  When they broke up, he forwarded them to others.  Jessie had to endure the taunting and name-calling (she was referred to as “the porn queen”), had drinks dumped on her at school, and was thrown out of a few graduation parties.  Even though she had previously taken a stand against the torture – even going so far as to appear on a local television show to speak to other girls about the dangers of sexting – it eventually got to be too much and she killed herself two months after the incident.

There are a few reasons why I felt compelled to write about this.  I’m astonished at how prevalent this practice has become.  I’ve heard of a few cases at my old high school, which my little sister now attends.  The worst cases always involve pictures, it seems.

Actually, my roommate and I were talking about it yesterday (I guess there was something about it on TV).  She didn’t understand why people made such a big deal about it; if parents find out that their kid is sexting, that should alert them that their child is sexually active, or considering it, and that should be more of a concern to the parent.  I agreed with her, and added that maybe it was a bit worrying because a nude picture, once taken and sent, could be out there for a lifetime, whereas being sexually active at a young age, while potentially dangerous, isn’t necessarily going to keep a person from getting a job or becoming a public figure in the future.

After reading this article, though, about Hope Witsell, I think I’d be able to answer the question of, “What’s so wrong with sexting?” better.  I’d say that the implications of sexting are most disheartening.  The fact that kids are this aggressively sexual at such a young age is disturbing to me.  Hope was 13.  

The St. Petersburg Times article reports that, “A 2009 Harris online poll shows that one in five teens admits to having sent naked pictures of themselves or others over a cell phone.”  However, “cyberlawyer” Perry Aftab, “who in April led a town meeting on teen sexting with Good Morning America’s Diane Sawyer, noted that teens who participated in the Harris poll needed their parents’ consent. She believes the real number of teen sexters to be much higher.  A poll conducted by her organization, WiredSafety, found that 44 percent of boys in co-ed high schools had seen at least one naked picture of a female classmate. Overwhelmingly, they shared the images with others.”  Aftab also believes that 12 and 13 year olds feel the biggest impact from sexting incidents.  At younger ages, they aren’t as aware of their sexuality, and at older ages, they may have developed enough of a social awareness to know that they shouldn’t be sending nude photos of themselves to people they hardly know.

Even though it hasn’t even been 10 years since I was 12 or 13, I simply cannot fathom being that sexually developed at that age.  But, perhaps these kids aren’t as sexually aware as their actions suggest.  I suspect that they’re emulating things they hear from older kids they look up to, from television and films and even young adult literature (a lot of which is much trashier and negative than most parents probably know).  I’m not saying that it’s necessarily wrong for kids to be exposed to more mature themes in the media they ingest.  However, parents and guardians have to be careful and aware of what their children are doing, and they need to let them know what’s right and wrong.  Quite honestly, it terrifies me when I go to the mall or the movie theater and I see a group of 12 to 14 year olds, on their own, wreaking havoc.  The fact that these same kids are sexting isn’t surprising to me at all.  They’re emulating adults in every way, at such an early age, and that means that they’re trying to adapt an adult version of sexuality before their biology has even fully caught up.

The second, and perhaps biggest, reason that this upsets me so much is because it’s another disturbing incident of “slut shaming.”  “Slut shaming” is exactly what it sounds like:  when girls are made to feel guilty for their sexuality.  Is there a name for a boy who sleeps around, or who is open about his sexuality?  “Man whore,” perhaps, but I’ve never heard that used in anything but a joking manner.  Sure, I’ve also never heard about boys sending nude pictures of themselves to girls they like (and I’m sure there’s another troubling double standard at play here, as well), but I don’t see how nude pictures, despite being more tangible, are much different than the bragging boys do about real or imagined conquests in locker rooms and at lunch tables.  And, of course, these boys are probably happy to receive these “sexts,” but the minute the tide turns and the word gets out, the girl who sent them is a “slut,” a “whore,” or even a “porn queen.”

This is most obvious in Jessie Logan’s case, I think.  She was 18, legally an adult and certainly not as naive or undeveloped as a 13 year old.  She sent the pictures to a boyfriend, someone she trusted (and for good reason, I’m sure).  Her decision to send those pictures seems logical enough.  But then, the break-up.  I don’t know enough about this particular story, but the references to it in the St. Petersburg Times article makes it sound as if he sent those pictures to other students after the break-up because he was bitter.  Then, Jessie had to endure a tidal wave of “slut shame.”  Did the boyfriend have to endure a storm of guilt about being vindictive, mean, or petty?  Did he get called names because he willingly received and saved those pictures?  I’m assuming he didn’t.  

These double standards are so obvious, and yet they are perpetuated and they keep growing.  Short of requiring all students to take (and pass) gender equality classes, and doing away with MTV and other ridiculous, ignorant films and shows that portray these situations and make no effort to paint these double standards as something negative, I don’t know how we’ll ever get them to stop.  It’s terrifying to me to think that more children will have to endure this specific form of torture before anything will change.

I wish for nothing more than that kids would be able to be kids for as long as possible.  I hope that, when they’re ready, they can become sexually aware on their own terms, without feeling embarrassed for it, without feeling like they’re a “late bloomer.”  I hope that no one has to go through what Jessie Logan and Hope Witsell went through, and that, if they do, they have the opportunity to seek help instead of falling into a place where they feel like their only escape is suicide.  I hope that their school, if aware of the issue like Hope’s school was, won’t drop the ball and fail to alert the parents.  Finally, I hope that – though they are unbearably sad losses – the deaths of these two girls will help change the potentially dangerous actions and negative opinions of at least a handful of teens, parents, and educators.  Rest in peace, Jessie and Hope.