Sexting, revenge porn and Iceland’s youth
Icelanders are outstanding in many fields. For instance, we proudly hold the record for youngest median age of starting sexual activity (pdf), the highest rate of Chlamydia infections, and the greatest daily internet usage of any European country. In line with these dubious achievements, sexting is apparently all the rage in Iceland these days, in particular with hormone-addled teenagers.
While also a euphemism for exchanging flirtatious or dirty text messages, “sexting” in this context refers to sending someone your nude photo or video. It is for the most part harmless fun, but when it goes wrong and your chosen recipient forwards the image without consent, it falls under the umbrella term “revenge porn” and can be incredibly harmful. Indeed, a 2012 UK study (pdf) revealed that 88% of sexual material that leaks online spreads quickly and far.
There are numerous horror stories of young people whose playful and racy activities eventually resulted in cyber-bullying, harassment, depression, shame, PTSD, and, in some cases, suicide. There are thankfully no known instances of teens taking their lives in Iceland as a result of revenge porn, but the police all but admitted this winter that they couldn’t stem the tide of the troubling trend of pictures being widely distributed without consent, and publicly called out for alternative solutions.
Answering their call is one Þórdís Elva Þorvaldsdóttir, who has made a career as an activist and writer working on matters relating to sexual violence and education, for example through her book ‘Á mannamáli,’ and the sex-ed films ‘Fáðu já’ (“Get Consent”) and ‘Stattu með þér’ (“Stand Up For Yourself”). Now she’s teamed up with telecom provider Vodafone to launch a free series of workshops for parents wherein she informs them of the real stakes of sharing intimate media with others, provides examples of what can go wrong—and what can be done if sensitive materials go viral. To learn about her workshop, we met up with Þórdís in the Perlan café and soaked in the first real rays of sunshine of 2015.
What can you tell us about sexting and revenge porn?
I’d like to just start off by saying that there are very natural and understandable causes behind people sexting. Before we had smartphones, we had other ways to express our interest. We would scribble the name of our desired person on the bathroom stall, or carve them into a tree, or send love letters. However, with new technology, we have new opportunities—and new challenges.
A study by the UK Safer Internet Centre on the internet habits of thirteen and fourteen-year-olds revealed something that surprised everyone: The researchers had the notion that sexting was something you did after you entered relationships, but what they found out was that kids were using sexting more often as a form of flirting, as a way of testing the waters.
And who is asking for these pictures?
It seems that it’s mostly boys asking girls to send them photos, but before we judge, I think most boys that do this don’t realise that they’re applying pressure. Maybe they just find this girl attractive or cute, and how flattering is that; that a boy finds you so hot that he wants your photo?
I think in many cases there’s no evil intent, but if you are a girl and are getting one or two requests a day, then that pressure is going to build up, and maybe one day you give in. I think that one of the things we also need to stress is that asking someone for a nude photo is not a given—it’s not anyone’s right. Nudity is something intimate, and sure, if you want to be naked with someone, then that’s obviously something you can do, however, pressuring someone to be naked with you is a criminal offence.
Icelandic studies show that from the eight to tenth grade, the number of teenagers that report getting pressured in the last twelve months increases from 7% to 14%, and research from the US shows that 26% of teens who get a sexting image forward it to someone else. Even if you are lucky enough to belong to the other 74%, all it takes is for that person to forget their phone on a table for a moment for someone to access, copy and share the image. So we should still be aware of the fact that it’s really hard to guarantee the safety of digital data. Someone could also hack your email or devices, which was what happened with Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities—however, you don’t have to be a super star for someone to hack your account.
What is the legislation is like in Iceland regarding nonconsensual distribution of sensitive materials?
We currently don’t have specific laws in place regarding revenge porn, but there is legislation being worked on as we speak, which will hopefully be passed by parliament before long. For the moment, if someone is caught distributing such material and charges are pressed, it’s usually done under defamation laws, and ones pertaining to offending people’s sensibilities, which is not ideal. Having said that, I’m always more in favour of education than punishment, so I’m more interested in schools discussing topics such as sexting and revenge porn.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
And that’s where your workshop comes in. What can you tell us about it?
In it, I stress the basics: teaching parents the right words and definitions, and opening their eyes to the reality of what their kids are probably up to, whether they are aware of it or not. With both the teenagers and the adults, I’m very clear on not condemning those that partake, because sexual expression is a very natural part of being human. Also, telling people not to take nude photos would be blaming the victim, which would be the wrong approach.
What I think is most important is to stress where the responsibility lies: Don’t be a douchebag! Don’t break someone’s trust and distribute photos without consent! We’re all living in the same world, and we need to be respectful of one another, whether it’s online of offline.
So what can you do if shit hits the fan and your photos go viral?
If someone is a victim of revenge porn, and they are under 18, they should first of all notify the police, because that’s distribution of child pornography. You are the victim in the situation and you have the right to be protected.
I think you should definitely seek support in your close environment. Personally I would have been mortified and died a thousand deaths before I talked to my parents if that would have happened to me as a teenager. Now that I have read numerous accounts from parents who weren’t there for their kids in the time of need and had no idea what was happening until it was too late, however, I have a different take on it.
There is also an around-the-clock phone number for a help centre, 1717, and the staff there has specific training in assisting people that have been targets of online abuse. They are the perfect people with which to break the silence, and can offer valuable advice and support. And then, if this is something that’s happening in your school, there are successful examples where the administration has been notified and managed to contain an outbreak by involving parents of the offenders, and so on. Sometimes it takes a village to get stuff right, but the bottom line is to not suffer in silence, because there’s no need to.
All information and data from ‘Ber það sem eftir er,’ as well as other information about internet security for children and teenagers can be found on Vodafone’s website.