Cynthia M. Allen

From #MeToo to ‘safe sexting’: how far we have not come

See some of the more than half a million #MeToo posts that have taken over Twitter

Women and men alike have taken to social media recently to post "#MeToo" to raise awareness for the number of victims of sexual harassment and assault. People were encouraged to tweet the hashtag if they had been victims of these themselves.
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Women and men alike have taken to social media recently to post "#MeToo" to raise awareness for the number of victims of sexual harassment and assault. People were encouraged to tweet the hashtag if they had been victims of these themselves.

When the debate over sex education was raging, proponents of teaching safe sex and distributing condoms in public schools mocked those who argued that abstinence-only education was the best way to prevent teenagers from facing the practical and emotional consequences of sexual activity.

“They’re going to do it anyway,” the argument went. “We might as well give them the tools to do it safely. We’ll just police their vices.”

The argument ignored the deluge of emotional consequences associated with sexual promiscuity. But those were of little matter in service of a greater goal: the progressive cause of removing any societal guardrails on sex, and breaking down the norms and morals that — for good reason — traditionally governed bedroom behavior.

Enter the “#MeToo” movement and the not-so-shocking revelation that a culture predicated on unfettered sexual license will in fact have to face some unintended and very serious repercussions.

It was a societal comeuppance long overdue, one that prompted even people on the left to wonder if there might be something wrong with how we’re thinking about sex.

For the first time in decades it didn’t seem entirely unreasonable to wonder if maybe those abstinence-only folks — the ones who promoted prudence and commitment and love — had a point.

“If you are a decent person, the prospect of a clearer, more boundaried sexual ethic should not frighten you,” wrote Washington Post columnist Christine Emba.

If #MeToo proved anything, it was that sexual guardrails in the form of certain traditional mores actually had some merit; that self-restraint served the ultimate good of elevating sex to more than just a recreational activity. And it protected hearts and reputations in the process.

There was a real hope that the wreckage of #MeToo might actually become the foundation for a universal sexual morality based on something greater than one’s own self-gratification. That we might employ a sexual ethic based on virtue.

That hope was dashed this week when a friend directed me to the Texas Christian University’s Student Health Magazine, which this week posted an article offering pointers for how students can make sexting (sending sexually explicit messages or photographs via text message) a “positive experience” for all those involved.

So much for universal principles to appeal to our better angels. Instead we get rules to govern our vices.

In “Smarter Sexting: Thoughtful and respectful approaches to sexual messages,” the authors explain what should be obvious — that like any sexual activity, sexting carries serious risks, like the possibility that explicit messages and photos could become public. There is no mention of potential social or emotional consequences, just a warning that a mishandled sext could be a barrier to future employment.

Never fear, risks can be mitigated if potential sexters just follow simple guidelines, like pursuing strong and open communication with the would-be recipient, revealing no more in a photo than one would reveal in a bathing suit, and employing useful “strategies” for turning down a sexting request.

The writers never bother to question the wisdom of sexting; instead they herald it as a fun way to flirt and express one’s sexuality.

If all else fails, they explain, and unwanted sexts are received or shared without permission, a university’s Title IX coordinator can offer legal guidance for how to move forward, because why wouldn’t we want university administrators and the government policing our sexual activities?

The article reads like parody, but it’s sadly the reality we’ve created by a sexual ethic run amok. And if #MeToo couldn’t rein it in, it’s hard to imagine what will.

TCU broke from its religious founding a long time ago. One wonders if those who supported that move envisioned that one day the school would be issuing guidance to its students on how to send sexually explicit messages to each other.

Cynthia Allen joined the Star-Telegram Editorial Board in 2014 after a decade of working in government and public affairs in Washington, D.C. She writes a weekly opinion column on a wide array of topics, including politics, faith and motherhood.


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