For some teens, a 10-second video or photo of their peer’s breasts or genitalia sent over the mobile app Snapchat obviously means the sender wants to have sex.
But more often than not, says 18-year-old Erin Dixon, it’s just the way teens are “communicating their sexuality.” It’s certainly not an invitation for intercourse.
Nor is it rare for cavalier attitudes about sex to prevail, says the Toronto teen — a point proven in the disturbingly candid interview given to Postmedia this week by the young man sentenced to probation for distributing a photo of himself having sex at a liquor-soaked Halifax gathering with Rehtaeh Parsons, a young woman who killed herself in 2013 after years of bullying linked to the indelible image snapped that night.
The Halifax man said he believed the sex was consensual, despite her being drunk and vomiting out a window.
“We were kind of laughing about the night, she was like, ‘You guys can keep going,’ and me and [the other boy], we’re like pointing at each other,” said the now-20-year-old, who can’t be identified by law because he was tried as a youth. “Like, ‘You go ahead’ and [the other boy present] said ‘You go ahead,’ so I was like whatever.”
Ms. Dixon and Andy Villanueva, who make up two-thirds of the activist group Project Slut, which they started in their Toronto high school, said that attitude is prevalent in the halls of their high school and likely those across the country.
“I don’t see them as alien to the people I know,” Ms. Villanueva said. “The sad thing is I genuinely believe they don’t identify themselves as aggressors or rapists.”
Social cues around sex have always been hard to navigate, especially for teenagers and especially as societal views evolved. Now, media about sex — pornography included — has become ubiquitous thanks to the rise of technology and the Internet. It’s created a world in which sex is talked about more openly but is not necessarily any less confusing, coercive or fraught.
‘The sad thing is I genuinely believe they don’t identify themselves as aggressors or rapists’
‘‘It’s about finding that negotiation where you identify the risk but also celebrate the fact that [sex] is not abnormal … and that actions don’t define them,” Ms. Villenueva said. “[Adults] were doing it too! Realistically, they were screwing too.”
Studies show sexual activity amongst teens hasn’t changed significantly in the past 20 to 25 years — in fact, fewer teenagers surveyed in 2002 reported having vaginal sex than people their age in 1989.
A 2011 national U.S. government survey also showed most teens have sex for the first time in steady relationships (70% for female, 56% for male) rather than as flings or after marriage.
“There’s an assumption that if we talk about it, they’ll do it, which studies show is clearly not the case,” said Berkha Gupta, the coordinator for teen programming and social media at Planned Parenthood Toronto. “And so when those conversations aren’t happening, there’s an important role in consent conversations about the responsibility of yourself as an individual when you’re under the influence of something. That’s a conversation that’s not possibly happening with youth enough and also with younger adults in their 20s as well.”
Alcohol does seem to have a dissociative effect, splitting responsibility for that drunken hook-up from the act itself. That’s certainly something Ms. Villanueva reports noting in her school.
“When people get drunk and do stupid things they just view it as ‘I’m not accountable for what I’m doing. I’m not accountable — Internet!’” she said. “There’s a disconnect between accountability and what you post online.
“I remember I went to a party when I was younger and a girl was really drunk and a bunch of boys were taking turns fingering her,” Ms. Villanueva said. “I was mortified and they were laughing. At that time, because I was much younger  and I was already kind of like a target, I didn’t know what to do, but I remember seeing her and I remember hearing what people were saying afterwards, as if she was telling everyone to finger her.” That girl also got teased in the school in the days that followed, Ms. Villanueva said.
Blake Spence, the coordinator of WiseGuyz, a Calgary Sexual Health Centre program to help boys learn healthy sexuality, said “attitudes about sex can be very flippant, and it’s not just with young men, it’s with anybody, not realizing the importance of consent in certain situations.
“That’s what struck me about that [Parsons] story, is that he didn’t really realize that because someone had been drinking, that consent is actually invalid, technically,” he said. “It’s a grey area not just with young people but with a lot of folks in our society … I think it’s very important that when people are educating young people about consent, to talk about the role of alcohol in that.”
It would seem, he said, that this generation of young men are very open about talking about sex and desire, and “have a lot of questions about what’s normal.”
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They’ll often ask if it’s normal to masturbate or think about sexual situations or even other men, he said. They also ask if it’s OK to watch pornography — which does have an impact on perceptions of what sex should be like, said Cicely Marston, senior lecturer in social science at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in Britain.
For her study, published last summer in BMJ Open, she interviewed 130 British young women and men, aged 16-18, in particular about their expectations, attitudes and experiences with anal sex and found that it almost always happens in a “coercive” environment.
“If it happened without consent, they’d call it a ‘slip,’” she said. “At least one man said ‘I just told her it was a slip when it wasn’t really a slip. Obviously if women know there are lots of men that have been slipping they might take that rather differently … ‘I want to give him the benefit of the doubt because otherwise I’m going out with a rapist.’”
Ms. Gupta, however, doesn’t think the omnipresence of sex is leading to more pressure. If anything, it could inform a kind of empowerment.
“When you normalize sexual health and you normalize bodies and puberty and relationships, it feels less like this thing you need to engage in,” she said.
“And when it’s not such a high pressured thing, I think peer pressure ends up being removed from that equation more and more.”