Last evening I was in the office with some free time as I had confused the time a client was coming in for an appointment. It was a “meant to be” moment as during that time, I had the opportunity to assist a fellow clinician with his concerns regarding an adolescent client. To keep things confidential, let’s just say the client was a young teenage man who had received sext messages from a young woman. The consultation started as a concern about mandatory reporting. In the state of Pennsylvania, this did not meet mandatory reporting criteria. However, it was a great teaching moment for both the young man and the clinicians.

It is rather common knowledge now that many teens sext. This behavior has become a part of their culture, courtship and relationships. We still are frequently seeing news articles about teens getting in trouble for sexting either in school or legally. Though we understand that this is part of the new “normal” of teenage communication, we need to be cognizant of the difference between consensual and non-consensual sexting.

This young man was getting these sexts from a girl and he told his therapist they made him uncomfortable. He didn’t really want to receive them. He didn’t send anything back but was confused as to how to respond. Bravo for this young man’s courage to bring this to his therapist. It brings to mind psychoeducation that we do for sex offenders. What is the difference between consent, compliance and coercion?. What do they mean? (I cannot attribute the source of these appropriate descriptions.)

Consent: When a partner agrees with an action. The partner must understand the proposed action, know what society’s standards are for this action, be aware of the consequences and alternatives, be assured that a decision to disagree will be respected as much as a decision to agree, voluntarily agree and be mentally competent

Compliance: When a person goes along without actively resisting even though they may think it is wrong and doesn’t want to participate.

Coercion: Using tricks, bribes, force, or intimidation to get someone to go along with what you want to do. Coercion is a tool a person uses to get a victim to comply or cooperate.

As you can see by the definition, these concepts are clearly different. In this case, the young man was complying, as he did not want to participate. Compliance is NOT consent. For adolescents, there may be social consequences for standing up to someone in these situations which makes room for the possibility of coercion or compliance in sexting.

This young man was advised to clearly state a boundary with the girl sexting him. Please do not send any more sext messages. If she does not comply with his boundary, he then has the option to take the issue to the authorities.

Though a behavior may be “normal” among teens, we must take the time to educate them the true meaning of consent. Consent does not just apply to in-person sexual behavior, it also applies to sexting.

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