Sexting is in the news again now that Hearst Executive Scott Sassa was dethroned when a stripper — with whom he had exchanged racy texts — and her boyfriend tipped off his higher-ups after Sassa refused their extortion plot.
The conversation around this scandal has focussed on whether or not Sassa should have lost his job because he was caught sexting with another consenting adult. I had a few reactions to this news, none of which involved the justness of Sassa’s termination.
1) I feel awful for his wife and kids
2) If you are going to become suddenly unemployed over sexing, then at least write some spectacularly raunchy texts. Sassa’s seemed rather vanilla.
3) What if one of the “consenting adults” is too vulnerable, too marginalized, or too damaged to understand what they are really consenting to?
The term “consulting adults” suggests that the playing field is level, that both parties are equal and enter into a sexting agreement fully understanding what they are consenting to. Yet while some adults may believe they are consenting, there are often subconscious psychological demons that make them play out histories of abuse and marginalization.
And can someone who feels powerless truly give consent?
I’m not defending the actions of Sassa’s sexting partner. But I do want to point out that she and Sassa are on different rungs of the social ladder.
Most sex workers come from horribly dysfunctional pasts that include sexual abuse. People who have been sexually abused feel exploited. They grow up believing that they have no inherent value beyond meeting the needs of people who are more powerful. They grow up feeling that their only worth, the only attention they receive, comes from being sexual. Their reality is often denied by more powerful people who are supposed to protect them.
It’s possible that Sassa’s sexting partner came from a more normal background, but I doubt it. And if she grew up like other strippers, feeling powerless, then what better way to gain power than by controlling someone more valued by society? For instance, a rich studio exec?
And what about people from more typical backgrounds who are nevertheless vulnerable and easy to manipulate? What about someone who craves attention, who wants to feel desired and special? Is this person as “consenting” as a sexting partner who preys on the vulnerability of others?
Sociopaths are masters of manipulation. They convince their targets that they care about them, that they have a special connection, in order to extract what they want — in the case of sexting, sexual gratification — and then discard their “partners,” people who were never true partners to begin with.
And what if a sociopathic individual grooms and artfully manipulates a vulnerable person into doing something that on some level she really doesn’t want to do? Such as take explicit photos of herself mistakenly believing that she has a special connection with the other sexter, who then posts her pictures on the internet.
How “consenting” is that?
The term consenting adults should only be used when there is an equal balance of power. If two people in a committed relationship based on love and trust want to sext to enhance their sex life, why not? In this scenario, sexting can spice up a relationship that merits spicing up.
The term “consenting adults” needs an overhaul. Just because two people are adults doesn’t mean they are equal. It doesn’t mean that they are both entering into a sexting relationship of their own volition, consistent with their values.
So let’s be careful when we use the term “consenting adults.” Because being of consenting age doesn’t always mean legitimate consent.