Loose Girl

Ruminations of a Girl Gone Wild

There Is No Getting Past It: What Can a Teenager Do About Regrettable Sexts?

Know it gets better. It does.

When Ben asked Jenna to send him pictures, she did. It started with her chest, clothed, then unclothed. Then her entire body, first in bra and underwear, then nude. She examined the final one before she sent it off - a body with a head cut off, like a mannequin, like a doll. A body that could be anyone's. A sinking feeling started in her stomach, but she sent it anyway.

Later, discussing it with me, she identified why it felt so bad. She had agreed to send the photos to Ben because she wanted to feel special. She wanted him to like her, to want her, to acknowledge her. But if the photo of her body could have been anyone's, what was she really getting?

Predictably, Ben shared the photos with his friends. He denied it to Jenna at first, but soon it became obvious that kids all over school had seen them. Head cut off or not, everyone knew it was Jenna. Ben started avoiding her, laughing with his friends about it when she walked by. The people she had thought were her friends turned on her. They called her "slut," "whore," and a slew of other names she didn't want to recount for me. It was too painful to talk about at this point. She just wanted it to go away.

She made a bad mistake, one she regretted. She knew she shouldn't have sent the photos. She'd been educated like everyone else about what could happen. But in her teenage mind she thought this would be different. She thought Ben really liked her. And she was desperate for someone to like her in that way. She wanted to feel the intoxication she felt every time he told her how sexy she was, how hot, how much he wanted her. Jenna didn't need anymore admonishing. She didn't need to hear again that she shouldn't have done it, that it was a stupid move. She knew that. No one knew it better than her.

Jenna's story could be so many girls' stories. They made a terrible mistake. They know this. Now what? What can girls do after the fact, when it's too late, when the photos can't be taken back? The bottom line is that there is no easy way out. "There is no getting past it," as Jenna said. But there are small things girls (and their parents) can do to cushion the blow a little bit.

ONE
Spend some time determining what was behind your behavior. Why did you do it? Jenna understood that she did it because she was desperate to be wanted by a boy in this way. Your reasons may be similar, or they may not be. Whatever the reasons, be compassionate with yourself. Be kind. Beneath those reasons are probably more difficult ones: you don't feel loved. You don't feel seen. You don't feel worthwhile or special or real. Find out what that underlying belief is that led you to send the photos and care for yourself. Don't let yourself live inside the shame of what you did. It will get you nowhere. You'll never feel better that way. Be good to yourself right now.

TWO
Figure out who your real friends are and lean on them. Amid those who are scared to be your friend now are also some gems that can put their own concerns aside and genuinely care about you. I know there are. People are good. Lots of teenagers know how to be there for their friends. Seek these friends out. Admit your mistake. Talk about your feelings. Tell them why you think you made the bad choice.

THREE
When people call you names like "slut" and "whore" they are bullying. They are "slut-shaming" (perpetuating cultural limitations put on girls by shaming you for your sexual behavior). They are the ones in the wrong. You made a mistake. You are admitting that mistake. But now they are the ones making bad choices. At least when you made your mistake, you only hurt yourself. They are choosing to hurt someone else. We can't know for sure why they do this - perhaps it is to establish that they are not you. They are not sluts, by God. Perhaps they do it because they are afraid that what's happened to you would happen to them. There is something sad about bullying, don't you think? They have to put you down because they don't have the confidence to feel okay about themselves unless they clarify that they are not you, not you, not you. I'm not saying you have to feel bad for them. But don't let them touch you. Don't allow their insecurities to determine who you are. You made a mistake. They've made plenty of mistakes, too. We all have. At least you are admitting yours.

FOUR
Talk to a trusted adult about what you did and why. Ideally, this adult is your parent, but there are other adults out there who can help: school counselors, teachers, other friends' parents. An adult can help you talk through what's happened and determine a plan of action to deal with the repercussions. For instance, you can start a campaign to help keep other girls from making the same mistake. You can offer to peer counsel other girls. The possibilities are endless.

FIVE
Know it gets better. It does. Right now, your social life at school feels so important. It feels like everything that matters. But you will grow up. You will move on from high school. You will move away, go to college, travel...the world is so much bigger than this one mistake. Whatever happens, don't allow this to determine the rest of your life. If you take on the feelings that led you to send the photos, you'll make better choices in the future. Better things are coming. I promise.

Kerry Cohen is the author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, as well as four young adult novels. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon.

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