Dear Captain Awkward,
I would like some advice on how to deal with this. Let’s start in the beginning. It was the beginning of the school year (8th), when a boy asked for my number. (We will call him Earl) I gave it to Earl only to wait for practically half the school year until I get a text from him. Of course, I could have talked to him in the single class we share. But I was extremely awkward and did not know how I could initiate a conversation with him. Our text conversation was very awkward. After several other conversations, Earl suddenly asked for a selfie of myself. Right after that, he sent a (unwanted) photo of himself, which made me feel like I had to send him a photo in return.
Several weeks later, I saw Earl in the hallway and was about to greet him when I saw him walk towards another girl and hug her. I assumed that she was either a family member (many students’ relatives attend our school) or a close friend. I later found out they were actually dating, that Earl was actually a player, and showed off the pictures he acquired from multiple other girls to other boys. He also asked for a few of my friends’ numbers, even when I was in the same room! I was devastated and felt like it was my fault it happened. Earl even sat with my friends and I during lunch and asked for their names (Just thought I would add that). That was a month ago. We have not talked in that time. Two days ago, he began texting me again. Once again, Earl requested a photo of myself. This time I declined. Immediately after I said no, he just (and I quote) said “K, gn”. I would like to cut ties with him completely. I’m not sure if this is a bad enough problem for you to share some advice, but I would be grateful if you could help.
I am so sorry this is happening to you. It is gross and scary and NOT YOUR FAULT. I’m glad you wrote to me, though, because you are not alone and we need to figure out how to stop this kind of stuff and how to make that process safe for kids like you.
To be clear, I don’t think you were talking about clothed selfies of the human face in your letter, is it okay if I proceed with that assumption? If I’m wrong, well, I’d love to be wrong. It would be the best wrong I’ve been all year.
You have met a predatory and manipulative jerk. You didn’t do anything wrong. “Earl” did everything he did on purpose. He does the exact same thing to lots of girls and his way of operating makes y’all feel like it was your fault and that you’re the only ones it’s happening to. The photos he sends you are deliberate – They make you feel obligated, even if you say “Ew, no” it still gives him a thrill and a feeling of power to cross your boundaries like that and get away with it. The photos y’all send him are his “insurance” that you’ll be too ashamed to tell anyone or that, if you do, you’ll be in trouble yourself for also sending a picture.
It’s time to talk about informed consent, which means, roughly, that before you take any course of action you should know clearly what you’re getting into so you can make the best possible decision for yourself based on all available information. Informed consent, not coincidentally, is what Earl denied you by sending you a photo of Earl Jr. without asking first if you wanted to see it.
There are probably going to be commenters who tell you to drop what you’re doing and “Call the police right now!” Involving the police might be the right thing to do and it might extremely not be the right thing to do, depending on where you live and what the laws are like there. It also depends on what was in the photo that you sent vs. the one that he sent. There are some places where, even if you and Earl were girlfriend and boyfriend passionately and consensually sharing these images, you could both be convicted of possessing and distributing child pornography and end up with very scary sex offender convictions. I wish I were kidding about that, but here’s a link to an article by a lawyer about these laws where I live, Illinois, USA.
What Earl is doing seems to me like a clear pattern of predatory behavior designed to trick girls into sending him compromising photos and it needs stopped, for sure, but it’s risky for you when the laws can be so badly designed. Adults are completely terrified of teen sexuality and without knowing where you live and what the laws are like and what the general “Oh well, boys will be boys, what can you do?” attitudes are like, I can’t make a clean “Oh yes, def. call the police on this pooplord!” recommendation as much as I’d like to. More like, if you want to call the police do it with the help of a lawyer who can expertly guide you and protect you in the process.
There are probably going to be commenters who insist that you tell your parents what happened immediately. Some parents will be understanding and supportive and take action to protect you but also listen to and respect what you want to do. Some will absolutely flip their lids and take action (like bringing in law enforcement without fully considering what that means for you) (or freaking out that you sent a photo, too, and punishing you) that might not be what’s actually best for you. I 100% hope that you can tell your parents, but I grew up in the kind of house where my mom would be so ashamed of and angry at me for complying that it would probably not be worth it to tell her because the “What were you thinking?” “How could you be so stupid?” cloud of judgment would be worse punishment for me than anything that might happen to Earl or the prospect of 1 blurry photo of my teenaged nubbins out in the world. You are the expert on your own parents, so, trust your instincts here.
If you do decide to tell your parents, maybe do it in a note? Sample text or script you could adapt:
“Mom, Dad (or Mom & Mom/Dad & Dad), I need to tell you something really uncomfortable that happened and I am scared that you’ll be ashamed of me or mad at me.
A boy at school that I liked asked for my number and we’ve been texting. He sent me a naked picture of himself and asked me to send one in return. I’m embarrassed to say this but I did. After I sent it I realized that he doesn’t really like me and that he does this to lots of girls. I want him to stop doing this to all of us and I don’t know what to do.
I have been scared to tell anyone about this because I sent a photo, too. Since it happened I learned that there are laws about this that could get me in just as much trouble as the boy. Before we do anything can we talk to a lawyer who knows about this stuff to make sure I won’t get in trouble for coming forward?”
One common piece of advice is that you tell a trusted adult – a family member, a teacher, or maybe a school counselor what happened. Someone who can stop Earl and get him out of this pattern. I think this is 99.9% a very, very good idea with some reservations. Teachers and school counselors and anyone at your school are probably “mandated reporters.” That means that if they know or suspect abuse of some kind is happening, they must call law enforcement. This is to protect kids, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t ever tell them scary stuff, but it means that if you say “If I tell you something, do you promise to keep it between us?” sometimes they legally can’t make you that promise. They could lose their jobs, or be charged as an accessory or sued for covering up the problem.
This is why a lot of people use hypothetical situations to have these conversations, like the classic “I’m asking for a friend” scenario. For you it might mean saying “If I thought a boy at school was sending nude pictures to girls and trying to get them to send them back so he can show his friends, what should I do?” The obvious question on the teacher’s mind is “Which boy” (or, tbh, “It’s Earl, right?“) or “Did this happen to you?” but if you give everybody a fig leaf of plausible deniability at first you might get an idea of the teacher’s approach before you tell more details. “Can you tell me what the process of reporting that looks like? Have you ever had to deal with something like this before? What happened? What would happen to the boy? Would the girls get in trouble, too?” Figure out how informed, how aggressive, how sexist* this person is before you pour your heart out.
I’m sorry that so much of what I wrote is hypothetical and not a clear recommended course of action. It’s hard to be a kid and to not have much control over your situation, and it’s hard to live in a culture that is so inconsistent in how we treat victims of this kind of behavior. It’s hard to have such a clear right answer – “Stop this dude before he rapes someone!” – and to have so little trust in the processes or systems that exist to protect you. But I think there are a couple of things you 100% can control and that will make you feel safer:
Talk to a trained counselor outside of your school & the mandated reporting umbrella. For example, here is a link to the crisis resources available at Scarleteen, including a message board for staff & peer support, a texting service, and anonymous online chats. You’ll find people will believe you, who won’t judge you, who won’t think you’re weird, who are aware of how depressingly common what you went through is. You can get a real-time sounding board while you figure out what to do. Telling more comforting strangers (like you told us) can make it easier for you tell other people. (P.S. Scarleteen is a national treasure and they run that place on love and a shoestring. If you’re a grownup reading this and looking to fund some good, here’s a donation link).
Take screen shots of everything he sent you and that you sent him, including the pictures and email them to yourself or save them somewhere so you have documentation of what happened.
Block his number, forever and always. Preemptively block him on all conceivable social media platforms. Congratulations, Earl is now dead to you. Blank his pathetic ass in the halls of academia.
Beware of his gross friends who looked at the photos without saying “Whoa, not cool, man.” Those boys do not get your phone number in this lifetime.
If he gets in some trouble, good. You didn’t “get him in trouble” or “ruin his life.” If he’s harassing the girls in his class this way, he needs to deal with some consequences, and now, while he’s still a kid, is the right time for some serious intervention. If he threatens you, harms you, retaliates against you, makes you feel targeted and unsafe, damn the torpedoes and tell an adult.
Learn the rules about sexual harassment in your school. Does your school have a policy about this? What does it say? Is it good enough? Down the road, maybe through student government or the school newspaper, you could help shape a better policy that would protect kids like you from pervs like Earl? (Part of me is like AUGGGGHHHH YOU ARE 14 YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE TO RESEARCH THIS, and part of me is like FUTURE AMAZON WARRIOR IN TRAINING!!!!!)
Tell other girls. “Hey, have you ever had anything weird happened with Earl, where he sends you pictures and tries to get you to send him one, too?” You’ll be able to tell from how they react, and you can say “Yeah, that happened to me, too. It’s not your fault!” Spreading the word about him is powerful. Reminding yourself and each other that you’re not alone and that it’s not your fault is powerful. Maybe the other girls could all go with you to tell a teacher or a school counselor as a group.
Warn other girls. When you see Earl single someone out, you can warn her – “I know Earl seems cool, but chances are he WILL send you a dick pic and try to get you to send him a photo so he can show it to all his friends.”
Be a safe landing place for other girls. Say you warn a girl, but she’s under the Earl-spell so she blows you off at first, but then it happens to her and she’s clearly embarrassed. Be kind to her. You know how she feels. Don’t blame or judge or “I told you so!” her. Don’t ever look at the photos if they get forwarded around, or make fun of her for it. Just say, “Yeah, you were kind of a jerk to me before, but I probably would have done the same thing before I knew what he was really like. It’s not your fault,” and add her to your powerful girl-army.
I wish I could build you a world without Notes From A Boner, where I never had to use the words “The next time you get some random screen peen…” but, there will be a next time and it will always kind of ruin your day a little because WHY ARE DUDES?
However, one tiny benefit of this upsetting situation it’s that your NOPE! meter will work much better from now on and it probably won’t ruin your week. The next intrusive wang you see will get a “Weird, why would you send me that?” and the cold release of the block button. Or, (true story) when you’re older and trying to sell a bike on Craigslist and some dude sends you a pathetic and revolting photo from firstname.lastname@example.org,” you’ll forward the email to email@example.com with a note saying “I got this from one of your employees today, you might want to check to see if he’s been hacked? Surely no one from your excellent company would send something like this to a stranger. I hope you can get to the bottom of this embarrassing incident, good luck!” Instead of wondering if it’s your fault somehow, Future You will let these losers reap the whirlwind of your contempt and indifference.
Sending so much love your way, Troubled Teen. We believe you. It’s not your fault.
*”Aw, boys will be boys, amirite?” = ABORT & possibly tell someone in authority “I tried to talk to [Teacher] about a sexual harassment situation and he said ‘boys will be boys’ and would not take it seriously at all.”