In the affluent seaside town of Duxbury, Massachusetts (nicknamed “Deluxeberry,” for its oceanfront homes), rumors of the not-so-secret Dropbox account had been circulating all year. On it were said to be folders named after some 50 Duxbury High School girls, each containing revealing or even nude photos.
How had those photos, known as “noods” in Internet slang, come to exist? Some girls had sent their photos to boyfriends, trusting that they would keep them private; others to boys they were crushing on, hoping to impress or land a potential hookup. Some had refused requests for pictures, but out of frustration or vindictiveness, someone doctored up nude photos with their name or face and posted it anyway.
Eventually, school authorities were tipped off. “People were getting called down to the office left and right,” one female Duxbury High student, “Ginny,” says in an interview. “Girls were freaking out, and the boys were deleting the Dropbox [app] off their phones. A lot of the girls who knew they were in the Dropbox weren’t coming to school.” Boys and girls were hauled into the police station for questioning, and TV news crews parked themselves on campus for five days, trying to convince students to speak with reporters.
“There are some young people here who are very embarrassed and very upset,” Police Chief Matthew Clancy said at the time. But when you talk to the girls directly, you find that what they dreaded most was not so much the photos circulating online, but the news getting out to adults. “I don’t think the girls were all that embarrassed,” Ginny says. “They just were afraid of getting in trouble and sent to the police station with their parents.”
Although police viewed the girls as the victims, there was still cause for concern. Because Massachusetts, like many states, had no specific laws related to minors sexting, any teen caught distributing a nude photo, even a selfie, could technically be charged with a felony count of child pornography, bringing the possibility of prison time and placement on the sex offenders registration list.
As documented in Nancy Jo Sales’s 2016 book American Girls, this phenomenon of boys pressuring girls to share nudes, and then often betraying that trust by sharing them online, has become widespread, popping up in small towns like Canon City, Colorado; Winnetka, Illinois; and Knoxville, Iowa. “Every one of my colleagues have been dealing with this; it’s becoming a norm,” says Clancy.
One study of teenagers in Texas basically concluded that sexting is the new first base. In a 2012 survey of college students published by Elizabeth Englander of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, 30 percent admitted that during high school they had sent nude photos, and 45 percent reported that they had received them. The risk of these photos getting passed around is not insignificant — the students said that about a quarter of the time, their photos were spread beyond the original receiver, especially when they’d been pressured to send them in the first place. In a 2015 follow-up, Englander found that 70 percent of the sexters reported feeling coerced, at times, to do so.
“I’m asked all the time for pictures,” says Ginny, the Duxbury junior. “I’ve experienced boys begging and begging . . . Boys always say, ‘Of course I won’t save it . . . I won’t show anybody . . .’ But really they do. Even if you send it over Snapchat, the boys have an app that will save the pictures without the girls knowing.”
“The browbeating that goes on with young men to young women to get these is ridiculous, until they say, ‘Here, fine, just shut up,’ ” says former Duxbury High School principal Andrew Stephens (now principal at Lexington High School). “The ability to stand up and say no, and be willing to have whatever is threatened [actually] be done, that’s a tall order to a lot of girls.” Adults, he says, need to realize this is a new hazard their kids face.
Sue Scheff is an author and cybersafety advocate. Melissa Schorr is a Globe Magazine contributing editor. Adapted from their book “Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate.” Copyright © 2017 by Sue Scheff and Melissa Schorr. Used with permission from Sourcebooks, Inc., all rights reserved. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Melissa Schorr will be signing copies of the book Saturday, October 14, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Hingham.