When I Was a 13-Year-Old Camgirl

Before sexting even existed, I was stripping on webcam for boys at my school. My only regret is being found out.

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Oct 12 2015, 1:00pm

Photo by BONNINSTUDIO via Stocksy

I was speaking to my dad on the phone last month when we started talking about sexting. He asked, his voice swollen with pained incredulity, if I'd heard how a 14-year-old boy from the north of England had been put onto a police database after sending a naked picture of himself to a girl of the same age via Snapchat.

"Isn't it awful? This boy's life will never be the same again, " my dad said, recounting how the boy's school had gotten in touch with the police after his sext began circulating among students. I listened on the other end of the line with a sinking heart and a tightening chest.

We talked about the anonymous boy; about his life, his feelings, and the harm he is now enduring and will endure for far longer. We were also talking about me.

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Sexting, of course, is a word of adult invention. Its etymology betrays a disconnect with youth, and when ascribed to the behavior of minors, its usage is mainly employed in conjunction with parental panic. But sexting isn't a recent invention—it's the result of the natural progression in how adolescent sexuality is communicated in an ever-advancing digital age. Before Snapchat, there was BBM; before BBM was MMS, and before we took virtual sexual communications on the go, there was the humble webcam.

The webcam, that bulbous little fly on the wall, was a status symbol in the days of MSN Messenger. I had to have one. On my 13th birthday, my parents trudged after me in Brent Cross Shopping Centre in suburban London as I picked out my first ever personal computer. I didn't have any requirements that needed meeting except one: That it came with a webcam. My parents didn't know any better, though they kept asking why the damn webcam was so important to me.

One boy asked me to jerk off for him, but I declined; that was that.

To be fair, the journey of my sexuality had started long before the webcam's mechanical eye. It started when I was seven years old, hiding in the toilets at my all-girls' primary school and learning how to kiss with my classmates. I wasn't much older than nine when I clicked on a porn pop-up and realized that masturbation could now be accompanied with video and images.

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My move to a mixed-gender school at 11 coincided with my first experiences of cat-calling: Men in cars told me I had a "nice ass" as I skipped to the shops. I was aware not only of my own sexual desires but also the desires of others. That awareness gave me a licence to freely explore my own sexuality from a young age. At least, that's what it felt like.

To put it simply—and to me, it really was simple—I had an arrangement with around five or six boys in my year at school when I was 13 years old. I would log on to MSN Messenger almost immediately after I got home from school. Just as everyone else did, I'd talk shit with whoever was online. But as soon as one of the boys in the know logged on, all other conversations halted.

They would usually ask me to strip, sometimes half-naked, sometimes completely. After ten minutes or so, our conversation would end; I'd move onto another boy. One boy asked me to jerk off for him, but I declined; that was that.

After a blissful year of camming, my entire life as I knew it flipped on its head in the space of a day. One of the boys told his mother, or maybe she found out some other way. And despite my activities being more or less widely known throughout the male population of my year at school, the fact that it was now known outside of the sanctioned circle turned it unacceptable.

When I walked into school on the first day of Year 9, I knew that everyone knew. My parents knew; the other children's parents knew; I'm pretty sure that every teacher at my very small school knew. I came home to a handwritten, hand-posted letter from my best friends, explaining exactly why what I had done was disgusting, and that as a result they could now no longer associate themselves with me. I was a pariah.

The boys around me were expected to be sexual. But my own desires and enjoyment? They were unacceptable.

Aside from one scolding by my parents—which was a combination of anger, disgust, and disappointment—we barely exchanged words on the subject. Despite my peers and teachers unequivocally agreeing that what I had done was Wrong and Bad, I was never offered any form of comfort, guidance, or support at school. At home, my diary was taken off me and analyzed for further evidence of sexual misconduct; a strict curfew and constant surveillance of my goings-on was put in place.

As a semi-beginner's introduction to double standards, the boys involved escaped any visible punishment in school. They got some pats on the back from their peers. I, on the other hand, was a slut.

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I began to self-harm and developed the body dysmorphia that planted the seeds of disordered eating in my late teens. I had been a confident and precocious child, but suddenly I questioned everything about myself. I didn't know whether what I'd done was OK; I didn't know if the sexual feelings and the enjoyment I got from it were OK, either. The boys around me were expected to be sexual. But my own desires and enjoyment? They were unacceptable.

My sense of self and self-worth evaporated.

When I think back on my camming days, I remember being at peace with myself. I wanted to be sexual. I chose to engage in sexual activity. To me, stripping on webcam wasn't just an informed choice that I made, but one that was affirmed by informed consent. The camming never changed anything in me while it was happening; it was the reaction that destroyed my perception of myself and my sexuality.

Perhaps this is exceptional. Raw data on the sexual activities of children in the UK is hard to come by; even then, there is no way to differentiate which of these activities are the result of social pressure, coercion, and which are not. According to the law, what I was unknowingly doing was creating and distributing child pornography. But my webcamming not only helped me to better understand myself in terms of sexual preference, but it also gave me confidence. And on a basic level, the exhibitionism turned me on. The real damage I endured would only emerge one year on.

"Everyone has a right to express their sexuality as long as this does no harm to anyone else, including wider harm to society," Dr Fiona Grey of Rape Crisis South London told me. "From our work with young people what we see is that the reality of 'sexting' is rarely about free expression, but rather it frequently takes place in contexts of coercion and pressure."

As hard as it may be for lawmakers and educators to believe, stripping on camera was my choice.

So what does my 13-year-old self's consent mean when all parties are under the age of consent? Pretty much nothing in the eyes of the law. In the UK, the law does not believe that children can exercise an informed choice when it comes to sexual behavior, and there is subsequently no desire for institutions and organisations to factor in this possibility when handling such cases.

Like the 14-year-old boy from England, I was also completely unaware of the potential legal consequences of my actions. As Dr Grey puts it: "[Rape Crisis South London] do a whole session [in schools] on the distribution of sexual images, including the law, and young people are always shocked that they could get charged with distributing or creating child pornography." When asked if she felt that children could be taught to respect one another's privacy in order to create a 'safer' environment in which sexting takes place, she responded, "[The issue] is not about a respect for privacy. Sexual images are used as 'currency' in the lives of young people, with boys encouraged to share any images of girls that they have received in order to prove their masculinity and heterosexuality."

As hard as it may be for lawmakers and educators to believe, stripping on camera was my choice. I still stand by that. Had my peers been told to handle sexualized digital communication with trust and sensitivity, rather than to refrain from doing it at all (something that is pretty much impossible to enforce) the total damage done to me and others in my situation could have been minimized.

Childhood sexuality is unbelievably taboo. While young girls are overwhelmed with mixed signals from the media simultaneously praising and condemning female bodies and their sexual availability, the real-life experiences of children are swept under the rug. I don't know if I can quantify how much my 13-year-old sexuality was informed by those messages—or how much was simply a part of a natural progression of discovery—but I do know that I was comfortable with myself, long before I was made to feel otherwise by those around me.

Just a few weeks ago, another story emerged about a 17-year-old in North Carolina whose sexts to his 16-year-old girlfriend have resulted in him being charged with sexual exploitation of a minor. These cases pop up time and again, with little to no change in how the law deals with them. Age of consent laws are vital in protecting children against pedophilia and statutory rape, but in these sexting cases they can end up doing more harm than good to the kids and teenagers involved.

A human rights and public law barrister, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that the law was still playing catch-up with contemporary teen sexuality. "It's an area where teenage life and experimentation clashes with what the law is intended to achieve," he said. "So the difficulty for a lawmaker is: How can you create a law which protects children from abuse and exploitation and still keeps up to pace with the behavior of teenagers?"

From a legal standpoint, it appears that little can change in how these cases are dealt with. "It would be a very dangerous move for the law to try and accommodate all different kinds of teenage experimentation because of the potential for abuse," the barrister continued. "Every option we've discussed leads back to: You're inviting pedophilia."

But you can't stop teenagers from experimenting, whether it's via sexts or on webcam. Until we do, we should focus on helping kids be safer and more supported if they do choose to engage in sexual activity, online and offline. It's disheartening to see that—as was the case for me—society is still entirely unequipped to support minors who are either choosing to engage in sexualized communications, or worst of all, being pressured into doing so.

I feel lucky that what I did as a 13-year-old hasn't landed me with a spot on a police database; I don't feel lucky for how I was treated after the fact. But no child should face the consequences I did, let alone land a criminal record for it.