Sexting illustrations and an interview in the Westword

Here’s an interview that appeared online and in print in Denver’s alt weekly magazine, the Westword: “Teen sexting laws: Author sees their roots in slut shaming.”

I am really happy with the way this reporter used my comments about gender, sexuality, and slut-shaming. In a lot of other stories they tend to gloss over that. But here it’s even in the headline of the online version! I think the best part is the image that accompanies the print version. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but for the first time it feels like the person who chose the image actually read the article and found a way to illustrate a story about sexting without using a sexualized image of a teen girl. IMG_3237
Nearly all stories about sexting that include an image use a stock image of teenager using a mobile phone, a parent looking at a phone in shock (there is one image that’s been used over and over for years), and for many, a sexy (often partially obscured, pixelated, darkened, or blurred) image of a teenage girl sexting.

sexting-angry momThe hypocrisy, of course, is that in articles that harshly judge teenagers for sexting, and condemn girls for “sexualizing themselves,” the adults who illustrate these stories seem to have no qualms with producing sexual images of teenage girls. Apparently it’s only a moral problem when the girls create such images themselves. When adults choose, create, publish, and look at these images it seems to be no big deal. These stories, and the broader mass media landscape that routinely offers sexualized and objectifying images of women, are saying to teenage girls: Do as we say, not as we do.

It would be fair, or at least consistent if we either (1) stopped creating and looking at any objectifying images of women or (2) if we could stop shaming girls (and women) for participating in the production of these images.

Emma Holten: “Someone stole naked pictures of me. This is what I did about it”

Holten recounts the thousands of harassing messages she received after her stolen photos were posted online. She explains that this has nothing to do with her. It’s about the hatred of women.

Holten writes:

These messages were from men all over the world. Teen boys, university students, nuclear-family dads. The only thing they had in common was that they were all men. They knew it was against my will, that I didn’t want to be on those sites. The realisation that my humiliation turned them on felt like a noose around my neck. The absence of consent was erotic, they relished my suffering.

It’s one thing to be sexualised by people who are attracted to you, but it’s quite another thing when the lack of a ‘you’, when dehumanization, is the main factor. I realised that if I had been a model sexualising herself I would have been of little interest. My body was not the appealing factor. Furthermore, I saw that my loss of control legitimised the harrasment. I was a fallen woman, anyone’s game. What was I aside from a whore who had got what she deserved?

Pornography and sexting correlations

A new study finds that sending, receiving, or asking for a sext is significantly correlated with pornography use. The researchers conclude:

Not only does our research enable a deeper understanding of adolescent sexting behavior, it also extends the literature on the effects of pornography and music video viewing. … Our study [shows] that pornography use is not only associated with adolescents’ offline sexual behaviors but that it is also linked with a virtual form of sexual experimentation (i.e., sexting). (p.5)

The correlation they found may indeed indicate that viewing pornography causes sexting, as they imply in their conclusion. However, there is also another possible explanation: People who like looking at commercially produced sexual images also like looking at privately produced sexual images.

“We need to shift discourse away from discussing sexual and suggestive photos as inappropriate and abnormal, and rather focus on the inappropriate acts of sharing. This not only places blame back where it belongs – on those violating privacy – but also moves away from discourse that demonizes expressions of sexuality; instead we ought to approach sexually suggestive and explicit pictures as part of normal sexual expression, exploration, and intimacy.”

– Jacqueline Ryan Vickery, “Oh Snap! Stop Shaming the Sext

Our current system of data privacy is based on a fundamental flaw. We are all supposed to be solely responsible for our personal information, but at the same time we are all part of a social network of family, friends and services with whom we are expected to share.

Our data systems ask us to be individually responsible but fail to account for how and why we share data with each other. They assume our data is personal, when in reality it is interpersonal. We are caught between opting out entirely and managing an impossible number of changing services with finesse. We do all this with our most important relationships at stake.

– Janet Vertesi

Never read the comments

I was quoted last week in a Yahoo Parenting article explaining that consensual sexting is not inherently harmful and that we should instead be concerned about coercion, harassment and privacy violations.

While I’ve said similar things before in many different popular publications, Yahoo Parenting readers seem to be an especially active group of commentators who were particularly offended by my arguments. Of nearly 200 comments, almost all of them are negative.

What’s interesting to me about these comments is how strongly people reacted and how irrational their responses were. Some only read the phrase that “consensual sexting is not harmful” and were outraged that privacy violations were not mentioned–of course this is mentioned a couple lines further down in the article.

Many more felt that the idea that “consensual sexting is not harmful” is so absurd that they could only respond with exaggerated ad hominem attacks:

  • This expert is clearly on drugs (since Colorado recently legalized retail sales of pot)
  • This expert is not really an expert
  • This expert just wants to sell books (if only they knew how little money we make on academic books!)
  • This expert is an idiot

What this illustrates is that for these readers the idea that “consensual sexting is not harmful” violates their common sense ideas so thoroughly that they cannot actually consider the argument at all. I imagine that they view my argument as an attack on their deeply held beliefs–thus the only response is to attack back with what they perceive to be equal force and equal disregard for the speaker.

But if the idea is so absurd, why respond at all? While they clearly don’t see it as one side of a legitimate controversy (and thus worth serious consideration), they must feel as though the idea is at least nipping at the heels of a rational argument, or else why bother to engage with it at all?

While I can’t control exactly how journalists quote me–other than refusing all interviews–how can I hope to reach people like this and encourage some of them to think critically about their common sense beliefs?

When I’m explaining my arguments to anyone I don’t know, I never lead with “consensual sexting is not harmful.” Instead, I try to establish with my audience that we both care about protecting young people. I tell them that research shows that around a third of teens will sext. So our task, I say, is to think about how to reduce the potential harm. By the way, I add in, we know abstinence-only sex ed is a failure, so we can guess that abstinence-only sexting policies will be too. Then I explain that the child pornography laws that apply to sexting are too harsh and that they criminalize victims of privacy violations. Coercion, harassment and privacy violations are serious problems we need to address, I say, but consensual sexting is not inherently harmful. Risky, yes, but not causing harm in and of itself.

Obviously people are more inhibited from calling me an “idiot” in person than in anonymous online comments, but so far most people have reacted to my logic fairly well. Even if they disagree on moral grounds that personal sexual photography is wrong, they seem to understand my arguments about harm reduction and the problems with victim-blaming. After all, I’m not disrupting the idea that girls (teens too) are vulnerable and in need of protection. Once I confirm that for my audience, some are willing to consider that maybe consensual sexting is not inherently harmful.

So unless I can control how to roll out my argument and establish common ground with my audience first, I’m not sure there’s a way for me to encourage critical thinking about common sense assumptions like “sexting is bad” without being seen as ridiculous. I imagine I’ll keep talking to the press because I think it’s important to try to shift the conversation about sexting, even though I know that fighting common sense will never be easy.

So the real lesson from this is, of course: never read the comments.