Book review by Noah Berlatsky in Reason magazine: The Misguided War on Sexting: America is taking a punitive approach to teens who send each other explicit messages—and it’s backfiring.
On the the shift to an algorithmically organized culture
Just because we live with Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t mean we fully understand it. And even for those who know that Facebook curates our News Feeds algorithmically, it’s difficult as a culture to get beyond some very old and deeply sedimented ways to think about how information gets to us.
The public reaction to this research is proof of these persistent beliefs — a collective groan from our society as it adjusts to a culture that is algorithmically organized. Because social media, and Facebook most of all, truly violates a century-old distinction we know very well, between what were two, distinct kinds of information services.
On the one hand, we had “trusted interpersonal information conduits” — the telephone companies, the post office. Users gave them information aimed for others and the service was entrusted to deliver that information. We expected them not to curate or even monitor that content, in fact we made it illegal to do otherwise; we expected that our communication would be delivered, for a fee, and we understood the service as the commodity, not the information it conveyed.
On the other hand, we had “media content producers” — radio, film, magazines, newspapers, television, video games — where the entertainment they made for us felt like the commodity we paid for (sometimes with money, sometimes with our attention to ads), and it was designed to be as gripping as possible. We knew that producers made careful selections based on appealing to us as audiences, and deliberately played on our emotions as part of their design. We were not surprised that a sitcom was designed to be funny, even that the network might conduct focus group research to decide which ending was funnier (A/B testing?). But we would be surprised, outraged, to find out that the post office delivered only some of the letters addressed to us, in order to give us the most emotionally engaging mail experience.
Non-consensually recorded and non-consensually posted pictures and video of people in sexual situations may be frequently called “revenge porn,” but they are very different from the way the actual porn industry operates. I perform in commercial porn with high production values, porn in which stacks of paperwork — including model releases and 2257 compliance documentation — confirm the age, identity, and legal consent of the performers to both the recording and distribution of the resulting product.
Professional adult entertainment, though often maligned and defined by its worst iterations — like the dramatized biographies based on the stories of Linda Lovelace and Traci Lords — is largely an industry where consent is absolutely necessary. This is not to say that it is a utopia full of sunshine and vulva daisies — it isn’t — but it most certainly requires consent, consent that may be given based on a variety of reasons, from the desire to indulge an exhibitionistic streak to calculations that balance the pressures of economic necessity against willingness to work in a stigmatized and sometimes risky field.
I like her idea to hold websites that host nonconsensual sexual images to the same standard that the law holds for consensual, legal pornography:
It’s terrible to see women who don’t wish to be seen naked in public forced into navigating the stigma associated with visible, public record of their sexuality. And I’m happy to see Twitter and Reddit finally taking steps to curtail this violation of privacy. But I think executives at these companies can do a little better than just allowing users to report violations of their updated terms of service: They should require proof of consent before a nude image is posted, period.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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?