Why do people think I’m saying ‘sexting is empowering’?

Empowerment is outstretched arms and a lens flare.

Students reading my “Sexting as media production” article sometimes think I’m saying that sexting is empowering, though I make no such claim. In that article, and elsewhere, I am critical of the urge to label practices as agentic or not, empowering or not, as resistance or subordination. I have been taken with Saba Mahmood‘s view of agency since the day I read it. She challenges us to see that space between agency and conformity that we all reside in.

The interesting question is: If I am saying: “Sexting is not necessarily disempowering or victimizing or the result of coercion,” why do so many people hear instead: “Sexting is empowering.”

In the sense that “empowering” means making someone stronger or more confident, then in the case of sexual expression and communication, then certainly, sexting could be empowering for a person.

But like any sex act that some enjoy and others don’t, that carries risks and offers benefits, sexting is not, in and of itself, empowering. Would anyone say that oral sex is empowering? Is eating chocolate cake empowering? If it is just a form of pleasure, we don’t tend to write empowerment into the narrative.

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What is empowerment if the Onion was already mocking it in 2003?

So there must be something else at play here, and that highlights my discomfort with the word “empowerment”–it is often used to describe the actions of people we think normally lack the will to empower themselves. Rich white men learning about investing is not empowering because we expect them to do that. Women learning about investing is seen as empowering. Boys playing football is not seen as empowering, because they are supposed to play football, but girls playing soccer or learning to code is seen as empowering because we think it’s exceptional.

What I’m getting at here is that looking at someone else’s behavior and labeling it “empowering” says more about the observer than the observed. It says that observer (1) does not expect that behavior from the observed and (2) that they approve of that behavior. It’s a bit like calling an African American speaker “articulate,” which demonstrates the observer’s racism in assuming that the speaker would be incompetent–whites never get praised for being “articulate” unless they are children.

Looking at others’ gendered behavior and calling it “empowering” may be part of a profound ambivalence that we hold about gender roles. We want to enforce gender roles and police their boundaries, but we also don’t want to think that anyone is coerced by culture or social norms to behave in so-called inauthentic ways. We are so uncomfortable with the idea that social norms might be choosing our choices for us, that we are enamored with examples that say we can resist and transcend gender roles in small, particular ways.

For example, according to a Prevention.com article, I said:

When you don’t have someone in front of you, gender roles slip away and you feel disinhibited about expressing what you really desire.

If you’ve ever met me, I’m sure you’re aware of how unlikely it would be for me to ever say that “gender roles slip away.” I tend to harp on and on about how gender roles are inescapable–I rant about how we work with and against them, but they are always there. You might be tired of me saying all the time, “But that’s because gender!” or, “Isn’t gender a factor here?” or “WHAT ABOUT GENDER?” Because I am trained to see the social construction of gender and sexuality everywhere and at all times. You might accuse me of seeing gender more readily and easily than race, class, or ability (and I am working on that), or of holding on to a Foucaultian view that there is no outside of power, discourse, etc. (no apologies for this one). But, no, you would never hear me say anything like “gender slips away” without a million qualifications.

I had carefully explained to this particular Prevention.com journalist that there are some studies that suggest that some women may be able to transcend the gender roles that women are supposed to politely tolerate sexual harassment and to not be too expressive about their sexual needs. That the online disinhibition effect predicts that some people may be more disinhibited (in both positive and negative ways) when communicating online. I can see how he rounded all that up to “gender roles slip away.”

But I think it’s a bit more than just the typical journalistic mangling of scientific research into a overly simplistic soundbite. This one’s certainly not the first to misquote and misunderstand me in this particular way. Maybe they mishear because they really want gender roles to be something that can “slip away” by merely turning on a mobile phone. The idea that we mindlessly follow cultural norms is at odds with our assumptions about individuality, so we want everyone to be agents, willfully and happily choosing their choices, able to transcend social norms at any moment if they choose. And able, by extension, to solve sexism and end inequality simply by sexting, by simply doing pleasurable things that we label “empowerment.”

And this is why I have to resist the label “empowering.” In my experience, the word “empowering” is usually used to describe a person’s feelings and not their actual power or agency in the world. Feeling empowered is great. But I want women to be actually, genuinely empowered with the social, legal, and economic resources they need. Women need wage equity, maternity leave, and to not be assaulted by police or to die in police custody. Simply feeling empowered isn’t going to address any of these systemic problems.