Kim Kardashian, nude selfies, and “empowerment”

As I’ve said before, I don’t think sexting is inherently empowering, but I also don’t think it’s inherently disempowering.

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Here’s Jill Filipovic with a great analysis of Kim Kardashian’s nude selfies and the vital difference between feeling empowered and actual power:

“Empowerment” is apparently not about equitable allocation of resources, or influence in politics and policy, or really power at all. It’s shorthand for “I wanted to do this and it made me feel good” (and in Kim’s case, the addendum, “plus it made me a bunch of money”). Which is laudable — feeling good is criminally underrated, and making a bunch of money sounds cool — but feeling “empowered” is not the same as real, actual power. “Empowerment” is an empty catchphrase, a term used primarily to salve over the near-total lack of power held by women and girls around the world, a kind of head-pat to keep us satisfied with subservience. Note that you never hear the word “empowered” used to describe a man. You don’t need to be “empowered” when you are, plainly and simply, powerful.

[Kim] has become wealthy and influential by playing within this system that rewards women for adhering to a narrow hyper-sexy female ideal, and why shouldn’t she? It’s not up to her, or any other woman, to curtail their own earning potential or cultural influence for some hazy idea of the greater feminist good. She didn’t invent sexualization, nor the fact that women who are considered very attractive can often profit from it. The bigger money-makers and culture-drivers in this system are men; it’s hard to blame women for getting a slice. And surely Kim does feel good and even “empowered” by her naked photo — being aesthetically pleasing to others is one way we’ve told girls and women they have value and, to some degree, power, even if that “power” is entirely dependent on men with more power and influence.

This difference between feelings of empowerment and actual power is exactly what I’m getting at in Sexting Panic in my critiques of the girl-power self-esteem training programs for girls. They’re all about helping girls feel better about themselves rather than actually changing any structural conditions. And to be clear, girls feeling more empowered is not a bad thing–no doubt it helps some girls just like all that “lean in” advice helps some women in some workplaces–but these individualistic approaches only change our feelings and are not nearly enough to actually change the balance of power.

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Sexting and sex ed

Great story today at Salon.com by Daniel Denvir about the sexting scandal in Colorado. I love it when journalists can take the long view and see that the problems are systemic–here, that means sex ed and gender norms.

In most Colorado classrooms, as in many nationwide, sex is all danger and no fun. And so, when it comes to actually flirting, making out and having sex, kids get no advice from experts at school. …

Teaching pleasure in sexual education is rare in the United States save for some elite liberal private schools. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In the Netherlands, for example, sexuality education kicks off at age four singing songs about crushes, talking about hugs. Gender stereotypes are addressed at age 8. Sexual orientation and contraceptives at 11.

“For girls, I think the Dutch put a lot more emphasis on the fact that women can make choices,” Amy Schalet, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Alternet. “It’s not like it’s perfect, but there’s at least a conversation about, ‘what do you want? What do you feel?’ You can also see it in the fact that the Dutch are one of the few countries that really openly talk about masturbation for both sexes [during sex education]. It’s often thought that that’s one way that women can really become empowered about their sexuality, when they know about sexual pleasure and their own bodies. That’s not usually part of American sex education.”

Most Dutch teens report consensual and pleasant first sexual experiences, according to PBS Newshour. They have very low teen pregnancy rates, and very high rates of contraceptive use. And low rates of sexually transmitted infections too.

Sexual ignorance contributes to people making such bad decisions about sex, from maliciously sharing explicit photos to sexual harassment and assault—part and parcel of a culture that prioritizes male pleasure as the principal goal of sex and subjugates women as that pleasure’s object.

iCloud hack

This morning my facebook filter bubble is full of impassioned articles defending Jennifer Lawrence and criticizing the victim-blaming attitudes that have emerged in response to the iCloud hack. On balance, it feels like maybe we’re maybe getting somewhere with understanding how to talk about and develop ideas of privacy online. Back in 2007, Disney forced Vanessa Hudgens to take the blame when her nude photos were leaked, and stated: “Vanessa has apologized for what was obviously a lapse in judgment. We hope she’s learned a valuable lesson.”

The defenses of Lawrence might indicate that we’re starting to understand that personal nude photos are meant to be private, and that distributing them without permission is a violation.

From Laci Green’s facebook page:

a “leaked nude” is a NON-CONSENSUAL form of sexual violation and ANYBODY who participates by viewing and sharing is part of the problem.

women’s bodies are NOT public property. we are human beings and we do not exist for other people’s sexual pleasure without our consent. anybody with an ounce of empathy should be horrified and disgusted by this.

And from Clementine Ford at Daily Life:

There are a few different issues that a criminal act like this brings up, but before I get into them it’s necessary to make one thing clear: If you deliberately seek out any of these images, you are directly participating in the violation not just of numerous women’s privacy but also of their bodies. These images – which I have not seen and which I will not look for – are intimate, private moments belonging only to the people who appear in them and who they have invited to see them. To have those moments stolen and broadcast to the world is an egregious act of psychic violence which constitutes a form of assault.

At the same time, I still see schools, parents, and prosecutors blaming teenage girls when classmates distribute their nude photos–shouldn’t we see minors as even less culpable than an adult celebrity? What’s going on here? There are a couple of problems:

1. Teen girls’ sexuality is often seen as deviant or as the result of victimization. Sexting girls are even sometimes blamed for contributing to the social ill of child pornography. JLaw doesn’t have this problem because she’s an adult; Hudgens was too, but was still part of the High School Musical franchise. As Anne Helen Petersen writes, these photos don’t really disrupt the JLaw brand:

They don’t tell you anything new about Lawrence. They don’t make you think differently about her. You know why? Because sexuality isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a dirty secret. In her public appearances and interviews, Lawrence has never attempted to make it so.

2. We’re much better at seeing violence when it’s perpetrated by strangers. JLaw’s photos were leaked by an anonymous hacker, while in most of the teen sexting cases, boyfriends and peers are the privacy violators. An ongoing problem with intimate partner violence is that we still tend to see it as a mutual dispute in which both parties are responsible.

What would it take to view teenagers’ who’ve experienced privacy violations with as much sympathy as we offer celebrities?

Why do we shame victims rather than rapists?

Another disturbing case of a teen’s sexual assault that was recorded, distributed, and the victim-shaming that followed. What would it take to move from a culture of victim-blaming to perpetrator-shaming? Of course, we are happy to ostracize sex offenders when we can see them as deviant strangers, as we do with sex offender registries, and that’s not productive. But when it’s an acquaintance, a boyfriends, a fellow partygoer, we pivot 180 degrees and blame the victim. There has to be a way to change this, so that when people learn about–or even see–a rape, the default, common reaction is to criticize the rapist, not the victim. Not to see him as a monster, but to see that he harmed someone and did a bad thing. It sounds pretty simple, and yet, it’s not happening.

In these moments, I am reminded of Sarah Projansky’s work on the ubiquity of representations of rape in film and popular culture. And I think this helps us understand that these incidents, like Steubenville, are not about teenagers or social media. The ideas about rape they demonstrate are absolutely endemic to our culture. The question is: how do we burn those ideas down?

The fact that Jada, the 16-year-old victim in this case is speaking publicly is astounding. Her bravery, confidence, and clarity about what happened to her is the only encouraging thing about this terrible incident. She says:

I had no control. I didn’t tell anyone to take my clothes off and do what they did to me. … I’m just angry.

If everyone thought about rape as Jada explains it here, we’d be a long way towards solving this problem. She shouldn’t have to explain these things to us. She shouldn’t have to be brave. But we should all be angry. (edited)


Update: Important analysis from Robin Boylorn at CFC about the complications of celebrating Jada’s bravery:

While I join others in supporting and celebrating Jada’s bravery I worry that being proud of her stoicism is an improper response to the trauma she has experienced.  Jada is 16 years old and not only has she been raped, but publicly exposed, outed, mocked, teased and threatened.  Rape victims are usually afforded privacy and time in which to process the trauma.  Jada, however, has been put in a public spotlight and interrogated about an event with consequences that far exceed the immediate backlash and immaturity of peers. Perhaps instead of being proud of her for being strong we should let her be visibly devastated, distraught, shocked, and inconsolable.  Maybe instead of being impressed that blackgirls can withstand so much suffering and become role models for strength, we should be concerned about their emotional wellness, their vulnerability, their humanity.

… The problem with blackgirl strength is that it never lets up. Blackgirls don’t have the luxury of a time out or a break to breathe. The problem with blackgirl strength is that our very lives are stake and if we don’t learn to mask our pain we won’t know how to survive. The problem with blackgirl strength is that practice makes perfect and after while we have that strength, no pain, never let ‘em see you sweat ish down pat. The problem with blackgirl strength is that it doesn’t offer protection. The problem with blackgirl strength is that nobody ever tells us we don’t have to be strong and we don’t know how not to be. That is a problem.

“Sexting’s perverse double standard: Why girls are set up to fail”

There’s a great new article on sexting up at Salon.com today by S E Smith. Perhaps I am biased because the author mentioned my Sexting as media production article, but I think it’s a great overview of the sexism in the ways we tend to think about sexting.

Smith concludes:

The real problem isn’t sexually explicit messaging, which is simply a normal expression of adolescent sexuality. It’s how we’re raising our boys, and what we’re telling them about girls.