Restoring justice and transforming online communities

Lately my work has focused on thinking about how it could be possible to design online communities with the principles of restorative and transformative justice.

Rosalie Gillett interviewed me, Tarleton Gillespie, and Leigh Goodmark on these topics for a recent episode of Future Tense:

Flyer for the IBSA symposium.

I’ve also presented parts of this new research at the “Community Driven Governance Online: Past, Present, and Future” workshop, which was organized by the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, at Annenberg’s Center for Media at Risk symposium, “Image-Based Abuse: Prevalence, Resistance, Prevention,” and at the Akasha event “Designing for moderating decentralized social networks.” A recording of my Akasha presentation is available below.

But how does all this scale? Nathan Schneider and I have a draft of a paper grappling with that question, “From Scalability to Subsidiarity in Addressing Online Harm.” Feedback on this work would be very welcome!

Sexting and sex ed

Great story today at 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.

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.

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.