Sexting as media production: Re-thinking social media (draft now available)

I’ve uploaded a draft of a paper that’s currently under review. It’s about thinking through sexting as a form of media production. The idea for the paper came from reading Mary Celeste Kearney’s excellent book, Girls Make Media. She argues that there is inherent value in girls’ media production, regardless of the content they produce. I wondered, how far could I push that claim? What would it mean to apply it to sexting? The paper also comes from my reading of the technology studies literature on the unique benefits and opportunities new media can offer women, girls, and other marginalized populations. We already know that sexting can go wrong. But in this paper I wanted to consider, what could be good about sexting? What are we missing when we just focus on the risks instead of the opportunities?

Ultimately I argue that not only does thinking about sexting as media production lead to better responses to sexting (abstinence, for example, clearly will not work), it also demands that scholars add consent to their models of social media and media production. Here’s the abstract:

Many adults are struggling to find appropriate responses to teen sexting: they are blaming the victims of nonconsensual sexting, using harsh child pornography laws against minors, and giving teenagers the ineffective message to simply abstain from sexting. While some scholars champion girls’ media production practices, mainstream discourses since the early 2000s typically portray girls’ media production as irresponsible, dangerous, and out-of-control because it involves sexual content. In this paper, I illustrate and challenge the dominant mainstream assumptions behind some of the major concerns about digitally mediated sexuality by drawing on scholarship that examines the benefits of youth media production and digital social interaction. I argue that viewing sexting as a form of media production would lead to models of social media production that could account for sexuality and consent.

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Ad Council still blaming victims

The Ad Council has teamed up with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children again to make a new public service announcement about sexting. It is the latest installment in the “Think Before you Post” series, which aims to address online sexual exploitation by telling girls not to post or share images of themselves online. These ads do not instruct men or boys not to exploit people, but rather put the responsibility on girls for preventing their own victimization. The new ad about sexting is no exception:

While the people at the Ad Council and NCMEC haven’t changed this victim-blaming message since the start of the “Think before you post” campaign in 2005, some of the comments on YouTube about the video articulate many important critiques.

1. The idea of the “online predator” diverts our attention from the more mundane (and far more common) forms of child sexual abuse within the home and family circle. The dominant image of the online predator is a caricature:

pedo’s only ever have moustache and glasses (haelvidge1)

2. The ad is targeted only to girls as sext-producers, and offers boys no choice to not forward the image they receive:

But I’m a guy, so surely it’s relevant for me to be able to stop it… I’m confused. What message is this sending guys? That they have no choice but to pass messages on? (JamesFarrkoff)

Recurring themes in panic about youth and technology

Lately I’ve been trying to think about the role of technology in how people are responding to sexting.

Wartella argues that we tend to go through the same cycles of fear and acceptance with youth and media over and over again:

With the introduction of each new wave of innovation in mass media throughout the twentieth century—film, radio, television—debates on the effects of new technology have recurred, especially with regard to the effect on young people. Each new media technology brought with it great promise for social and educational benefits, and great concern for children’s exposure to inappropriate and harmful content.

It’s easy to look at teenagers texting at the dinner table and sending nude pictures and worry that “real” social interaction is being usurped by the cold interface of a machine. Or that online predators are “already in your home.” With every new way of communicating, something may be lost, but something is gained too–and the “old” ways of communicating never really disappear either; they continue to exist alongside the new. Wartella points out that we have worried about every form of mass media in similar ways and with predictable waves of concern that rise and fall in time to worry about the next medium.

Indeed, there is plenty to worry about–media and entertainment indeed produce and maintain our social reality. Yet, the way we talk about this is usually in terms of a medium’s “effect” on people. But this “effect” seems only to apply to the people we think are susceptible to external influence: women, working class people, youth. Youth may adopt new technologies at faster rates, but this does not account for the disproportionate concern about its effect on them.

This is why I am disappointed in the Canadian Centre for Child Protection’s new educational campaign about texting, TextED. Though it’s great that its gender-neutral (unlike some US initiatives), it falls into the same pattern of blaming technology for having undue influence on youth. The campaign asks that youth make this pledge:

I will enjoy all of the technologies available to me, but I will not allow them to control me.

The AARP advocates sexting for the over-60 set, suggesting it can spice up their relationships. Why do they not warn their audience to make sure they don’t let cell phones “control” them? Where are the admonishments to CEO’s that they are too “controlled” by their Blackberries and not paying enough attention to their families?

Why are we so invested in the fantasy of perfect self-control, and so convinced that white, middle class, heterosexual men have it, while worrying that no one else really does? And why is media one of the most common sites of concern that supposedly weaker people are being “controlled” by external forces?

DHS advises parents to tell their kids to “wait”

The new administration seems to be still pushing abstinence over education. A new series of TV PSA’s depicts kids (75% girls, of course) telling parents: “tell me you want me to  wait to have sex.” Wait until when? Until they’re married, of course. Because, as the campaign slogan explains: “success comes to kids who wait to have sex.” Why? Because people who wait “have a better chance at success, whether that means getting an education, having a career, or just being happy.”

Since 95% of people do have non-marital sex, and research consistently demonstrates that abstinence programs are “ineffective, unethical, and poor public health,” why promote such an impossible and counter-productive goal? Are these PSA’s just a politically viable facade for a hidden comprehensive sex education agenda?

Not quite. Though the campaign promotes abstinence until marriage, it does have some information for those 95% of people who won’t get there. Under the section “Dealing with Risky Behaviors and Other Challenges” the birth control information chart cites only the “typical use” failure rate (15% for condoms) and not the “consistent and correct use” failure rate (2%). Why not launch a PSA campaign to make “typical” use more “correct and consistent”? And really, why bother with this section at all–how many teens would ask for help getting condoms or birth control after a parent makes it clear that the only thing they approve of is “waiting”?

The site devotes a few sentences to parents of queer kids (or, um kids who might be, err,experiencing difficulties with gender identity or sexual orientation“), who should keep in mind, “Accepting your son or daughter can help lead to strong, life-affirming relationships in the future.” But the rest of the campaign makes it pretty clear that gay kids, who can’t ever get married, will never be successful or happy.

via Feministe and Salon.