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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“The porn industry I work in most certainly requires consent”

A porn performer’s take on “revenge porn:”

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. 

Yes means yes: 1993 and 2014

California just passed a new law (that applies to most college campuses) that defines sexual assault as a lack of affirmative consent. That means consent cannot be assumed from a person’s silence or intoxication. Thomas Millar at Yes Means Yes recently posted an extensive analysis of the law. In Canada, this same basic model has defined sexual assault in federal criminal law since the early 1990s. (It gets a lot right in theory, but in practice many prosecutors, judges, and juries still rely on racist and sexist rape myths). Around the same time, Antioch College was nationally ridiculed for mandating a policy of explicit verbal consent. In 1993 the New York Times was sympathetic to the effort but cautioned:

To people used to associating sex with romance and romance with mystery, these guidelines look stifling. Each and every time? … Adolescents will always make mistakes — sometimes serious ones. Telling them what’s unacceptable, in no uncertain terms, is fine. But legislating kisses won’t save them from themselves.

More than 20 years later, I can see some real progress in the NYT’s reaction:

[The new California law] is not radical. Its underlying message is that silence does not necessarily equal consent, and that it’s better to be certain that sex is desired than to commit assault. Sexual assault is rampant on campuses, and colleges have failed to respond adequately. “Yes means yes” won’t make these problems disappear. But the new standard is worth trying.

So, twenty years from skepticism about “legislating kisses” to “this is worth trying.” As Millar writes:

This Is Not A Revolution In Practice (But I Can See It From Here)

New article on sexting and sexualization

My newest article on sexting and sexualization is out now in Girlhood Studies. In this piece, I examine the problems with using sexualization to explain sexting and suggest that we move beyond the idea that some people (who usually just happen to be structurally disadvantaged) are supposedly more vulnerable to mass culture’s negative influences than others. Here is the abstract:

Sexualization might seem like a sympathetic explanation for sexting because it positions girls as innocent victims of mass culture. However, there are problematic unintended consequences with understanding sexting, the practice of sharing personal sexual content via mobile phones or the internet, in this particular way.

One troubling implication is that it provides a rationale for holding girls who sext criminally responsible for producing child pornography. A second is that when girls’ acceptance of sexualization is positioned as a key social problem, the solution that emerges is that girls must raise their self-esteem and gain better media literacy skills. Despite the value of such skills, a focus on girls’ deficiencies can divert attention from the perpetrators of gender- and sexuality-based violence.

Finally, discourses about sexualization often erase girls’ capacity for choice, relying instead on normative assumptions about healthy sexuality. Interrogating the pathologization of girls’ apparent conformity to sexualization and mass culture highlights the complexity of agency.