“Sexting” — the practice of sending sexy words and images from cell phones from person to person– has suddenly emerged as the newest social problem for American youth. News reports overwhelmingly describe sexting as a new teenage trend which is “alarming,” “dangerous,” and “shocking.” Parents of minors are told be on red alert. Sales are on the rise for “net nanny” controls, which alert parents via a text message if their child visits an “inappropriate” web site and/or sends or receives “inappropriate” email or instant messages. Parents are advised to pay extra cell phone fees to block all images–sexual or not—from their children’s phones. The underlying message of most news reports is this: if parents don’t put a stop to sexting, their children will end up traumatized, endangered, in jail, or dead. Read on, as we’re not making this up.
This sort of alarmist language, suddenly emerging as a sort of moral tsunami, is a fantastic example of what sociologist Stanley Cohen has termed a “moral panic.” According to Cohen, moral panics are reflections not of any inherent physical threat but of threats to existing moral orders. Moral panics are driven by the construction of a “folk devil” — symbolized by a group or a social movement seen as causing a threat to a particular moral order. Using this framework, the moral panic around sexting reflects deeper social fears — for example around loss of parental authority and increasing teen agency over their own sexuality. The folk devil responsible for this moral threat lives in “cyberspace” and in some cases may be “cyberspace” itself.
From what I can tell, the growing visibility of, and panic over, sexting was at first largely generated by media personalities such as Dr. Phil and Matt Lauer of the Today Show. Since then, dozens of news outlets have featured stories on sexting. Surveys on sexting have been quickly conducted and released: MTV asked teens about the prevalence of their sexting; CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health asked parents about how concerned they were about teen sexting. The results, as reported in the media are as follows: Teens are sexting like crazy, and parents are freaking out.
Dr. Phil was one of the first to discuss this on a national stage with a show in April 2009 called, ”Scary Trends: Is your Child at Risk?” In the video promo for the show, Dr. Phil warns in his classic fatherly drawl: “There are some dangerous trends popping up in schools everywhere, and you may not even know if your children are getting involved.”
The camera cuts to video shots of three pairs of young white hands (two identifiably female) punching keys on a cell phone. A voiceover from deep, spooky-sounding male voice says: “The disturbing new trend, called sexting, sending nude shots from phone to phone.” (the word NUDE is flashed on screen).
Next we see and hear clips of a white woman talking about her daughter, who we gather, was a “sexter.” The spooky male voiceover comes back: ”It nearly killed her daughter.” The camera shoots back to the mom, eyes pleading for Dr. Phil’s forgiveness: “We thought we were doing everything right, Dr. Phil.” Dr. Phil nods, knowingly. The Spooky voiceover states: “how to protect your children.” The camera cuts back to Dr. Phil, who points to the camera and warns: “Don’t think it’s not your kid!” (Click here to see this short promo).
Dr. Phil’s “Scary Trends” program arrived on the heels of a few stories, some tragic, found in the news in the previous weeks and months. For example, in separate cases, two teenage boys (one in Wisconsin, one in New York) were charged with “child pornography” after sharing digital photos of their girlfriends posing nude. In another case, four middle school girls in Alabama were arrested for exchanging naked photos of themselves (ABC news, March 13, 2009). In all of these cases, the photos were being exchanged for and among peers. None of these photos were sold. And yet, teens taking pictures of themselves, their partners, and/or their friends are now being labeled and punished as child pornographers by the criminal justice system.
The most tragic stories however are of two teen girl suicides; both killed themselves after they were viciously bullied, sexually shamed, and socially isolated from their peers. In both cases the girls were inadequately defended, and even further shamed and punished by, teachers, school administrators, and parents. Jesse Logan, a vivacious 18 year-old from Ohio hanged herself in her bedroom after being targeted for torment by other girls at school. Jesse had sent a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend, and in retaliation when they broke up the boyfriend sent the photo to a group of younger girls. The younger girls ran with the photo, using it as a powerful social shaming tool (which of course can only work within a social context where girls’ sexuality is shameful). In an interview with Matt Lauer of the Today Show, Jesse’s mother, Cynthia Logan, said that:
“…she never knew the full extent of her daughter’s anguish until it was too late. Cynthia Logan only learned there was a problem at all when she started getting daily letters from her daughter’s school reporting that the young woman was skipping school.
“I only had snapshots, bits and pieces, until the very last semester of school,” Logan told Lauer. She took away her daughter’s car and drove her to school herself, but Jesse still skipped classes. She told her mother there were pictures involved and that a group of younger girls who had received them were harassing her, calling her vicious names, even throwing objects at her. But she didn’t realize the full extent of her daughter’s despair. “She was being attacked and tortured,” Logan said.
“When she would come to school, she would always hear, ‘Oh, that’s the girl who sent the picture. She’s just a whore,’ ” Jesse’s friend, Lauren Taylor, told NBC News.
Logan said that officials at Sycamore High School were aware of the harassment but did not take sufficient action to stop it. She said that a school official offered only to go to one of the girls who had the pictures and tell her to delete them from her phone and never speak to Jesse again. That girl was 16. Logan suggested talking to the parents of the girls who were bullying Jesse, but her daughter said that would only open her to even more ridicule.
In this same interview with Matt Lauer, Cynthia Logan described her unsuccessful legal attempts (she tried six attorneys) to hold school officials accountable for not intervening in the bullying of her daughter. Lauer turned to his guest, Parry Aftab, described as “an Internet security expert and activist in the battle to protect teens from the dangers that lurk in cyberspace.” In a stunning re-direction of the issue of school accountability for creating bully-free zones, Aftab brought the discussion back to laws about child pornography:
“If somebody’s under the age of 18, it’s child pornography, and even the girl that posted the pictures can be charged. They could be registered sex offenders at the end of all of this. Even at the age of 18, because it was sent to somebody under age, it’s disseminating pornography to a minor. There are criminal charges that could be made here.”
Here’s the take home message we get from the Today Show: don’t worry about madonna/whore dichotomies that are spread among youth and adults. The main thing we should be concerned with is that Jesse “fell victim to the perils of the Internet and the easy exchange of information on cell phones.“ So let’s be clear: The source of Jesse’s anguish and eventual suicide is not the unrelenting and unchecked bullying at school but the fact that cyberspace (folk devil that it is) made her into a perpetrator of child pornography. And don’t forget, parents: child pornographers go to jail, and you don’t want your kid to go to jail.
Hope Witsell was only 13 when she killed herself in her bedroom, also by hanging. Hope, a girl from a conservative Christian Florida family, had sent a topless photo of herself to a boy crush. The boy showed the photo to a friend, who embraced the opportunity to gain social power by sharing it widely with kids in that school and neighboring schools. The following comes from a story about Hope on Today, MSNBC.com:
While Hope’s photo spread, her friends rallied around her in the midst of incessant taunting and vulgar remarks thrown Hope’s way. Friends told the St. Petersburg Times, which originally chronicled Hope’s story, that they literally surrounded Hope as she walked the hallways while other students shouted “whore” and “slut” at her.
“The hallways were not fun at that time — she’d walk into class and somebody would say, ‘Oh, here comes the slut,’ ” Hope’s friend, Lane James, told the newspaper.
Clearly, the taunts were getting to Hope. In a journal entry discovered after her death, Hope wrote, “Tons of people talk about me behind my back and I hate it because they call me a whore! And I can’t be a whore. I’m too inexperienced. So secretly, TONS of people hate me.”
Shortly after the school year ended, school officials caught wind of the hubbub surrounding Hope’s cell phone photo. They contacted the Witsells and told them Hope would be suspended for the first week of the next school year.
Donna Witsell told Vieira that she and her husband practiced tough love on Hope, grounding her for the summer and suspending her cell phone and computer privileges.
In her interview on the Today Show with Meredith Vieira, Hope’s mother was joined, just as Jesse’s mom was, by the same Parry Aftab, proponent of internet safety measures. Again, Aftab directed the viewers away from thinking about adult accountability in protecting the rights of teens to not be shamed and bullied about their bodies. In fact, parents and their girls are all innocent here in Aftab’s view. Aftab even reassured Hope’s mother that her child wasn’t a bad girl; in fact, Aftab points out that Hope’s suicide is actually a sign that she came from a “good” home because kids with good morals have more guilt when they stray sexually:
Good kids are the ones this is happening to; Jesse was a great kid, and now we have Hope,” she said. “Good kids; they’re the ones who are committing suicide when a picture like this gets out.” (Parry Afteb, speaking to Hope Witsell’s mother on the Today Show).
Dr. Phil, the Today Show, and countless other media sources are doing teens, and especially girls a great disservice by offering content, tone, and implications of their sexting panic. Instead, a much more helpful and interesting perspective on the issue would be to explore the following questions and lines of reasoning:
- What are the gendered sexual, class, and race dynamics of the panic over sexting? It seems that white “good” girls are at most “risk”: let’s talk about why, and what it is that is at stake! Should we panic over boys as well?
- Why do so many adults remain complicit in the sexual shaming and bullying of kids? What models can be used to talk openly about sexuality at school, and to create a safe learning environment for all kids regardless of their sexual expressions?
- Related to the above, how do school curriculums that teach/preach abstinence only sex education (which implicitly and explicitly underscore a Madonna/Whore dichotomy) encourage and facilitate the bullying and shaming of girls? How do they set up a gendered system that assumes that girls are usually sexual victims and boys are usually predators?
- How can sexual health and justice scholars work with parents, teachers, school administrators, and teen advocates around these issues?
- How does a concern with protecting girls’ sexual purity come at the expense of NOT protecting their sexual and human rights?
Recommended readings & resources:
- Cohen, Stanley. 1972 (reprinted in 1980, 1987, 2002). Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Routledge: NY.
- Miller, Alice. M. 2004. “Sexuality, Violence against Women, and Human Rights: Women make Demands and Ladies get Protection.” Health and Human Rights 7, 2.
- Zetter, Kim. Arpil 3, 2009. WIRED. “Sexting hysteria Faslely Brands Educator as Child Pornographer.”
- The Safe Schools Coalition focuses on providing safe and supportive school environments for GLBT students. This model is useful for understanding how a rights based — versus a shame based — approach can be used in cases of school-based sexual bullying.
- See also: Sociologist Dan Ryan provides a stats-based interpretation and critique of the newest sexting survey, by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.