There is much discussion in Sociology currently about the impact of technology on people’s lives; in particular on their relationships and sexuality. One specific phenomenon that emerged with the increase of smart phones and personal technology is the issue of ‘sexting’; the sharing or exchange of sexual messages or images. Cases such as those of Hope Witsell or Jessica Logan, both of whom committed suicide after nude pictures they had sent to boyfriends were publicly circulated, have received a great deal of media attention. These and numerous other accounts portray the impact of these technologies solely in a negative light (Drouin and Landgraff 2012) and emphasize the danger young people are putting themselves in when participating in this behavior. Whilst it is of course important to highlight these problems, the rhetoric is so often starkly gendered, re-emphasising a double standard and failing to engage with notions of pleasure or agency in young peoples sexuality. It also tends to place great importance on the role technology plays, without looking at the way other social pressures are played out in these behaviours.
In order to engage with these issues, research on sexting has focused on understanding how technology interacts with young peoples’ lives and relationships. Two recent research reports, one in the UK for NSPCC and another in Australia, used interviews and focus groups with young people to gain a better grasp on their experiences. The findings are in some ways deeply alarming. The young people openly discuss issues of bullying, sexual harassment, sexual pressures, objectification and coercion. These occurrences are intensified by the prolonged degrees of contact that technology creates, “facilitating the visual objectification of bodies via the creation, exchange, collection, ranking and display of images” (NSPCC 2012). The technology, whilst not creating the problems single handedly, takes age-old concerns, such as female objectification, and places them in the hands of young people.
What these studies highlight is that it is impossible to examine sexting without placing them in context. Concerns about young peoples’ sexual behavior have been highlighted by a great deal of research over the years. The Women’s Risk and Aids Project (WRAP), despite being conducted in the 1990s well before the age of ubiquitous technology, had findings similar to those discussed above. The authors of the WRAP study argued that young people operate with a ‘male‐in‐the‐head’. That is, when discussing or engaging in sexual activities, young men and women prioritize male sexuality over female. This concept of a sexual ‘double standard’ is now widely recognized, and is present in much research into (hetero)sexuality. Worse, in more recent research has shown evidence of a sexual double-bind, where young women are expected to be ‘up-for-it’ and display a ‘heterosexy’ femininity. One of the girls in the sexting study describes it precisely: they must not be “slags” [too sexually promiscuous] or “drags” [boring or frigid] (Gill 2008). This is also manifest in the way shame is gendered. In the context of sexting, boys are praised and revered for being able to get these images from their peers. Girls however are vilified, both by their peers in a slut-shaming bulling, and by the media. Boys are expected to brag, girls are not.
This double standard and the ‘slut-shaming’ culture are also evident in recent debates around rape culture, such as the media portrayal and twitter reactions to the Steubenville rape case. In the sexting studies girls and boys alike felt that girls who were ‘stupid’ enough to send pictures that became circulated were to blame for the fall out, rather than the person who circulated it. This is deeply problematic, and is symptomatic of much wider issues around the policing of young women’s sexual behavior. The message of blame is clear: getting drunk, or being ‘stupid’ enough to send a naked picture of yourself, means you cannot expect sympathy if bad things happen as a result.
I am part of the generation that first grew up with these forms of technology. I, like a recent writer on the feminist blog Vagenda, have fond memories of how relationships were enacted in an online space. At the time, much like the teenagers in these studies, it did not occur to us that this behaviour might be risky or illegal. More importantly however, there was no sense that it was the technology itself that was causing this risk. Teenagers’ exploration of their own sexuality, body and desires is a crucial part of growing up, and it is a minefield of issues. However, one of the most common sources of risk in young peoples sexual activities stems from a lack of available language for young people to assert their sexuality and pleasure, making discussing sex reliant on medical or pornographic language (Holland et al 1999). Sexting can be an important and relatively safe way for young people to exploring their sexual wants and desires. The negative portrayal and over-policing of these activities makes them even more silent, vilifying those who participate and failing to question what pleasure might be gained or what significance it might have for these young people. It is important that a wider discussion of pleasure and agency does not get lost when seeking to protect young people from harm, or further vilify young women’s sexual behaviour.