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. (more…)
The New York Times recently ran an expose on teen “sexting” as a part of a slew of recent articles on the topic. Unfortunately, this article failed to take into account the fact that teens, especially girls, have sexual desire. A couple of quotes from the article:
“Having a naked picture of your significant other on your cellphone is an advertisement that you’re sexually active to a degree that gives you status,” said Rick Peters, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for Thurston County.
Perhaps, but what about the fact that the teen might want to enjoy the photo for themselves, too? Inner-desire is continuously ignored in the article in favor of the view that teens (again, especially females) engage sexually in order to please others.
“You can’t expect teenagers not to do something they see happening all around them,” said Susannah Stern, an associate professor at the University of San Diego who writes about adolescence and technology. “They’re practicing to be a part of adult culture,”
Teens do not need anyone to tell them to play show-me-yours. More than practicing for when they get older, teens are also attempting to explore and enjoy their sexuality in the present. It is not just adults who have sexual desire. In fairness, the New York Times did run another article that quotes teens on the topic, who are clear that sexting is the result of desire. So, why do most articles dismiss this fact?
I can accept that culture influences sexual behaviors, I am a sociologist, but to not even bring sexual desire into a conversation about sexting is erroneous. Acknowledging teen sexual desire should be at the center of how to deal with the issue of sexting moving forward. We should be promoting sexual agency, not dismissing it. Better than shaming teens is to start a conversation around how to best express themselves sexually at their age.
There are consequences to this perspective that views teen sexual behaviors as not stemming from desire but instead only as something taught. Adults too often feel they can simply squash teen sexuality through shaming and even criminalization. A scenario described in the article and that is occurring all too often is that teens are being escorted from school in handcuffs, locked up and forced to register as sex offenders simply because they shared nude photos with a significant other their own age. This over-reaction demonstrates Michel Foucault’s point: that by seemingly ignoring teen sexual desire, we’ve only succeeded in turning it into an obsession.
By Rachael Liberman
Although “sexting” is certainly not an isolated phenomenon, a recent case at Chenery Middle School in Belmont, Massachusetts deserves cultural consideration. According to reports, a nude photo of an underage student was circulated between seventh and eighth graders – approximately 40 to 50 according to Bill Grubbs, the school’s assistant headmaster. Further details provide that each of those students paid $5 for access to the “sext,” which was sent by the underage student’s “boyfriend.” This situation is currently under investigation: cell phones have been seized, students have been interviewed, and the phrase “child pornography” has been circulating in media reports.
However, while this case is yet another example of “sexting,” interviews with parents, via a report on WCVB-TV 5, reveal an interesting denial of current cultural and sexual trends, i.e., the pervasiveness of the profitable pornography industry through accessible electronic media (Internet). One parent states that, “The fact that another child thought it was okay to pay for that takes it to a whole other level.” Another parent responded to reporters with the following: “The idea of charging, that’s the cherry on the cake, or the icing on the cake. I can’t believe that at this age it crosses their mind to do this.” Both parents question the notion that individuals would pay for nudity. Do they truly believe that the success of the pornography industry would not penetrate the minds of puberty-stricken eighth graders? Interestingly, this case at Chenery Middle School appears to embody behaviors learned from the normalizing pornography industry, most notably, exploitation and profit. Where else would eighth graders learn that selling nude photography can generate capital?
Article: Police investigating alleged sexting incident at Chenery Middle School (including WCVB-TV 5 report)
In the ten days following the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital, Americans used text messaging to donate over $30 million. Text messaging has been prominent in the news as of late. Candidate Obama shocked supporters by announcing his vice presidential pick using this new medium. In 2008, Nielson reported that the average teen sends a whopping 2,272 messages a month. A new term, “sexting,” entered popular usage following several high profile cases of teens being expelled or even charged with distribution of child pornography. The Pew Internet and American Life Center reported in 2009 that 15% of teens ages 12-17 received sexually explicit images of people they know. Texting has proven the most dangerous common distraction to drivers. The first images of the plane that crash-landed in the Hudson were uploaded to the Web from the cell phone of a passenger on a nearby boat. The incident was also Twittered by a survivor. Then, of course, there were the protests to the recent Iranian elections, which used personal mobile communication devices to subvert state-run media.
Each of these incidences share a common theme: traditional practices were supplanted in favor of a new set of behaviors associated with mobile communications. That’s the what, but as a social theorist, I suggest we also ought to consider the why. I think Zymgunt Bauman, a remarkably prolific octogenarian sociologist, has a lot to offer us here. Bauman famously speaks of “liquid modernity” where traditional social structures are melting away and fading ambiguously into one another. He argues that things which are liquid, flowing, and mobile tend to undo things which are rigid, solid, and stable.
Mobile communication networks increasingly provide concrete examples supporting Bauman’s theory and Haiti is only the latest instance. The cell phone has made transferring money more immediate, more flexible, and simpler than even the credit card. People need only reach into their pockets for a device which is already profoundly integrated into their lives and dial a few numbers. Within seconds, the transaction is complete and money has flowed from one node in the network to another. The power of such fluid networks is that, with minimal cost in time and money (most were $10 contributions) to individuals, enormous resources can be mobilized. The political implications of this new fluid and hyper-networked reality should not be lost on us.
“Mobile giving to help Haiti exceeds $30 million” by Suzanne Choney
“Teaching and Learning Guide for: Social Implications of Mobile Telephony: The Rise of Personal Communication Society” by Scott W. Campbell and Yong Jin Park