The Today Show recently did a special on sexting, and NBC reporter Abigail Pesta wrote a piece about it, with a video link, here. Much of the piece is based around the expert opinion of Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist who wrote a book on the topic based on interviews and observations with teenage students in the U.S.

In what follows, I leverage a rather harsh critique of the piece and the research that it cites. I do so because I think they show promise, but go wrong in very important ways. This critique is meant not as a fight, but as a push to researchers, policy makers, and general citizens to check their assumptions about the relationship between bodies, behaviors, and technologies. And moreover, it is an imploration to address root level issues, rather than seeking out blamable objects with naive hopes of eradicating social problems through destruction of material stuff.

Pesta’s main argument is that sexting has negative implications for both boys and girls. The focus on boys and masculinity is perhaps the strongest part of the article. I also appreciate the way in which the article troubles the over-simplified hunter-prey relationship between boys and girls. For instance, Pesta quotes Steiner-Adair saying this:

It’s insufficient, superficial and polarizing when boys simply get cast as aggressors and girls as victims. It’s such a bad part of our culture to think that boys aren’t also harmed. We are neglecting the emotional lives of boys

In addressing boys, however, the article, and the research it cites, fail to grapple with teen sex(texting) in all of its complexities. Instead, the piece recasts boys and girls as the combined victims of social technologies, looking back idyllically upon romantic note-writing and prescribing face-to-face family time as the key strategy of push back.

In doing so, Pesta juxtaposes text-based communications to the more “real” and “nuanced” FtF communicative practices. She reports:

For boys and girls alike, crucial lessons in how to relate to each other are getting lost in the blizzard of tweets and texts, experts say. The cues kids would pick up from a live conversation — facial expressions, gestures — are absent from the arm’s-length communications that are now a fixture of growing up. The fast-paced technology also “deletes the pause” between impulse and action, said Steiner-Adair, who calls texting the “worst possible training ground” for developing mature relationships. Dan Slater, the author of “Love in the Time of Algorithms,” agrees. “You can manage an entire relationship with text messages,” he said, but that keeps some of the “messy relationship stuff” at bay. “That’s the stuff that helps people grow up,” he added.

As Amanda Hess points out, this is problematic first in its either-or approach, assuming that text based sexuality and romance are necessarily zero-sum. Furthermore, it explicitly privileges communicative practices of speech and voice over text without justifying this gigantic assumption. Some people communicate better with mediating tools. They are more comfortable, articulate, open. Of particular importance, research shows that underrepresented and vulnerable groups benefit the most from mediated forms of communication, as technological mediators provide more time, less interruption, and a buffer between the speech act and a world that disempowers the speaker (see link above). I believe teenagers, in general, are a vulnerable population. At the very least they are awkward, and awkwardly fumbling through intense physical and emotional interpersonal relationships.

Dawson's creek was a teen angst tool at the turn of the millennium.
Dawson’s creek was a teen angst tool at the turn of the millennium.

Dawson’s Creek—and I am embarrassed to admit that I know this—was written as a hyper-articulation of teen angst. The writers and directors purposely created an unrealistic show in which the characters said all of things that teenagers feel, but don’t quite know how to express. The show itself, then, became a social tool. Perhaps we can think of digital social technologies in the same way. Talking about and expressing sexuality is hard. So is talking about and expressing emotion. Especially for people whose bodies only recently started leaking and sprouting, whose hormones suddenly insisted upon touching and being touched, and whose vocabularies are years away from SAT ready.

To be sure, mediated sexual interaction is not always a growth facilitating thing. On the contrary, like all sexual interaction, it can be downright violent.  In this vein, Steiner-Adair talks about girls crying as they recount explicit messages they’ve received, of boys hacking into each other’s accounts and sending girls crude messages about multi-hole penetration, of boys feeling pressured to re-enact the behaviors displayed in pornography. Such things are clearly troublesome. Such things represent a real social problem. Namely, Rape Culture.

The way the article addresses the issue, however,  is to decry “hookup culture” with an emphasis on the role of particular technological objects. In doing so, new technologies become the surface level scapegoat, the convenient receptacle for social problems into which parents, commentators, educators, and policy makers can throw their blame, avoiding the mess of a largely imbedded social ill.

This skewed cultural understanding becomes the basis for teaching teens about negotiating social interaction in general, and sexual interactions in particular. This is a problem. Rather than wade through the complex terrain of how and when it’s okay (and not okay) to show, see, talk about, and touch one’s own or others’ bodies, the focus on technological objects invokes fear and suggests safety through disconnection. Not only is this unrealistic (teens are not going to stop using digital technologies for sex or sociality in general), but also counterproductive. How are teens to develop sexual and social maturity if the whole of their sexuality is boiled down to particular material objects?

Certainly, materiality matters. Digital media affect how people communicate and engage socially, including how they negotiate and express sexual relationships. Materiality is not, however, deterministic, nor does it exist in cultural void.


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