Jenny’s latest post on teen sexting, especially with its Salt-N-Peppa-referencing title, had me thinking about music, teen sexuality, race, and technology. These fears about newfangled technologies (and their means of distribution) corrupting (white) teen sexuality remind me of various mid-20th century (white) anxieties about (white) teen sexuality and rock music, and its circulation as records, radio broadcast, and TV performance. And notice all the repetitions of “white” in that last sentence. Race–specifically, blackness–was at the center of these anxieties. Back then, emerging technologies (recordings, radio, TV) could circulate racialized sounds, ideas, and affects in ways that confounded the institutions and informal practices that enforced a strict segregation between white and black bodies, white and black people. New technologies undermined older, segregationist technologies (like segregated theaters or clubs). So, these anxieties about media technology and teen sexuality were deeply and fundamentally racialized. John Waters’s original 1988 Hairspray does a brilliant job of connecting mid-century anxieties about racialized teen sexuality to specific technologies (i.e., records and television).
So I wonder, then, about the role of race in contemporary teen-sexting hysteria. In a society that pathologizes non-white sexualities, the concern about technology corrupting “healthy” or “real” sex, romance, and relationships is a worry about whiteness and white people. But how are the new(ish) technologies that facilitate sexting both evidence of and participants in broader shifts in what we think “race” is, and how it works to perpetuate white supremacy, which is itself also shifting? How are anxieties about teen sexiting, such as the humanist objections that sexting discourages and devalues “real” (F2F) human interaction, also about race? If, as theorists such as LaDelle McWhorter argue, “sex” in Anglo-America is inseparable from race and from race and white supremacy, these anxieties about what sexting does to “sex” are also fears about what sexting does to race and to white supremacy. But what does sexting–or, at least, what critics think sexting is–do to race and to white supremacy? How might our responses to sexting–rules about it, and the enforcement of these rules–work to amplify the surveillance, criminalization, and victimization of teens of color? Or, how might rules intended to combat the exploitation of teen girls be used to intensify the policing of people and communities of color, exacerbating their vulnerability?
It was really hard for me to find critical theoretical research on sexting and race, mainly because any search of sexting + race + [black/white/latino/racism/etc.] pulled up so much noise about Anthony Weiner and the NYC mayoral race that anything potentially useful to me got buried in the irrelevant results. There was one recent empirical study about sexting habits among ethnic minority students (for what it’s worth, “ethnic minorities” are not the same thing as “races,” even though the article studies racial groups…). Interestingly, this study sometimes got spun into some version of “minority teens are sextuously promiscuous.” That’s not what the study actually argues, or even a conclusion it supports; however, this interpretation is enabled by a clusterfuck of stereotypes in which sexting’s unhealthful- and unnatural-ness gets conflated with the pathologies (mistakenly, racist-ly) attributed to non-white sexualities. If we think that sexting is unhealthy and deviant, then it’s easy to lump that in with stereotypes about the deviance, abnormality, and excessiveness of non-white sexualities. But what does the myth of the sextuously promiscuous non-white teen do? Might it somehow racialize specific kinds of technology use as “non-white”?
I think it just might do that. Andreas Husseyn argued (way back in 1985) that we tend to view new technology in terms of a virgin/whore dichotomy. We are often ambivalent about new technologies, and consider them both desirable and disgusting, supportive and threatening. To make these ambivalences seem less, well, ambivalent, and more firmly determined, we apply the same double-standards that we apply to women in patriarchy: there is “good” and “bad” technology, just like there are “good” and “bad” women. As I have argued here, this virgin/whore dichotomy is, in both cases, racialized: “good” women are white, “bad” women are racialized as non-white. So, this framework suggests that these anxieties about technologically mediated teen sexuality are also anxieties about race because we relate to technology in racialized terms. “Whorish” bad tech is racialized as non-white. From this perspective, anxieties about teen sexting aren’t that different than anxieties about rock records, radio, and (M)TV: new technologies threaten white teen sexuality with racially pathologized contamination.
If you have any suggestions for good articles/studies/blog posts on sexting and race/racism, please post them in the comments–I’d love to read some critical theoretical analysis along these lines.