When the Weiner sexting story broke, I was on holiday in Amsterdam, where prostitution is legally regulated, and newsstands display Penthouse and Vogue magazines side-by-side. It was no surprise then that “Weinergate” seemed to be met by the Dutch with a “here the Americans go again” eye roll.

In contrast to the Dutch, Americans love sex scandals. We love them so much that in a good year we produce and consume not just one of these high-profile scandals, but several. For many of us interested in sexual justice, the juiciest stories are those of the hypocrites: the Elliot Spitzers who lead anti-prostitute campaigns while purchasing sex; the George Rekers who champion the anti-gay movement while hiring “rent boys,” and the Newt Gingrichs who lead impeachment hearings while engaging in their own extra-marital affairs.

And then there are people like Anthony Weiner: Charismatic heterosexual men in powerful positions who thrive on taking risks.
Guys who benefit from the security and social status of marriage but who also have ample time away from their partners. Men who are fierce defenders of reproductive rights, are friends with the likes of John Stewart and Ben Affleck, and who (understandably) have many dedicated women fans. In pre-Twitter and Facebook days (circa 2006), such public figures were sometimes called “rock stars”; their fans, “groupies.” Today, with the democratizing boost of social media, more of us than ever before can construct our own neo-rock star status, supported by “Facebook friends” and “twitter followers.”

The privileges taken by (mostly heterosexual male) rock stars are nothing new; what’s new is the neo-rock star’s ability to showcase their goods on such a massive scale. But with this newfound power of instantaneous social impact, private digital messages are increasingly impossible. It’s the equivalent of whispering sweet nothings into a megaphone; or asking the masses to kindly shut their eyes while they flash that one special love interest in the crowd.

When teen girls send sexy words and images (and those photos are intercepted and distributed by “frenemies” for the purpose of shaming them), American parents panic and talk about “ruined lives.” But what about when the “sexting” is between consenting adults? Is there any harm in Weiner’s actions, and if so, harm to whom?

From a legal perspective, it seems that there is no case against Weiner. He did initially lie to reporters, his “fans,” and possibly also to his wife, but not under oath (so no perjury). He has admitted to engaging in several digital affairs, but adult, consensual sexual liaisons outside of heterosexual marriage and reproductive sexuality are (gratefully) no longer criminalized in the United States. If Weiner had campaigned against “dangers” of sexting and the internet, we could bash him for being a hypocrite (but alas, he was too busy championing issues like insurance industry reform).

I do not yet know enough about the situations and interpretations of Weiner’s sexting partners to comment on whether or not these women ever felt harmed by his messages (at this point I have not seen any self-reports of negative impact). But I will venture to guess that all of them (as well as Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin) are being wounded by the invasive scrutiny of this media storm.

And so, from my perspective Weiner’s biggest “crime” may be that he was reckless with his neo-rock star privileges. I thus will
offer two pieces of sincere advice to Representative Anthony Wiener and other rising neo-rock stars:

  1. Invest in a good therapist who will help you reflect upon your desires, social/sexual identities, and social privileges. This is crucial information for then reassessing your own goals for yourself and your relationships including your marriage.
  2. Never confuse your fans and followers for your friends. This is especially important when operating under “schoolyard” conditions, where the status of one person or political interest depends on the beating down of others, and where conservative or knee-jerk normative definitions of “good” vs. “bad” sexuality rule.

Meanwhile, for the most part, American media coverage continues to uncritically replicate the notion that Weiner’s messages are simply “inappropriate” and “shameful.” And that’s why some of us with “Dutch” and sexual justice sensibilities — including us at Sexuality & Society — are rolling our eyes.


Related Sexuality & Society stories:

Last Tuesday, Feb. 9, I learned of a Facebook fan page dedicated to “Killing your hooker so you don’t have to pay her.” As a sex worker ally, sexuality scholar, and someone invested in the humane treatment of all people, I became dedicated over the next 24 hours to shut that page down. I immediately reported the page to Facebook administrators, and encouraged all of my Facebook friends to do the same. On Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 1:26 pm (PST) when the site was still up, I posted the following to my Facebook friends:

This was the image for the Facebook page, "Killing your hooker so you don't have to pay her." The group inserted the word "Fail" on it to illustrate the failure of this fan page.


“In less than 24 hours, I have seen the FB site dedicated to “killing your hooker” increase from 17,500 fans to now more than 22,000. Please join me in kicking this FB group out of our community; report it to the FB directors. This group is in clear violation of FB rules, including: 6. You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.7. You will not post content that is hateful, threatening, … etc”

Many other sex worker activists and humanitarians across the globe were simultaneously doing the same work. By Wednesday at 5 pm (PST), just over 24 hours after I learned of the site, and just days after its creation, Facebook administrators deleted the site. For Facebook, this was not a matter of “free speech”; it was a matter of a clear violation of their community rules. (Hate groups and bullies all of kinds are free to proliferate on the internet, but are not welcome on specific community membership cites such as Facebook).

Unfortunately, I fear and see that this is just the beginning of hate-speech pages on Facebook. Because Facebook allows anyone to set up an account, and because (at least for now) it seems that Facebook administrators are not pro-active in monitoring hate groups, everyday Facebook users (people like me who would otherwise be taking breaks from work to post about their kids or their cats) have found that they have an ethical obligation to also watch out for and report Facebook hategroups.

The group is one such group that this week has found itself to be one of these reporting the abusive, hate-filled page. As might be expected, those behind the “killing your hooker” fanpage are not happy about the critique. Here’s one quote from the “killing your hooker” folks:

“The worthless CUNTS over at Feministing are reporting you because they think they are the policemen (oops policePERSONS) of the internet. Let Feminist cunts know what you think about their crusade to silence all free speech they deem “inappropriate.” (see article in

These slurs against women and feminists are as old as misogyny and a common tactic for diverting attention away from serious, grownup critique and dialogue. The issue of “free speech” is one that is incredibly important, but it is a principle that is always constituted and negotiated within particular parameters. “The internet” is a broad space that allows all (and hence not a true “community”), but Facebook is a smaller space with particular rules. (the group reporting on this story above) is a community that is very much dedicated to freedom of speech and expression, but it too is absolutely opposed to the inclusion of hategroups in the Facebook community. In their mission statement Carnalnation states that:

In our view, fear and disdain of all things sexual have led to a society that too often vacillates between impulsive titillation and compulsive repression. Such extremes can only have a negative impact on our physical, psychological, and social well being.” is encouraging its readers to report hategroups such as “killing your hooker,” and has found that there are “232 (Facebook) groups that currently have the words “dead hooker” in them.  (Dead Hooker Storage, Accidentally Pissing On A Dead Hooker, and A Dead Hooker A Day Keeps The Doctor Away are just three of them.)” is also reporting that “killing your hooker” now has simply morphed into a new Facebook fan page (still live as of this writing), entitled “GTA taught me that if you kill a hooker, you get your money back.” (note: GTA here stands for Grand Theft Auto, a video game.)

According to today’s Sydney Morning Herald the creator of “killing your hooker” has been identified. Who was the creator of this page, Gary Ridgeway?

(Gary Ridgeway, AKA “The Green River Killer,” is serving a life sentence for the murders of 48 women, most of whom he picked up on the streets of Seattle/Tacoma as prostitutes. After his sentencing Ridgeway admitted to a “career” of murdering 71 women.)

No, the source of “killing your hooker” is an Australian boy described as a “Catholic school student”:

A Catholic school student has been “dealt with” after he set up a Facebook page that appeared to advocate killing prostitutes. … The principal of St Laurence’s College in Queensland, Ian McDonald, confirmed a student from the school had been disciplined over the creation of the page.

“It has been sorted out and the boy has been dealt with,” Mr McDonald told AAP on Friday.

Ian McDonald, the principal of the private Catholic school (which at least one Australian newspaper describes as “elite”) went on to underscore that:

“This didn’t happen at the school, but does highlight the fact that we really need to educate the students about the dangers on the internet.” (emphasis mine).

In this logic, the magical, uncontrollable “internet” is the problem, as opposed to cultures that support (or do not directly challenge) the violent degradation of entire groups of people.

Case in point: In one of the several online groups discussing this case today, “Middie” complains about people taking this issue too seriously:

There are so many sites going against this. Jesus people, take a fucking joke. Do you realize this is based on the game GTA? I know the guy that did it, and i’m pretty sure he didn’t make it for real life hookers. By the way, hookers are illegal, so they have no fucking rights in my eyes. (emphasis mine).

Dear Principal McDonald: please note that that “Middie” is probably one of your students. These attitudes do not come to exist in a cultural vacuum. The culture of your school is what you need to be concerned with, not the “internet.”

Dear “Middie“: your point brings us precisely to the larger problem of a lack of support for the human rights of all, including sex workers. And although prostitution is actually LEGAL in parts of Australia (where you apparently currently reside), your point illustrates the need for clearly articulated and enforced sex workers rights in Australia and elsewhere.

Principal McDonald, parents, internet and sexuality scholars and activists, please do not blame “the internet” for sites like this; we must investigate how our own assumptions promote (or stay silent on) everyday acts of cruelty.



In addition the obvious humanitarian need to oppose the degradation of any group of people, many public health scholars emphasize the importance of reducing stigma for sex workers. Here is a link to a recent blog post by Dr. Petra Boynton, on Sex workers, Stigma, and Barriers to Health.

“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.

imagesDr. 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 tdy_lauer_sexting_090306.300wsent 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, hadg-tdy-091202-texting-suicide-peace-8a.300w 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,

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: