Sexting and self-expression

Yesterday, after Nathan Jurgenson mentioned it on Twitter, I read a 2012 article from New Media and Society called “Sexting as Media Production: Rethinking Social Media and Sexuality,” by Amy Adele Hasinoff. The gist of it is that consensual sexting isn’t inherently harmful to teenagers or adults, to women or men. Nonetheless, sexting panic has been deployed to find new levers of control over female sexuality, new ways to secure female docility, negating sexting’s potential to counter the effects of other forms of gendered control.

As Hasinoff details, “educational” “safety” campaigns urge teenage girls to efface their gender and sexuality in their online presentation for their own protection and shield themselves with a distrusting attitude toward any contacts online, who should all automatically be assumed to be predators. At the same time, assertive use of social media is depicted as shameful disinhibition. Hasinoff notes that “a dominant fear” about girls’ access to smartphones “is that the immediacy and ease of mobilemedia communication undermines their supposedly innate desires for chastity.” Of course, that desire for chastity is a patriarchal imperative, part of the process of assuring that women behave as property rather than desiring subjects in their own right.

Since I’ve written before about the potentially disinhibiting effects of social media, I took this paragraph as a bit of a rebuke:

Some observers worry that mobile phones and the Internet cause adolescent girls to engage in risky or non-normative sexual behavior. In testimony before a congressional committee investigating the dangers of MySpace, online safety expert Parry Aftab argues that teenagers are ‘disconnected from the immediate consequences of their actions online, [so] many “good” kids and teens find themselves doing things online they would never dream of doing in real life’. She notes that they post photos and texts online in which they appear to be ‘drunken sluts’. Likewise, a panicked newspaper article about online predators on MySpace quotes a psychologist worrying that teenage girls are ‘acting in a very sexually provocative way’ and are ‘disinhibited’ by the Internet. By placing the explicit blame on technology, these commentators denounce teenage girls as ‘sluts’ for expressing their desires online. There is no parallel widespread discourse that technology causes boys to create sexual images or to be ‘provocative’ — being sexually inhibited is not expected or desired for boys, and accessing online pornography is usually seen as normal for them.

Hasinoff probably goes a little too easy on the commentators she mentions here, who seem to rely on an untenable distinction between what people do online and what people do in “real life.” Online behavior is “real” and has “real” consequences; indeed, consequences tend to be greater because the behavior is archived and far more easily reproduced and redistributed.

Online space isn’t “unreal”, but it space is new enough to be subject to different modes of social control, so different forms of personal expression occur there. The space itself is unevenly policed, and it’s still contested; it is disinhibiting in the sense that the norms for that space aren’t completely codified and standardized. But a process of translation is taking place, with gendered norms being rearticulated to accommodate new technological affordances.

The basic ideology behind these norms is the same: Evidence of male sexual desire is unproblematic; evidence of female sexual desire is a provocation. Sex is done to women and  harms their integrity unless they take the proper care to prevent it. Otherwise they throw the gasoline of their untempered sexuality onto the flames of male lust and are consequently responsible for the resulting explosions.

That there is a male audience for sexualized images of girls is taken for granted and seen as unalterable, whereas a girl’s choice to engage with this presumed audience is seen as her fault. The implication of this ideology is that a girl’s natural desire is not to consume sexuality, as it is for boys; rather it’s to be consumed as a sexual object. As a result, her temptation is to self-objectify, just as a boy’s temptation is to consume pornography. The hysterical discourse about these temptations has the ultimate effect of normalizing such behaviors as the appropriate risks for gendered subjects to engage in, leading them down the road to heteronormativity.

The genuine risks, the ones that would jeopardize the reproduction of patriarchal society, are thus not broached by subjects, male or female. The defiant self-creating impulse is channelled into safe territory and neutralized. Self-expression unfolds through preordained controversies; the rebellious T-shirts are preprinted and ready for purchase.

A familiar bait and switch occurs in all the fretful concern trolling about sexting. To protect girls from objectification and exploitation, which doesn’t allow them to “be who they are,” they are essentially encouraged to be sexual ciphers, or to be nothing at all. The commentators and “experts” noted above tend to attack female assertiveness by regarding it as deluded self-objectification, behavior somehow impelled by “the culture” rather than by autonomous desire. Female assertiveness is automatically proof of female false consciousness.

Yet no one’s desire is autonomous  — if total autonomy from contextual influence is the standard, then we are all operating from false consciousness all the time.

Despite the apparent concern over female objectification, “non-normative” sexual behavior doesn’t involve female objectification but female assertiveness. It’s “risky” because it threatens existing power relations. This assertiveness is not only is a matter of sexual self-presentation but might also include girls consuming images as boys do, or proliferating their affective bonds or role-playing across a spectrum of performative possibilities. Disrupting the norm of female passivity would also necessarily involve encouraging male self-presentation, male self-objectification. It would involve the rejection of promiscuity as a male achievement or female disfigurement — the dequantification of sexual expression and the dismantling of the idea that chastity is tradable property.

Far from being an expression of an lone individual’s deviance, Hasinoff writes that “sexting could help girls find new ways to express their sexual needs and desires and even perhaps rewrite some of the gender norms that ask girls to be passive and acquiescent in intimate heterosexual relationships.” It’s no accident that this sort of discourse among teenagers is actually illegal, as Hasinoff points out. (When teens sext amongst themselves, they become child pornographers from the point of view of the law.)

Assertiveness is culturally conditioned. If girls self-objectify for attention in ways boys don’t appear to, that’s because gendered orientations toward objectification have already been inculcated. So female assertiveness may take the form of conformity to the sorts of sexual self-commodification that get rewarded with quantified online attention. Such girls are then decried as “fame whores” or “narcissists,” or victims at best, for operating according to the logic of sexual objectification instead of internalizing and absorbing its contradictions silently. Hasnioff points out that “girls are often expected to develop sexual desires and modes of sexual expression that bear little evidence of their saturation in mass media representations of sexuality.” While it may not change the coercive context in which such choices are made, conforming to such representations nonetheless doesn’t undo one’s exercise of agency.

Still, as Hasinoff notes, girls’ behavior is not regarded as a type of subjectifying “media production” but instead as objectifying no matter how much agency they seemed to exercise in mediating themselves. They are held responsible for the lousy forms of self-expression patriarchy encourages them to take — forms that then seem to justify their being denied further agency when necessary.

Hasinoff wants researchers to focus on sexting as “media production” because this “would encourage researchers to ask different questions about the risky features of personal sexual media and about the new forms of communication and self-expression that sexting might enable.” One such question: “When girls use mobile media to produce their own pornography, how are they challenging the sexism of the commercial media industries and how are they reproducing it?” And how are they doing both at the same time? Can they be extricated, or is any challenge to this sort of commercial sexism immediately assimilated as a reaffirmation of it?

That is a more salient risk then the idea that girls will become “disinhibited” and give away their precious sexual property, whose value depends on its scarcity, its being kept out of circulation. (Some of my writing about risk taking on social media is colored by this sexist idea.)

Better to regard risk as stemming not necessarily from the content of what’s shared but from media producers using media channels that they don’t fully control. The problem is not with their decision to produce sexual content (there are lots of potentially good reasons to do this) but with the potential for it to be redistributed by unscrupulous recipients or interloping third parties. “If social media content producers have ownership over their private images,” Hasinoff writes, “the focus of sexting safety campaigns should clearly be to reduce unauthorized distribution.”

But producers don’t have that ownership. We are as alienated from the value of the content we make for social media as women are from the value their sexuality makes for consumerism. Self-expression, sexuality, are mediated as someone else’s property. All sorts of obfuscating pretenses are necessary to keep us producing this value without controlling it. It seems to belong to us because we are held responsible for it; sometimes we may even want to to provoke such accountability by making the content more and more “extreme.” Risk taking is not just a matter of seeking action, as I argued before, but it’s also a way to get social confirmation that one’s actions are really one’s own.

At any rate, the imperative to protect both social media and patriarchy means that most likely we will continue to act as though the real risk lies in exposing society’s sexual hypocrisy.


5 thoughts on “Sexting and self-expression

  1. Amy Hasinoff

    I love what you’re saying about agency and passivity here, thank you!

    I actually talk a lot about those concepts in the book ( Chapter 4 builds on this media production idea but at the same time contests the common assumption that media participation is inherently good. I’m really interested in the tension between the idea that participatory new media practices typically produce positive, democratic effects and the assumption that sexualization in mass media creates a practice (sexting) that indicates victimization and subordination to negative cultural messages.

    In one sense, the problem here is simply that dominant models of adolescent sexuality—in scholarly and popular contexts—maintain that girls have no sexual agency and media can only have a negative impact on them. Yet, there is another problem with the celebration of new media interactivity and participation. As we know from postcolonial feminist scholars who question the normative definitions of agency, resistance and participation might be over-valued ways of interacting with mass culture.

    Owning and controlling one’s private information is indeed a challenge. Digital media make it a lot harder but I don’t think that means we should give up and say “privacy is dead” and “information wants to be free,” so too bad. After all, at least we try with copyright to protect information in service of profit. Why not try as hard in service of individual privacy? (This part’s in Chapter 5. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Commentary on my “Sexting as media production” article | Amy Adele Hasinoff

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