Sexting: new technologies, same old sexism

// 12 December 2012

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 Tuesday night’s Channel 4 News lead with an extensive piece on the findings of the NSPCC/UK Safer Internet Centre research [PDF] into school children’s experiences of sexting, defined as “the use of technology to share personal sexual content”.

The research involved 120 year nine (13-14 year old) and 80 year six (10-11 year old) pupils at eight different schools, with participants split into small single-gender focus groups. The Channel 4 News report focused on the year nines, as there was little evidence that year sixes were exposed to sexualised content or asked to generate images.

Across all schools, the year nines reported that sexting was highly prevalent to the point of being mundane, and this was inevitably the primary focus of the Channel 4 feature, which was entitled “Generation Sex”. However, for me what was most striking both when watching the news item and reading the report was not that teens are engaging in sexual activity, but the gendered and sexist nature of their actions and attitudes, which was – thankfully – flagged up by one of the researchers being interviewed.

It seems the norm is for boys to badger girls to send them sexual images, with boys far more likely to send unsolicited images than girls. It was considered “highly unusual” for girls to request images from boys, and the girls were “clear that boys called the shots”. The boys generally did not view this as coercion or malicious, rather that they were just “trying their luck”. Both the boys and girls interviewed for Channel 4 said that girls could just say no if they didn’t want to respond, and fortunately the research found that many girls did feel able to do this.

Despite this, the attitudes displayed are worrying. When a researcher pointed out to a girl that if a man were to repeatedly ask a female colleague for sexually explicit photos in the workplace, this would be sexual harassment, she said she’d never considered sexting in that way. The boy interviewed in the studio told Jon Snow that although girls can just say no and boys would usually listen, girls don’t always say no clearly enough – they might say “not now” or something similar that would make the boy think he could keep asking her.

There is clearly a lack of respect, proper communication and understanding about consent underpinning sexting, all wrapped up in the sexist assumption that sex is something that men have to persuade women to give up to them. These are exactly the same issues that plague heterosexual interactions in the offline world.

From my perspective, the problem here isn’t sexting itself – which can be consensual (i.e. non-coercive), mutually enjoyable and respectful – but the gender power imbalance and sexism in the way it is practised by young people.

This sexism is also apparent in the attitudes towards girls who share sexual images of themselves. Boys who left abusive comments on the sexual status updates of one girl admitted to feeling bad about it, but also felt she was “asking for it”. Girls reported losing respect for pop star Tulisa after her ex leaked a sex video of her without her consent. And it is normal for girls to be mocked or bullied if images they take are sent around school or social networks.

So although girls are repeatedly encouraged to share sexual images of themselves, they are castigated when they do. Again, sexting isn’t the problem here, but sexism in the form of slut-shaming, which predates smartphones by centuries.

So what can we do? The young people themselves were very clear about what’s needed. Instead of restricting their access to smartphones and the internet, they want adults to give them the space to discuss issues like sexting, pornography and peer pressure. They want sex education to focus on social interactions instead of being forced to sit in embarrassed silence and absorb the facts of life from a video.

The kind of sex education they want is very much compatible with helping young people explore issues of sexism, abuse and gender in sex and relationships, as well as the importance of consent, communication and respect, all of which would go a long way towards tackling the issues raised by the report.

Girls would be much less likely to end up sending images they regret if boys didn’t think it was OK to pester and harass them. They would be much less likely to feel regret at all if women’s sexuality wasn’t wrapped up in shame: what reason would there be to bully girls who are known to share sexual images if there was no shame in being sexual? Besides, sexual images would not get any further than the intended recipient if young men were encouraged to respect their female sexual partners rather than view women as sexual objects for consumption and the possession of explicit images of female peers as a means of proving their masculinity.

Teens will always engage in sexual activity, and in the digital age it’s inevitable that technology will be a part of their early explorations. There’s nothing wrong with either of these things; we just need to help them ensure that their sexual activity both online and offline is safe, consensual and respectful.

Photo of a black speech bubble shape made out of the keys from computer keyboards, by olalindberg, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

sianmarie // Posted 13 December 2012 at 9:18 am

Well said Laura! I found the attitudes displayed really troubling – particularly when a girl said how a boy would pester her and she couldn’t say no, because girls can’t say no. I was shouting at the TV ‘you can say no! you have the right to bodily autonomy!’. And when the boy said you would know if a girl was a ‘slut’ or a ‘nice girl’ if she said yes or no to sexting.

As you say, the issue isn’t sexting itself. But one thing that really stood out for me was how none of the girls talked about pleasure or desire or wanting. The boys did – how the girls would text a pic and you could use that for pleasure, but for the girls there didn’t seem to be any sense that sexual interactions were things to enjoy or engage in mutually. It was completely one sided. Which really reminded me of Ariel Levy’s book, about how the girls perform sex or sexuality without having or showing sexual feelings. It really bothered me how whilst the boys want these pics for pleasure, there was no sense that the girls got any pleasure from posing for them – if that makes sense? And as Levy says, this disconnected view of sex as a performance, not something to be enjoyed, leaves girls really vulnerable to exploitation and violence.

Esther Rantzen kind of touched on this by talking about love in the discussion afterwards – did you see that? She was SO gendered, talking to the girls about how you need love. But I’ve always strongly believed the emphasis on only having sex with someone you love can leave girls feeling ashamed of their own feelings – as in you can have pleasurable, mutual and consensual sex with people you don’t love as well as those you do! So i try and think about it in terms of mutuality of desire and pleasure – and that seemed to be completely missing.

It just made me really worried for the girls. The talk of coercion, inevitability and no sense that they had a right to their own sexuality or sexual feelings.

Laura // Posted 13 December 2012 at 9:31 am

Agreed! Something that struck me in the report but I didn’t have space to comment on was that some of the boys said they couldn’t understand why a boy would send an image to a girl as they wouldn’t know what he would send – they couldn’t recognise that a girl might find a boy’s body attractive. Which reinforces what you say about there being no sense that girls would get any pleasure out of sexting – sexual interaction seems to be about girls pleasing boys. It’s really sad.

Holly Combe // Posted 16 December 2012 at 10:18 pm

“Teens will always engage in sexual activity, and in the digital age it’s inevitable that technology will be a part of their early explorations.”

Exactly. There seems to be a lingering invitation in the mainstream reports on this story for us to start tutting about young people being sexually active but, actually, that’s neither the problem nor anything new. (If the technology had been around in past generations, it would surely have found its way into people’s sex lives then.)

The problem, IMO, is the pull backwards towards traditional gender roles (“Mars and Venus” etc) in popular culture. The might be a veneer of raunch and some new technology but it’s essentially an old problem rather than a new one.

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