Jessica Ringrose of the Institute of Educationof the University of London announces new findings indicating it is time to stop focusing just on the dangers of sexually explicit images and unknown predators and look at how young people are engaging in ‘sexting’ among their peers.
What is ‘sexting’? In the law and from the perspective of much mainstream media sexting is typically understood to be the exchange of sexually explicit or nude photos. Concern has so far focused on the illegality of underage images. However as a new report published by the NSPCC demonstrates, we need to move away from a focus on ‘stranger danger’ and the abstract threat of pornography on the internet. The report shows that young people need help in managing the everyday use of technology and their peer gender relations at school including those that are sexual or likely to become sexual, especially if these become coercive.
Technology is not neutral. It creates more intense and prolonged degrees of contact between peers. It facilitates the visual objectification of bodies via the creation, exchange, collection, ranking and display of images. But the report demonstrates how boy and girl bodies are treated differently and technology can amplify sexual double standards. This is important, and links in crucial ways to Lynne Featherstone’s body confidence campaign. We must find ways to encourage young people’s confidence and well-being about their physical bodies and sexuality.
Girls are most adversely impacted by sexting because of a sexual double standard. Boys are to be admired and ‘rated’ for possessing photos. Girls are encouraged to send images then blamed and called ‘stupid’ ‘skets’ if they do. They are also vilified in the media. Collecting images of boys’ bodies does not carry the same kudos for girls. Girls are also at risk if they openly speak about sexual activities and practices, where boys are actually at risk of peer exclusion if they do not brag about sexual experiences.
This means it is very important to differentiate if and when sexting becomes coercive. Sexting does not refer to a single activity but rather to a range of activities typically motivated by sexual pleasure, flirting and fun. But given the wider culture of sexism and sexual double standards it is not surprising that this can sometimes become coercive.
Sexting reveals and relates to a wider sexist, sexualised culture. Young people are managing globalised consumer oriented cultures. There are gendered expectations on appearance and bodies (being very thin, having large breasts or big muscles) and gendered scripts of masculinity and femininity with pressures around certain forms of sexuality where coercion may be seen as normal.
It will not surprise you, then, that we urgently need educational resources. E-safety strategies need to address the type of peer generated content I’ve explored, and include up-to-date, realistic resources like film clips. We need gender sensitive, support that does not treat sexting as the fault of girls, and also we cannot simply demonize boys. Many existing resources are based on sexual stereotypes and worst case scenarios, are moralising and implicitly place the burden of blame on girls for sending a photo, thereby reproducing the problematic message that girls’ are to protect their innocent virginal body from the predatory over-sexed male. This in itself is a form of victimisation, which can be harmful. We need resources that offer practical and ethical ways to challenge and overturn the sexual double standard whilst empowering both girls and boys, considering the sexual health and pleasure of all young people as a right.
Sexting itself is not inherently coercive or harmful, but there are some clear legal aspects and social consequences which need to be understood and avoided by young people.
Jessica Ringrose is the lead researcher and author of the report ‘A qualitative study of children, young people and ‘sexting’, which was co-authored with Rosalind Gill, Kings College London, Sonia Livingstone, London School of Economics, and Laura Harvey, Open University.