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 our 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, A qualitative study of children, young people and “sexting”, 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 affected 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.
My co-authors Rosalind Gill, Sonia Livingstone and Laura Harvey and I believe we urgently need better educational resources. E-safety strategies need to address the type of peer generated content I’ve explored, and include up-to-date, realistic resourcessuch as film clips. We need gender sensitive support that does not treat sexting as the fault of girls, and also we cannot simply demonise boys. 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.
Watch a video clip of Jessica talking about her research at Cardiff University.