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Safe sexting?

Safe sexting?

In our Winter 2010 newsletter, Dr Anastasia Powell discussed recent public debates surrounding ‘sexting’ and what they reflect about society’s understandings of sex, power and consent more broadly. This is an excerpt of Dr Powell's article, with headings added by DVRCV.

Generation Y

It has become commonplace to acknowledge that developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) have significantly changed the ways we connect and relate with each other. For children and young people, or ‘Generation Y’ (broadly defined here as those born in and after 1982), ICTs have become a vital part of social life and a forum for the exploration and presentation of their identities, including their sexual identity. Indeed, according to figures from the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA), social activities such as emailing, mobile phone and instant messaging, as well as visiting social networking sites, form the greatest component of young people’s use of ICTs, far exceeding the hours spent on homework or other ‘practical’ functions (ACMA 2007).

Focus on 'risk' and 'danger' in public debate

Despite many young people’s positive experiences of mobile technologies and online spaces and the apparent ‘freedom’ for self-expression they can represent, it is the ‘risks’ and ‘dangers’ of ICTs that are more commonly the focus of public debates. ‘Sexting’, or the sending of sexually explicit text and picture messages via mobile phone, is a case in point. However while those of us concerned with the prevention of sexual violence might be focused on the more exploitative forms that sexting can sometimes take, the recent public debates regarding sexting also reflect, in my view, problematic social norms regarding sex, power and consent. These norms underpin experiences of sexual violence, particularly for young women. ...

Forwarding on sexts: more violation of an individual's sexual automony, and more humiliation, intimation or harassment

In the case of sexting, while there may sometimes be pressure to send the initial image itself, the further distribution of that image is an additional violation of an individual’s sexual autonomy, further humiliating, intimidating or harassing the victim. ‘Helen’ describes:

I was absolutely mortified, horrified. Everyone had seen them, not only all the people in my class but even at other schools in the area. The pictures were up in the bathrooms, in the corridors. People would stop me in the street and recognise me. They called me a porn star. I couldn’t go [out], it was embarrassing for my friends as much as me. I was going to leave school at one point but I was too mortified to explain why to my parents.

‘Helen’, aged 14 years (see British Broadcasting Corporation, 2009)

Young women being labelled and judged

The broader issue of taking unauthorised sexual images of women and girls (including the widespread, nonconsensual distribution of sext messages) can be understood as yet another feature of a society which, despite years of significant reforms to sexual consent legislation and documented shifts in community attitudes towards rape, continues to fail to take women’s sexual autonomy seriously. Yet rarely does public or media debate engage with the issue in this way. Instead, the persistence of the sexual double-standard means that not only is it mostly images of young women that are being distributed, but it is also young women who are being labelled and judged by their peers and broader society for engaging in sexual behaviour in the first place – rather than a simultaneous focus on those (both male and female) who send on the original messages. These images would not be distributed if, first, those responsible did not consider that the images would enhance their social standing and that there was a willing audience for them, and, second, if that initial audience did not consider it okay to send the image on to others. Download the complete article 'Safe sext?' Dr Anastasia Powell's book Sex, Power and Consent: Youth culture and the unwritten rules explores young women’s experiences of pressured and unwanted sex, and the socio-cultural norms that contribute to these experiences.

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Photo from Flickr by Debaird Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic