The social impact of technologies is evident among both teenagers and young people. Youth now experience and engage in most aspects of daily life “online” through the use of social media, mobile phones, and the Internet. This has led to a host of concerns, from parents, educators, advocates, and law enforcement regarding the ways in which this technology is being used, with the debate focused primarily on the issue of “sexting” or sharing of naked and semi-naked selfies. This paper explores sexting behavior from a critical perspective, examining the individual and institutional narratives that continue to shape and influence opinion and policy. Drawing from narrative criminology I argue that there are competing narratives surrounding the sexting debate that serve to amplify the deviance associated with these behaviors, resulting in the criminalization of youth and masking the more insidious social problems, such as gender-based violence.
Youth crime, specifically drug use and youth violence are often the focuses of societal concern and moral panics (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 1994). One term used to describe this is “juvenoia”—a tendency to be easily alarmed about changing youth mores in a rapidly evolving society (Finkelhor, 2010; Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, & Wolack, 2012). Hayward (2002) described the emotional response to youth crime and deviance:
There can be few subjects as effective at setting in motion the meter of public opinion as youth crime. For many, it betokens a general erosion of public standards, providing visceral and compelling evidence of an ever more ‘permissive society’. For others, such contemporary fears about the increased seriousness of youth criminality represent little new: simply the continuation of a two-century old tendency to scapegoat and vilify the transgressions of the young (e.g., Pearson, 1983), yet another moment in a long series of moral panics. (p. 1)
Contemporary anxiety has been focused on the “sexting teen,” or youth who send sexually explicit selfies using digital media, most often presented as a young, heterosexual female who lacks sexual agency but who bears the responsibility for the negative consequences of sharing these images (Albury, 2017; Albury & Crawford, 2012; Dobson & Ringrose, 2016). The term “sexting” is a portmanteau of the words “sex” and “texting” which first appeared in the news media in the early 2000s (Weins, 2014). Sexting began simply enough—using a mobile device to send a text message to another device; however, with the development of new media which individuals use to communicate, the sext has been transformed and definitions of sexting ought to include any technologies that use the Internet (Walker, 2012). The term is evolving and describes a wide variety of behaviors. These range from the consensual sharing of images between partners, the recording of sexual crimes, the commission of manufacturing or distributing child sexually abusive images, to non-consensual distribution of images (Lee, Crofts, McGovern, & Milivojevic, 2015).
Concern about sexting is hardly novel, as Jewkes (2010) asserted that anxieties involving sex, risk, and children have been “well-rehearsed in this country for more than 100 years” (p. 8). New technologies have always resulted in apprehension surrounding youth, for example, the panics over radio, music, and television (Albury & Crawford, 2012; Crichter, 2003; Lumby & Fine, 2006). What has changed is the type of technology used in order to participate in negotiating sexual identity and relations—the rise of the mobile phone.
The development of the mobile phone, specifically the smart phone, has changed modern life as we know it. This is especially so for youth who are considered “digital natives,” having grown up with this technology. Many teens use their mobile phones exclusively for Internet access and do the bulk of their socializing via mobile phone, chronicling their lives in a way that sets them apart from previous generations (King, 2012). The Pew Research Center (2015) conducted a series of surveys and focus groups which examined tech use by youth. The findings indicated that most of young people’s communication and maintenance of relationships occurs through the use of technology—from the use of emojis to express emotions and feelings, to announcing relationship statuses via Facebook, to ending relationships via text. The Pew study asserted that technology has altered young people’s relationships—from the expected frequency of communication, the types of communication, the presentation of the relationship, to the ways in which youth end relationships.
As a consequence, there appear to be two differing views on the practice: Youth who view sexting as an appropriate application of technology to romantic relationships, and adults and criminal justice practitioners who perceive it as a threat to safety or moral standards for behavior. This paper utilizes a critical framework to address these conflicting views through a narrative criminological approach (Presser & Sandberg, 2015) examining the individual and institutional narratives that drive public opinion and social policy. This analysis argues that the competing narratives regarding youth sexting only amplify the perceived deviance of the act, simultaneously criminalizing youth while hiding more insidious social problems such as gender-based violence.
It is difficult to estimate the prevalence of sexting as there is a lack of consensus among researchers and the media. Most inquiries regarding sexting have used survey methodology—for example, the National Campaign to Prevent Youth and Unplanned Pregnancy (2008), the MTV, and Associated Press (2009) online surveys which focused on digital abuse, the YouthOnline and Wireless Safety Survey (2009), and the PEW Internet and American Life Project (2015). These surveys have yielded quantitative data on the prevalence of sexting, but there is variability among the results. The two main reasons for this are sampling techniques and a general lack of consensus of definitions (Lounsbury, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2011). Operational definitions, ages of participants (for example, asking older teenagers will yield a higher percentage of sexters), social desirability bias, issues regarding participants’ understanding of the questions or willingness to honestly respond to questions of a sensitive nature impact the findings. The various conceptualizations of key terminology (e.g., defining sexting), research designs, data collection methods, sampling populations, and survey administrations have all affected results (Lamphere, 2014).
That said, estimates for the incidence of sexting range from 15% of youth to 40% or more (Ringrose, Gill, Livingstone, & Harvey, 2012). There are many reasons that youths offer for why they might sext. Due to the influence of peers among this population, most reasons are social in nature, such as a way to demonstrate flirtation or romantic interest, to initiate sex, and as a result of peer pressure (Le, Temple, Peskin, Markham, & Tortolero, 2014).
There are several prominent narratives when it comes to the phenomena of youth sexting. Narratives provide a window into how individuals organize themselves and the worlds around them, as well as how individuals are constructed and construct themselves (Daly & Maher, 1998; Miller, Carbone-Lopez, & Gunderman, 2015; Orbuch, 1997). Narratives are not objective, rather they are subjective, biased, influenced by circumstance and audience, and labyrinthine in their non-linearity (Maruna, 2015). Narratives inspire and motivate action, action which is imbued with meaning and where power and agency are constituted discursively (Presser & Sandberg, 2015). Narratives are delivered by using frames. These are ways in which to help people understand new information by relating it to existing knowledge, providing analytic structures that impact public perception of issues (Kim & Vishak, 2008). Frames guide our cognitive processing of events as they occur, and the media framing of events directly affects our understanding and response to issues (Meikle, 2012). Information is deemed as “news” when a culturally authorized storyteller validates it as such by delivering the narrative (Meikle, 2012).
The predominant narratives have exclusively focused on negative effects, both the psychological and social consequences of this behavior. Issues surrounding sexting involve self-sexual exploitation of minors and the loss of moral innocence in a digital culture that is saturated with sexual images (Cornwell, 2013; Weins, 2014). In addition to these more serious consequences, some research asserts that sexting may result in other negative outcomes, such as embarrassment and mental health problems (Dake, Price, Maziraz, & Ward, 2012).
The two most prominent narratives surrounding sexting and youth are the victim narrative and the moral panic narrative. The victim narrative is used to discuss the harms that can result from youth sexting. These narratives include stories of tragedy, such as youth suicide and child pornography (Podlas, 2014). The victim narrative portrays sexting youth as a vulnerable population, at risk for both victimization and exploitation, as well as the potentiality of becoming a criminal. Alternatively, the moral panic narrative asserts that the reaction to sexting is disproportionate to the threats presented by engaging in this behavior, and that much of the focus has been solely on the negative consequences of sexting, which are statistical anomalies.
As a result, criminal justice policies are enacted that exaggerate actual dangers and amplify deviance. An over-reliance on the victim narrative has led to punitive policy and public concern. There is an emergent third category, the narratives from youth themselves, which suggests that the majority of sexting occurs between trusted partners and without negative consequences (Lee, Crofts, McGovern, & Milivojevic, 2015). This paper argues that it should be the narratives of youth that guide criminal justice policy moving forward.
Youth behaviors are typically socially constructed by the media in one of two ways—with youth as either the tragic victim or the evil monster (Jewkes, 2015). Sexting debates tend to dichotomously portray youth as either victims who should take better precautions to avoid the negative costs of engaging in this behavior, or as offenders who create and distribute child pornography. Media coverage of sexting is constructed as overwhelmingly harmful, with teenage girls being in particular danger of what is termed an “epidemic,” and a “dangerous youth trend” that could result in tragic consequences such as sexual exploitation, sex offender registration, and suicide (Karaian, 2012).
When it comes to the tragic victim, the stories of “tragic consequences” serve as morality tales, warning of the negative and potentially fatal dangers, particularly to young women, should they send sexually suggestive photos or videos. Public awareness and prevention was the reasoning that 18-year-old Jessica Logan gave for appearing on a local television station to discuss the negative consequences of sexually suggestive pictures of herself that her ex-boyfriend distributed after their break up. These images resulted in daily bullying and harassment. She appeared on television to share her story in May. Two months later, she committed suicide (Celizic, 2009).
Thirteen-year-old Hope Whitsell sent a crush some sexually suggestive photos in order to gain romantic attention. Those photos were promptly distributed to her peers. Like the Logan case, harassment and bullying ensued. The young teenager hanged herself while her family sat downstairs in their living room. Her distraught and heartbroken mother had a message for parents: “It happened to my daughter, it can happen to yours too. No one is untouchable. No one is untouchable” (Kaye, 2010).
The suicide victim narrative focuses on the deleterious effects, specifically for young women, that sexting can have on social status and reputation (Henry & Powell, 2015). Concerns surround the emotional and reputational damage that sexting can have, as well as the potential for both cyberbullying and offline harassment (Lee & Crofts, 2015). The Logan and Whitsell stories both shared the same tragic elements—young girls, presented as naïve and eager to impress young men, who send images only to have them non-consensually distributed, resulting in shame, stigma, harassment, and bullying.
Educational and prevention campaigns, such as the Australian video entitled Megan’s Story, present cautionary tales that place responsibility squarely on the victim. Megan’s Story details a young girl named Megan who emerges from a public school bathroom after sending a sext to boy. Upon returning to class, we hear the boy’s mobile phone message alert and then the entire classroom, including the teacher, begin to receive message alerts as the picture is forwarded to everyone in school. The onus is on the victim as the voice over moralizes: “Think you know what happens to your images? Who will see them? How will they affect you? Think again.”
As Albury and Crawford (2012) asserted in their analysis of this public campaign, the message is clear—the consequences of sexting are serious, but for the one who sends the sext and the consequences of that choice are shame and humiliation. This gendered double standard, where young women are seen as responsible for their victimization, is a current theme within the victim narrative (Albury, Crawford, Byron, & Matthews, 2013; Albury, Funnell, & Noonan, 2010; Lee & Crofts, 2015; Ringrose, Gill, Livingstone, & Harvey, 2012). Not unlike the victim blaming that occurs in cases of sexual assault, and the prevalent rape myths surrounding responsibility, there are moral expectations of what “good girls” do and do not do (Lee & Crofts, 2015; Worthen, 2016). Placing the responsibility solely on the victim, who should have avoided these risks in the first place, allows for a denial of the victim that leads to harassment and bullying and “slut shaming.” As the Logan and Whitsell cases demonstrate, this can have devastating consequences (Ryan, 2010).
Though young girls are most often seen as being responsible for prevention of victimization, there is another way in which the victim narrative functions, which is the youth as offender stories. The “youth as victims of child pornography” frame draws from our collective fear about youth as tragic victims of sexual violence. The less common “youth as producers and distributors” frame represents our fears about the premature sexualization of youth and the development of criminality. This victim narrative is fueled by the archetype of a real life monster, despised and feared by all—the child predator. Behind the monitor of our computers, the ghost of the potential child predator lurks, waiting to gain access to images of vulnerable youth in order to use them for sexual satisfaction. More concerning, perhaps, is the elusive nature of digital images as their weightless nature allows them to be distributed to other predators—the specter of the pedophile haunts child pornography’s production and consumption (Karaian, 2012). The Internet offers an environment where fictitious personas can be developed and used in order to trap naïve individuals, and this environment is perfectly suited to act as the perfect lair for child predators (Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, & Wolak, 2010).
The fears and concerns regarding child pornography shape the discourse surrounding sexting. A troubling trend of prosecution via child pornography laws is evidence of the panic regarding youth as victims and offenders (Arcabascio, 2010; Calvert, 2009; Goldstein, 2009; Humbach, 2010; Karaian, 2012; Kimpel, 2010; Leary, 2008, 2010). Under United States Federal Law, it is a crime to knowingly produce, distribute, receive, or possess with intent to distribute, visual media that depicts a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct and is obscene (Federal Law 18 U.S.C. 2252). Therefore, when minors engage in sexting, felony charges may result.
When it comes to the victim narratives, there is a sense of familiarity associated with these tragic cases and the dangers they represent, which may be inextricably linked to our conceptions of sexting. We all know these victim stories, even if we are not sure how we know them. The purported devastating and fatal consequences of sexting are ingrained in our cultural imagination. Linnemann (2014) discussed true crime stories as ghost stories that take residence in the public imaginary—these stories shape public opinion and policy. He draws on Derrida’s (2006) concept of the “hauntological,” the figure of the ghost, neither absent nor present. This is ever present in our collective unconscious; these stories reside within us and are stored until a focusing event acts as a medium, conjuring up ghosts that linger in the social imagination, animating the social space with spectral power (Armstrong, 2010; Bell, 1997; Gordon, 2008; Linnemann, 2014). The spectral traces these cases leave behind incite public panic and outrage, which informs policy, resulting in punitive and ineffective measures and sanctions. We pull from those cultural narratives regarding the intersection of youth, sex, technology, and danger because those are the stories most readily available and which fit emotionally charged concerns.
The victim narrative, though extensively propagated through media coverage, is problematic for several reasons. Suicides are not common reactions to sexting gone bad, and in most cases, youth report that they do not experience any harm from sexting behaviors (Lee, Crofts, McGovern, & Milivojevic, 2015). The fear of child pornography is exaggerated as most youths’ photos fail to meet the legal standard for sexually abusive materials involving minors (Duncan, 2014; Podlas, 2014). Despite the extensive focus on the dangers associated with sexting, there is not an epidemic of child pornographers, and there is much debate over whether any youth sexting should be considered child pornography, with many legislators arguing that these laws will be ineffective and completely unnecessary (Fredella & Galeste, 2011; Painter, 2011). In most instances, cases involving youth sexting are only prosecuted when adults are the recipients of photos (Worthen, 2016). It is because of the exaggerated dangers of sexting that a second narrative has emerged in the debate, which is the moral panic narrative.
The perpetuation of the victim narratives, despite the evidence of the actual dangers of sexting, has led to claims that what has occurred is a moral panic, or a “fundamentally inappropriate” reaction to events or conditions where the seriousness or gravity of these events or conditions becomes distorted or amplified (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009). The moral panic argument claims that the response to youth sexting is exaggerated and overly paternalistic, and asserts that sexting among youth as a normal behavior in the digital era, a modern-day form of streaking or skinny-dipping, simply moving from offline to online in a culture of digital natives (King, 2012; Shellenbarger, 2009).
This panic is media produced and exclusively focused on the prevalence and potential negative consequences of this behavior, framing it as an emerging social problem (Karaian, 2012; Lumby & Fennell, 2011). What is clear from the scholarly literature is that it is the minority of youth who engage in sexting behaviors, and that negative consequences are uncommon, which lends credence to the moral panic narrative (Berkman Center for Internet Safety; Salter, Crofts, & Lee, 2013). The anxiety and concern over sexting would seem to be disproportionate to the actual threat of danger.
It is this anxiety which fuels moral panics. Take a legitimate fear (adolescent sexual behavior and risk or harm), amplify the deviance associated with the behavior and distort the chances of risk (through the media), and convince an audience (parents, religious groups, politicians) that something must be done to protect the vulnerable victims (youth, especially young girls). The actors involved are always the press or media, the public, agents of formal social control, lawmakers and politicians, and action groups (Cohen, 1979).
Young (2009) described the moral panic process as a moral disturbance, which is then focused on by the media, experts, and moral entrepreneurs and targeted by formal agents of social control until eventually the panic extinguishes. Anxiety and emotion fuel a moral panic, creating a sense of chaos and uncertainty, a crisis that threatens established norms or values. The group or event chosen as the focus of moral panic is related to the source of anxiety and can be understood as a symptom of the underlying moral uneasiness, which explains why the reaction to the perceived threat is disproportionate to the actual risk. He noted that “if panics are ‘successful,’ they connect up to fundamental shifts in the tectonic plates of order, each occurrence like a volcanic atoll. It is their reappearance that conﬁrms their status as moral disturbances of any signiﬁcant order” (p. 14). Thus, concern about youth and crime or deviance is a panic that resurfaces and reappears often, though the form of troubling behavior may change.
Curnutt (2012) offered a rich cultural and institutional analysis of youth sexting where it can be understood as a “sometimes-private sometimes-public practice that relies on a level of reflexivity for its participants to remediate themselves in accordance with the institutional discourses and conventions that govern the media industry’s production of sexual imagery for a heterosexual male audience” (p. 361). Youth sexting is simply a new form of production for a product that the culture has long been consuming and venerating, one that elicits anxiety regarding our own sexuality, which we attempt to cover in a veil of secrecy.
Sexting can be understood as simply a means of courtship for an age in which so much of our lives are online (Weins, 2014). The youth who participate in sexting are digital natives who have grown up in a culture of participation—a culture where their lives are recorded, “snapped,” “shared,” “liked,” and lived collectively with “friends” online (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008). It is irrational to expect that their sexual behavior would somehow be separate from this culture. These youth have been raised on reality shows and YouTube—personal life is public life, possibly even stardom (Weins, 2014).
These digital natives are coming of age in an era where the privacy and secrecy older generations once enjoyed has become obsolete. The Internet has opened Pandora’s Box and there is no way of closing it, yet there is good news “offline”—there have been declines in “real life” risky sexual behaviors—youth pregnancy has decreased, birth control usage has increased, and teens report waiting longer to have sex and having fewer sexual partners (Eaton et al., 2011.) Shifting from a risk model of youth deviance to one that focuses on these behaviors as part of normal adolescent development may be a more useful framework in understanding youth sexuality and technology, and allow for a more realistic portrayal of sexting and its most often relative and benign nature (Michaud, 2006).
In fact, there are many beneficial aspects of the Internet for youth, such as education, access, and support. The Internet can offer a positive means of sexual exploration for youth; for example, by providing information on sensitive topics that youth may not want to discuss with adults, such as sexual health information, initiating and maintaining dating relationships, opportunities for peer feedback, and safe forums for traditionally marginalized populations such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth (LGBT, Comartin, 2013). Those uncomfortable conversations with guardians about the “birds and the bees” are no longer necessary—young people have access to information regarding sexual health. For teens who suffer from social anxiety or are uncomfortable in real life settings, online support can be found with the click of a button in Facebook groups, forums, and chat rooms. And for vulnerable populations, such as LGBT youth, the Internet can be an invaluable resource for finding support, discussing hardships or struggles with like-minded others. While the Internet can be used to harm, it is just as readily available to be used to inform and to guide youth through the unfamiliar and often terrifying terrain that is youth sexual exploration.
The moral panic narrative attempts to quell fears surrounding youth and technology by reminding us that this is not a new phenomenon. Sexting can be understood as simply another example of normal teenage deviance (Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2013; Temple, Le, Peskin, Markham, & Tortolero, 2014). Youth have always used emerging technologies for sexual communication with others (Fox & Potocki, 2014; Vybiral, Smahel, & Divinova, 2004). As technology has changed, youth have simply adapted their sexual behavior. Despite the best efforts of agents of social control seeking to protect the vulnerable, youth have always engaged in “risky” behaviors, and participation in these behaviors represent the norm rather than statistical anomalies (Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman,& Schulenberg, 2013; Temple, Le, Peskin, Markham, & Tortolero, 2014).
Moral panics are reflexive and interactive events. As Young (2009) asserted, they are seductive events loaded with explosive power. In dissecting a moral panic, there is always a legitimate fear underlying the chaotic and exaggerated reaction. A moral panic is not senseless fear and paranoia nor a random selection of a target or enemy (Garland, 2008; Young, 2009). Rather, the focus of a panic poses a real threat, and it is important to recognize the actual dangers associated with the behavior rather than to make the oversimplification that all concern about sexting is a moral panic. There are true dangers inherent in youth sexual behavior that are cause for concern. Unprotected sex, sex without commitment, having multiple sexual partners, and engaging in sex while intoxicated or under the influence are all behaviors that can result in serious consequences. Individuals from ages 15-24 account for 25% of sexually active individuals in the United States, but they represent nearly half of the new sexually transmitted disease cases each year and young females account for the largest proportion of unplanned pregnancies (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2008; Finer & Henshaw, 2006). Thus, due to the disproportionate number of adolescents who experience these negative health outcomes, youth sexual behavior is a public health concern (DeClemente, Salazar, & Crosby, 2007; Dir, Coskunpinar, & Cyders, 2014).
Recent research has challenged the notion of the “disproportionate response” citing that the moral panic is a reflexive event, and that initial overreaction may become proportionate depending on how “folk devils” react (David, Rohloff, Petley, & Hughes, 2011). To suggest that the concern is an exaggeration may serve to deny those who have suffered as a result of sexting gone wrong. No sufficient amount of evidence supporting the moral panic narrative emphasizing the actual potential of harm will comfort the grieving parent who has lost a child or the youth who is forced to register as a sexual offender. To these individuals, these issues do not represent a moral panic, rather an actual consequence that they must survive.
This problem is similar in nature to the effectiveness of sex offender policies—the punitive measures that are in place, such as registration and notification, result in net widening and wasted resources when the minority of offenders pose a danger to society (Letorneau, Levenson, Bandyopadhyay, Sinha, & Armstrong, 2010). The statistics and evidence do not make a difference in public perception or opinion. That a sexual predator could harm one of our children is too great to chance. And the hauntological is at work conjuring the ghosts of those who were innocent victims of sexual crimes, such as Megan Kanka, Jacob Wetterling, and Adam Walsh, who serve as reminders that statistics are meaningless to those who are affected.
The moral panic narrative may be seen as overly simplistic and in some ways victim-denying. A responsible approach to dealing with these issues is to first develop an understanding of how youth frame and experience their own behaviors.
Lee and Crofts (2015) claimed that “research on sexting often begins with an adult oriented moral agenda and unproblematically takes sexting on board as a negative risk,” (p. 468). This approach denies youth the agency that must be afforded to them to understand young people and media technologies. An essential part of this would be to study practices and attitudes and situate them within meaning and context so as to give youth an active voice, and place social fears and panics into perspective (Albury & Crawford, 2012; Crawford & Goggin, 2011). Narratives must come from those who engage in these behaviors—the stories they tell others, the stories they tell themselves,
Knowledge of the actual practices and perspectives of youth who sext is limited despite the media attention and public concern (Lee & Crofts, 2015). There have been qualitative examinations of sexting which aimed to provide a richer and more descriptive account of the behavior and those who engage in it (Phippen, 2012; Ringrose, Gill, Livingstone, & Harvey, 2012). These explorations represent unique attempts to directly engage with and listen to youth who sext rather than to administer surveys or test theories in the tradition of previous sexting research.
What emerges from the existing data is clear: It is the minority of youth who engage in sexting, and most sexting occurs among older youth (Lenhart, 2009). Most young people who engage in sexting do so within the confines of an existing relationship with a partner that they trust and appear to minimize harm and risks by doing so (Lee, Crofts, McGivern, & Milvojevic, 2015; Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, & Wolak, 2012). Harm and negative consequences represent the minority of cases (Lee & Crofts, 2015; Phippen, 2009). Youth who actually engage in sexting are less likely to construct it as a negative behavior, and there is little evidence to conclude that most girls feel especially coerced or pressured to sext (Lee & Crofts, 2015; Strassberg, McKinnon, Sustaita, & Rullo, 2013).
Young people, similarly to adults, represent and embody sensuality and sexuality and attempt to negotiate conventions that are sexed, gendered, and classed (Albury, 2015). Examining their negotiations through an adult gaze can lead to misreadings and misinterpretations of behaviors. The need for examination that focuses on sexting youth narratives and the intersection with dominant cultural and institutional narratives will provide for a comprehensive understanding of the lived meaning for participants as well as the actual dangers involved.
The exclusive focus on youth sexuality and sexting masks more insidious social issues. These issues fail to receive the necessary attention and resources due to the emphasis on victim narratives and moral panic surrounding youth. The real and significant harm centers on gender-based violence and the nature of coercion, not only among youth but also adult women.
Much like any other sexual behavior, there is a gender based double standard placed on sexting. The fact that females have more to lose, are publicly shamed, and are more often pressured to engage in sexting than their male counterparts, is troubling and has several possible repercussions (Lee, Crofts, McGivern, & Milvojevic, 2015; Ringrose, Harvey, Gill, & Livingstone, 2013). Placing the blame on the victim may deter victims from reporting instances where negative instances do occur. Like many other educational and awareness campaigns regarding sexual assault, the message youth receive is that the onus is on females to minimize risk by abstaining from the behavior, rather than focusing on the actual issue, which is the non-consensual distribution of images that the victim sent to a primary recipient. Girls are typically misrepresented in media, and popular culture as lacking in sexual agency—their decisions to send images proof of victimization resulting from the “pornification” of a generation (Durham, 2008; Levine & Kilbourne, 2009; Scott & Sarracino, 2008). This essentialist construction is problematic and serves to reinforce the panic surrounding risks, youth sexting, and vulnerable populations.
Despite the misrepresentations, there is evidence that coercion is a valid concern for a subset of young girls. Prevalent in the literature is the argument that pressure and/or coercion is the reason why some young females send sexually explicit images of themselves to others, and most often the recipients are young males (Englander, 2012). Lee and Crofts (2015) further articulated this idea of “pressure,” developing three categories of pressure that young females might experience: individual pressure, peer group pressure, and sociocultural pressure. Due to these pressures, each operating at different levels, the authors questioned whether young women in some instances are able to fully and freely “consent” to sexting, even where it would seem that images are produced and sent “consensually.” Their findings were consistent with the notion of peer pressure and coercion being an important factor—many youth engaged “voluntarily under pressure.” This is an important concept, an almost consensual non-consent that becomes problematic when discussing youth agency.
Some argue that the problem of coercion is structural. American society sexualizes adolescents and profits from doing so, and the vilification of youth sexting is one way to neutralize and displace blame (King, 2012). This is consistent with objectification theory, which focuses on the ways in which a sexually objectifying culture affects the experiences of young girls and women (Dir, Coskunpinar, Stenier, & Cyders, 2013). Society places greater emphasis on appearance for females and they are socialized to have a preoccupation with how they look (Fox & Potocki, 2014). Sexting mirrors a society that sexualizes and objectifies young women, partially evidenced by the finding that more females report sending images than males (Englander, 2012; Lamphere, 2014; Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, & Wolak, 2012; MTV Associated Press, 2009). Thus, because of internalized expectations about their appearance and sexuality, young girls may in fact be vulnerable, and these structural theories lead to questions regarding the nature of “consensual” images.
Henry and Powell (2015) argued that one of the unintended consequences of the focus on youth sexting is the reluctance or reticence to understand non-consensual creation and distribution of images as gender-based violence. As a result, there is a failure to respond to the harms that are caused and a lack of recourse for victims, which leads to an underreporting of these crimes. There is extant research that claims a continuum of abusive behaviors beginning in childhood and persisting into adulthood of which includes sexting (Lee & Crofts, 2015; Powell, 2007; Salter, Crofts, & Lee, 2013). Sexting as a youth may indicate a propensity for future interpersonal violence, particularly against adult women.
There is a dearth of research that examines how these technologies are used to facilitate violence against adult women who are more often victimized as adults and tend to engage in sexting more regularly than young people (Henry & Powell, 2015; Lee & Crofts, 2015). The Internet and associated technologies have facilitated crimes against women such as stalking, harassment, and coercion (Crisafi, Mullins, & Jasinski, 2016; Spitzberg & Hoober, 2002; Woodlock, 2014). The non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images with the intent to humiliate or cause shame is a common tactic among domestic violence offenders, who use technology in order to threaten, control, manipulate, and punish their partners or ex-partners (Diamond, Fisher, & Bruckman, 2011; Hand, Chung, & Peters, 2009; Southworth, Finn, Dawson, Fraser, & Tucker, 2007). Victimization through online media, including cyberstalking, cyber harassment, and sexual victimization most often occurs between intimate partners (Black et al., 2011). Much like other “offline” gender based violence, the real threat is often from those to whom we are closest and with who we are most intimate, a fact lacking from the prominent narratives.
The existing narratives regarding sexting, the victim narrative, and the moral panic narrative, are heavily media driven. The reaction from the criminal justice system has been primarily concerned with the victim narrative due to the tragic nature of celebrated cases, which has resulted in over-regulation or the criminalization of youth. Criminalization of these behaviors and the prominent narratives regarding sexting are consistent with the tendency to focus on normative frameworks concerned with risky behaviors and the agency and blameworthiness of victims (Albury & Crawford, 2012; Albury, Funnell, & Noonan, 2010; Henry & Powell, 2015, Salter, Crofts & Lee, 2013). The current fixation on the dangers of sexting reinforces problematic notions and assumptions regarding youth sexuality and technology, and deflects attention from real dangers, such as gender-based violence and technology assisted sexual violence (Henry & Powell, 2015). Therefore, policy responses by the legal and justice system, public education and awareness campaigns, and the public concern, will be ineffective at addressing the most serious consequences.
The youth narratives can inform the discourse moving forward and hopefully toward the process of change. Not only do narratives describe past actions, but it is argued that they can inspire future action by providing a legitimate path (Presser & Sandberg, 2015). Topics involving technology often takes time to “catch up” to the actual behaviors that are under study (Lamphere, 2012). A narrative criminological approach can elucidate the lived experiences of participants, and the emphasis on stories as influenced and biased can expose patterns of thought, attitudes, and behaviors in a way that traditional methodologies have not (Presser & Sandberg, 2015).
The emotions surrounding topics involving sex, youth, and harm are likely to remain a subjective and normative decision, with no quantity or quality of research and information able to definitively answer the question of whether sexting is, in fact, good or bad (Simpson, 2013; Weins, 2014). We must critically examine the narratives surrounding this issue, explore the fears that fuel panic, give serious consideration to the voices of those who have been directly affected by the consequences of sexting, and continue to evaluate sexting using a confluence of research methodologies in order to fully understand the potential risks associated with this behavior.
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Karen Holt is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. Broadly, her research focuses on sexual deviance and sexual offending. Her work has been published in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, Violence and Victims, and Deviant Behavior. Dr. Holt is the faculty adviser for S.T.R.I.V.E., a mentorship program that works with juveniles who commit sexual offenses.