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Critical Theory, Feminist Theory, Theory

Youth Sexting: Using Theory to Identify the Problem and Propose a Solution


Source: Women's Missionary Union of Virginia

Source: Women’s Missionary Union of Virginia

In 2009, two teenage girls, one from Florida and the other from Ohio, committed suicide after enduring extensive harassment and bullying from their peers for ‘sexting’–sending sexually explicit images of themselves–to their boyfriends (Meyer, 2009).  Since then, few themes have dominated national discourse quite so pervasively as ‘sexting’, with the media leading the debate over how to respond to the perceived threat.  Not surprisingly, a popular feature of sexting discourse are estimates of its prevalence that suggest between 15 and 40 percent of teens are sexting (Associated Press & MTV, 2009; Cox Communications, 2009; Lenhart, 2009; National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy & CosmoGirl.com, 2008).  However, critics contend the media may be exaggerating or distorting the numbers, given serious design flaws in the popular press studies (Lounsberry, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2011).  In fact, many think exaggerated prevalence claims are a sign that sexting discourse follows the predictable pattern of moral panic, where children are constructed as deviants or victims and technology is blamed for the new behavior (Chalfen, 2010; Draper, 2011; Funnell, 2011; Marker, 2011).  While there is little doubt that technology plays a role and consequences of sexting are quite real, moral panic poses a significant problem insofar as the panic narrative obscures the phenomenon and produces poor policy responses, like charging adolescents with violating child pornography statutes (Miller-Perrin & Perrin, 2012).  Accordingly, the authors of this paper contend the public must understand how young people experience sexting to frame an effective response.  Thus, this paper will proceed in four parts: a) definition of sexting and description of harmful consequences b) literature review of sexting, c) findings and discussion of the sexting phenomenon, and d) development of a solution to reduce the prevalence of the phenomenon or mitigate its most harmful effects.  Furthermore, informed by their research, the authors interpret sexting as a socially constructed and culturally specific gendered phenomenon with harmful consequences that predominately affect young women.  Therefore, the authors recommend exploiting the panic over sexting to develop in-school workshops, based on co-cultural theory, to help young women share their experiences, resist gender ideology in the media, and build communication strategies to navigate the sexting phenomenon.

Sexting: Definition and Harmful Consequences

According to Stephey (2009), sexting “describes the act of sending suggestive…sometimes downright lewd…messages or photos via phone” (p. 1).  However, contextually, sexting is increasingly associated with adolescents, given the prevalence of media coverage of youth sexting.  While a standard definition is not apparent, most consider sexting the practice of sending, receiving, or forwarding youth-produced sexually explicit images (Dake, Price, Maziarz, & Ward, 2012; Lenhart, 2009; Lounsberry, et al., 2011; Temple et al., 2012), a practice that often has harmful consequences.

In fact, sexting a partner or an acquaintance can potentially be dangerous—especially if it backfires and the image falls into the wrong hands (Lohmann, 2012).  Once an image is distributed electronically, adolescents have no control over the distribution of that image, leading to potential shame, embarrassment, humiliation, and even attempted suicide or death (Miller-Perrin & Perrin, 2012).  For example, in one survey researchers found that teenagers involved in sexting were more than twice as likely to report being psychologically depressed, distressed or even suicidal (Dunlap, 2013).  In particular, Walker, Sanci, and Temple-Smith (2011) summarize the issue well, noting “the viral spread of these images and the associated shame has led to social, psychological and legal consequences for victims” (p. 8).  Likewise, Willard (2010) argues sexting leads to relentless online and offline teasing and mocking, exploitation, or revengeful distribution after a break-up.  Even those who debate the prevalence of youth sexting acknowledge its potentially deadly consequences (Rochman, 2011).

The harmful consequences of sexting, the associated media coverage, and the resulting moral panic have forced social institutions to act, leading school administrators and law enforcement to impose punishments—punishments that some believe are too harsh.  In some states, nude images of a minor constitutes child pornography despite whether the image was self-produced, leaving minors open to the highest level of prosecution (Herman, 2010).  For example, in 2008, officials at one school notified law enforcement officials that a young woman distributed self-produced nude images to friends; consequently, law enforcement officials arrested the student for “the possession of criminal tools and illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented materials” (Taylor, 2009, p. 60).  According to Miller-Perrin and Perrin (2012), the consequences of being charged with child pornography for sexting are overly severe, making it difficult for young people convicted under the statutes to get jobs, be accepted into college, or participate in society.

To some, it is clear that laws have failed to keep up with adolescent’s technology use and sexual norms, with some states opting to design education programs as an alternative to hard-sentencing (Postmus, 2013), and others attempting to pass bills to reduce the charges associated with youth sexting (Rosner, 2012).   Of course, lawmakers, law enforcement, and school administrators are not the only social actors struggling to respond to the sexting panic; equally so, academics in psychiatry, psychology, pediatrics, nursing, and to a lesser extent, communications, appear to be scrambling as well.

Literature Review

This section of the paper begins with a review of the sexting literature.  The authors conducted the review to understand how sexting is constructed in the literature, the extent that sexting is understood as problematic, and to understand how sexting is experienced by young people and other actors.  Therefore, the authors conducted a search across seven online academic databases, including Academic Search Complete, PsycINFO, CINAHL Plus, Medline, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, and Google Scholar.  While the authors focused on youth sexting, they searched across all sexting literature in an effort to develop a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon.  The search yielded 74 peer-reviewed articles with more than 26 articles dealing with legal issues and another 8 articles providing basic advice for parents, educators, psychiatrists, psychologists, and pediatricians.  In addition, two articles were calls for additional research.  One estimated rates of sexting-related arrests and six studied sexting attitudes and behaviors in adults.  Importantly, the authors identified three youth prevalence studies (Fleschler et al., 2013; Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, & Wolak, 2012; Strassberg, McKinnon, Sustaíta, & Rullo, 2013) and another four prevalence studies that also sought to correlate sexting to risk behaviors (Dake, et al., 2012; O’Sullivan & Gibbings, 2012; Rice et al., 2012; Temple, et al., 2012).  Finally, the review yielded six qualitative articles, two of which were qualitative studies (Ringrose, Gill, Livingstone, & Harvey, 2012; Walker, 2012).  Surprisingly, the authors found that most of the literature is oriented towards the consequences of sexting and framing a social response, rather than attempting to understand the phenomenon.

In fact, 35 percent of the literature focused on developing appropriate legal and policy intervention, while another 11 percent focused on providing guidance to various practitioners.  In addition, many scholars acknowledged the paucity of original research on sexting and consistently called for additional research.  Of the available research on youth sexting, the majority focused on gathering accurate prevalence data with some seeking to understand how sexting correlates to risk behavior.  In addition, the prevalence studies describe significant variability of estimates of youth sexting participation, between 7 and 40 percent (Mitchell, et al., 2012; Strassberg, et al., 2013).  Of course, reliable prevalence estimates in both the popular press and the academic literature are complicated by the lack of agreement on the definition of sexting (Lounsberry, et al., 2011) or what constitutes explicit material (Mitchell, et al., 2012).   In contrast, prevalence studies that sought to identify correlates to adolescent risk behaviors were more consistent.

For example, Dake, et al. (2012) found statistically significant correlations with adolescent risk behaviors like sexual intercourse and substance abuse, while similarly, Rice, et al. (2012) reported that young people who sexted were more likely to be sexually active.  In addition, O’Sullivan and Gibbings (2012) found that talking about sex online, including sexting, was the best predictor of sexual intercourse experience among female adolescents.  Finally, Temple, et al. (2012) found that adolescents engaged in sexting were more likely to be dating and have had intercourse, while young women were more likely to engage in sexual risk behaviors.  While the prevalence of sexting remains somewhat uncertain, there is a reasonable basis to believe a minority of adolescents are sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit material of each other; moreover, adolescent sexting appears to correlate with increased sexual activity and potentially with other adolescent risk behaviors.  However, the objective research identified in the literature review did little to explain the causes of adolescent sexting.

While there were only two qualitative studies identified by the authors, they were remarkable for their unique insights and more importantly, their commonalities.  In the first study, Walker (2012) used an inductive approach to “uncover how young people describe sexting and its consequences…[and]…their views on reasons for young people’s participation in the behavior” (p. 95).  Walker (2012) found adolescents experienced sexting far differently depending upon their gender; observing young women were “pressured by young men to produce and distribute sexually explicate images of themselves”, while young men were “pressured by each other to source these images” (p. 106).  Moreover, Walker (2012) found that young women were far more likely to send self-produced images than young men and that harmful consequences overwhelmingly affected young women, reinforcing a sexual double standard.  Finally, many study participants blamed a sexualized culture that objectifies women for normalizing gendered sexting behaviors (Walker, 2012).

Likewise, Ringrose, et al. (2012) found that the sexting practice is coercively constructed and “shaped by the gender dynamics of the peer group in which, primarily, boys harass girls, and it is exacerbated by the gender norms of popular culture” (p. 7).  For example, Ringrose, et al. (2012) observed young women are subject to a wide range of sexual harassment activity that includes pressure to send sexually explicit images, but also verbal requests for sex acts, and unwanted physical contact.  Moreover, young women described the harassment as a daily barrage where failure to accede to requests created additional harassment and recrimination, while complying created negative consequences like being labeled a slut (Ringrose, et al., 2012).  However, for young men, sexting improved their social status and provided opportunities to control young women through ratings and threat of exposure (Ringrose, et al., 2012).  Finally, Ringrose, et al. (2012) were surprised by the extent and normalization of sexual harassment, observing that a culture of silence permeated the practice.

Notably, the two qualitative studies provide remarkably similar accounts of the sexting phenomenon as experienced by young people, despite originating on different continents, the first in Australia, and the second in the United Kingdom.  Moreover, they differ significantly from the bulk of the literature in their relation of sexting as a culturally specific gendered set of practices that extend beyond sending or receiving self-produced sexually explicit images; thus the qualitative studies contribute significantly to understanding sexting.

In summary, analysis of the literature review reveals a body of work whose primary focus is on how society’s institutions and practitioners should respond to sexting, understanding the prevalence of sexting among youth rather than adults, and identifying the effects of youth sexting on youth risk behaviors.  It appears the literature reflects the moral panic found in the popular press is several ways: a) distinct focus on effects versus causes, b) primarily concerned with youth, and c) primarily focused on social response, rather than understanding the phenomenon.  Distinctively, the two qualitative studies do not reflect moral panic, but explain sexting as a lived experience.

Findings and Discussion: Sexting as a Gendered Phenomenon

Despite variations, scholars often describe sexting as a practice or behavior where young people self-produce sexually explicit images or videos and distribute them using Internet and computing technology.  In this narrow conception, technology occupies a role as a cause, given that sexting could not occur without smartphones with cameras, a network connection, and integration with social networks.  Thus, in the a priori definition, the cause is taken-for-granted, a technology-deterministic ideology.

While it is important to understand the limitations and affordances of technology, it is more important to examine the causes and consequences of sexting in the cultural milieu within which the gendered practice resides, including schools, homes, media, and technology, where both people and social institutions help shape the practice.  Thus understood, sexting is a socially constructed and gendered cultural phenomenon where young people reinforce and play out the already socially accepted interpretation of women as a subordinate or as sexual object, typically without critical examination or challenge.  This conception does not envision technology as a cause of sexting; rather, technology provides a set of affordances that make the social construction of the gendered practice possible.

Therefore, sexting is both the practice of sending, receiving, or forwarding youth-produced sexually explicit images and more importantly, a social practice that normalizes sexual harassment, sexual coercion, male domination and control, and a culture of silence among women.  In this conception, sexting is a site where gender role ideology is constructed and maintained; it is a site where the mental framework of language, concepts, imagery of thoughts, and representations are decided (Hall, 1986).   Hence, there is good reason to reform the practice and much at stake, including whether the next generation will continue to subordinate and objectify women, whether social institutions in general, and schools in particular, will remain complicit in allowing sexual harassment, and whether young women will continue to bear the brunt of harmful consequences.

Problem and Solution through a Theoretical Lens

There are numerous views of any problem, perhaps even more so with sexting.  Some suggest technology is the problem, while others may point to inappropriate legal remedies, poor enforcement of existing law, or lax oversight in schools.  Informed by young people’s experience of sexting as a gendered practice, the authors hold a different view of the sexting problem.  Sexting is a social problem worth reforming, insofar as the practice normalizes sexual harassment in youth culture, with harmful consequences that inordinately affect young women.  In fact, sexting does not appear to be a new phenomenon at all, rather the age-old problems of male hegemony and gender and sexual inequality played out on a new technology platform with different implications and consequences.

Indeed, sexting appears to work at an ideological level to naturalize the subordination and objectification of young women.  For example, young men use the collection of sexually explicit texts to elevate their status within the peer group, while young women are coerced into providing the images (Ringrose, et al., 2012; Walker, 2012).  In addition, young men rate the images with their peers, while young women are labeled sluts or worse (Ringrose, et al., 2012; Walker, 2012).  Finally, young men use the threat of exposure to control young women, while young women suffer in silence (Ringrose, et al., 2012; Walker, 2012).  Hence, sexting in practice presumes male hegemony and acceptance of gender role ideology.  Moreover, sexting parallels young people’s experience of mass media representations of young women like Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, or Miley Cyrus, as sexual objects for men.

Of course, young women are very aware of the situation.  In fact, Ringrose, et al. (2012) and Walker (2012) were both impressed by the awareness, resilience, and coping skills of the study participants.  The problem is that young women lack the conceptual or physical space for resistance to the ideology and local practices inherent in the sexting experience, wherein they can come together to break their silence, share their experiences, and challenge the social construction of sexting in particular, and sexualization in general.

Towards a Solution Based on Co-Cultural Theory

Earlier, the authors described sexting as a cultural site where young people create and maintain gender ideology through language, images, concepts, and representations.  Indeed, sexting is one site among many where society constructs and maintains dominant gender ideology and mainstream media is another.  According to Griffin, (2012) the hegemonic role of the mass media is to manufacture consent; in this case, the consent of women to accept the traditional gender roles that objectify women.  However, because consent is required, “hegemony can never be complete or final” (Croteau, Hoynes, & Milan, 2012, p. 162); therefore media representations are open to challenge and resistance.  In fact, people can and do resist dominant ideology by applying a negotiable code or substituting and oppositional code, thus opening a conceptual space for resistance (Hall, 1997).  It is in this conceptual space of resistance that the solution will begin to take shape.

As noted earlier, Ringrose et al. (2012) observed a culture of silence among young women in their study, noting:

a strong tendency towards resignation and acceptance of the sexual double standard and sexual harassment at school…where girls…felt unable to actually approach teachers or parents for fear of being called a ‘snake’ or ‘snitch’ or arousing retaliation from boys.  (p. 54)

One cannot help draw parallels between young women’s experience of sexting and Kramarae’s concept of muted groups.  As Griffin (2012) notes, being muted does not mean that groups with low power are utterly silent; rather, “the issue is whether people can say what they want to say when and where they want to say it” (p. 461).  Whether for fear of retaliation, fear of labeling, or because the young women lacked the language to address the sexual double standard and harassment, silence is the result.  Therefore, the authors recommend turning the concept of resistance into a physical and temporal site of resistance, where the voices of affected young women can transform sexting from a muted experience into one that is openly discussed, shared, and experienced purely from a woman’s standpoint.

To move quickly from this conceptual idea towards a practical idea, the authors propose to leverage the moral panic over sexting into funding for a pilot program to develop and run recurring gender-based workshops called Sext Control, in conjunction with middle schools and high schools.  The goal of Sext Control workshops is to create a space for young women, or co-researchers, to critically examine their experience of sexting, to build ideological resistance strategies through media literacy, and to discuss and develop a perspective on successful communication strategies specific to sexting.

First, co-researchers will discuss and reflectively examine their experiences with sexting among their peers.  Second, co-researchers will critically examine and discuss mass media depictions of female sexuality to help understand how gender is socially constructed and maintained, while examining their own taken-for-granted assumptions.  In essence, the workshop will attempt to reveal the power imbalances between men and women in media texts and language.  Finally, co-researchers discuss their communication strategies for operating within the dominant male code of the sexting social practice to arrive at a set of useful practices specific to sexting situations.

The theoretical framework for the Sext Control workshop is based on Orbe’s (1998) co-cultural theory, a construct built upon both standpoint theory and muted group theory.  In truth, co-cultural theory is ideal given its usefulness to understand how co-cultural groups develop communication strategies and practices to  “reinforce, manage, alter, and overcome a societal position that renders them outside the centers of power” (Orbe, 2005, p. 65).  Indeed, according to Orbe (1998), co-cultural group members are more aware of the importance of adopting communication behaviors that help them negotiate within the dominant code.  Moreover, Orbe (1998) suggests that co-cultural group member’s communication varies based on six factors, including desired outcome, communication approach, situational context, experience, abilities, and perceived costs and rewards, resulting in  26 distinct practices identified in Table 1 below:

Table 1

Co-cultural communication practices

Communication Approach

Desired Outcome

Assimilation

Accommodation

Separation

Nonassertive

Emphasizing commonalities

Developing positive face

Censoring self

Averting Controversy

Increasing visibility

Dispelling stereotypes

Avoiding

Maintaining barriers

 

Assertive

Extensive preparation

Overcompensating

Manipulating Stereotypes

Bargaining

Communicating Self

Intragroup networking

Using Liaisons

Educating Others

Exemplifying strengths

Embracing stereotypes

 

Aggressive

Dissociating

Mirroring

Strategic distancing

Ridiculing self

Confronting

Gaining advantage

Attacking

Sabotaging others

 

Table 1.  Co-cultural communication practices adapted from Orbe, M. P. (1998). Constructing co-cultural theory : an explication of culture, power, and communication. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Using co-cultural theory in the Sext Control workshop allows co-researchers to examine communication strategies and practices specific to sexting situations, thus contributing to the literature and more importantly, empowering co-researchers with knowledge and skills to navigate sexting while avoiding harmful consequences.

In an ideal world, school districts will pick up the Sext Control workshops as a best practice and replicate them across school districts and geographies.  In addition, sexting-specific co-cultural communication practices could be shared as original research or web-based case studies, empowering young women to avoid coercion, harassment, and the worst of consequences resulting from sexting.

Limitations and Future Research

While the authors have proposed a specific solution to reduce the prevalence of sexting and mitigate the worst of the harmful emotional and psychological consequences, there are few examples of a workshop-based approach dealing with sexual issues in middle school or high school settings.  Therefore, there may be practical, moral, or ethical issues in the real-world application of a workshop-based strategy.  In truth, more research is required to properly design the solution as an operational rather than theoretical concept.

During their research, the authors identified several important gaps in the literature.  First, accurate sexting prevalence data remains elusive, largely because of definitional and methodological challenges.  These challenges need addressed in order for the academy to gain better insight into sexting prevalence and correlation with adolescent risk behaviors.  Second, the authors recommend a broad-based qualitative study of sexting in the United States, given there may be important cultural differences that dramatically alter the lived experience of sexting for U.S. adolescents.  Finally, the authors suggest that sexting researchers using objective methods examine how quantitative and qualitative research could come to such different conclusions regarding gender.

Conclusion

From Elvis Presley’s hips on TV to sexting on smartphones, panic appears to occur at regular intervals at the intersection of new technology, unintended uses, and young people.  However, acknowledging panic is not the same as trivializing the potential hazards.  Instead, acknowledging panic forces a deeper probing to understand a new phenomenon, rather than let fear dictate the social response.  Indeed, when law enforcement officials charge adolescents with child pornography for the technology equivalent of ‘show me yours and I’ll show you mine’, it is difficult to see the social response as anything but panic.  In addition, to a lessor extent the academy may be complicit by focusing research efforts on either validating or debunking the prevalence or risks associated with the sexting panic, rather than seeking to understand the phenomenon, its causes, and consequences.

Of course, there are important consequences of sexting.  Youth sexting is associated with adolescent risk behaviors, can result in emotional or psychological problems, or create legal consequences.  In panic mode, one might envision the consequences as the problem.  However, the authors have sought to probe deeper to understand sexting not only as a technology-oriented youth practice with real consequences, but also as a socially constructed phenomenon with its own causes and consequences.

In summary, the authors suggest youth sexting is a gendered social practice that normalizes sexual harassment, male domination and control, and sexual coercion, creating a culture of silence among young women, who endure most of the consequences.  Moreover, many young women lack the space or support to resist the ideology inherent in the practice and voice their experiences, strategies, or opposition.  That is a problem worth solving.  Therefore, the authors propose using co-cultural theory to construct a pilot workshop in the middle or high school setting to help young women share their experiences, resist gender ideology in the media, and build communication strategies to navigate the sexting phenomenon.  Panic is not always a good thing.  However, in this case, it is a cloud with an important, silver, lining; it focuses a variety of important social institutions and actors on a very real problem and sets the stage for rational social reforms that may make a big difference in the quality of people’s lives.

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Written by Alexander Levere and Richard Rock for Gonzaga University’s COML 508

About rjrock

Husband, Father, Friend, Business & Technology Executive, Student, Veteran, Leadership and Communication Scholar, Lifelong Learner, Sailor, Musician, Basketball Player, Camper, Harley Rider, Dog Lover, Lover of the Lived Experience, Coach, Mentor, Tutor

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