Tits and small bits: Exploring commodification, consent and shame in teen “sexting”

 

Dr. Jessica Ringrose

Professor of Sociology of Gender and Education

Institute of Education

University of London

 

A guest lecture sponsored by the Centre for Media and Culture in Education and the Centre for Urban Schooling at OISE/University of Toronto.

pussy

 “Oh! @Mr.Darcy, I’m afraid I don’t have enough room on my data plan to send you the pic of my boobs you requested.

But I do hope that you will be pleased with this pic of my pussy!”

As I listened to Dr. Ringrose read transcripts of researchers’ discussions with 13-year-old sexting girls, I couldn’t help but hear echoes of the conversations between characters in Pride and Prejudice. To me, the same kinds of coded drawing room conversations executed by the Bennet sisters as they navigated the treacherous Hertfordshire society in search of marriage and, if possible, happiness, are conducted by middle school teens while texting and sexting.

Dr. Ringrose has been researching feminist and post-feminist practices in Canada and the UK. She provided many provocative ideas as she reflected on her research findings, which are preliminary and ongoing. Following are some of those provocations and their implications for parents and teachers.

 

Research Observations

Youth do not use the term ‘sexting.’ They feel that it is an over-exaggerated descriptor for their activities, and trading images, including sexual content, is a fairly common activity. What they DO consider to be offensive is sharing personal or intimate images without consent.

The images that are traded are constructions, and often exaggerations of the appearance of body parts. This results from capabilities to modify the photographic qualities of images before sending and the implicit challenges of producing images that are more exciting than competitors’.  An example of this phenom came from one girl who explained that a high camera angle was better for photographing cleavage.

Some boys compete with one another to see who can elicit the most images from the greatest number of girls. (An interesting update on collecting sports cards.) The objective is not to see photos of body parts so much as acquiring the most images. The winner would be he with the most persuasive texting. Consider the requisite writing skills!

In the south London neighborhood researched, iPhones are too dear, so most students use more affordable Blackberries. An interesting result of this choice is that the strong security of BBMs make the teens’ messages harder to surveille than if they were using iPhones.

As in days of yore, girls can easily slip into slut status if they show too much or are sexually active, while boys can never be shamed by explicit imagery or blatant sexual behaviour, with the exception of displaying photos of penises (‘bits’) that are too small.

For girls, the preferred body parts for image sharing are breasts. For boys, abs.

Dr. Ringrose is very excited about her research and looking forward to new findings. What I heard is that teens are using social media as extensions of the same kinds of activities that have occurred in teen culture for years.

 

Texting and Adolescent Development

Teens are voraciously curious about grown-up lifestyles as they move inexorably toward adulthood. They might already know how sex works, but need to understand the nuances and protocols of popularity, dating conversations and pecking order. As in middle schools of old, they anguish over being unpopular and excluded from their preferred group. Back in the day, teens formed secret societies (e.g., over telephones, in school cafeterias and hallways or cars at local drive-in restaurants, in front of the corner variety store, at the community centre, at a party when someone’s parents were away for the weekend, etc.) that were hidden from adult view and supervision so that they could experiment, assess and decide upon personal behaviours and qualities they would carry into adulthood.

Social media are now the arenas in which these discussions and activities are played, and teens must pioneer them because their parents or older siblings lack experiences to share. Social media therefore play an essential, and largely beneficial, role in their development.

Dr. Ringrose cited three attempts to influence and support teens as they text. Exposed, an UK/EU video, describes consequences when a boy shares photos texted from his girlfriend. Tagged, from Australia, describes consequences when a group of girls text rumours about classmates. Respect Yourself  is a Canadian website offering a range of supports, from anecdotes to advice.  Each of these is cautionary, discussing the negatives rather than balancing the negatives and positives of online communications. Critiquing these texts and their themes would be a most useful exercise for teens trying to safely and effectively navigate their way through texting and other messaging.

 

Critical Media Literacy Supports and Strategies

What parents and teachers need to work out is how and when to help teens and when to leave them alone. Sometimes caveats and key questions are helpful, but sometimes they have to find their own ways. As in other cases, it is best to ask and listen than to proffer unsolicited advice.

Educators can extend the value of Dr. Ringrose’s research by innovating and applying questions and exercises that might help young teens exercise critical media literacy in their thinking and actions. One such extension could take the form of discussion questions that engage near rather than distant consequences and motivations. Exposed ends with an actor addressing the camera and referencing negative consequences of texting such as being denied entry into a preferred post-secondary school or getting a desired job. While these consequences are realistic, they are irrelevant to a 13-year-old because they seem like very long term eventualities and shrink under the weight of 13-year-old cultural imperatives: How can I gain/regain/maintain popularity among my preferred peer group? and/or Does he/she like me?

Helping teens explore why they text and what goals they achieve while texting will help them develop critical media literacy skills. Helping them consider short-term consequences will help them decide what to post and not post.

Useful questions might include:

What are some reasons that I text?

Who shares my reasons?

Who are some people that I text with? Why?

Who would I NOT text with? Why?

How do people use texting to be popular?

Would that work for me? Why?

How might texting make someone unpopular?

What are some texting mistakes?

Why are some of them big mistakes and other little mistakes?

What might be the consequences of these mistakes?

What advice would you give to someone who was just beginning to text?

 

Dr. Ringrose’s research is topical and important. I look forward to further insights. Parents and teachers need to apprise themselves of the roles played by social media in teen culture, then imagine and activate ways to support teens as they work out their own values and behaviours.

 

 

 

 

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