Ambiguous Portrayal of Sexting in the Media

Sexting has become one of the most controversial topics in our society with the advent of new technology and the lines of personal and private becoming more obscure by the day.  Part of the intense discourse of this topic has to do with the ambiguity of the consequences of teenagers who ‘sext’ represented in mainstream media.   Most of the time, ‘sexting’ is portrayed as something that is inappropriate, offensive, and most importantly illegal in our day and age.  There have been numerous examples in recent years of teenagers who have either been arrested and charged with child pornography charges, or have committed suicide due to the harassment stemming from the unintentional release of a naked picture.

In cinema, sexting, or variations of it, like all potentially dangerous habits, are usually tackled with the same typical teenage debauchery.  The prime example being American Pie.  Assuming you’ve all at least heard of the movie, I want to put into discourse the scene when Jim and his friends set up a webcam to watch Nadia undress unbeknownst to her.  Jim ends up going to meet her, hoping to catch her in a certain mood, without realizing he added the link to the video he was making to his entire grades contact list. What ends up happening is that the whole school watches as Jim and Nadia begin to engage in sexually explicit activity and Jim embarrasses himself.  Jim becomes mortified to learn that he broadcast it to everybody, and Nadia gets shipped back off to whatever foreign country she was originally from.  Cue the Blink-182 tracks and some sorrowful glances from Jim and the audience is *supposed* to grasp the world of humiliation Jim feels about the incident. But we don’t cause it’s a frickin movie and movies in all their glory never make really bad things seem really bad.  So his girlfriend who was studying abroad got shipped back home? No big deal; Stifler still has his mojo and prom is still going to commence. The lesson here is that sexting could probably be humiliating, IF (and ONLY if) you’re stupid enough to upload a video to all of your contact list.
However, what about real-life situations?  MTV put together a PSA of sorts trying to tackle the consequences of what could happen to teenagers who have been on both ends of the sexting spectrum, using real-life examples, in “Sexting in America: When Privates go Public” (haha nice pun MTV) (also, ironic because when I think of examples of morality and proper decorum, MTV is not what comes to mind).  The first girl, Ally, got more than she bargained for when she sent a picture to her ex-boyfriend when he texted her and wanted to go back out with her.  She said she sent him the text because she felt vulnerable after they broke up and she wanted to ensure he wouldn’t break up with her again and sent him the picture.  The second case, featured a boy who in an irrational rage at his girl-friend about a fight they got into, logged into her email and sent nude pictures of her to her contact list which included friends, parents, teachers and the girls grandparents.  The boy was arrested and added to the sex offender registry where he’ll remain until he is 43.  He isn’t enrolled in college and doesn’t have a job; the consequence here reaching far beyond humiliation, but has negatively affected every aspect of his life.
In “American Pie” and “Sexting in America: When Privates go Public” we see two alternative discourses surrounding youth and social media.  The American Pie approach is that kids will be kids, this kind of stuff happens, teenagers are curious about their bodies and sex, ladadadada.  I will note that American Pie was released in 1999, a few years before sexting became a renowned problem in the media.  “Sexting in America: When Privates go Public” chooses to outline the horrific consequences of texting pictures of yourself in compromising situations to other people.  This is definitely ambiguous; teenagers are constantly bombarded with hypersexualized media, and then conversely told by the same media that sexting is bad…Both, however, choose to focus on the notion that privacy is easier said than done, and you never know who could be distributing or receiving your (what was intended as) private pictures.
In her article, “Sexting as media production: Re-thinking dominant ideas about teen girls and sexuality online” Amy Hasinoff extends the discourse of sexting beyond the typical binaries of black and white, right and wrong.  She thinks that “educators, lawyers, parents and digital media researchers could respond more fairly and effectively to sexting if they re-conceptualized consensual sexting as a type of media production” (Hasinoff).  I tend to agree with Hasinoff in the sense that sexting is more complicated and should be addressed as such.  I personally feel that the advent of sexting should be a surprise to nobody; the social construction of technology theory is that technology does not control or dictate human actions: teenagers were curious and sexual before cell phones, sexting is just the newest way to explore sexuality.
That being said, I am not saying I support sexting in the slightest, I’m merely agreeing with Hasinoff that “common interpretations of sexting often fail to distinguish between adolescents’ use of mobile media for sexual harassment and their consensual intimate sexual uses of these technologies” and that it’s probably not fair that the law fails to distinguish between the two.  It seems a little hypocritical that two 17-year olds can have consensual sex as stated by the law in most states and yet if they were found to have naked pictures of each other on their phones they would be guity of possessing child pornography.  Laws concerning sexting are a little outdated and tend to group (what I hesitate to call) ‘naive’ teenagers with more dangerous pedophiles.
This isn’t to say that sexting is “harmless” and in fact in many sensationalized cases sexting has been extremely traumatizing for many teenagers, leading to arrests, being kicked out of schools, emotional trauma, and in the most extreme cases, suicide.  However, this is not because of the inherent nature of sexting itself, which Hasinoff views as an exploration of sexuality, but rather the indiscriminate and irresponsible method of distributing images that were intended to be private.  Hasinoff says that the current attitude that all forms of sexting are “deviant criminal offenses” is overly “simplistic” and is failing to address the right issues.  By “re-orienting” sexting as an “act of sexual pleasure and self-expression” Hasinoff contends that we should view sexting as not inherently harmful, but “the malicious distribution of private images” as being the reason for concern.
While I am repusled by the idea that somebody would forward a naked picture to everybody in their contact list, it’s not so much because of the content but because of the blatant disregard for others’ privacy and well-being.  If teenagers want to consensually sext each other than it’s their business and I don’t want to know about it. While sexting isn’t what I choose to spend my time doing, I recognize that it’s a way for teenagers to express themselves in a potentially empowering way (Hasinoff) and as long as things are kept private and between two consenting individuals, shouldn’t be blindly punished by the law.
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1 Comment

  1. lauraportwoodstacer

     /  April 1, 2012

    Wow, thanks for linking to that MTV video, Zoie! I will save this to show in future semesters!

    Reply

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