Everybody sexts. Or, to be more precise, men and women sext, gay and straight people sext, trans and gender-queer folks sext, people of all races, sizes, and (almost all) ages sext. As new research unveiled this week reveals, this impressive diversity, however is almost entirely hidden by the way print media represents sexting across the English-speaking world. As far as newspapers and magazines are concerned, it seems sexting has only one face: that of a pretty, white, teenage girl. The coverage resembles the worst impulses of high school sex-ed, journalist and scholar Nina Funnell says: "girls are reduced to victims or sluts, boys are assumed to be aggressors, and same-sex couples get ignored all together."
In a paper given this past week at the World Conference on Family Law and Children's Rights in Sydney, Funnell reported on her study of 734 newspaper and magazine articles about sexting from across the English-speaking world. Funnell, who has written widely about sexting and whose book on the subject is due out next year, found that not a single one of the articles even mentioned same-sex sexting. (Hello, Grindr?) Few mentioned the images that men produce for women, even though studies have consistently shown that at least among the young, boys and girls send sexual images at almost exactly the same rate. (Since photos and videos of young women are much more likely to be shared without the sender's permission, it's easy to get the false impression that girls are much more likely to sext in the first place.)
Very few of the articles Funnell analyzed mentioned race, despite the considerable research that indicates that sexting behavior varies noticeably by ethnicity. Rather, these hundreds and hundreds of stories repeated the same old theme: pretty young white girls are making horrible, life-altering mistakes by sending naked pictures to boys and men.
In an email, Funnell pointed out that reporting on sexting broke along predictable gender lines. The impact of sexting on boys, she found, was invariably framed in terms of legal consequences: possible prosecution for child pornography, sex-offender registration, or the loss of college and job opportunities. For girls, however, the coverage focused almost exclusively on more intimate negative outcomes: shame, humiliation, loss of reputation, vulnerability to bullying, and life-long regret. "Girls are worried about in terms of their purity, and boys in terms of their prospects," Funnell told me.
In other words, the worries about boys constrict around the impact of sexting on their public lives; the hand-wringing about girls revolves around concern for their private moral reputations. The idea that boys might struggle with shame -– or that we should also be worried about girls' legal standing as citizens -– is absent from what is now a global conversation about online sexual activity. Tellingly, this same framing showed up in the now-notorious CNN response to the Steubenville verdict, which focused all-too-sympathetically on the consequences for the convicted rapists' public futures.
"Going off the images (from the 734 articles) alone, you would be forgiven for thinking that sexting was exclusively a ‘hot, white girl phenomenon,'" Funnell says. Even though young black women in the USA sext at a higher rate than white girls, photos of women of color almost never appeared in print media coverage of the practice. That editorial decision is strategic, deploying a troubling mix of paternalism and prurience to draw eyeballs. Newspapers and magazines presume that their heavily white, middle-class readers are anxious about preserving their daughters' reputations. But they also guess that many other readers are all too interested in the naked bodies of pretty female adolescents. "Underpinning discussions about sexting are a broader set of anxieties connected to the perceived 'virtue' of white, middle class girls;" Funnell writes; "historically, these girls have come in for particular kinds of attention in a culture that simultaneously polices and fetishizes their sexualities."
The problem with this woefully inadequate coverage of sexting (itself an unhelpful word that means very different things to different people) lies as much in what it erases as in what it exploits. It's misleading, exploitative, and tiresome to have so much concern and so much desire focused so narrowly on slender, pretty white girls. It's not just that we're ignoring the reality that boys experience embarrassment and that young women worry about the impact the disclosing of private images might have on their future careers. It's not just that the media ignores the reality that the queer, the middle-aged and the brown-skinned like sharing naked pics every bit as much as white, middle-class teen girls.
The real problem is that the titillating censoriousness of the coverage represents a more intrusive danger to young people's sense of well-being than sexting itself. Teens need education about consent, about pleasure, about consequences, as well as encouragement to develop good emotional skills (like the courage to say both "yes" to what they want and to say "no" to what they don't.) They need good tools (Snapchat and its planned successors) that make sharing sexual images safer. They deserve reminders that one mistake rarely ruins your life. And most of all, they need adults to stop creeping on the contents of their cellphones.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.
Photo credit: Alan Poulson Photography/Shutterstock