Notes on sexting scandals

1. A few weeks ago, the New York Times, among many other media outlets, reported the uncovering of a “sexting ring” in a rural Colorado high school involving more than a hundred students circulating nude photos on cell phones and secreting them away on “vault apps” that hide image troves behind a calculator interface. Administrators responded by forcing the school’s football team to forfeit a game and convening emergency community meetings to deal with the “scandal.”

According to the Times article, students “described a competitive point system that classmates used to accrue photographs. Different point values were assigned to different students. Students who collected naked photographs gained points by adding these desirable children to their collections.” The student with the largest collection was described by a peer as “the pimp of pictures.”

2. It’s not yet clear whether the images in the Colorado investigation were taken and shared with the uncoerced consent of those photographed. Media reports on “the sexting ring” have foregrounded the fact that teens who exchange nude photos are considered child pornographers by the letter of the law, regardless of whether the exchange was consensual, rendering teens criminals and victims simultaneously. As Amy Adele Hasinoff points out in her paper “Sexting as Media Production: Rethinking Social Media and Sexuality,” this makes all teen sexting appear uniformly “pornographic” while obscuring the far more important issue of consent surrounding the taking and sharing of images. The focus remains on the “dirtiness” of the pictures, not the intentions of those making them, redistributing them, looking at them, collecting them.

3. Viewing teen sexting as inherently criminal is out of keeping with actual teen behavior. Images have become an ordinary part of how we communicate, how we express ourselves and build relationships. It’s unreasonable to think teens would not also articulate their sexuality in the course of talking to each other with pictures.

4. By stigmatizing and criminalizing teen sexuality, sexting becomes intertwined with broader matters of power and control. The atmosphere of moral panic doesn’t discourage teens from sexting; it frames sexting as an opportunity for rebellion, a chance for kids to feel free. Parental panic conveys the sense that teenagers' sexuality is their most precious, most valuable property. This, as much as the process of staging and taking nude selfies, reifies sexuality, making it into something to be deployed and conserved rather than explored or developed or enjoyed for its own sake.

Sexting, under the pressure of moral panic, becomes more a matter of self-objectification rather than self-discovery. Liberation is perceived as finding one’s own profitable uses for the precious sexual value that others have invested in the sight of one’s naked body rather than exploring the other sorts of pleasure and intimacy sexuality can supply.

5. For teen sexters, then, sharing nudes may not be primarily about expressing sexual desire; it may be about expressing independence. Sexualized images garner a currency that has nothing to do with their sexiness. They viscerally signify not only rebellion against authority but a trust and solidarity with peers who are also sexting. They also signify one’s willingness to submit to peer pressure, to participate in a game where nude selfies are assigned points based on popularity.

6. In other words, seeing self-objectification as liberation plays into a willingness to be collected as an image and assigned a value as a tradable, sexualized object. It signals availability to an explicit hierarchy whose value system doesn’t particularly correspond with one’s own.

7. What we should find scandalous about the Colorado sexting incident isn't the fact the teens have sexuality or use networked cameras to articulate it. It certainly isn't the existence of "vault" or "ghost" apps that allow kids to hide images on their phones. These concerns distract us from the way teens have been socialized to expect objectification and ranking as prerequisites to social participation.

That the high school students devised a system to collect their peers as ranked objects should be as troubling as the fact that the bodies in those images were naked. But it also shouldn’t be surprising. The popularity metrics that saturate social media help make such ranking seem natural and obligatory.

The Colorado case shows how, in an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion about their sexuality, teens can fall back on social media metrics to organize their experience, making use of the way authority figures already commoditize their sexuality and converting it into a way to accrue social capital in peer circles. In Canon City, the social-graph ideology that informs so many of the apps basic to teen experience of technology was used to build a distributed platform for sorting students according to their willingness to objectify themselves and others.

8. Popularity contests are obviously nothing new for high school students. But the systems for conducting these contests were once informal, improvised, flexible, evadable. When the ranking criteria is embedded in technology and imbued into digital networks, it becomes harder to escape. If quantification is explicit, it is harder to imagine you might rank somewhere higher, according to some inarticulate criteria of your own devising that suits the idiosyncrasies of your own character. This constrains the range of behavior that a student might think is possible, let alone permissible. It leaves less room for students to hide from the criteria their most aggressive or ambitious peers want to see imposed on everyone.

9. When parents worry about their kids’ sexting, they may imagine a scenario in which the stigma of naked photos limits their future opportunities. But the shame attached to sexting images will likely abate as we acclimate to the ubiquity, the inevitability, of image making and sharing. The metrics that are hard-coded into the tech that structures their social life, however, are probably not going away so easily.