SEXTING: What is it and why is it an issue of gender equality relevant for an educational audience?

The NSPCC recently released our report ‘A qualitative study of children, young people and ‘sexting’. The report is based on qualitative, school based research conducted by myself (Jessica Ringrose, Institute of Education London), Rosalind Gill (Kings College London), Sonia Livingstone (London School of Economics) and Laura Harvey (Open University).

In the law and from the perspective of much mainstream media, sexting is typically understood to be the exchange of sexually explicit or nude photos. Concern over sexting has largely focused on the illegality of underage images.  Our report attempts to move beyond the sensationalism and panic surrounding illegal images to understand the everyday meanings of wider practices of digitized sexual communication among young people. A really useful way of thinking about sexting and gender is to consider whose bodies are being asked to  do what for whom, in what ways, and how does this relate to dominant norms of gender and (hetero)sexuality?

To find out how sexting works we conducted focus group interviews with 35 young people in year 8 and 10 in two diverse, multi-cultural, inner city London schools. We asked how they used their mobile phones and digital networks using online ethnography to map their activities. Then we conducted 22 follow up individual, in-depth interviews. The methodology was extremely important because it provides in-depth local information about young people’s attitudes and experiences of sexual digital communication, revealing a greater diversity of ‘sexting’ practices than previously understood.

We found a range of practices including: 

•             Posting sexually explicit photos (peer produced or professionally produced pornography including animated images) on Facebook, Blackberry Messenger (BBM) or other digital networks

•             Sending sexual messages on phone and online: we particularly look at broadcasting sexually explicit PIN broadcasts over Blackberry messaging (BBM)

•             Asking and being asked for and collecting nude or nearly nude photos – mostly boys asking girls for photos in bra, bikini or topless

•             ‘Exposing’ others, practices of sharing or posting WITHOUT the senders permission, sexually explicit or nude photos on Facebook or through Screen munching: this is when ‘sex talk’, for instance promising a ‘blow job’ is captured through a screen save function and can be posted on a network.

We explored the growing popularity of Blackberry messenger (BBM) with our participants and looked at how BBM PIN broadcasts to gain new contacts work. One finding was that sexual pin broadcasts tended to focus on physical appearance. One 13 year old explained:

“If it is a boy and a girl told a boy to BC their pin then they will say, ‘Oh she has big tits and a big bum…and if you get to know her, she’s nice”.

Some girls also discussed repeated text and online requests to perform sexual services for boys, such as ‘blow jobs’.  Girls asking boys for oral sex however was not common. In fact it was viewed by many as either unthinkable or disgusting because of controlling attitudes toward female sexuality. In relation to gender then, we found a one way direction of asking FOR sexual practices, boys asking girls (usually for ‘heads’ / blow jobs and often through text or BBM). Here we see how older expressions of gender inequality and coercive sexual double standards are now mediated through and performed via digital technologies.

Regarding the production of peer produced images, we found across year 8 and year 10 age groups that several boys claimed to have collected as many as 30 images of teen girls (for instance, an image of breast cleavage with the name of a boy written across a breast), but that no girls reported actually sending a photo, so we wondered what was going on?  We interpreted that the performance of collecting images operated as a form of peer status like having money or being known as brave and hard for boys. The photos were like photographic proof that boys could ‘get the girl(s)’ – a form of popularity currency.  Girls however did not get comparable benefits from images of boys – they did not WORK in the same way for girls. Both girls and boys are subject to peer surveillance, but girls were often blamed for sending photos and called ‘skets’ (slang for slut), which no doubt contributed to girls’ reticence to discuss sending a photo, although they discussed being asked for a photo, which was a sign of desirability. This contrasted with how boys were largely rewarded for displays of hard bodily masculinity such as posting photos of their muscles like their ‘six pack’ on Facebook. Some boys also said they wouldn’t want a ‘relationship’ with a girl that sends a photo, since that type of girl does not ‘respect herself’. The important issue here is girls’ own sexual desires or pleasures were discounted or seen as wrong or inappropriate, further evidence of the sexual double standard which now finds new and different forms of expression through digital mediums.

Lastly, we found important links between the sexist attitudes underpinning the photo exchange and requests for sexual acts on mobile phones and on the internet, and the prevalence of real-life physical sexual harassment at school.  In line with other research, we found sexual double standards and sexual harassment and heterosexualized violence was totally normalised at school. Girls’ bodies, in particular, are monitored and judged sexually by girls and boys, and are subject to unwanted sexual groping. This was one of the most important research findings. Worryingly we found a strong tendency towards resignation and silence around technologically mediated and real life physical sexual harassment and violence. Many girls felt unable to approach teachers or parents for fear of being called a ‘snake’ or ‘snitch’.  Some boys found the practices ‘sexist’ but there was a general tolerance of them as normal in the peer groups. While boys could refuse to engage, it was difficult to directly challenge ‘sexting’ practices because they would get called ‘gay’ because boys are regulated by standards of ‘hard’ male sexuality. Crucially, all the year 8 girls explicitly requested help to address these issues, particularly unwanted sexual ‘touching’, signalling significant gender issues about ethical and respectful behaviour towards others.

Top Messages from the Evidence

1. We need to move away from a focus on ‘stranger danger’ and the abstract threat of pornography on the internet.  Young people need help in managing their everyday use of technology and their peer gender relations at school including those that are sexual or likely to become sexual, especially if these become coercive.

2. We have to differentiate if and when sexting becomes coercive. Sexting does not refer to a single activity but rather to a range of activities typically motivated by sexual pleasure, flirting and fun.  But given the wider culture of sexism and sexual double standards, it is not surprising that this can sometimes become coercive. We show (repeatedly)  in the report how something starts off as fun and turns into something else.  Take for example the chain of BBM flirting, described by Jodie, 13, which is super fun until the guy asks her for a ‘special’ photo in her bikini, which she then has to refuse in sophisticated ways so as to keep him from getting angry. Or Cherelle who has to defriend a male teen contact on BBM who threatens to find her and hurt her if she doesn’t ‘link up’ (meet in person) and give him ‘blows’ or ‘suck on his dick’.

3. Technology is not neutral. It creates more intense and prolonged degrees of contact between peers. It facilitates the visual objectification of bodies via the creation, exchange, collection, ranking and display of images. But we’ve seen boy and girl bodies are treated differently and technology can amplify sexual double standards. This is important, and links in crucial ways to Lynne Featherstone’s body confidence campaign. We must find ways to encourage young people’s confidence and well-being about their physical bodies and sexuality.

4. Girls are most adversely impacted by sexting because of a sexual double standard. Boys are to be admired and ‘rated’ for possessing photos. Girls are encouraged to send images then blamed and called ‘stupid’ ‘skets’ if they do. They are also vilified in the media. Boys are under pressures to post hard, bodily images to prove their masculinity (i.e. abs, pecs shirtless images). However, collecting images of boys’ bodies does not carry the same kudos for girls. Girls are also at risk if they openly speak about sexual activities and practices, where boys are actually at risk of peer exclusion if they do not brag about sexual experiences. 

5. Sexting reveals and relates to a wider sexist, sexualised culture in gender specific ways. Young people are managing globalised consumer oriented cultures. There are gendered expectations on appearance and bodies (being very thin, having large breasts or big muscles) and gendered scripts of masculinity and femininity with pressures around certain forms of sexuality where coercion may be seen as normal.

6. It will not surprise you, then, that we urgently need educational resources. There are excellent resources on sexual bullying that need to be made relevant to coping in the digital world.  On the other hand, e-safety strategies need to address the type of peer generated content I’ve explored, and include up-to-date, realistic resources like film clips. We need gender sensitive support that does not treat sexting as  if it were the fault of girls.  We also cannot simply demonize boys. Many existing resources are based on sexual stereotypes and worst case scenarios (Ce-Ops ‘exposed’ video for instance). They are moralising and implicitly place the burden of blame on girls for sending a photo, thereby reproducing the problematic message that girls’ are to protect their innocent virginal body from the predatory over-sexed male. This in itself is a form of victimisation, which can be harmful. We need resources that offer practical and ethical ways to challenge and overturn the sexual double standard whilst empowering both girls and boys, considering the sexual health and pleasure of all young people as a right.

Thus sexting itself is not inherently coercive or harmful, but there are some clear legal aspects and social consequences which need to be understood and avoided by young people

Jessica Ringrose, Institute of Eduction



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