Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sexting, Moral Panic and Political Capital

Washington Teens Gone Wild:

LACEY, Wash. — One day last winter Margarite posed naked before her bathroom mirror, held up her cellphone and took a picture. Then she sent the full-length frontal photo to Isaiah, her new boyfriend. Both were in eighth grade.

They broke up soon after. A few weeks later, Isaiah forwarded the photo to another eighth-grade girl, once a friend of Margarite’s. Around 11 o’clock at night, that girl slapped a text message on it.

“Ho Alert!” she typed. “If you think this girl is a whore, then text this to all your friends.” Then she clicked open the long list of contacts on her phone and pressed “send.”

In less than 24 hours, the effect was as if Margarite, 14, had sauntered naked down the hallways of the four middle schools in this racially and economically diverse suburb of the state capital, Olympia. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it.

In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost. Only then would the community try to turn the fiasco into an opportunity to educate.

Correct, an opportunity for all of us to be educated on moral panics, Big Media hype, and prosecutors seeking to gain political capital.

“Having a naked picture of your significant other on your cellphone is an advertisement that you’re sexually active to a degree that gives you status,” said Rick Peters, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for Thurston County, which includes Lacey. “It’s an electronic hickey.”

[The sound of crickets chirping]

Mr. Peters, the county prosecutor, had been hearing that sexting was becoming a problem in the community. In a recent interview, he said that if the case had just involved photos sent between Isaiah and Margarite, he would have called the parents but not pressed charges.

“The idea of forwarding that picture was bad enough,” he said. “But the text elevated it to something far more serious. It was mean-girl drama, an all-out attempt to destroy someone without thinking about the implications.”

He decided against charging Margarite. But he did charge three students with dissemination of child pornography, a Class C felony, because they had set off the viral outbreak.

After school had been let out that day in late January, the police read Isaiah his rights, cuffed his hands behind his back and led him and Margarite’s former friend out of the building. The eighth graders would have to spend the night in the county juvenile detention center.

Peters, the prosecuting attorney, never intended for the Chinook Middle School students to receive draconian sentences. But he wanted to send a scared-straight message to them, as well as to the community.
And that's where we go off the deep end. As has been noted for decades "scared-straight" is a panacea phenomenon which not only fails to prevent crime, but actually causes crime. By trying to "scare" these teens out of a behavior which, as the article notes, "isn't illegal," you end up creating criminals by handcuffing, fingerprinting and charging them in the juvenile justice system.

There are also interesting gender disparities in these so-called "sexting" cases.
Double standard holds. While a boy caught sending a picture of himself may be regarded as a fool or even a boastful stud, girls, regardless of their bravado, are castigated as sluts.

Photos of girls tend to go viral more often, because boys and girls will circulate girls’ photos in part to shame them, explained Danah Boyd, a senior social media researcher at Microsoft and a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

In contrast, when a boy sends a revealing photo of himself to a girl, Dr. Boyd noted, she usually does not circulate it.

The reasons girls don't forward revealing pictures of young boys with a comparable "Douche alert!" is more than a "double standard," it's sexism already ingrained in the youth culture.

Worse, prosecutors are more likely to bring a case if the "victim" (talk about an even more patronizing attitude) is a girl because of a patriarchal preoccupation with what young girls may or may not be doing with their bodies. This has been the norm in the juvenile justice system since its inception.

The young male caught "sexting" gets a hall pass or a high five; the girl gets called a "ho" and/or a "victim," and ends up in jail.

And, Dr. Boyd added, boys do not tend to circulate photos of other boys: “A straight-identified boy will never admit to having naked photos of a boy on his phone.”
Gasp, because we all know that the worst thing an adolescent male can be called is "fag" or "homo" by his peers.

At the end of the day, the "sexting epidemic" has been shown not to exist. The article argues the extent of sexting is "unclear," but there is nothing unclear about the research (which I've noted previously).

A December 2009 telephone poll from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found that 5 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds had sent naked or nearly naked photos or video by cellphone, and that 18 percent had received them. Boys and girls send photos in roughly the same proportion, the Pew survey found.
I would encourage you to read the Pew research yourself.

Prosecutors continue to make their political bones with stories of teens gone wild (the notion that any of this rises to the level of "child pornography" and warrants these kids being put on "sex offender registries" trivializes the depravity of such real crimes), and Big Media loves running these stories and the reaction it produces. Nothing sells soap (or votes) quite like a good old fashion moral panic.

Besides, according to the article, everyone's doing it.
A November 2009 AARP article, “Sexting Not Just For Kids,” reported approvingly on the practice for older people, too. In women’s magazines and college students’ blogs, coy guides include pragmatic tips like making sure to keep your face out of the photo.
LOL. Doesn't that make you feel young and hip? College students, middle age women, and the elderly are all sexting as well?

I think everyone agrees adolescents should use better discretion with what they send or write about one another via text, cell, etc., but then we all should.

Frankly, if you find yourself standing in front of a mirror naked or in your underwear with a cellphone in your hand, don't.

No comments: