Friday, 7 November 2014

'Policing Sexting' by Lara Karaian

The law is continually called upon to address emerging issues of concern arising from technological advances. The increasingly ubiquitous use and ownership of smartphones has presented its own novel catchment area of behaviours, including the neologism of ‘sexting’, the taking and sending of sexual images electronically. This year saw a high-profile news story in which the hacked, stolen and leaked images of celebrities, mostly women, were published online. This news story helped publicise some of the issues around ‘sexting’ and has brought the practice to general public consciousness. In England and Wales recently, so-called ‘revenge porn’, the distribution of explicit images without the consent of the subject, is to be enshrined as a criminal offence, carrying a maximum penalty of two years in prison. In the brave new world of smartphones therefore, law enforcement and legislators are grappling with issues of security and privacy. However, the rise of the smartphone has also ushered in child protection fears.

Lara Karaian, in a recent article for Theoretical Criminology, explores the discourses around ‘sexting’ and teen online safety. Using the real-world example of a Canadian public service campaign designed to educate teenagers on the harms of the internet and ‘sexting’ in particular, she sets out her task: ‘to expose how antisexting initiatives that reify and mobilize a culture of sexual shame in order to responsibilize certain girls for their own, and others’, safety constitute meaning-making projects that reproduce and reify gendered, racialized, classed and hetero-normative ideas of sexual value, propriety, privilege and blameworthiness.’ (284)

Since the advent of the internet as an everyday tool for many people, accessible to greater numbers of households worldwide, a rumbling about its pernicious effects on children has been palpable. Hanna Rosin, in a recent article in The Atlantic, highlights the difficulty in pitching a response to the teen behaviour of sexting, and documents attempts, of varying degrees of success, to develop responses. The concerns about children and the dangers of internet usage can be added to the legacy of ‘respectable fears’ outlined by Pearson (1983).

In her article, Karaian draws on Garland’s (1996) theory of responsibilization, put forward in ‘The Limits of the Sovereign State’, to suggest that teenage girls are being made responsible for their own sexual safety, and for the criminalisation of their peers who may redistribute images. Karaian locates the Canadian campaign within an identified tendency to blame women for their own victimisation; Karaian quotes one US police officer who rationalises the decision to focus on female behaviour with regard to ‘sexting’, to the effect that, ‘without her [the girl] there would be no crime’ and provides further contemporary relevance by citing the discourse evident during the ‘Steubenville Rape Trial’ which concentrated on the blighted futures of promising young men rather than the wrong they had perpetrated.

The Canadian ‘anti-sexting’ campaign was targeted particularly at teenage girls and appeared to tap into the informal social control mechanism of shame. The focus on teenage girls underlined a societal emphasis on the purity and virginity of this group; innocence was therefore understood as an identifiable form of social capital for a teenage girl. Karaian notes the tension inherent around this form of ‘privileged’ sexuality; teenage girls are unintelligible as sexual beings while also suffering fetishisation as sexual objects. The ‘framing’ of the Canadian campaign, explored by Karaian, once again prioritised this privileged yet unintelligible sexuality and further reified sexual double standards and the concept of the 'ideal' victim.

However, Karaian contends that teenage girls were not accorded universal concern in the campaign. Fears were concentrated in a specific sub-grouping of white, middle-class and feminine teenage girls; which effectively presented the ‘good girl’ in opposition to the ‘Other’, in this context the ‘Other’ as a racialized, queer or differently classed teenage girl.

Karaian presented statistics which suggested that teenage boys are more likely to redistribute images, and contrasts this with the message of the campaign which targets instead the consenting ‘image creator’, framed as a girl. This leads inevitably to questions of why the campaign did not direct more of its focus towards this cohort of teenage boys, who distribute images without consent. However, the fears underlying disquiet about ‘sexting’ centre specifically on the sexualisation of teenage girls. The opprobrium could be more accurately located on the act of taking pictures in the first place, and less on the issue of distribution (which, as per victim-blaming, is then often understood as a natural consequence of a girl’s initial ‘mistake’).

The Differential Association cited some recent campaigns, aimed at locating responsibility for sexual assaults with the perpetrator. Are small but significant shifts evident in public awareness? A recent White House campaign, ‘It’s On Us’, and the ‘Don’t Be That Guy’ campaign have been developed to raise awareness among males, in contrast to many public safety campaigns which exhort to potential victims. (Interestingly, the Irish Examiner article above refers to the campaign targeting 'potential sex offenders' – which tends to make it sound like 'potential sex offenders' are an identifiable category of persons, easily spotted by their shifty eyes).

The Differential Association segued into a discussion on the well-worn chestnut, the 'sexualisation of youth', understood inevitably as the sexualisation of teenage girls. Presumably, 'sexting' is viewed by many as another indicator of sexualised youth. Is 'sexting' merely an expression of sexual autonomy? Or is it an adverse impact of the 'pornification of society'? A post-feminist argument might counter that the radical feminist position further condemns girls for breaking the boundaries of convention by displaying themselves as sexual beings. However, is it purely coincidental that expressing sexuality often implicitly implies expressing 'raunch' sexuality (Levy 2005). The received societal wisdom on 'sexuality' often appears monolithic, and uniform, framed from a 'male gaze' perspective. This presents a very problematic balancing act for teenage girls, as their sexuality has tended to exist as a binary, the concealed sexuality of the 'respectable' and the overt sexuality of the 'Other'. Expressive/excessive sexuality can become a marker of shame. Teenage girls seemingly cannot legitimately include sex as part of their identity and not have it become a transformative, often degrading, aspect in this identity.

Karaian’s article presents a fascinating exploration of how visual cues can be read. It also provides an interesting example of the increasing prominence of images within criminology as a further means of explicating how understandings of crime and deviance are constructed. The theoretical underpinning is rigorous and is drawn together and used to explicate a tangible case study. The Differential Association did note, however, that the arguments made in the article could have been illustrated with the images described therein, to reinforce the interpretations and findings made throughout.

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