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No right to sext? A critical examination of media and legal debates about teenage girls' sexual agency in the digital age

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Title: No right to sext? A critical examination of media and legal debates about teenage girls' sexual agency in the digital age
Author(s): Hasinoff, Amy A.
Director of Research: Projansky, Sarah; Treichler, Paula
Doctoral Committee Chair(s): Projansky, Sarah
Doctoral Committee Member(s): Treichler, Paula; Nerone, John C.; Nakamura, Lisa
Department / Program: Inst of Communications Rsch
Discipline: Communications
Degree Granting Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Degree: Ph.D.
Genre: Dissertation
Subject(s): teenage girls sexting sexuality digital media mass media agency online predators news law policy public service announcements talk shows technology consent social media cell phones camera phones media studies cultural studies feminist theory queer theory
Abstract: Advances in digital photography and distribution technologies enable many people to produce and distribute images of their sex acts. When teenagers do this, the photos and videos they create can be legally classified as child pornography since the law makes no exception for youth who create sexually explicit images of themselves. The dominant discussions about teenage girls producing sexually explicit media (including sexting) are profoundly unproductive: (1) they blame teenage girls for creating private images that another person later maliciously distributed and (2) they fail to respect—or even discuss—teenagers’ rights to freedom of expression. Cell phones and the internet make producing and distributing images extremely easy, which provide widely accessible venues for both consensual sexual expression between partners and for sexual harassment. Dominant understandings view sexting as a troubling teenage trend created through the combination of camera phones and adolescent hormones and impulsivity, but this view often conflates consensual sexting between partners with the malicious distribution of a person’s private image as essentially equivalent behaviors. In this project, I ask: What is the role of assumptions about teen girls’ sexual agency in these problematic understandings of sexting that blame victims and deny teenagers’ rights? In contrast to the popular media panic about online predators and the familiar accusation that youth are wasting their leisure time by using digital media, some people champion the internet as a democratic space that offers young people the opportunity to explore identities and develop social and communication skills. Yet, when teen girls’ sexuality enters this conversation, all this debate and discussion narrows to a problematic consensus. The optimists about adolescents and technology fall silent, and the argument that media production is inherently empowering for girls does not seem to apply to a girl who produces a sexually explicit image of herself. Instead, feminist, popular, and legal commentaries assert that she is necessarily a victim: of a “sexualized” mass media, pressure from her male peers, digital technology, her brain structures or hormones, or her own low self-esteem and misplaced desire for attention. Why and how are teenage girls’ sexual choices produced as evidence of their failure or success in achieving Western liberal ideals of self-esteem, resistance, and agency? Since mass media and policy reactions to sexting have so far been overwhelmingly sexist and counter-productive, it is crucial to interrogate the concepts and assumptions that characterize mainstream understandings of sexting. I argue that the common sense that is co-produced by law and mass media underlies the problematic legal and policy responses to sexting. Analyzing a range of nonfiction texts including newspaper articles, talk shows, press releases, public service announcements, websites, legislative debates, and legal documents, I investigate gendered, racialized, age-based, and technologically determinist common sense assumptions about teenage girls’ sexual agency. I examine the consensus and continuities that exist between news, nonfiction mass media, policy, institutions, and law, and describe the limits of their debates. I find that this early 21st century post-feminist girl-power moment not only demands that girls live up to gendered sexual ideals but also insists that actively choosing to follow these norms is the only way to exercise sexual agency. This is the first study to date examining the relationship of conventional wisdom about digital media and teenage girls’ sexuality to both policy and mass media.
Issue Date: 2011-01-21
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/18604
Rights Information: Copyright 2010 Amy Adele Hasinoff
Date Available in IDEALS: 2011-01-21
Date Deposited: 2010-12
 

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