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Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto

Tits and Small Bits: Exploring commodification, consent and shame in teen ‘sexting’

Dr. Jessica Ringrose

Jessica Ringrose| Professor of Sociology of Gender and Education | University of London

Tuesday, October 1 2013 3:00 PM - 5:00 PM

OISE University of Toronto | Room 11-164                                                                      

252 Bloor Street West | St. George Subway Stop

The international media has tended to dramatize extreme incidences of teen sexting ‘gone wrong’. Take for instance the Canadian case of Amanda Todd where an image of her bare breasts circulated online without her consent. This particular story is a ménage of girlhood crisis - where the circulation of the ‘topless photo’ is said to have directly led to cyber and physical bullying at several schools, severe depression, and panic disorder, self-mutilation, drug and alcohol abuse, two attempted suicides and finally death.  International anti-sexting campaigns have echoed this media risk discourse, positioning ‘sexting’ as a problem of under-aged girls’ lacking vigilance in their uses of social media, and boys as predatory and over-sexed. International research has positioned sexting anxieties as an adult moral panic and suggested the critical issues for young people are trust, respect and consent over the sharing of images via mobile technology (Powell, 2010; Karianan, 2012; Albury, 2013). In this paper we consider how new binary divisions can be drawn in these discussions between tech-savvy, sexually liberal teens and morally panicked adults. We complicate this picture by situating ‘sexting’ within a wider sexist ‘postfeminist’ media culture considering how body parts like teen breasts can take on such significance that they are capable of mobilizing the type of sexualised shame, trauma and panic seen in the case of Amanda Todd.  Drawing on two qualitative research studies on youth ‘sexting’ which included: focus groups, individual interviews, classroom observations and virtual ethnography with 52 teens (aged 13-15) from three urban London schools, we examine how young teens negotiate ideas about sexual morality in relation to ‘sexting’ images of masculine and feminine body parts.  For instance, we explore how images commodify and ‘mark’ bodies, and can be used to garner ‘value’, and to attach shame, through semi-public exchange. This works in complex ways that trouble boundaries around consent and which need unpacking in relation to issues of compulsory heterosexuality and heteronormativity within the networked peer group.  Finally we consider the state of public pedagogy and school based interventions around sexting, arguing it is critical for schools to be engaging in discussions about how gendered power and sexual morality works in young people’s everyday digital sexual communication and image exchange. 


BIO: Jessica Ringrose is Professor of Sociology of Gender and Education, at the Institute of Education, University of London. Recent projects have explored: ‘understanding young sexual bodies’ (ESRC, 2013); youth 'sexting' (NSPCC, 2011; ATL, 2013); and gender and sexual equality initiatives in schools (WOMANKIND, 2011; Teen Boundaries, 2013). Her books include: Post-Feminist Education? Girls and the sexual politics of schooling (Routledge, 2012); Rethinking Gendered Regulations and Resistances in Education, (Routledge, 2012, edited); and Deleuze and Research Methodologies (Edinburgh University Press, 2013, co-edited with Rebecca Coleman).