Listening to NPR‘s All Things Considered just now, I heard a story on sexting — teens sending photos of each other naked via text messages — that got me to thinking “what exactly is the big deal?” I don’t ask that question to minimize the phenomenon, but to analyze it for the social taboos that are being broken here.
I recently finished reading The Cluetrain Manifesto, and its message about people finding their voice on the Internet and how this might change issues of privacy had me listening in a certain way. One of my favorite questions one of the authors of Cluetrain asks is, “What would privacy be like if it weren’t connected to shame?”
Indeed, none of this “sexting” would be an issue if it weren’t for shame– shame that teens may or may not feel about their developing bodies, shame that adults may or may not feel looking at photos of teen bodies, and all the nebulous shame that society places upon the naked human body.
What if these kids aren’t ashamed of their bodies? What if, as the authors of Cluetrain assert, people gravitate toward the Internet to satisfy the age-old human desire for self-expression? Maybe these kids are just using these media to express themselves, to say, “Look at me. I exist. I’m unique. Yet I’m a lot like you.” Aren’t adults heaping shame upon these kids by charging them with felony child pornography? What’s the big deal if kids want to show each other their naked bodies? “It may lead to teen pregnancy!” Yes, it may. So may having sex without a condom and/or birth control medication. But I seriously doubt that “sexting” is bringing about a rise in teen pregnancy.
So, what is the issue? Well, privacy is a big part of it, and it goes along with distribution. To whom are they distributing the nude photographs? Maybe to a few friends, maybe just to one. But if that one friend distributes it to others until it becomes distributed exponentially like viral Internet media, whom do we blame for the distribution? Do we blame the first sender who “should have known better” than to send anyone a nude photograph of themselves knowing that it might end up in the wrong hands? Or do we blame the subsequent distributors? What if the exact chain of distribution could be traced? Do we blame each and every one? Where does this distribution cross the line from acceptable to unacceptable? When does the private become public?
I faced some of these questions when I took an artistic nude photograph of myself that I wanted to share. Why did I want to share it? Well, because I liked the way I looked and I liked the way I took the photo. Was my intent to titillate? No. Was it pornography? Well, not to me. My penis wasn’t even visible, for whatever that’s worth. I questioned myself when I published the photo to my Flickr account. Should I mark it Public or Private? Should I mark it Private: Friends Only or Private: Friends & Family Only? If I marked it for Family & Friends Only, would my family and friends feel I singled them out for the viewing of this nude photo? I didn’t want that. So I used Flickr’s SafeSearch filters to flag the photo “Moderate” (“may be considered offensive by some people”). That way, only those people who have their SafeSearch browsing settings on “Moderate” (“You’re OK seeing the odd ‘artistic nude’ here or there, but that’s the limit”) will see the photo, be they friends or strangers.
Socially, it seems acceptable to display yourself nude in an artistic venue as long as you’re not personally flashing people. And I’m all about filtering my content so that people see only what they’re comfortable with seeing (when it comes to nudity, that is). Yet, I am not so naïve as to think that just because I published a photo on Flickr with SafeSearch filters means that no one else will ever see it. I know that a photo on Flickr can be taken out of Flickr, indeed, taken out of context. I have to laugh at what Brian Shaler said in his Twitter bio: “Take me out of context.” (He’s since changed his bio, but that’s what it said last time I looked.) So, yes, people may take me out of context. But I am okay with that because, as one young nude man so eloquently said in an avant-garde play I once saw, “I am irreducible. My nakedness does not diminish me.”
What if we lived in a world in which a person’s nakedness did not diminish them? What if it didn’t matter if teenage girls took photos of themselves in the shower and the whole world saw it? I know we don’t live in that world, but I can imagine it. I think as long as no one is forcing these kids to be photographed naked, it’s not pornography. So what if these kids are playing Doctor on their cell phones? Maybe we should spend less of our energy trying to control their use of our technology and more energy on fostering an “irreducible” self-esteem in children of all ages.
UPDATE: This blog post was published in in a textbook called Sexting in August 2011.