Sexting highlights society’s issues with privacy and shame

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.

Shame

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.

Self-expression

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.

Privacy

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?

Intentionality

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.

Irreducibility

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.”

Self-esteem

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.

Author: Daniel Greene

I facilitate communication between Deaf and hearing people, and I teach people American Sign Language (ASL) and interpreting. Apart from doing the work I love, my greatest joys are family & friends, entertainment, food, photography, and travel.

7 thoughts on “Sexting highlights society’s issues with privacy and shame”

  1. Thanks for the comments, Eddie and Carole. As I said, I don't mean to minimize the phenomenon of "sexting" and I am expressing some idealistic views. I know it's not a perfect world, but I also believe it's important to look beyond "the way things are" in order to realize the way things could be. As delicate as the situation might be, I have to ask you both (who both talk about predators), what harm does it do to little Jenny if some lonesome Johnny-grownup is getting pleasure from her photo? Is he going to go after the real Jenny and attack her personally? Is it possible that he would do that even if he hadn't seen a nude photo of her? Are photographs really that damaging? Maybe the answer to all of these questions is a resounding Yes! But I have to ask them because at least it highlights all the assumptions that are being made here.

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  2. I am an author of a novel that has to do with shame & teenage pregnancy, "The Emancipation of Denny G". I know first hand what shame can do to a life. What a teen does in their present life can certainly haunt them in the future. I was a child of the 1960's and the main character in my book is of the same era. Getting pregnant back then was a disgrace to your family-certainly you were promiscous! This is what a skewed society dictated then. This Shame produced by Societies Rulings can stay for a lifetime with a person, stagnating them from developing into a worthwhile person-the way it was meant to be. With a lot of psycotherapy for myself (& my book character), we were able to overcome this stigma but how many stay back there & believe the society nonsense?As for posting pics on the internet, if this was a perfect world, I would say it was just teen play. But it is not a perfect world & there are preditors awaiting around every corner it seems. Also, as I had mentioned, someone may feel shame from it… I'd hate for them to live with it-it's too painful.For more information on my book please go to my website:emancipationdennyg.com. The book has gotten national reviews that make it very promising to be a best seller. It does have sexual content but a mature teen can read it-with parents permission. Thanks for letting me comment.

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  3. While you may think it is okay asa long as the teens are not being forced to take the pictures or pose for them, you are ignorning the obvious potential ramifications of such actions. These photos too often end up in the wrong hands or people who are sexual predators, perverts, and the like, who may try to track that teen down and do worse things. Most often, these types of pictures are taken and submitted based upon peer pressure (If you loved me, you would do it, etc.), or intended to be funny in a juvenile way, without any good thought being put into how it could potentially be harmful. THAT is what the big deal is. It is fine and dandy for a person to be aware of themselves sexually, be proud of themselves, etc., but we have to remember that this situation is mostly in the teen community that is causing the most outrage, and it should be. As the parent of two children myself, I know I am constantly on the outlook for issues such as this with my kids.

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