During the research discussed here I spoke with teenaged young people about their views and experiences of ‘sexting’ (the practice of producing and sharing sexual images and messages via digital technology). One finding, in particular, emerged clearly: young women are subject to archaic restrictions on their rights to bodily and sexual expression in youth digital culture, while young men supposedly get a free pass in which, in the words of a 17 year-old young man, “no-one bats an eyelid” if they engage in sexting. Allocations of blame and responsibility for harmful sexting practices fell along gendered lines as in ‘boys will be boys’ while it was considered incumbent upon young women to show modesty and restraint in order to manage the risk of unwanted sexting, privacy violations and social shaming. So far, so reminiscent of long-standing double standards surrounding the normalisation of male sexual expression and desire, and the problematisation of young women’s sexuality (see Hasinoff, 2015; Salter, 2015).
Such findings have been found in various studies of youth sexting culture in the UK and elsewhere in the world. However, my research complicates the picture regarding the role of gender in youth sexting. While my participants tended to broadly believe that young men have more rights and freedoms in the sexual sphere than young women, a lot of what they said suggested that these rights and freedoms are accessible only to some young men. Indeed, when it came to risk, shame and blame in youth sexting culture, the norms and meanings surrounding how young men should look and behave introduced a set of standards and restrictions which led me to conclude that perhaps it is not all that easy being a teenage boy after all.
These norms and meanings related to ‘appearance’ – specifically a conventionally attractive, ‘fit’ aesthetic characterised by large, defined muscles and, where shown, a large penis. Young men were thought able to show and express their bodies and not be stigmatised for doing so, with young people describing them as ‘fit’ and ‘confident’. However, these status-bolstering potentials are not available to all. Young men who do not meet the required standards can be shamed and young people recounted stories of young men being bullied for their appearance after their images were distributed around the peer group.
As well as their appearance, how they go about sexting matters. While young people considered sexting part of the expected repertoire of masculine heterosexuality and young men as able to accrue social capital through sexting (particularly by obtaining and distributing images of young women), young men are required to ‘play it cool’ and not come across as ‘desperate’ or not ‘in control’. Unsolicited image-sharing by young men toward young women – ‘dicks pics’ as they are colloquially termed – attracted criticism not just among the young women I spoke to, but also the young men who characterised it as shameful desperation.
While, on the face of it, disdain for unwanted sexting is no bad thing, the criticism was not based on issues around consent or the harassment that unsolicited image-sharing constitutes, but focused on norms surrounding masculine sexual behaviour. The same norms underpinned harmful practices perpetrated on young men. I was told, for example, about how a group of young women may pose as an interested individual and request sexts from a young man, only to later distribute the images and socially expose him as having fallen for their ruse. These young men may then be abused by their peers, for displaying ‘stupid’, ‘embarrassing’ ‘desperation’ when they are meant to be knowledgeable and in control.
Youth sexting culture seemed to reflect and reinforce local peer power hierarchies, in which sexting practices were also interpreted in terms of the pre-existing status of those involved. More ‘popular’ young men – those higher up the peer hierarchy who tend to be conventionally attractive and successful with young women – were more likely to have their status bolstered through sexting and could ‘set the tone’ regarding how they are treated by others. Those lower down the pecking order, meanwhile, were more likely to experience social shaming and lack control over the social meaning ascribed to their practices. As such, ‘high status’ popular young men can express and consolidate their social positioning through sexting, while more marginalised, excluded young men can find themselves further ostracised.
The dilemmas young men face in navigating and adhering to social expectations and standards led many of those I spoke with to label sexting ‘risky’ and distance themselves from the phenomenon. Should we, therefore, question the tendency to predominantly present young women as victims of youth sexting culture, and young men as powerful perpetrators of harm? While my research suggests this simple binary obscures the complexity of youth sexting as a phenomenon, it is notable that young men were given some rights to sexual and bodily expression, while young women were more-or-less denied any rights (see Salter, 2015). Young women who sext tend to be denied agency and are presented as passive and vulnerable, and such meanings underpinned harmful sexting practices and social shaming perpetrated on them. The norms and meanings surrounding young men’s sexting, on the other hand, were predicated upon a form of masculinity that holds power, often at the expense of young women.
I would argue that it is at this point that it becomes important to distinguish between the various levels at which gendered power operates (see Jackson and Scott, 2010). Absolutely there is a system of meaning apparent here whereby young men have sexual agency and legitimacy attributed to them, creating a sexual and relational culture in which the perceived perspectives and entitlements of young men take ascendancy over the needs and desires of young women. However, on an individual and interpersonal level, some young men may struggle to access this power and may be disadvantaged by it. This disadvantage may not be recognised by young people, who described young men ‘exposed’ as sexters as at most liable for ‘banter’, being ‘mugged off’ or a ‘bit teased’. There were expectations that young men should ‘brush off’ any abuse or ill-feeling they experience, and that ‘banter’ and ‘joking’ is clearly distinguishable from harm. The lines may not always be so clear, however, with one group describing a young man who was so traumatised by the abuse he suffered after being exposed for sexting that he left their school. They described it as ‘funny’ and a ‘joke’; a reaction some young people felt was unfair, wrong and obscured how difficult young men can find so-called ‘banter’.
As such, while some young men may stand to gain social and cultural capital through emulating forms of approved masculinity through sexting, these processes can be harmful, including in terms of expectations around resilience and emotional expression (an issue that troubled some of the young men and, I’d suggest, has implications for mental wellbeing) and recognition of the harm young men can experience including through unwanted sexting and privacy violations (see Burkett 2015). Some young men can find themselves completely marginalised, including, potentially, those identifying as LGBT+ who were excluded from young people’s heteronormative constructions of youth sexting. The LGBT+ young people I spoke with explained the double risk they felt they face in youth sexting: not only being exposed as sexters, but also as non-heterosexual or non-gender conforming.
As well as excluding LGBT+ young people from the narrative, a gendered victim-perpetrator binary does not help young women. The assumption that women are inherently victims and men powerful perpetrators in youth (and, arguably, adult) sexual relations risks normalising harm and abuse, and, as seen in the social policing of young women’s sexual and bodily expression, restricting young women’s rights and entitlements to sexual pleasure and desire, and their own bodies. Ultimately, challenging gender binaries, and recognising that all young people – of both and all genders – face complex expectations and standards, is required for understanding the nature of youth sexting.
Through studying youth sexting from the perspective of young people, I learnt that there is little that is actually new about the phenomenon. Pressures on and social policing of and among young people about how they should look and behave, the tussle for status and meaning in youth culture and the trade-offs between risk of harm and intimate connection and self-expression are long-standing. Youth sexting is a platform for these social processes and cultural practices, and, perhaps, offers an opportunity to think differently about how young people relate to themselves and others, including, for young men, the pressure to be ‘macho’ and, as Holland et al. (1998) argued all those years ago, the need to “avoid the ignominy of being a wimp, a failed man, a sexual flop” (p.150). These constructs shape harm for young men as much as for young women, curb their rights and freedom to sexual and bodily expression, autonomy and integrity, and justify social policing and shaming among young people. Freedom from harm and rights to one’s own body should be key messages we seek to impart to young people in the digital age, and this should recognise the nuanced, individual experiences of all young people, including young men.
Burkett, M. (2015). Sex(t) talk: a qualitative analysis of young adults’ negotiations of the pleasures and perils of sexting. Sexuality and Culture, 19(4) pp. 835-863.
Hasinoff, A. A. (2015). Sexting panic: Rethinking criminalization, privacy, and consent. Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.
Holland, J., Ramazanoglu, C., Sharphe, S., & Thomson, R. (1998). The male in the head: Young people, heterosexuality and power. London: The Tufnell Press.
Jackson, S., & Scott, S. (2010). Theorizing sexuality. Berkshire: Open University Press.
Salter, M. (2015). Privates in the online public: Sex(ting) and reputation on social media. New Media and Society, 18(11), 2723-2739.
Emily Setty completed her PhD in youth sexting at the University of Surrey at the end of 2017. Her research involved qualitative group and one-to-one interviews with young people aged 14 to 18. Since completing her PhD, Emily has been writing and speaking about her research to academics and practitioners. In October, Emily is commencing an ESRC-funded Post-doctoral Fellowship at the University of Brighton where she will continue to disseminate her findings and engage with stakeholders – including other academics, police, teachers, youth practitioners and young people – to explore and argue for different ways of understanding and responding to young people’s digital sexual practices, and the risks and harms they face in their digital and sexual cultures. Emily has an educational background in criminology and psychology, and is an experienced researcher on topics relating to crime and young people.