Amy Hasinoff’s (2015) book Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent deals with sexting not as an issue of morals but rather as an issue of privacy and consent. The book also focused on the agency, or lack thereof, of teenage girls involved in “personal sexual media production” (Hasinoff, 2015, p. 4). What I’m mostly interested in, is the way the moral panic over sexting reflects “larger cultural patterns in which women, and in particular, racialized, lower-income, queer, and trans women, are often constructed as deviant risk-takers” (Hasinoff, 2015, p. 3) and the factors that make sexting the moral panic that it is.
Moral panics are defined by Stanley Cohen as “expressions of disapproval, condemnation, or criticism, that arise every now and then to phenomenon, which could be defined as deviant” (2010). Moral panics are usually the result of a standardised set of morals being enforced upon a population through the media. The media hype around sexting combines two of the most common targets of a moral panic: technology, and young women.
From video games being linked to violence (American Phycological Association) to mobile phones apparently giving people cancer (Cancer Research UK) it would seem there is a new moral panic to match every new technology. A prominent panic in current media is issues surrounding privacy online, add to that an issue that mainly targets young women and you have the perfect recipe for an extremely effective moral panic. In her book, Hasinoff says, “recurring moments of anxiety about new communication technologies often take on uniquely gendered dimensions, as the fear that girls will use these technologies in incorrect, frivolous, sexually inappropriate, and dangerous ways” (2015, p. 10). This is exactly what has happened in the case of sexting.
Not only does the issue of sexting intersect societies disapproval of technology and women, it is also more specific than that. The issues surrounding sexting are also influenced by the fact it is predominantly young women, using technology, to take pictures of themselves. Already there has been moral panics surrounding ‘selfie culture’ and the way women having control of their own image online is seen as being vain and attention seeking, add to that the sexual nature of sexting and it becomes an almost obvious target for the mass media.
As Hasinoff puts it, “the real problems with sexting are the same ones activists and researchers have been battling for decades on the issue of sexual violence: rape culture, victim-blaming, a discriminatory and counterproductive justice system, and systemic inequalities” (2015, p. 9). The moral panic surrounding sexting starkly illustrates societies view of young women. It’s not the (predominantly) young men who are punished for non-consensually circulating private images, but the young women who took them, “girls seem to have agency in that their actions have an effect and they can be held responsible for them, but they also are constructed as lacking agency in that their choices are seen as inauthentic or not intentional” (Hasinoff, 2015, p. 11).
Overall, the moral panic surrounding sexting can be seen as a reflection of the society in which we live, more than an issue of legality or moral goodness. At this point it is also important to considers question surrounding media determinism; whether the media is in fact reflecting our society or if these moral panics are shaping it.
American Phycological Association. (2015, August 13). APA Review Confirms Link Between Playing Violent Video Games and Aggression. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/08/violent-video-games.aspx
Cancer Research UK. (2016). Mobile phones, wifi and power lines. Retrieved from http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/cancer-controversies/mobile-phones-wifi-and-power-lines
Cohen, S. (2010, September 13). Mods, Rockers, Folk Devils, Deviants (B Le Vrai, Interviewer). Vice. Retrieved from http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/mods-rockers-folk-devils-deviants
Hasinoff, A. (2015). Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Ryan, E G. (2013). Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help. JEZEBEL. Retrieved from http://jezebel.com/selfies-arent-empowering-theyre-a-cry-for-help-1468965365