Revisiting sexting

written by Love Isn’t Enough columnist Bianca Laureano; originally posted at Media Justice on Amplify

Some of you may never have guessed with all my critique and commentary on popular culture, I don’t have cable. Not only do I not have cable, but also I only get about four channels since the conversion as I still use rabbit ear antennas. Much of my consuming of media occurs between these four channels and catching things online. So, forgive me if I’m super late with discussing the anti-sexting campaigns that I just recently saw a advertisement for earlier this month.

While staying in a hotel in a very secluded city for a conference, I watched cable for the first time in months. As I watched MTV, I saw a commercial sponsored and created by MTV regarding anti-sexting. This topic is not new in sexuality and sex education conversations. What is new for me is interacting with new cyber-specific support, resources and laws.

You see, I grew up without a computer or cell phone. I had to memorize telephone numbers! When I was in undergrad I was using a word processor. I know what dial-up sounds like, and that the Internet used to be called the “information superhighway.” Today, for me, is the future! With all this technology (i.e. “modernization”) there do come more challenges and laws about monitoring such activities (A post about “Net Neutrality” and what that means for all of us regarding protecting Internet freedom is forthcoming).

There are two things I wish to address: MTVs anti-sexting commercials and promotional resources and advertisements and one sexting story that caught my attention months ago but has had little discussion. Let’s begin with MTV and their anti-sexting campaign.

I saw a commercial, which I’ve tried so hard to find online but can’t, which is interesting. The commercial is of a young woman–soaking wet in a bath towel–talking about how much she trusts her boyfriend. I’ve read that there is a similar advertisement with a girl of color completely nude with her genitals blurred out standing in a gymnasium. Each young woman speaks about her trust towards her boyfriend, how it’s “not a big deal…right?” and ends with an anti-sexting message and link to a website.

The website that MTV has created is called A Thin Line and it features a quiz, facts, suggestions on “taking control” and a space for youth to share their stories. I found it extremely interesting that MTV has created commercials focusing on sexting, yet the website focuses on multiple forms of digital and online/cyber situations, which they call: Constant Messaging, Spying, Digital Disrespect and Cruelty. I spent some time on the website and was not completely impressed as an educator, mentor, and as someone who uses digital media multiple times a day to do my work.

In addition, there are huge messages that photos on the website are sending subliminally and overtly. For example, all the images on the main page are of racially white people (Yes, there is one young person who could be Latina or Middle Eastern, yet when I first looked I instantly classified her as racially white as she is seated next to three other racially white people). The images are also accompanied by questions and slogans that give the impression that the users in the images are responsible and seeking information about the issues covered.

As I went to each issue covered I realized that the images became more racially diverse, but not by much. The majority of the images are of racially white women and men who are able-bodied. The time when I saw a number of people of color was under the “Digital Disrespect” tab where 100% of the images are of people of color, specifically women of color. Now these images are not of a young woman of color surviving “digital disrespect,” but the images are of young women of color in a group looking at a laptop, a telephone, a man of color in shock, and a young woman of color alone with her cell phone. I wondered: Does MTV think only youth of color engage in “digital disrespect”? What does it mean that only images of racially black people are presented under this tab?

Two things that stood out so much for me were the following: How heterosexist the campaign is and the clear exclusion of Asian, Latino and black men in the campaign. The same Asian man is used several places in this campaign. He is first seen in the main Get The Facts tab looking at his laptop and then again in the Spying tab. The images of black men in this site are of men screaming, laughing at a young girl with his friends (under Cruelty), and yelling/angry in the Constant Messaging tab. Latino men are scattered throughout, yet do not have a strong presence, in my opinion, to even be memorable.

I can’t help but wonder what this means regarding the belief that young women are more at risk of being victimized by sexting or online/cyber bullying. Since when is this type of abuse gender specific? Do people really think queer youth use technology differently than heterosexual youth? Why wouldn’t MTV use its power as a prominent youth engaged space to include queer youth? Why is it so easy to exclude youth with disabilities and even undocumented youth or youth whose parents are undocumented? Is this an example of “saving the girls” over “saving the boys” because boys can take care of themselves, and/or because boys are predators?

I then watched MTVs special “Sexting In America: When Privates Go Public” and the two stories addressed are of racially white youth. One of the things I’ve discovered working with youth of many racial classifications, ethnic identities, class status’ and various abilities and gender identities are that technology is equally important to all of them. Having a telephone is a huge necessity for many youth today and I wonder why only some youth are thought to be important enough to target and represent.

This all comes from the first time I really began to pay attention to issues of sexting because I will be honest with you, when I first heard about it a few years ago prior to really working with digital media and youth, I assumed it was a class-based issue: wealthy kids, white kids getting “caught” and that’s why people (i.e. parents and authorities) were so focused on the topic. I thought: “here was a crime that was harming wealthy white youth and it had to be stopped!” Then I heard about Antony Stancl.

I first heard about an intense sexting and cyber-bullying situation last year via GQ magazine. In July 2009 the story “Sextortion at Eisenhower High” was published . The story focused on 18 year-old Wisconsin transnational queer adoptee Anthony Stancl, who was in his senior year in high school at New Berlin Eisenhower High School (called “Ike” by students). Author Michael Joseph Gross (whose tone I don’t find useful for a majority of the article) writes about Stancl stating:

Stancl allegedly posed as a flirtatious female on Facebook to lure Ike boys into sending naked pictures of themselves. According to the police, at least thirty-one of them did just that, and Stancl amassed a collection of explicit pictures and videos that he used as leverage in a game of sexual blackmail that eventually landed him in jail.

Earlier this year, and one day after MTVs Sexting special, Anthony Stancl was found guilty of blackmail and sentenced to 15 years in prison. One conversation that is not being examined is the bullying Stancl states he experienced when he was outed at school, any challenges that may have come up for him as a transnational adoptee from Peru to a family that is not of his same ethnic background, and what challenges come up in general being a queer youth of color living in the US. Gross writes “He wanted to go to Peru that summer to build houses for the poor. He might have imagined the trip as a kind of homecoming—Tony and his sister, Stephanie, were adopted as babies from an orphanage in Lima—but his parents told him the trip was too dangerous.”

Here we have a young man of color who seeks to go to his country of origin to do humanitarian efforts (He sold his car to get funds.) but is told not to by his adoptive parents. This concerns me on numerous levels. The fact that these aspects of his identity are not discussed or even considered troubles me and speaks to the invisibility of (young) men of color in efforts and resources around sexting. The invisibility or exclusion of men of color in general is frustrating. We need to do better.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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