Saturday, August 18, 2012


Let's talk about sexting. Or rather, let's talk about the more visual aspect of sexting, which is the nude picture. Gawker is reporting today that Reddit and Photobucket have been working together to shut down the subreddit called " r/photobucketplunder" which has users post pictures from private albums on Photobucket to Reddit. Most of the time these private photos are just that - private. As in, the photos are either nude or semi-nude or explicit. Gawker writes
R/photobucketplunder may have gone dark, but a new subreddit made up of the same core community has already sprung up, using the name r/photoplunder in an effort to scrub all references to Photobucket from the site. Even with a new name, it's business as usual.
For many people, this is a nightmare. Earlier this week, Gawker posted a story written by a woman who's family found out about her nude pictures on the Internet. Hers is just one story in literally thousands of jilted lovers, spurned advances, acrimonious splits and then simple shits and giggles. The access of information that the Internet prides itself on has a dark consequence: the info you don't want to get out there is surely the info that will get out there.

Here are some stats culled from various sources. According to a study published in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 28% of surveyed teens have sent a naked picture of themselves to another person. According to Microsoft's anti-sexting study, an astounding 91% of teens have forwarded or shared a sexually explicit message. In 2010, CNN reported that 15% of teens received a sexually explicit message. In 2011, MTV and the Associate Press reported that "30 percent of young people report having been involved in some type of naked sexting". If we agree that forwarding sexts is a form of harassment or abuse, then "more than half (56%) of those surveyed say they have experienced abuse through social and digital media, up from 50% reported in the 2009 MTV-AP digital abuse survey". In terms of pictures, "21% have received naked pictures or videos of others".

Now, this is limited to teens, mind you. The numbers are probably the same for adults, but there is more data relating to young people and sexting than adults. The question is, of course, why? Well, the short answer is that sexually explicit pictures of minors constitutes child pornography, and the media is littered with reports of seemingly innocent teens being put on sexual offenders' lists due to a seemingly innocent exchange of nude pictures with significant others or individuals hoping to be in a relationship (either sexual or dating).

The long answer is that there is a moral panic occurring over the advent of sexually explicit pictures, technology, ease of access, and the ubiquity and speed of the Internet. Once a picture is posted online, it's practically permanent. In fact, if it's a sexually explicit picture, the odds are that it's permanent and circulated constantly. Go on /b/ and check out their incredibly detailed "Facebook sluts" meme, in which they identify girls by their nude pictures and juxtapose the explicit with the Facebook profile.

The moral panic comes from the fact that we see this is as violation of privacy. Many people in the thread linked to above, the Gawker story about Photobucket and Reddit are arguing and debating the ethics and they always do.

Does one blame the girl for taking the picture? For knowing or at least being aware that the receiver of the picture will no doubt recirculate it? Does one blame the recipient of the picture for recirculating it? What if he or she shares it after a rather acrimonious split?

Taking a brief detour from the idea of blame, I want to explore the idea that sharing the pictures or uploading them to a website might be due to an unhealthy breakup. The other week, the Associated Press reported that Boston public officials have funded a program in which counsellors and professionals enter high school and literally coach teens on how to break up with their partners with the least amount of acrimony. (USA Today is the one I linked to, but many other periodicals and media outlets are reporting on it with various levels of detail. Click here for the Google results.)

There's something fundamentally disconcerting that teens are being taught how to break up with their partners from an outside source. There are many factors to why this exists. Let's take a look at them and finish with the big one that links this tangent into the idea of sexting. Firstly, let's assume that the constant turnover in relationships in the current era is a huge factor in this. Previously, divorce wasn't so common. When you married someone, you often stayed together forever, or until one of you died. The oft-quoted stat that the divorce rate is at 50% can be extrapolated to relationships. According to a large study here, men and women are having on average, 20 and 6 sexual partners respectively. This study makes the claim that the average woman will date 24 men before "settling down". Thus, we can agree that there is a high turnover rate in relationships among unmarried people now.

A second factor in this is the rise of the blended family, which we can define as a family that isn't the "mother-father" dual unit. The blended family includes stepparents, stepsiblings, etc. Here is an amazing chart from the Canadian government that shows the rise of the blended family:

Thus, if there is a high turnover rate in relationships, the data shows that blended families would be on the increase. What does this mean for children? Studies have shown that divorce tends to affect children in different ways. More pertinent to this idea is this study which claims that children of divorce are more likely to cohabit without marriage and to leave home due to friction.

That is to say that children are having more relationships, but are not learning about stable relationships from the previous generation. Obviously, I need to do copious amounts of research to actually prove this, but I think it's an inevitable conclusion of the ways things are going.

The third, and most relevant factor here, is the tendency to share. I'm not the only cultural critic to look upon the current state of affairs and conclude that there is a compulsion to share, a type of narcissism that says, "I'm interesting and important enough to necessitate other people's attention." Yes I'm fully aware of the irony of observing this while writing on a blog.

Here's a rather interesting article that helps my argument. A Harvard graduate student said, "We were interested in why people engage in self-disclosure so seemingly excessively. The hypothesis we wanted to test was whether or not this behavior provided people with intrinsic or subjective value -- did it feel good to do it." The conclusion is going to be painfully obvious: "As it turns out, it feels so good, our brains responds to self-disclosure the same way they respond to pleasure triggers like food, money or sex." Their methodology being the MRI to show this particular facet of human experience.

The fact that the brain derives pleasure of sharing is clearly not an effect of the 21st century. Evolution just isn't possible at that speed. Thus, the sharing-pleasure dynamic can be assumed to be old enough. Thus it is the Internet's ubiquity and effortless ability to share information, through a matrix of media (Twitter, Facebook, etc) that reinforces the sharing-pleasure dynamic.

The public humiliation and the Facebook-style breakups that the Boston health officials are coaching against are the very things that create acrimony in relationships. If we didn't have the media to share the details of breakups, who would listen and how would we derive pleasure from it? The brain constantly seeks the same stimuli, so feeding it pleasure through sharing means it wants more of the same.

Sharing details of our lives, sexts, explicit pictures, all the details that add up to a portrait of a relationship is simply an effect of the Internet Age. One could argue that the seeming epidemic of sharing explicit pictures is simply an indulgence in a new technology or a new medium and that it will correct itself in time and stabilize. I'm torn on this particular conclusion, but it is quite persuasive.

The other conclusion is that the line between private and public will be irrevocably blurred. Many very smart thinkers have been writing and studying the Internet and interrogating that very thin line that seems to shrink with every year and every new technology that enables the shrinkage (increases in phone camera resolution, etc). Facebook's utter colonization of the Internet is due to, in part, the removal of privacy from the equation. Your Facebook profile becomes a representation of your self, your subject. Here's a study that explores in detail this very thing: "Socializing and Self-Representation online: Exploring Facebook".

People carefully and willfully control their Facebook profile as if it was their own face. Pinker, in his book about the decline of violence in civilization, writes that humanity developed very quickly the ability to detect lies in other humans. Immediately, humans engaged in a "lies arms race" in which the detection of the lie, and the detection of the detection of the lie and the detection of the detection of the detection of the lie and so on and so forth become a tool in the careful manipulation of the persona one presents to other people in order to serve their own interests etc.

An explicit picture turning up represents the violation and the destruction of the careful public and private persona that the individual has generated. Thus, it is the ultimate invasion of privacy because the work involved in maintaining a public persona, unconsciously calculated to maximize pleasure from sharing while minimizing dangerous revelations. This is why people are so upset about revealing and sharing explicit pictures.

It's a slight spectrum with close but steep graduations. At the beginning of the spectrum, where sharing the most intimate details about the self receives the maximum amount of pleasure (due to the perceived intimacy), to the middle of the spectrum in which pleasure is mediated through an awareness of uninvited individuals into the intimacy, to the end of the spectrum in which no pleasure is derived from sharing as too many people are on the receiving end of the intimacy. This is the spectrum, or discourse that individuals are navigating every time they post a naked picture of themselves on the Internet with the explicit purpose of being for an individual rather than a wider audience. That is to say that webcam girls and other individuals who derive pleasure from the maximum amount of audience is outside the purview of this particular exploration of sexting.

So, returning to the vital question of blame, is it the recipient of the picture who shares it that is ultimately to blame as violating the trust, or is it the person who takes the picture, probably aware at some level that the recipient will share it, as that is the ultimate purpose of the picture?

Julie Kristeva, an amazing critical thinker, wrote an important and relevant essay o abjection. There is fascination with the abjected object, a compulsion to return to the abject over and over again. Kristeva was working off of Lacan's theories, so it shouldn't be surprising that this compulsion idea turns up.

I'm not saying that people who take explicit pictures of themselves are doing so in order to derive pleasure from the pain of the picture being shared. That's possible in some cases, but I think in general, it's not the norm. I'm also not saying that we should blame the people taking the pictures.

However, I am neither blaming the recipient for sharing the explicit pictures. Or rather, I'm not blaming the general tendency to share. On the individual basis, each person should be smart enough to know that sharing the picture is an essential and egregious violation of privacy and trust.

But in the greater cultural discourse, this is totally normalized through the repetition of the act. People are watching more pornography, as they have more access to it than ever, and more people are sharing information instantly. Digg, Stumbleupon, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook are examples of services that are designed explicitly to quickly and efficiently share memes or packets of information. All of the major sites on the Internet are explicitly designed to disseminate information at the highest possible speed.

Why should it be surprising, if the compulsion to share information is totally normalized, and if pornography is normalized, then people are sharing the intimate details other people share already? The public and the private persona are blurring drastically so why is it so surprising that individuals are having a hard time separating the two when making decisions regarding the sharing of information? The Internet totally normalizes and demands that you share as much information as possible (hence my blog) so why should any other packet of information be taboo? If we're asked to share intimate details about ourselves in surveys, on Facebook, on Twitter, then why should other people's information not be part of that. After all, people on the Internet are just names, not faces.

What then does the future hold for the sext? Obviously it's not going away. The data seems to show that it's increasing. But taken with the idea that teens need to be taught by external forces other than their parents (they are not learning from the people closest to them) that the public airing of dirty laundry is unnecessary says something fundamental about our compulsion to share. At what point do we stop and figure that we've shared enough? When do we say to each other "hey, T.M.I.!"

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