Sexting and Gender

November 18, 2014.
Posted by Jay Livingston


Much of Hanna Rosin’s recent Atlantic article “Why Kids Sext” plays on the generational divide. Parents get understandably upset about something that kids see as just another part of social life. Cops and prosecutors have an even more difficult time since a high schooler’s sexy cellphone selfie is a felony in most states.

The media too aren’t sure how to play it. “Massive teen sexting ring,” gasped the headline in a local paper  in Louisa County, Virginia. A couple of high school kids had created an Instagram page with about 100 photos of girls from the local high school and middle school. They hadn’t taken the pictures; they had merely consolidated the photos that were already circulating on kids’ phones. When Rosin asked kids in the local high school how many people they knew who had sexted, the “ring” turned out to be “everyone.”  (The kids overestimated. I think that surveys find that about a third of kids have sexted.)

Rosin’s article reveals differences not just of age but of gender, for despite the newest iPhone and Instagram technology, the ideas and attitudes, especially those of the boys, seem like something out of the 1950s.  The “maddening, ancient, crude double standard” is, unfortunately, alive and well. So is the idea of sex as conquest. Boys describe how they would sweetly cajole girls to sext. When the photo arrived, the boys felt a kind of egotistical pride (“I’m the man”) –  not much different from high school boys of sixty or seventy years ago bragging about “getting to second base” or farther.  (I guess a sext is somewhere between second and third – a sort of .jpeg shortstop.)  On college campuses, as Lisa Wade has said,  the order of the bases has changed. Maybe that’s true in high school too, but the game mentality – with all its attendant attitudes and assumptions – remains the same.

If a girl refused, the boys dismissed her as “stuck up” or a “prude.” And if she did send the photo . . .

How do you feel about the girl after she sends it?, I asked.
    “Super thots.” [THOT - “that ho over there”]
    “You can't love those thots!”
    “That's right, you can't love those hos.”

Whichever the girl does – sext or refuse – the boys find a reason to be contemptuous.

For the boys, the  pictures were not about sex or stimulation; they were purely for narcissistic satisfaction and social status.

They gloat inwardly or brag to friends; they store them in special apps or count them. . . . “Guys would pile them up,” one girl who had graduated a year earlier told me, referring to sexts they’d gotten. “It was more of a baseball-card, showing-off kind of thing.” Olivia described it as “like when they were little boys, playing with Pokémon cards.”

The boys saw the sexts as a universalistic and utilitarian currency – something they could trade and use for other goals. That’s why the boys’ promises not to show the picture to anyone else can evaporate so quickly.  The picture has use value only if others see it.  It has meaning as an object; that meaning is not connected with the particular person in the picture.  She could just as easily be Charmander or Snorlax.

The girls, by contrast, were more particularistic. A picture was important for what it said about the relationship between her and a particular boy.  Girls have the relationship in mind also in those rarer instances when they ask a boy for a picture

It is kind of a marker that you have reached a certain point in a relationship or you are about to reach a certain point in a relationship. So it can be foreplay. It can be a kind of intimacy.[Rosin in a Fresh Air interview here.]

That “marker” comment suggests that the girls too had a “base” system in mind, but if so, the bases were the stages in the relationship, the level of intimacy with another person. They did not share the boys’ view of the sext as a bit of capital added to their individual holdings and separate from the person in the photo.


Sex – universal commodity or special relationship?  Many years ago, long before cell phones and sexts, I thought I might demonstrate this difference by asking students to imagine a dream date. I was a genii, I said, and I will grant your wish. You can have a date with any person you choose. You can spend an evening doing whatever you want, and if you like, the evening can extend till morning.
But you must choose one of two conditions.
    A.  You actually have the date, but nobody will ever know about.
    B.  You don’t have the date, but everybody thinks you did.

I had them mark their ballots anonymously but asked them to indicate their gender. Then, as an afterthought – mostly because I wanted to keep up with popular culture – I also asked them to write down who they were thinking of.

I thought that more boys would choose B – the date as utilitarian currency.  I was wrong. Everybody wanted the actual date. But gender did make a difference on the second question. Most of the boys chose women from the media (as I recall, Heather Locklear got several votes – I told you this was a long time ago).  The girls’ choices were more along the lines of “this guy I knew in high school” or “this guy I went out with last year but we broke up.”

The boys did not want the date as a tradeable commodity. Instead it was an abstracted ideal, a fantasy. They had no idea what it would actually be like to spend a few hours with Heather Locklear the real person.  What the girls wanted was a real relationship with a real person.

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