Monday, March 16, 2009

Racy texts don't kill people, sexual shaming does

I've previously discussed the unsurprising trend of teens sharing racy pictures of themselves and each other via email and cell phones (and the rather more surprising trend of teens being prosecuted under the child porn laws for it). The topic is getting a lot of sensationalistic coverage - complete with the trendy moral-panic-tastic term "sexting" - right now because of the suicide of a young Ohio woman.

Elizabeth at Sex in the Public Square has this to say:

I'm furious about the way this young woman's story is being reported. Jesse Logan killed herself last July not because of the "dangers of sexting" but because of the dangers of sex stigma and "slut shaming." She had sent some naked photos of herself to her boyfriend by cell phone. When they broke up he showed those photos to other people at their high school. Some of those people then visciously shamed and bullied Jesse. But to read this MSNBC story you would think that it was her sending of the photos that was so dangerous.

Slut shaming works because girls are told to be sexy but not sexually active. I don't know whether Jesse had ever even had sex with the boyfriend to whom she sent the pictures. It doesn't matter. What matters is that words like "slut" and "whore" were hurled at her and that those words are understood to be condemnations. They should not be, yet they are, and the shame attached to them caused Logan such pain that she began skipping school, spiraled into a deep depression and, after a friend of hers committed suicide, she did the same, hanging herself in her closet. What a tragically symbolic end for someone whose privacy had been so violated.

There will no doubt be pressure on wireless providers to somehow crack down on racy content, which they either can't or shouldn't do. There will also be a temptation to ramp up the use of the child porn laws against teens, despite the life-wrecking effects thereof.

But trying to regulate or criminalize the circulation of words and images here misses the point. If the law offers any help here, it is tort law and not criminal law, directed at the shaming and bullying rather than teen sexual speech and experimentation. Schools, parents and even teens themselves should be held accountable for the vicious bullying that causes tragedies like this - and indeed (as noted in the MSNBC article), Jesse Logan's mother is apparently trying to hold her school accountable in court.

Update: Some other interesting takes on the subject.


Anonymous said...

Extreme cases make poor law. This is not terribly different from the Missouri girl who hanged herself after being cyber-bullied. Any number of triggers can push individuals to commit suicide, but the fact that 1% of the population responds by doing so suggests that individual treatment is a better response than broad laws (or civil trials).

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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