Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory, by Josie Appleton

Tag: Sexting

The liberation of porn, the criminalisation of groping

young-people-008Teens and pre-teens now partake in commercial sex culture: sexy selfies, sexting, porn. Yet if they touch each other, or play a sexual game, they could end up with a criminal record.

These fumblings, sloppy kisses, explorations of each other’s bodies, have long been part of childhood and adolescence. Now such things can lead to investigation, expulsion from school, even prosecution.

The UK Sexual Offences Act criminalises ‘sexual touching’ between under 16-year olds. I know of a 12-year old boy who was put on the Sex Offenders Register for ‘inappropriate touching’, while playing with a girl his age.

In America, children as young as 10 have been put on sex offenders lists, or in some cases removed from their home, for play-acting sex with their peers.

A new paper by Danish researchers (1) finds that the country’s traditionally liberal attitudes have been replaced with suspicion and restriction. Where children once bathed naked in summer, they now wear swimming costumes. The kids’ game of ‘playing doctor’ is now seen by nurseries as a ‘trespass upon a child’s boundaries’, and is highly restricted or banned.

One interviewee observed:

‘There has been a drastic shift in the views of children’s relations to one another. Exploratory behaviors among children are, sadly, often interpreted as abuse.’

The authors concluded that:

The fear of (child sexual abuse) seemed to be the sole rationale for speaking of childrens games as abusive and for using the theme ofboundaries to teach children to defend their bodies and to respect other childrens bodies.

This taboo over contact between children occurs at a time when the commercial sex world has never been so available to them.

11- and 12-year olds twerk: this is the way they dance. A girl of 11, in her selfies, looks as if she is inviting you to sex, all sultry and come-on. She doesn’t yet have breasts but adds them, along with hips, with the phone app. Boys consume porn and take photos of their penises.

It is overt, this commercialised game of sex: everybody is always pretending to offer and receive sex.

Yet the real human relation – the real hand on a real body – is seen as toxic and dangerous. Kids are told that touching is a violation of ‘boundaries’, a potential crime, and that they need pseudo-legal consent for every act.

While the commercial porn world is freed, the human relation is cramped and criminalised.

And so young people’s sexual initiation occurs through porn culture, through stereotyped ways of acting towards sex objects – instead of the fumbled kisses, the awkwardness, the tingling in the belly, as they learn sexuality as a way or relating to another person.

(1) Children’s Doctor Games and Nudity at Danish Childcare Institutions, EB Leander et al, Archives of Sexual Behavior, February 2018

My book Officious – Rise of the Busybody State, is published by Zero books.

Sexting and the pornification of intimacy

What is worrying about sexting is not that people pass nude photos around their friends or post them online. It’s far worse that they were supposed to keep them secret: that these photos were supposed to have the status of a private, intimate exchange.

To send a sext is, basically, to objectify yourself, to make yourself into a porn object. Porn deals with a stereotyped, abstract sexuality; it is a question of organs, arousal, acts. Sexting has the same objectified language: it has the same focus on isolated organs, showing the penis or breasts without the face. Or it has the same stereotyped poses, pouting and sticking your bottom out; or the pre-fab lists of ‘sexy’ things to say.

So, on recieving a porn photo, it is not surprising that someone might pass it around their friends – have a laugh, post it online. It looks like a photo for general consumption; there is nothing intimate about it. To pass it around is the natural thing to do. It’s especially not suprising that young people do this, since at this age sexuality is largely a question of exploit and bragging to their peers, rather than of a close or trusting relation.

What is less natural is that sexting should be considered part of an intimate relation; that people should relate to one another through penis and breast shots.

Here, the sexual relation loses its quality of closeness, a private language and mutual sensuality. With sexting, the one-to-one relation is mediated through the exchange of photos and texts, through the production and consumption of images. The private sexted photo makes a gift out of your objectification (I did this for you) and also shows off (look at how big it is/how desirable I am). The other person then consumes this image.

The exchange of sexting occurs at a different pace and on a different plane to a real relation. In some cases, naked selfies are a prelude to a relationship: whereas once boys would want to touch a girl’s breasts (and brag about it to their friends) now they ask for a photo (and send it around). The photo is a prelude to, and temporary substitute for, someone else’s body. People relate through images before they relate through touching – some online daters make cyber sex a prelude to real sex.

As well as being more objectified, sexting is also a more privatised relation – it is the realm of private fantasy, the private relation between a person and the sex image. This means that sexting proceeds at the pace of fantasy rather than a real relationship. Women report that they meet someone nice and go to dinner – then, ‘bam’, receive a penis shot. It goes from talking, to penis shot, with nothing in between: ‘how am I supposed to respond?’ This isn’t the slow build-up of intimacies, but nor is it like jumping straight into bed with someone. Instead, the leap straight to the penis shot is a leap to the one-way offering – the objectified private fantasy.

One woman says that her ex-boyfriend broke up with her but keeps on sending filthy texts; he finished the relationship, and has no interest in seeing her, but continues sexting. Here, the person reading the texts is playing the role of mediator for someone’s private fantasy, a conversation he could be having in his head but is instead acting out through his phone.

So while most of the discussion is about young people sharing naked selfies online, this is actually the least significant aspect of sexting. What is more significant is its spread into intimate adult relations, such that intimacy starts to be mediated through the exchange of porn.

 

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