JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

In the years since the Berry articles were published in 2005, media outlets have generated numerous reports of minors producing erotic photos or videos of themselves. While some of these reports do acknowledge the minors’ role in making these images by referring to the phenomenon as “self-produced child pornography,” the majority foreground the role of technology, presenting cell phones as the new, pernicious element in teenagers lives that allows kids to covertly photograph themselves and then quickly text the images to an extended network of acquaintances. Most articles indicate as a worst case scenario the possibility or even likelihood of the images ending up online, being viewed by strangers and potentially haunting the subjects for the rest of their lives.

A representative example would be an Associated Press article from January 2008 entitled “Cell Phone Porn Scandal Hits U.S. School.”[30] [open endnotes in new window] The article details the somewhat hopeless efforts of police officers in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to recover and delete from all local cell phones images of two naked teenager girls that had been circulated in the local high school, and what’s vaguely described as the “wider world.”[31] Along with the emphasis on the cell phone technology in the headline, the article is accompanied by a large and somewhat sinister close-up of a cell phone, with fingers poised near the keypad, as if indicating the ominous potential of this ubiquitous device. Coupled with this technological finger-pointing is the article’s disassociating of the girls in the photos from any clear position of authorship. One girl, who bared her breasts for a photo, is described as “a victim and she’s not a victim.”[32] The other girl, who in the photo is engaged in a sex act with her boyfriend, is described as potentially ignorant of the fact that she is being photographed. Constructed in this manner, the story becomes one about two girls (the one girl’s male partner for some reason is excluded from the catalogue of victims) who have been sandbagged by technology and an audience that is far too large to be monitored or reprimanded by the police.

Other images run as illustration for articles on sexting also emphasize the role of technology, literally foregrounding a cell phone to the point of obscuring the (presumably) adolescent body that is being photographed.[33] This choice of composition can be read as a strategy employed by media outlets to allude to their topic at hand (child porn) without running the risk of being charged with producing such material themselves. That is, the images must suggest child porn, without actually being child porn. While this visual ambiguity is successfully achieved, it seems important to notice what the images, for the most part, fail to convey. These images successfully indicate that adolescent nude bodies are being photographed, yet what becomes less clear, at least in terms of the illustration, is who is occupying the role of photographer. Simplifying the adolescent’s otherwise complex status as both subject and object of an erotic image, these accompanying photographs emphasize the technology itself as the primary author, relegating the adolescent to the less clearly defined role of object and victim. As a perhaps unconscious attempt to construct a villain and a prey, the images rely on a visual language that has often been employed in presentations of minors as victims of potential molestation (I am thinking in particular of a famous photograph of three young girls fleeing a disembodied male hand that accompanied a 1947 article by J. Edgar Hoover on sexual predators).[34] Of course, the innovation of these illustrations is that technology has been accorded the place once relegated to adult men.

My analysis of the Eichenwald/Berry scandal and more recent articles devoted to teens sending nude photos of themselves should indicate the degree to which the media constructions of self-produced child pornography have represented minors as victims, despite their role as producers of erotic material. This feat has been accomplished through a displacement of blame or threat away from the child-victim onto the technology enabling minors to create and then transmit nude images or videos of themselves and onto the unspecified audience that welcomes the images.

Silencing of minors

As evidenced in the above sections, legal and media discourses contribute to a denial of minors’ sexuality or sexual self-expression. As a document of under-age sexual self-representation, a photo that a minor takes of her own nude body becomes an object that must not be seen and great efforts are often taken to insure its erasure. This erasure occurs on the level of discourse, but also in terms of the physical actions taken by police departments. For example, in the Allentown, Pennsylvania scandal cited above, the local police engaged in the somewhat hopeless project of attempting to locate all cell phones to which the images had been sent in order to ensure that they were deleted and not further circulated. Nearly all media coverage of minors producing and distributing nude images of themselves involves some discussion of police’s futile efforts to stop the dissemination of the material.

Media coverage of self-produced child pornography indicates that along with these after the fact efforts, authority figures, whether the local law enforcement or school administrators, are pro-active about preventing production. To take a recent example, a fifteen-year-old girl in Newark, Ohio, was arrested on October 3, 2008, for taking nude photos of herself on her cell phone and then sending them to high school classmates. The incident was picked up and reported by the Associated Press, but it has been covered in more detail by the local paper, the Newark Advocate. In the multiple articles that have been devoted to the case, the paper indicates that a month before the girl was arrested the local prosecutor had made a presentation at the school, warning students against the practice of producing and distributing images of themselves. After this larger presentation, the girl who was eventually arrested was taken aside and personally warned against engaging in this activity.[35] The article does not provide an explanation of why this girl was specifically targeted.

But the actions of the school indicate a preventative stance, one geared towards not just undoing or repositioning material so that a new meaning is assigned to it. The interventions on the part of the school and the police are forms of instruction. Minors are being given an education in what are the appropriate ways of representing themselves and it is, of course, no surprise that their erotic self is something they are taught to leave out of the picture. I say it is unsurprising because, for more than twenty years, scholars focusing on child sexuality, and in particular adolescent female sexuality, have documented societal efforts to deny the existence of their subject.[36]

But if this offensive effort of erasure is no longer cause for surprise, where does that leave us? If ample research, especially that coming out of girls’ studies, has already documented the silencing of adolescent sexuality, why do legal and media discourses continue to participate in this silencing? And what are the possibilities for bringing together these different forms of discourse so that they better inform each other? These are questions I leave open to future research and engaged political action.

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