Sexual Trophy, Revenge Porn, or Just a Prank? An Examination of Gendered Sexting Practices in Seven U.S. Universities
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractThis dissertation investigates how and why college students engage in sexting and challenges prior research that often frames sexting as an inherently risky or dangerous behavior. I broadly define sexting as the electronic sharing of nude or semi-nude images and the written or spoken communication that accompanies them. I gathered quantitative survey data (N = 1,922) to capture the breadth of young people’s engagement in sexting, and qualitative interview data (N = 101) to capture the depth of these experiences. Using this mixed-methods strategy, I develop a comprehensive understanding of the types of sexting practices young people engage in, their motivations for engagement, and how gender dynamics influence these interactions. I find that sexting is not one homogeneous action; it consists of a wide range of diverse rituals. I label these interactions as rituals because the individuals who participate in them may generate social solidarity and emotional energy through coordinated actions. I incorporate Collins’ interaction ritual theory as a theoretical framework to analyze the processes through which sexting rituals take place. This theory is useful because it provides a set of conditions that are necessary for a synchronized ritual to occur. In addition to using interaction ritual theory to analyze the different elements of sexting rituals, I also build upon this theory by extending it from offline to online interactions and incorporating symbolic meanings to account for the complex ways gender influences online interaction rituals. Symbolic objects are a fundamental element of the sociological analysis of rituals. Nude images are an excellent case for studying the role that symbolic objects play in rituals because participants may attach many diverse meanings to them. I find that the meanings participants attach to nude images are often very gendered and influence the type of ritual they engage in and whether or not it generates a sense of solidarity. In most cases, the meanings that women and men attach to nude images are distinct and shape their rituals dramatically. In this three-paper dissertation, I examine three distinct types of sexting: romantic sexting, sexting with friends, and sharing images of others. My analysis of romantic sexting extends interaction ritual theory to intimate mediated interactions by examining how sexting interactions map onto the interaction ritual theory model and why young people experience unsatisfying sexting interactions focusing predominately on heterosexual interactions. While some women and men felt unsatisfied after engaging in unsynchronized sexting interactions, young women were more likely than men to report experiencing pressure to share images of themselves and receive content they found unpleasant. These findings highlight the prominent role that traditional gender beliefs continue to play in young people’s most intimate interactions. My examination of sexting with friends extends the sexting literature to platonic image sharing, a sphere that has largely been absent from previous scholarship on sexting. I find that women and men attach gendered meanings to these images and these meanings shape the rituals in which they engage. While women perceive nude images shared between women as symbols of positive affirmation and engage in body positive rituals, men are more likely to perceive nude images shared among men as symbols of gross-out humor and to engage in humor-related rituals. These findings contribute to literature on gendered bonding rituals. Finally, my examination of sharing images of others explores how women and men turn intimate heterosexual interactions into collective rituals of sexual rejection and pursuit. I find that women share images of men with their peers to cope with unwelcome sexual advances, while men share images of women to demonstrate their sexual prowess. The perceived desirability of men’s and women’s images influences these rituals. These papers provide a comprehensive analysis of young people’s sexting practices and highlight avenues for future research to explore how additional dimensions of intersectionality shape intimate online and offline rituals.
Degree ProgramGraduate College