Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Selfsploitation: Women, Technology, and the Fading Dichotomy Between Public and Private

By Dawn Okoro

Standing before the bathroom mirror, the green and beige floral shower curtain is the backdrop; with camera phone in hand, she lifts her Superman logo t-shirt baring all that is underneath. She smirks, sticking her tongue out to the side of her mouth just before snapping a photo of her reflection. The flash casts a star-shaped glare across the mirror. The result is one of the many photos found on one particular young woman's social networking webpage. She has chosen to share this part of herself with the world.

With the advent of social networking websites people have a medium to express themselves to a wider audience. All it takes is a digital camera, a computer, or a cell phone that has both. Although this behavior was seemingly common place by the early 2000's it was gaining more attention in the media. Celebrity nude cell phone photos were leaked to the public, and some would-be celebrities were able to capitalize off the exposure of what they claimed to be private sex photos and videos. After coming across so many of these sexualized images on social networking sites and hearing about related controversies in the news, I became intrigued and had many questions about this behavior-- especially as it pertained to women. To facilitate my understanding, I created the "Selfsploitation" project which is composed of research, an informal survey, drawings, and this essay.

Sexting and the Law
Publicizing one's sexuality is nothing new. However, taking nude or sexually suggestive photos of one's self and transmitting them via cell phone or computer can lead to undesirable consequences. Sexting is the act of sending sexually suggestive photos or messages via cell phone or social networking sites. According to a survey conducted by, 20% of teens have sexted. In some cases, the law sees it as a serious crime.

In 2007 an 18 year old Orlando teen sent nude photos of his 16 year old girlfriend to her friends and family after an argument. He was eventually charged and plead guilty to distributing child pornography and was sentenced to five years probation and ordered to register as a sex offender. Being placed on the sex offender registry gives someone the stigma of being a dangerous sex offender which can be unfair if it isn't true. The case of the 18 year old Orlando teen inspired Florida to join 15 other states in considering lessening the penalty for sexting and separating it from child pornography. Minors who are first time offenders would get 8 hours of community service along with a $25 fine. The second offense would result in a misdemeanor and possbile jail time. The new law says that sexting among teens is not child pornography, but not something that should be taken lightly. It provides a punishment without giving teens the lifelong sentence of being a labled sex offender.

What Do People Really Think About Sexting?
Once I realized why sexting could be such a serious issue, I decided to conduct an informal survey on my blog. I asked for people's thoughts on sexting among adults and teens. I was fortunate to have obtained responses from people who have participated in sexting as well as people who haven't. One sexter said that they did it because they were feeling amorous and it was a way to see if another person was willing to send these kinds of photos if asked. To them, it's a turn on. Another sexter said that they had emailed sexually explicit photos because they were in long distance serious relationship. The participant said that "texting dirty things and emailing nude photos can keep things interesting and hold off sexual frustration." None of the participants had ever posted sexualized photos on social websites.

Several celebrities have had private nude videos and photos "leaked" to the public. On internet message boards, some of the celebrities were called "slut," "whore," and "dirty" after their sexualized photos were released to the public. From what I observed, female celebrities were judged more harshly than males in these scenarios. I asked my survey participants what they thought about the hype surrounding nude celebrity cell phone pictures and how they felt about the public's judgement. One participant called the concept of leaked celebrity photos "sad and paradoxical." On one hand, these celebrities took the risk of snapping the photos knowing they live in the public eye. On the other hand, the participant said, these are their own personal pictures and their privacy should be respected. One point that all the participants agreed on was a disdain for the hypocrisy of people who chose to tear celebrities down because of their choice to take nude home photos. One of the participants said that public sexuality should be more widely accepted, especially since sexuality "is a large part of who we are and how we were made."

Gender Roles and Sexting
Most articles that I read about sexting among teens painted a portrait of a girl who was pressured by a boy to photograph herself in racy poses. The survey says that 18% of boys say they pressure their girlfriends to sext. However, a survey conducted by psychologist Susan Lipkins, said that only 2% of girls said they sexted because of pressure. Some argue that boys should not pressure girls and that many girls will do "anything to keep a boyfriend." Others reject that argument, and believe the concern over girls may be a societal double standard about female sexuality.

Although surveys show that young boys sext just as much as girls, the majority of the articles that I read on the subject focused on protecting girls and their reputations. When busted for sexting, teen girls seem to take the brunt of the moral burden, however, boys seem to end up more harshly punished by schools and the law. There exists a two way double standard in that regard. Perhaps society's notions of female sexuality skews our views on sexting as it relates to teen girls.

Sexting as a Vehicle for Female Empowerment?
A woman who chooses to broadcast sexualized photos of herself is not always pressured or a victim. Some women broadcast their sexuality for more complex reasons. By all means people, especially teens, need to be aware of the potential consequences. But what if a woman simply wants to share nude photos of herself as a statement?

During my research I came across the social networking page for a young woman who calls herself Dame Lebeau. She maintains a project called "My Nude Self" in which she posts daily photos of herself. She snaps each photo herself, sometimes in lingerie, sometimes with fruit, but usually in nothing at all. She took the initiative to learn the technical side of photography, lighting and composition helping bring each photo from her project to the level of a unique expression of art. In this way, public nudes could be a way to exercise agency over one's sexuality and therefore empowering.

My Search for Image Sources
After I'd read more about sexting and the plights and victories attached, I wanted to figuratively memorialize women who had expressed themselves in this way. For the visual side of my "Selfsploitation" project, I wanted to photograph women simulating sexting in a studio setting, then I would create drawings and paintings from these new photos. In order to do this, I needed to pull specific visual examples of sexting. I used a search engine to assist in finding photos. One of the first sites I came across was the now defunct "Freaks on Myspace." It was a site dedicated to gathering nude or otherwise sexually suggestive photos that women had posted on social networking sites and placing them in one location. Under each photo was a place for viewers to leave comments. Most of the comments were harsh critiques of the women's bodies and there was lots of name calling. Clickable ads lined the sides of the website. The owners of the site had found a way to cash in on hundreds of women's sexting photos, apparently without their knowledge.

Another site that I checked for image sources was American Apparel's website. Many of the photos of young women channeled sexting. Instead of using professional models, American Apparel enlists their employees and people off the street to pose for their often sexually provacative ad campaigns. Although the company is very strict about what their employees and street models look like, many of these young people look like someone you might see walking down the street in Soho, South Austin, or Downtown LA. I am not saying that anyone is coerced to model for the company, but something in many of the girls' eyes strikes me as despondent, almost as if they didn't really want to be there. For this reason, images from American Apparel ad campaigns were useful sources for my "Selfsploitation" project.

Aside from "Freaks on Myspace," and American Apparel, I was able to see examples of sexting on social networking pages that I'd naturally come across and through friends. Some people actually sent me images to work with in order to help with the project.

Simulated Sexting
One of the vital steps in creating images for my project was to have models pose in the spirit of sexting. I found models on a social site called "Model Mayhem." Before meeting in person, I explained what I was working on and showed the models examples of the kinds of poses I expected. The possibility of posing nude was discussed. Once the models agreed, I scheduled a photo session with each one. I asked each model to bring a t-shirt, shorts and under garments to pose in.

Each session started with the model fully clothed. I would show her an image that I had pulled from the web and asked her to imitate the pose. After I began shooting the first model, I realized that in order to get the outcome I wanted, the models needed to not only imitate the poses, but they also needed to channel the gritty attitude found in some of the sexting photos. Some of the models were able to turn on this attitude, while others weren't.

Aside from the fully clothed shots, I needed the models to imitate some of the nude images that I'd gathered. I am a shy person, and was very uncomfortable when it came time to ask the models to pose nude or even topless. Ultimately none of the models were willing to pose nude for the project. A couple of the models were willing to pose topless as long as their breasts were covered.

After creating the new images sources of simulated sexting, I was ready to create drawings on paper and eventually paintings. I would also create work using ads and sexting photos found on the internet as image sources. I was nervous going into the project. What many had liked about my previous work was that I depicted women in proud powerful poses and now it appeared that I was doing a 180. In order to open a dialogue about the way women might objectify themselves was I in turn objectifying these women? My answer is no. I am extracting the images from their original settings and recontextualizing them. I think of the newly created works as incomplete sentences, and it is from there that I hope they provoke conversation.

Sexters Should Not be Condemned
I do not believe that women who choose to take sexualized photos and share them electronically should be condemned. I do believe that many women, especially teen girls are pressured into such activity, and will later regret their decisions to partake in sexting. Far too many women sext without awareness of the potential consequences. On the other hand, not all women who sext are coerced and some women post nude photos online as a self empowering art form. However, people need to be educated in technology and the potential long lasting effects of such behavior. Media education is the key to helping women make informed decisions before clicking "send."

To view drawings from the "Selfsploitation" project visit

American Apparel, (last visited July 22, 2010).

My Nude Self, (last visited July 22, 2010).

Nina Funnell, Sexting Gives Teens More Control, Nine News (August 18, 2009),

Peggy O'Crowley, Sexting Generation, Real Psychology (August 13, 2009),

Peter Cummings, Children’s Rights, Children’s Voices, Children’s Technology, Children’s Sexuality, Live Leak (Complete Speech, May 26, 2009),

Rachel O, Sexting, Sextapes, and Popular Culture, Feminist Fatale (April 26, 2010),

States Mull Softening "Sexting" Laws, CBS News (March 24, 2010),


  1. Fascinating. You will almost certainly alienate some of your fans with this series.

    This business of the objectification of women leads to lots of knee-jerk reactions to art... to some people, there is just no good reason to show nudity, and that's all there is to it. nudity = porn = exploitation = bad, bad, bad.

    Ultimately, it's the quality of your work that's gotten you where you are... and it will continue to make a way for you. Hopefully your patrons and fans will be wise enough to read the work in its proper context, and this project is a successful one for you. It's certainly a worthy subject!

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts-- I whole heartedly agree.

  3. We live in a culture where celebrity and sexual prowess is valued above all else. Modesty is looked down upon as being backward and old fashioned.
    We are all free to make our own choices, but some of us are too young to understand what the long term consequences will be.