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Amy Adele Hasinoff: How to practice safe sexting

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Sexting, like anything that's fun, runs its risks -- but a serious violation of privacy shouldn't be one of them. Amy Adele Hasinoff looks at problematic responses to sexting in mass media, law and education, offering practical solutions for how individuals and tech companies can protect sensitive (and, ahem, potentially scandalous) digital files.

- Communications researcher
Amy Adele Hasinoff studies gender, sexuality, privacy and consent in new media. Full bio

People have been using media
to talk about sex for a long time.
00:12
Love letters, phone sex, racy Polaroids.
00:17
There's even a story of a girl who eloped
with a man that she met over the telegraph
00:21
in 1886.
00:27
Today we have sexting,
and I am a sexting expert.
00:30
Not an expert sexter.
00:35
Though, I do know what this means --
I think you do too.
00:38
[it's a penis]
00:43
(Laughter)
00:44
I have been studying sexting since
the media attention to it began in 2008.
00:48
I wrote a book on the moral
panic about sexting.
00:54
And here's what I found:
00:57
most people are worrying
about the wrong thing.
00:59
They're trying to just prevent
sexting from happening entirely.
01:02
But let me ask you this:
01:06
As long as it's completely consensual,
what's the problem with sexting?
01:08
People are into all sorts of things
that you may not be into,
01:13
like blue cheese or cilantro.
01:17
(Laughter)
01:19
Sexting is certainly risky,
like anything that's fun,
01:22
but as long as you're not sending an image
to someone who doesn't want to receive it,
01:26
there's no harm.
01:33
What I do think is a serious problem
01:35
is when people share
private images of others
01:37
without their permission.
01:41
And instead of worrying about sexting,
01:43
what I think we need to do
is think a lot more about digital privacy.
01:45
The key is consent.
01:50
Right now most people
are thinking about sexting
01:53
without really thinking
about consent at all.
01:57
Did you know that we currently
criminalize teen sexting?
02:00
It can be a crime because
it counts as child pornography,
02:05
if there's an image of someone under 18,
02:08
and it doesn't even matter
02:11
if they took that image of themselves
and shared it willingly.
02:13
So we end up with this
bizarre legal situation
02:17
where two 17-year-olds
can legally have sex in most US states
02:20
but they can't photograph it.
02:25
Some states have also tried
passing sexting misdemeanor laws
02:28
but these laws repeat the same problem
02:32
because they still
make consensual sexting illegal.
02:35
It doesn't make sense
02:40
to try to ban all sexting
to try to address privacy violations.
02:41
This is kind of like saying,
02:46
let's solve the problem of date rape
by just making dating completely illegal.
02:48
Most teens don't get arrested for sexting,
but can you guess who does?
02:55
It's often teens who are disliked
by their partner's parents.
03:00
And this can be because of class bias,
racism or homophobia.
03:05
Most prosecutors are,
of course, smart enough
03:10
not to use child pornography charges
against teenagers, but some do.
03:13
According to researchers
at the University of New Hampshire
03:19
seven percent of all child pornography
possession arrests are teens,
03:23
sexting consensually with other teens.
03:29
Child pornography is a serious crime,
03:33
but it's just not
the same thing as teen sexting.
03:36
Parents and educators
are also responding to sexting
03:41
without really thinking
too much about consent.
03:44
Their message to teens is often:
just don't do it.
03:47
And I totally get it --
there are serious legal risks
03:52
and of course, that potential
for privacy violations.
03:55
And when you were a teen,
03:59
I'm sure you did exactly
as you were told, right?
04:00
You're probably thinking,
my kid would never sext.
04:05
And that's true, your little angel
may not be sexting
04:08
because only 33 percent
04:12
of 16- and 17-year-olds are sexting.
04:15
But, sorry, by the time they're older,
odds are they will be sexting.
04:19
Every study I've seen puts the rate
above 50 percent for 18- to 24-year-olds.
04:23
And most of the time, nothing goes wrong.
04:30
People ask me all the time things like,
isn't sexting just so dangerous, though?
04:33
It's like you wouldn't
leave your wallet on a park bench
04:39
and you expect it's going to get stolen
if you do that, right?
04:42
Here's how I think about it:
04:46
sexting is like leaving your wallet
at your boyfriend's house.
04:48
If you come back the next day
04:52
and all the money is just gone,
04:54
you really need to dump that guy.
04:57
(Laughter)
04:59
So instead of criminalizing sexting
05:03
to try to prevent
these privacy violations,
05:05
instead we need to make consent central
05:08
to how we think about the circulation
of our private information.
05:11
Every new media technology
raises privacy concerns.
05:16
In fact, in the US the very first
major debates about privacy
05:20
were in response to technologies
that were relatively new at the time.
05:25
In the late 1800s,
people were worried about cameras,
05:29
which were just suddenly
more portable than ever before,
05:33
and newspaper gossip columns.
05:37
They were worried that the camera
would capture information about them,
05:39
take it out of context
and widely disseminate it.
05:43
Does this sound familiar?
05:47
It's exactly what we're worrying about
now with social media and drone cameras,
05:48
and, of course, sexting.
05:53
And these fears about technology,
05:55
they make sense
05:58
because technologies
can amplify and bring out
05:59
our worst qualities and behaviors.
06:02
But there are solutions.
06:06
And we've been here before
with a dangerous new technology.
06:08
In 1908, Ford introduced the Model T car.
06:12
Traffic fatality rates were rising.
06:16
It was a serious problem --
it looks so safe, right?
06:19
Our first response
was to try to change drivers' behavior,
06:24
so we developed speed limits
and enforced them through fines.
06:28
But over the following decades,
06:32
we started to realize the technology
of the car itself is not just neutral.
06:34
We could design the car to make it safer.
06:39
So in the 1920s, we got
shatter-resistant windshields.
06:42
In the 1950s, seat belts.
06:46
And in the 1990s, airbags.
06:48
All three of these areas:
06:52
laws, individuals and industry
came together over time
06:54
to help solve the problem
that a new technology causes.
06:59
And we can do the same thing
with digital privacy.
07:03
Of course, it comes back to consent.
07:07
Here's the idea.
07:10
Before anyone can distribute
your private information,
07:11
they should have to get your permission.
07:15
This idea of affirmative consent
comes from anti-rape activists
07:18
who tell us that we need consent
for every sexual act.
07:23
And we have really high standards
for consent in a lot of other areas.
07:26
Think about having surgery.
07:31
Your doctor has to make sure
07:33
that you are meaningfully and knowingly
consenting to that medical procedure.
07:35
This is not the type of consent
like with an iTunes Terms of Service
07:39
where you just scroll to the bottom
and you're like, agree, agree, whatever.
07:43
(Laughter)
07:46
If we think more about consent,
we can have better privacy laws.
07:49
Right now, we just don't have
that many protections.
07:54
If your ex-husband or your ex-wife
is a terrible person,
07:57
they can take your nude photos
and upload them to a porn site.
08:01
It can be really hard
to get those images taken down.
08:05
And in a lot of states,
08:08
you're actually better off
if you took the images of yourself
08:10
because then you can
file a copyright claim.
08:14
(Laughter)
08:17
Right now, if someone
violates your privacy,
08:19
whether that's an individual
or a company or the NSA,
08:22
you can try filing a lawsuit,
08:27
though you may not be successful
08:30
because many courts assume
that digital privacy is just impossible.
08:32
So they're not willing
to punish anyone for violating it.
08:37
I still hear people
asking me all the time,
08:41
isn't a digital image somehow blurring
the line between public and private
08:44
because it's digital, right?
08:49
No! No!
08:51
Everything digital
is not just automatically public.
08:52
That doesn't make any sense.
08:56
As NYU legal scholar
Helen Nissenbaum tells us,
08:58
we have laws and policies and norms
09:01
that protect all kinds
of information that's private,
09:04
and it doesn't make a difference
if it's digital or not.
09:07
All of your health records are digitized
09:11
but your doctor can't
just share them with anyone.
09:13
All of your financial information
is held in digital databases,
09:16
but your credit card company can't
just post your purchase history online.
09:21
Better laws could help address
privacy violations after they happen,
09:27
but one of the easiest things
we can all do is make personal changes
09:32
to help protect each other's privacy.
09:36
We're always told that privacy
09:40
is our own, sole,
individual responsibility.
09:42
We're told, constantly monitor
and update your privacy settings.
09:45
We're told, never share anything
you wouldn't want the entire world to see.
09:49
This doesn't make sense.
09:55
Digital media are social environments
09:56
and we share things
with people we trust all day, every day.
09:59
As Princeton researcher
Janet Vertesi argues,
10:04
our data and our privacy,
they're not just personal,
10:07
they're actually interpersonal.
10:11
And so one thing you can do
that's really easy
10:14
is just start asking for permission before
you share anyone else's information.
10:17
If you want to post a photo
of someone online, ask for permission.
10:22
If you want to forward an email thread,
10:27
ask for permission.
10:29
And if you want to share
someone's nude selfie,
10:31
obviously, ask for permission.
10:34
These individual changes can really
help us protect each other's privacy,
10:37
but we need technology companies
on board as well.
10:42
These companies have very little
incentive to help protect our privacy
10:46
because their business models
depend on us sharing everything
10:50
with as many people as possible.
10:54
Right now, if I send you an image,
10:57
you can forward that
to anyone that you want.
10:59
But what if I got to decide
if that image was forwardable or not?
11:02
This would tell you, you don't
have my permission to send this image out.
11:06
We do this kind of thing all the time
to protect copyright.
11:10
If you buy an e-book, you can't just
send it out to as many people as you want.
11:14
So why not try this with mobile phones?
11:19
What you can do is we can demand
that tech companies add these protections
11:22
to our devices and our platforms
as the default.
11:27
After all, you can choose
the color of your car,
11:31
but the airbags are always standard.
11:34
If we don't think more
about digital privacy and consent,
11:40
there can be serious consequences.
11:43
There was a teenager from Ohio --
11:47
let's call her Jennifer,
for the sake of her privacy.
11:49
She shared nude photos of herself
with her high school boyfriend,
11:53
thinking she could trust him.
11:56
Unfortunately, he betrayed her
11:59
and sent her photos
around the entire school.
12:01
Jennifer was embarrassed and humiliated,
12:04
but instead of being compassionate,
her classmates harassed her.
12:08
They called her a slut and a whore
12:12
and they made her life miserable.
12:14
Jennifer started missing school
and her grades dropped.
12:17
Ultimately, Jennifer decided
to end her own life.
12:21
Jennifer did nothing wrong.
12:26
All she did was share a nude photo
12:29
with someone she thought
that she could trust.
12:31
And yet our laws tell her
12:34
that she committed a horrible crime
equivalent to child pornography.
12:37
Our gender norms tell her
12:41
that by producing
this nude image of herself,
12:43
she somehow did the most
horrible, shameful thing.
12:46
And when we assume that privacy
is impossible in digital media,
12:50
we completely write off and excuse
her boyfriend's bad, bad behavior.
12:54
People are still saying all the time
to victims of privacy violations,
13:01
"What were you thinking?
13:06
You should have never sent that image."
13:08
If you're trying to figure out
what to say instead, try this.
13:11
Imagine you've run into your friend
who broke their leg skiing.
13:16
They took a risk to do something fun,
and it didn't end well.
13:20
But you're probably
not going to be the jerk who says,
13:24
"Well, I guess you shouldn't
have gone skiing then."
13:27
If we think more about consent,
13:32
we can see that victims
of privacy violations
13:34
deserve our compassion,
13:37
not criminalization, shaming,
harassment or punishment.
13:39
We can support victims,
and we can prevent some privacy violations
13:44
by making these legal,
individual and technological changes.
13:48
Because the problem is not sexting,
the issue is digital privacy.
13:53
And one solution is consent.
13:59
So the next time a victim
of a privacy violation comes up to you,
14:02
instead of blaming them,
let's do this instead:
14:07
let's shift our ideas
about digital privacy,
14:10
and let's respond with compassion.
14:13
Thank you.
14:16
(Applause)
14:17

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About the Speaker:

Amy Adele Hasinoff - Communications researcher
Amy Adele Hasinoff studies gender, sexuality, privacy and consent in new media.

Why you should listen

Amy Adele Hasinoff investigates how we think about communication technologies as both the cause of and solution to social problems. She wrote a book, Sexting Panic, about the well-intentioned but problematic responses to sexting in mass media, law and education. The National Communication Association described it as "[T]he rare book that advances scholarly conversations while also promising to enrich family conversations around the dinner table."

Hasinoff is an Assistant Professor in the communication department at the University of Colorado Denver. She publishes regularly in scholarly journals and books and wrote an op-ed about sexting for the New York Times.

More profile about the speaker
Amy Adele Hasinoff | Speaker | TED.com