Scholium on Sexting and Cyberbullying: Consuming Children

After delivering a paper on cyberbullying and sexting at Theorizing the Web 2014 last month I was asked an interesting question from the audience: was I arguing for mobile phones as a contemporary zone of privacy for the child?

My improvised response at the time was to somewhat recalibrate my discussion of mobile phones by accenting the genealogical mode in which I was discussing children’s sexuality in my paper. I replied that mobile phones have become the latest zone of struggle over the necessarily hybrid function that the modern family serves, but that I had no investment myself in declaring them to be either private or public, nor to assign any preformed concept of “agency” to children texting on their phones. Indeed, to this point, the most focused discussion of mobile phones in my paper had revolved around an analysis of private spyware software marketed to parents to install on their children’s phones in order to conduct erotic investigations of their ostensibly “secret” lives online and in texts.

The question nevertheless stuck with me in its excellent diagnosis of how children’s sexuality and technological conduct are adjudicated and governed. In my paper I had leaned on a passage from Foucault’s Collège de France lectures, Abnormal:

the child’s sexual body serves as the unit, so to speak, of exchange.  Parents are told: There is something in the child’s body that belongs imprescriptibly to you and that you will never have to give up because it will never abandon you: their sexuality.  The child’s sexual body belongs, and will always belong, to the family space, and no one else will ever have any power over or claim on this body.  However, when we create for you this field of power so total and complete, we ask you to give us in return your children’s bodies, or, if you prefer, their abilities.

Here, Foucault helps us understand that a discourse on children’s sexuality is invented in Europe in the nineteenth century to serve as a vital manifold between the public and private spheres, interlocking two regions of disciplinary and biopower in order to reciprocally intensify one another: on the one hand, children’s bodies are obtained for the uses of the state in education and later the workforce (generating value); on the other hand, by letting children’s sexuality endlessly return to the familial scene (think of so many Oedipal complexes rehearsed on psychoanalyst’s couches, to be sure, but also more banal visits to the doctor by anxious parents hoping to confirm whether or not their child is growing up properly and healthy), adults are given a sense of authority over children that cannot be extinguished either. (In the United States, for instance, the Fourteenth Amendment has been interpreted to include a right to “parental autonomy” according to which parents retain the ultimate privilege in punishment, pedagogy and governance). The very point of this system is to continually play one zone of governance against the other, in a spiral of intensifying extension of the global discourse on children’s sexuality.

As the issue of mobile phones enters into this transfer point between public and private in an issue like cyberbullying or sexting, we see very clearly the focus placed on the child’s sexuality as unit of exchange: either children’s bad behavior is to be punished by the law and school administrators, or else by parents, and it often shuttles back and forth between the two. Who is ultimately “responsible” for child sexting and cyberbullying endlessly rehearses arguments for attributing culpability to one and then the other side, without resolution (see the very interesting criminal case on children sexting, Miller v Skumanick [2009]). Foucault reminds us that it is a mistake, genealogically, to take at face value the subjective experience of sexuality as private, meaning that so too would it be to argue “for” mobile phones as a private space for children. There is no such pure function for children’s sexuality, it is always a hybrid entity.

And yet this pedagogical discourse on children’s sexuality, I would add, in finessing Foucault’s point, is complicated by a rival historical discourse of American consumerism. As modern children and adolescents were carefully educated over the twentieth century to become the most important national consumer demographic, installing an entire cultural apparatus around the buying habits of youth, a tension that is cresting with mobile phones today began to take root. The more and more children were endowed with a market-legitimated consumer power, the more their sexuality (and now gender identity) came to be understood as an expression of a consumer identity (think about the extent to which the popular version of the theory of gender performativity does not depart from this understanding of the self-made consuming subject).  The most effective way for self-possession as individualism to accrue to children and adolescents has been to couch gender and sexuality as kinds of private property that adults are not allowed to take away from children (at least, not entirely).  Hence, a tension now exists in issues of sexting or cyberbullying between Foucault’s version of “unit of exchange” and the demand on the part of children to be consumers of their own sexuality (and gender identity).  It is within the context of this tension that battles over children’s use of mobile phones must be understood.

For this reason it is strangely naive to adapt an adult-derived theory of subjectivity to children and describe them as somehow eminently or inherently queer in their participation in the education of desire that is American consumer culture, as Jack Halberstam does in a chapter on box office animated films in The Queer Art of Failure. Instead, we might understand that the child’s sexuality and gender sit yet again at the manifold between two mirroring discourses of government, one in which adults decide what is best for the child, and the other in which children decide what truly expresses their selves. Neither can but alternate endlessly to describe the “truth.”

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