A feminist response to moral panic around girls’ ‘boner garage’ Instagram selfies

By Amy Dobson and Julia Coffey

The ‘boner garage’ hashtag is the latest in a long line of youth cultural trends circulating on popular media to have attracted mainstream attention, and was the subject of an article this week by Nikki Gemmell in The Australian. Panic over girls’ media practices and self-representation is not new: young women’s media practices and self-representation has been hotly contested for a long time now (see Renold & Ringrose 2013). What is consistent across recent panics over (for example) cam girls (Dobson, 2008), SNS profile pics, sexting, and girls’ selfies is concern for the safety and psycho-social wellbeing of girls and how they image themselves, especially in relation to sexuality (see for eg, Ringrose et al, 2013; Thiel-Stern, 2014; Dobson, 2014; Hendry 2014).

For women and girls, sexual objectification is still a large part of the message about what it means to be female and socialized as feminine. Increasingly, in the postfeminist era, cultural discourses call upon young women to ‘choose’ to sexually objectify themselves in order to participate in social life as an agent—to show that one is not weak/passive but ‘liberated’, cool, and ‘up for it’ (Gill, 2007). The boner-garage tattoo-bearing sex worker depicted in the film that started this trend is precisely an example of a new stereotype about women as ‘choosing’ and ‘enjoying’ sex work and traditionally masculinized scripts of sexuality. We do not mean to suggest in any essentialist way that no women enjoy sex work and scripts of heterosexuality based around the fetishization of power difference between masculinity and femininity (Dyer, 1997; see also Albury, 2002 for discussion of this). Rather, we mean to highlight that the character of the ‘happy-but-dumb stripper’ in this particular film is a particularly two-dimensional and sexist stereotype of a sex worker.

The difference in public reaction to boys’ and girls’ sexualized and bodily images should tell us that what this matter boils down to is concern for sexual violence against girls and women. Yet this does not seem to be apparent in media discussions (exemplified by Gemmel’s piece) over girls’ media practices. There is no focus in Gemmel’s article on the young men beyond a vague suggestion that they will inevitably disrespect a ‘boner garage’ girl. The implication is ‘boys will be boys, what did you expect?’ This sort of approach – where girls must manage their bodies carefully to avoid awakening an unruly and potentially dangerous male sexual appetite –implicitly normalises, and hence condones young men to behave badly (violently, degradingly) ‘as expected’. There is a sense in Gemmel’s piece that girls who post boner-garage pics are not only naïve; they are ‘asking’ to be treated badly and hence deserve whatever (always assumed to be bad) thing that follows. This is yet another example of the ethics of normative masculinity, and young men’s behaviour, being left alone as ‘inevitable’ and excusable, while young women are implored to act with ‘self respect’ so others may be encouraged to do the same (Dobson and Ringrose, 2015).

As Amy argues in her forthcoming book (Dobson, 2015), girls and women can and do represent themselves publicly online in traditionally ‘heterosexy’, gender-typical ways that some commentators would call ‘self-objectification’ and this does not mean they are any less deserving of respectful, ethical treatment. We need to respect the bodily integrity of all girls and young women a priori, no exceptions.

In another front-page article in this same edition of the Australian on children’s ‘sexualised’ behaviour online, cyber ‘safety’ expert Susan Maclean states that pressure from boys on girls to post sexual self-images is the ‘No 1 issue’ she deals with. She goes on to say, however, that ‘you will also find that sexually overt girls are often targeting the nice, respectful boy you want your daughter to marry—they’re bombarding them with images’ (Bita, 2015). This is an example of the sexist dichotomy by which we still judge boys as either ‘respectful’ or ‘predatory’ and girls as ‘sluts’ or virginal ‘protectors of morality’ (Summers, 2002). And we would suggest this discourse makes youth online less safe.

Public opinion is starting to change around victim-blaming responses in relation to violence against women and girls.The slut walk movement (see Ringrose and Renold, 2012) made some headway in this area. We have also seen strong social media push-back over other recent incidents where male police officers have told women they should not be out alone. Yet, when it comes to social media use we are still quite happy to ‘blame the victim’: we tell young women to be careful, to watch what they post; to police their own sexuality; and not to buy into ‘pornified’ cultural stereotypes that supposedly harm them psychologically. We worry that for them, sexual self-representation that some adults judge as ‘self-objectifying’ equates to psychological damage. Essentially, we turn a blind-eye to the social scripts of masculinity that make us think girls who mark themselves through social media selfies as sexually available/interested in heterosex might be vulnerable to physical or psychological ‘damage’ from such. We turn a blind eye to male violence against girls and women, and instead, tell 13 year old girls to police themselves sexually and watch how they present their own bodies publicly.

The meanings of images or of gender are not stable, fixed or essential. They exist in the specific contexts of our current society and are shaped by our cultural norms and our past. Societies differ enormously across cultures, between places and in different time periods. Gender norms, as we currently recognise them in Western societies like Australia, are socially constructed, which means they can be changed. What Gemmel’s piece (and the comments below – though we recommend you avoid them!) tells us about current gender norms is that young women’s bodies are vulnerable (Coffey & Watson 2015), that they themselves are naïve and that their sexualities, and bodies, do not belong to them. Young women’s bodies are up for debate as a topic of public concern; men’s bodies and behaviours in this space are not. If we are really trying to address sexual and gender violence, this focus has to change.

Asking girls to police themselves in this case continues to construct the meaning of ‘boner garage’ as a shameful symbol of a girls’ sexuality, read as a wish to be ‘promiscuous’. Why is promiscuity considered shameful still for women? The answer is, it’s not, by many people! However it is still tied up with a concern for the young female body as ‘at risk’ of pregnancy, STIs and sexualisation by the media (Coffey & Watson 2014). Young women’s sexuality continues to be popularly understood as fraught with risk, rather than related to pleasure. Many experts in sex education highlight this, and advocate the importance of girls’ sexual exploration in terms of getting in touch with feelings of desire and experimenting with pleasure. Adding more positive messages of sexual embodiment for girls, alongside a focus on gender relations and power, is considered best practice by many experts in sex education, and also links with efforts in violence prevention (see Tolman, 2002; Hasinoff, 2015; also see recent work by Emma Renold).

When we mark ‘promiscuity’ (a gendered term) for girls as shameful/victimising/damaging, we contribute to a broader cultural discourse that authorises sexual violence against women who are perceived in this way, for whatever reason. And particularly against marginalised women—sex workers, women whose bodies have historically been constructed as ‘hypersexual’ or in sexual service of men including Black women, Asian women, and lesbian women.

Boner garage is tied up with this: at the same time as many girls choose to upload selfies with this phrase, many do not choose this and still have their images posted by peers as pranks/jokes. For many youth this will be harmless fun, explorations of sexuality, identity, bonding, etc. But it’s not fun if adults constitute it as symbol of shame and damage/victimhood. Whether girls take and upload the image themselves or not, girls have no control over how others read their images. We as adults do have control over the cultural narratives we invest images with. We can choose not to read these images as shameful signs of ‘victimhood’. And we have a responsibility to do so in order to protect girls and women from violence.

Youth themselves see multiple ways of reading this symbol, and often may be considered humorous, non-sexual, and simple play and discovery. We suggest adults who care about the well-being of young people would do well to leave it open for them to play with and not be so quick to invest girls’ images with their own concerns.

And can we please remember:
If seeing a 13yr old girl post this phrase makes you wince for her safety and well-being, then that says we need to do something about male violence and the social scripts of masculinity that make us worry about her future sexual encounters with men. In our ideal world, girls could write on and photograph their own bodies however they want. If it’s not ‘boner garage’ it will be something else sexual teenage girls are doing that causes adults to worry about their psychological wellbeing and physical safety, as long as rates of violence against women and girls remains high. Let’s stop asking 13 year old girls to change their behaviour and focus on changing the world around them.

References:

Albury, K. (2002). Yes means yes: getting explicit about heterosex. St Leonards, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.

Bita, Natasha, 2015. Click-bait: kids at risk as sexualised behaviour becomes ‘new normal’. The Weekend Australian, May 30-31.

Coffey, J. & Watson, J. (2014) ‘Bodies: Corporeality and Embodiment in Childhood and Youth Studies’ in Wyn, J. & Cahill, H., Handbook of Children and Youth Studies, Springer: New York.

Dobson, A.S. (forthcoming, Sept 2015). Postfeminist Digital Cultures: Femininity, Social Media, and Self-Representation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dobson, A. S. (2014). Performative shamelessness on young women’s social network sites: Shielding the self and resisting gender melancholia. Feminism & Psychology, 24(1), 97-114. doi: 10.1177/0959353513510651

Dobson, A. S., & Ringrose, J. (2015). Sext Education: Pedagogies of sex, gender and shame in the schoolyards of Tagged and Exposed. Sex Education.

Dyer, R. (1997). ‘Heterosexuality’ in Medhurst, A. & Munt, S. (Eds.) (1997). Lesbian and gay studies: A critical introduction. London & Washington: Cassell.

Gemmell, Nikki, 2015. ‘Boner Garage’ girls, my heart breaks for you. The Weekend Australian, May 30-31.

Gill, R. (2007). Gender and the media. Cambridge; Malden: Polity Press.

Hasinoff, A. A. (2015). Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent.

Hendry, N. (2014) ‘Selfies as pedagogy: Young people x mental illness x social media’, paper presented at How the ‘selfie’ performs across time and place, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, Vic., 15 October 2014.

Renold, E. & Ringrose, J. (2013) ‘Feminisms re-figuring ‘sexualisation’: sexuality and ‘the girl’, Feminist Theory 14(3) 247–254

Ringrose, J., & Renold, E. (2012). Slut-shaming, girl power and ‘sexualisation’: thinking through the politics of the international SlutWalks with teen girls. Gender and Education, 24(3), 333-343. doi: 10.1080/09540253.2011.645023

Ringrose, J., Harvey, L., Gill, R., & Livingstone, S. (2013). Teen girls, sexual double standards and ‘sexting’: Gendered value in digital image exchange. Feminist Theory, 14(3), 305-323. doi: 10.1177/1464700113499853

Summers, A. (2002). Damned Whores and God’s Police. Penguin Books.

Thiel-Stern, S. (2014). From the Dance Hall to Facebook: Teen Girls, Mass Media, and Moral Panic in the United States, 1905–2010. Amherst; Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

Tolman, D. L. (2002). Dilemmas of desire: teenage girls talk about sexuality. Cambridge, Mass; London: Harvard University Press.

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About tasayouth

Blog of the Australian Sociological Association's Youth Thematic Group
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2 Responses to A feminist response to moral panic around girls’ ‘boner garage’ Instagram selfies

  1. Pingback: Resources on selfies | wishcrys

  2. rocky says:

    hmmmm, anyone else remember Madonna and her “boy toy” shirt with its arrow pointing to the same region back in the day? the more times change….What was the consensus back then? Seems the Cyrus’s and Rhianna’s are selling the same old shtick to young impressionable girls all over again. Was it empowering when Madonna did it? but not now?

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