In spite of the growing literature on girlhood, tweenhood has received scant academic attention. It has been only in the last decade that the concept of tween girls, aged roughly between 7 and 13, has been seen to be noteworthy enough to attract attention and spark debate (Jackson and Vares 2015). Leading-edge studies have contributed to the literature by tracking the emergence of the tween (McGladrey 2014), highlighting how media industries began to define girls as tweens (Coulter 2014), and uncovering how those media texts that are key to tween culture, like, for instance Hannah Montana (2006–2011), construct certain feminine positions that put pressure on tween girls to perform femininity in a certain way (Kennedy in press). More importantly, these studies have pointed to the contradictory discourses about girlhood (Attwood et al. 2017) and, as a consequence, girls’ struggles with performing femininity.
Following that train of thought, feminist studies have begun not only to analyze whether or not tween girls are susceptible to being influenced by sexualized media representations, but also to uncover whether or not social media as well as celebrities’ hypersexualized performances have pushed girls into early sexual behaviour (Jackson et al. 2012; MacDonald 2016).
In this light, I discuss the practice of tween girls’ sexting their male significant others or female friends. In doing so, I start from the claim that the attention media is paying to the legal and ethical implications behind the act of sexting seems to have contributed to a distorted view of why female tweens sext. Using material from small group guided discussions with 53 British tween girls (aged 11 to 13) as my data, I attempt to give a full account of this community of practice. More specifically, this study explores the discursive self-presentation of this group of tween girls in an attempt to throw further light on the way(s) in which they perform an ideology while asserting their sexual agency. In doing so, this article contributes to the debate on reconsidering the assumptions behind sexualization and choice (Dobson 2015), and also on problematizing, as does Amy Hasinoff (2014), the rather one-dimensional understanding of tween girls as passive victims of sexualization.
Tween Girls: Legal Considerations of Sexting
As debates in the mass media, law, and (feminist) digital media studies have highlighted, young adolescents seem to have developed a special interest in posting sexual images and texting sexual messages as part of their current sexual practices as Cheryl Schloms-Madlener (2013) has pointed out. As a result, an emergent literature has brought to light two main issues. First, popular media and legal debates appear to have difficulty in differentiating between adolescents’ consensual sexual use of mobile media and their misuse of social media to sexually harass others (Karaian 2012). Second, most of the studies put the focus on girls as young as 7 to 10 years of age (Mitchell et al. 2012) who swap these electronic pictures and texts with their male significant others and also with other casual partners as Wendy Manning et al. (2005) reminds us. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that girls’ transition to sexual womanhood, on the one hand, has attracted concern and fuelled legislation, and, on the other, has garnered scholars’ attention, promoting research on the commodification of the premature sexualization of these girls.
The resulting legal considerations are not without contradiction. Even though child pornography is considered child pornography regardless of the fact that the victim and the perpetrator may be the same person (DeFalco 2009), an increasing body of legal research has identified and highlighted the variety of, and sometimes contradictory, punishments imposed on young girls for sending nude photos of themselves (Lunceford 2011). In spite of this growing body of research, there remains much uncertainty about the interrelationships between tweenhood, sexual agency, and dominant purportedly sexualized culture (Hasinoff 2015). All this is to say that, following Joseph Dake at al. (2012) there is a real need for evidence that such attention surrounding sexting has placed an excessive burden on tween girls who are constantly asked to tackle the negative effects of early sexualization.
In response to this, my study builds on the argument of Rosalind Gill et al. (2011) and Jackson et al. (2012), that tween girls’ apparent passivity and lack of agency needs to be interrogated. More specifically, I build on Emma Renold and Jessica Ringrose’s claim about “the presumed/wished for linear developmental transition between girl to woman in relation to post-feminist discourses and moral panics over girls, sexuality and sexualisation” (2011: 391). I develop their argument by exploring how “schizoid subjectivities” (389) seem to shape experiences of femininity and also by considering how a group of tween girls construct, negotiate, and navigate multiple feminine identities in the context of sexting. Here I argue that consensual sexting cannot be reduced to self-expression as one the ways these young girls may perform their gendered online identity. Instead, it may be understood, in spite of societal anxieties about girls, as a voluntary mode of tween sexual self-expression.
This project grew out of an identified need for research to problematize the supposed sexualization of tweens and critically analyze the “schizoid pushes and pulls [that] operate as one of the new normative conditions” (Renold and Ringrose 2011: 393) that tween girls have to navigate. Methodologically speaking, I build on the claims of Jackson and Vares that “a particular challenging task for researchers in any area of sexuality research with girls is devising ways to open up opportunities and spaces for girls to speak from positions outside the regulatory” (2015: 83) and I take up the challenge by including the voices of tween girls in the study of sexting. As Murray Lee and Thomas Crofts (2015) rightly note, research into sexting is most commonly done through hard-copy questionnaires that attempt to evaluate the behaviour of teenagers or through internet-based or telephone surveys that focus on participants’ perceptions about sexting rather than on their own (sexual) practices.
To my knowledge, no work has been grounded in the first-hand accounts of how tween girls construct, negotiate, and navigate their sexual gendered identities in the context of sexting, so my study incorporates the voices of a group of girls and uses a qualitative method including focus groups (4 to 5 per group) to gain insight into the characteristics of sexualized tween cyberculture by analyzing this group of tweens’ discourses about sexting, the effects on their lives and its implications, and the narratives extracted from individual interviews during which their online habits were discussed.
This article is part of an on-going project that I am conducting as part of a conflict resolution programme in four different secondary schools in the north of England (García-Gómez 2017). The 68 female teenagers who had already taken part in a previous study were urged to invite their younger sisters, aged between 10 and 13, to attend an information session about the project. Of the 84 tweens who attended one of the information sessions, the parents of 53 of them signed the consent form for the research to take place after their daughters had also agreed to take part in the study. Participants in the study included 9 girls aged 11, 40 girls aged 12, and 4 girls aged 13. Even though the catchment for the girls’ schools is predominantly white lower-middle class and the population has low socio-economic status, all the participants classified themselves as white middle-class. In accordance with Beverly Skeggs (1997), this shows that these girls still relate middle-class status to respectable femininity.
The intention to study tweens’ narrations of consensual sexting posed an ethical question regarding the potential implications of analyzing these narratives given the age of the participants. It is worth mentioning that their parents had previously taken part in an anti-bullying programme with their older daughters and they were fully aware of the prevalence of youth sexting. Given that their younger daughters were already using social networks to present images of themselves, parents seemed to understand this research as an opportunity to model healthy and responsible mobile phone use as well as an opportunity to raise awareness of the dangers to their daughters of sending and distributing pictures of their naked bodies.
In spite of having parental consent, we had, of course, an ethical responsibility as researchers. First, we ensured the anonymity and, therefore, the privacy of the girls in our using their self-selected pseudonyms and in offering no personal references.
Second, with regard to my analytical and ethical position, my focus is on these girls’ narratives and the implications for social change. Even though these narratives are an opportunity for reflection and for identity work, I adopted a social constructionist orientation so these girls’ narrations provided a context for them to engage in a relationship talk and tell me something about the cultural norms and, possibly, the community of practice norms that are attended to or challenged in this peer group of tween girls who sext.
As I mentioned above, both parents and their daughters were first given a talk about tweens’ social media habits. After this first talk and once parents had already signed the consent form for the research, small focus group discussions (4 to 5 participants per group) were held to debate questions like the risks of sexting, with each lasting between 50 minutes and an hour. These guided discussions were conducted by two teachers and a psychologist who spoke with the groups of girls about their relationships with social networks, and were aimed at finding out about their social media habits. Although I was present at all these discussions, I acted as a mere observer so as not to interfere with the natural flow of the session. It is worth pointing out that these guided discussions unfolded naturally with little intervention, except when a hot point was discussed and either a teacher or the psychologist had to intervene so as to give the floor to a particular participant and make sure that everyone had an opportunity to speak her mind.
After I transcribed and carried out a content-analysis of their narratives in line with John Creswell (2009), personal interviews were held with the participants in order to gain details and identify any possible variations in their self-presentations as offered in their guided discussion interviews. Each interview lasted 30 minutes. These personal interviews were also recorded and transcribed.
The resulting data consisted of 31, 456 utterances and a total of 32 hours and 10 minutes of recorded material. A preliminary content-analysis was carried out as a data organization tool: relationship with the new media and social networks; awareness of what sexting is; the use of their mobile phones; and analysis of the effects of these uses.
Using a feminist poststructuralist approach, I undertook a detailed discourse analysis of these girls’ self-presentations in their narratives. In what follows, I attempt to offer new insight into what Renold and Ringrose (2011) think of as the schizoid double pull that seems to operate in the way(s) in which these tween girls construct their (multiple) femininities in the context of sexting.
The discourse analysis of the girls’ narratives reveals that their self-presentations are regulated through “an age discourse of sexual appropriateness” (Jackson and Vares 2015: 82), which is premised on enacting respectable femininity.
In late capitalist societies femininity has become an even more ‘impossible space’ for girls and young women to occupy under contradictory postfeminist conditions where apparent sexual freedoms, amongst others, are clawed back by abiding middle-class respectable femininity and the regulatory discourse of the slut.(83)
I sometimes take naked pictures of myself when I’m feeling silly or simply bored and it’s great fun, but I’d never send those pictures to anyone.(13-year-old Bethany)
… (laughing) it’s a girl thing. We like posing and all the rest of it, but we’d never send a picture of our boobs to a guy.(They all nod.) (13-year-old Tori)
I do the same. I have a folder on my computer with nude pics of myself, but guys are … um … different. They are really into it and they’re always trying to pressure us to send them pics and hot messages, but we are like we don’t care.(Bethany)
Boys start texting you and asking you … um … you know things and there’s no way I do this and in the end you have to block them on WhatsApp (They all laugh.)(12-year-old Chloe)
Discursively speaking, this excerpt illustrates how the participants’ normatively prescribed age discourse is used to cast themselves in a positive and sympathetic light; they try to protect their feminine identity by underlining the “inappropriateness of sexual interest” (Jackson and Vares 2015: 90). In rejecting what they see as boys’ natural sexual self-awareness, they exploit what Danielle Egan (2013) thinks of as a childish and innocent attitude, and create a positive sense of in-group membership. This, in turn, allows them to enact respectable femininity. It can be argued that the girls’ narratives have a gendered normative dimension insofar as they prescribe a socially acceptable behaviour for girls and boys. Although they all admit having taking naked pictures of themselves, the girls’ evaluative beliefs about sending these pictures reflect the tension between their attitude towards sexting (“we are not interested,” and “you have to block them on WhatsApp,” along with “I ignored him all the way”) versus that of boys (“boys are … um … different. They are really into it and they’re always trying to pressure us to send them pics and hot messages, but we are like we don’t care”).
They’re all the same. A classmate once sent me naked pictures of himself and wanted me to do the same, but I ignored him all the way. (Tori)
We are not interested. They think they are older because they act that way.(Chloe)
Here I suggest that this collective self-presentation validates respectable femininity and also regulates relationships by evaluating the behavior of others as either socially acceptable or socially deviant. Interestingly enough, the discourse analysis of their evaluative beliefs reveals that the participants assume that adults assess this sexual practice negatively and their discursive self-presentation relies on the good/bad binary in relating to others. More particularly, they tend to contrast their behaviour to that of boys. For instance, consider the following two excerpts in which these 12-year-old girls (in the first one) and 11-year-old girls (in the second) narrate how often boys want them to sext and their parents’ reactions if they knew about this:
As the examples show, the enactment of respectable femininity is not based only on highlighting the inappropriateness of sexual interest, but is also emphasized by introducing their awareness of parental concerns (“My parents would kill me if they knew”) and showing the socially acceptable action (“I blocked him”). More specifically, this collective self-presentation as good girls achieves an evaluative function insofar as they attempt to regulate others’ behaviour by establishing normative behaviour; this age related discourse of sexual appropriateness can be regarded as an attempt to evaluate in-group (“I think, well, I don’t think girls our age are ready to have sex with guys yet’) and out-group behaviour (“Boys are just stupid they only worship their … you know”). The participants’ narratives aim to differentiate us (asexual children or, at least, those not interested in sex) against them (boys who are obsessed with sex).
Here I argue that the enactment of respectable femininity identified in the construction of the collective self allows the girls to create a sense of ingroupness and it also regulates the way they construct their own gendered sexuality (the individual self) and the way they relate to others (the relational self). In particular, the evaluative function that exists behind the enactment of respectable femininity is underscored when they compare themselves to other girls their age who send nude pictures of themselves and “do things with boys.” Consider the following excerpts in which these 13-year-old girls (first excerpt) and 12-year-old girls (second excerpt) describe what other girls do:
These two excerpts illustrate that the girls are aware of this current sexual practice and of how often boys and girls exchange nude pictures of themselves. The presence of a slut discourse reinforces the normative evaluative function behind the enactment of respectable femininity. In particular, the participants’ collective self-presentation as good girls is connected with the centrality of male sexuality and this conceptualization of sexual agency endorses the most common gender stereotypes that boys have a constant desire to have sex and that these other girls who show a different attitude towards sex are sluts. By self-presenting as good girls, they attempt to relate to and embed themselves within a socially acceptable in-group. This, in turn, allows them to be recognized and this legitimates their criticism of these other slutty girls. As Tiina Vares et al. rightly note, “This use of ‘slut’ also works to regulate young femininities through invoking the good/bad girl binary and reinforce frameworks that place women’s and girl’s sexuality into narrow and repressive categories” (2011: 148).
The discourse analysis of these girls’ self-presentations makes it possible to argue that the liminality of tweendom seems to enable these girls, on the one hand, to skew their ages down in order to inhabit the position of the good girl and, on the other, to skew their ages up in order to assert a kind of agency, consent, and sexual maturity. In other words, these girls seem to be able to make choices, discursively speaking, about why they sext insofar as their self-presentation can align with either the good girl discourse as previous research has already argued (Ringrose et al. 2013) or interrogate girls’ choices and the “supposed ideological passivity of girls” (Hasinoff 2014: 104) by being strikingly upfront when they are personally interviewed in openly describing sexting as part of their sexual practices.
Inspection of the small focus group discussions shows clear evidence that girls’ relationship to sexting is more complicated and negotiated than popular media claims. There is a competing interwoven discourse that reveals the struggle between showing what they consider to be socially approved behaviour appropriate to their age and the justification of those actions that they think adults may assess negatively.
During the personal interviews, 17 participants’ narratives illustrate competing and, sometimes, contradictory, self-presentation strategies. More specifically, the detailed analysis of these girls’ narratives reveals the existence of interwoven contradictory discourses that show the tensions between acceptance and the complete rejection of the age appropriate sexuality discourse they claimed in the focus group discussions. In other words, the participants’ narratives show the struggle between enacting respectable femininity and justifying any active desiring agency (Griffin 2004). The identification of these contradictory discourses suggests that these narratives create the space of “new forms of knowledge and practice” (Gill 2012: 737). Furthermore, the discourse analysis of these contradictory discourses contributes to the understanding of tween girls’ relationship to sexting insofar as it sheds further light on how those contradictory tensions seem to operate. To put it differently, the analysis gives further evidence that these girls’ enactment of respectful femininity and the sexual norms established among tweens can be, in Renold and Ringrose’s (2011) terms, “displaced” and “refixed.” In particular, discursively speaking, I would argue that the “schizoid pushes and pulls” (393) that these tween girls have to navigate have to do with their shifting self-representations that reflect the tension between the girls’ relational and collective selves to use Brewer and Gardner’s (1986) formulation. More precisely, I suggest that the relational self predominates as the basis for their self-presentations during the personal interviews in order to construct and negotiate their sexual feminine identity. This is shown in the following excerpt:
Bethany: I’ve always felt I’m a bit ugly, you know, sort of average in a bad way and I wanted to be … um … I wanted to be like these pop stars everyone admires … the first time I took a picture of my boobs I felt stupid you know but that was the time when Miley’s naked Instagram photos went viral and you know she’s my idol and I wanted to look like her … I’ve watched lots of tutorials on how to do my makeup so it looks incredible in pics. Internet is crowded with these kinda things. We all know what we have to do, besides, just because you had a fantasy doesn’t mean you need to act on it and I just wanted boys to like me just like any other girl.
As this excerpt shows, Bethany’s self-presentation as a good girl co-exists with inconsistencies in her narrative. In particular, the girl’s sexuality is regulated insofar as she seems to be constrained by expectations of conformity with notions of “good girl femininity” (Jackson and Vares 2015: 93). In addition, inspection of the data makes it possible to argue that these girls’ choices about sexting reflect the struggle between peer pressure (sexting as a “girl thing”) and social pressure caused by the need to live up to in-group social norms (looking good and sexy so as to be liked). It is such peer and social pressure that regulates the way these girls embody and express their gendered sexual identities, as evidenced by the following excerpts:
I didn’t really want to, but I got the Tinder app. All my friends kept saying that it was you know a way to meet boys and that you always have the last word … Then I started texting him and he made me feel I’m a woman and he asked me to send him some pics and I first said no, but he insisted and I asked my friends and they said there was nothing wrong with it. One night I was a bit drunk and … um … horny and I started taking selfies of my butt and boobs. I didn’t send him all these pics straight away but in the end I sent them and he kept saying how horny he was and I felt like a pop star. I’m not sending my pics to everyone. I know what I’m doing.(12-year-old Gabby)
My parents would kill me if they knew I’ve been dating him. My parents would just not understand. I know it’s not right, but I really love him. Before I met him, I’d never ever sent a picture of my boobs to a guy, but he kinda insisted and he said I was pretty and he was you know in heat and I felt the pressure as I didn’t want him to believe I’m a child. He’s a man and he has … um … he has his needs.(Chloe)
These two excerpts show that these participants are attempting to self-affirm and cast themselves in a positive light by self-presenting as women in love (“I know it’s not right, but I really love him”). Furthermore, they diminish their responsibility for sexting by self-presenting as sexually passive agents who would do anything to satisfy their significant others’ sexual needs; these two participants redefine their sense of desire exclusively in terms of the satisfaction of their boyfriends’ will. Their narrative reveals how these participants subordinate their personal choices (Gabby was reluctant to sext) and the dominance of peer pressure (other girls do it) caused by the need to relate to their boyfriends (sexting as a form of sexual expression and relation). All in all, their evaluative beliefs reveal that these girls take for granted that adults assess this social practice negatively and they reduce the cognitive dissonance by avoiding the slut discourse and justifying this social deviant behaviour (“I didn’t really want to, but I got the Tinder app.” and “All my friends kept saying …” as well as “One night I was a bit drunk”)
Interestingly, three participants were strikingly upfront and openly described sexting as a natural practice among tweens. The fact that they describe sexting as an integral part of their sexual practices makes it possible to interrogate girls’ choices and the “supposed ideological passivity of girls” (Hasinoff 2014: 104) insofar as these girls self-present as sexually self-aware and unusually sexually liberated. This sexual self-awareness supports Hasinoff’s (2014) claim that the literature offers a simplistic view of sexting that entirely erases girls’ capacity for choice. The following extract illustrates this point:
My parents are always pestering me to … um … I’m not a girl anymore and I’m not a slut either but they can’t understand. I enjoy pleasuring myself but my parents think having sex is wrong or something but if I like a guy I don’t know why this is wrong. I’m not dating anyone, but if you are in heat you know, everyone does it … this is the way young people do it … you know making a guy horny is really quite simple you only have to pose and talk dirty to him and that’s it. He’ll be doing whatever … You know your looks play a huge part in making a guy horny.(12-year-old Kaarina)
This participant contradicts her previous discourse when she was being personally interviewed and self-presents as an assertive young woman with an active sex life (“You know making a guy horny is really quite simple you only have to pose and talk dirty to him”). She denies responsibility for consequences of action in general (“I don’t know why this is wrong”) and highlights once more her parents’ lack of understanding (“They can’t understand”). Furthermore, she appraises herself positively. This positive appraisal is premised on being sexually active and knowledgeable and using sex to manipulate boys (“He’ll be doing whatever”) as well as satisfying her own sexual needs.
These sexually explicit narratives of these three girls resonates with the claim made by et al. about the presence of a “new hegemonic discourse of feminine empowerment” (2013: 67) insofar as the excerpt illustrates the sexism of the sexual double standard behind sexting “where sexually active boys are admired and rated, while sexually active girls are denigrated, shamed and despised as ‘sluts’” (12).
In this article I have tried to contribute to the understanding of gendered discourses of youth sexualities in general and the construction and negotiation of tweens’ sexual gendered feminine identities in the context of sexting in particular. In line with Jackson et al. (2013) and Renold and Ringrose (2011), I have attempted to explore the narratives of tweens so as to shed further light on the ways in which girls understand sexting and themselves in relation to it. Contributing to and expanding on this body of work, my intention has been to intervene in the debates on sexualization, tweens’ sexual agency, and choice.
Taking seriously the voices of girls, I have discussed the intricate relationships between culture and subjectivity from a feminist poststructuralist position. In exploring the discursive self-presentation of a group of girls and purporting to throw light on the ways in which they perform an ideology while constructing and negotiating their (sexual) gendered feminine identities within the context of sexting, my study has highlighted the complexities of their constructing social identities and performing contradictory femininities in their narratives.
By analyzing how the girls self-present and discursively negotiate their gendered identity while justifying their sexuality, I have argued that the discursive construction of the feminine identities reveals the struggles between the enactment of the cultural discourse of “childhood innocence” and “good girl” femininity (Jackson and Vares 2015: 93) and their attempts to “enact sexual desirability and desire” (McRobbie 2009: 65). It can be argued that sexting is not exclusively a popular sexual practice among tween girls, but an influential mechanism for claiming and gaining social recognition and value that allows young people to inhabit what they think of a legitimate subject position (García-Gómez 2018).
These competing, sometimes contradictory, narratives resonate with Renold and Ringrose’s (2011) notion of schizoid subjectivity insofar as alternative spaces are opened up to be occupied momentarily. As Jackson and Vares rightly note, this can have both positive and negative effects:
There is a risk that the dangerous and undesirable constructions of ‘sexiness’ within girls’ ‘sexualization’ discourse will obscure possibilities of pleasurable, embodied possibilities for feeling ‘sexy’ as part of a positive sexual sense of self.(2015: 94)
Finally, this current sexual practice is not merely a case of old wine in new bottles concerning the practices of subjectivity, but further investigation is clearly needed to map these emerging arenas for the formation of feminine identity. Natural directions for future research include a further interrogation of both tween girls’ and boys’ sexual choices by exploring how they actually negotiate their sexual gendered identity. It would be worth exploring how tween boys talk about the consequences of sexting since this will cast light on how this social practice among pre-teens creates the space for new forms of knowledge and practice.
This study was supported financially by a grant (ID No: FFI2013-47792-C2-2-P). This article is part of the long-term research Project ‘EMOtion and language at work’: The discursive emotive/evaluative FUNction in different texts and contexts within corporate and institutional work: PROject PERsuasion (EMO-FUNDETT: PROPER).
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