Spotlight On: Amy Adele Hasinoff
July 14th, 2016
Amy Adele Hasinoff is an Assistant Professor in the Communication department at the University of Colorado Denver. Her book, Sexting Panic (2015), is about the well-intentioned but problematic responses to sexting in mass media, law, and education. Her research also appears in journals such as New Media & Society, Critical Studies in Media Communication, and Feminist Media Studies. Colorado Youth Matter is thrilled for Amy to be presenting at our Raising the Bar Conference this October!
What inspired you to study media panic and sexting?
I’ve been fascinated by moral panics for a long time, and two things we panic about a lot are technology and sexuality. There are so many panics about girls’ sexuality. From dance halls in the early 20th century to sexting today, we panic a lot about teenage girls and sex. We also worry about every new communication technology—from the telegraph to the telephone and the internet—we have been afraid that each one will somehow destroy our values and our humanity. The most heartbreaking thing about moral panics is that there is usually a real problem that they are reacting to, but they often take all of our attention and turn it away from that problem.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I love learning new things. As a researcher, if I want to know about something that I’m really interested in but that I don’t quite understand, I can try writing a paper about it to work it out. I also love when I get feedback from students that my courses changed the way they think about something.
What is the most challenging, and how do you deal with it?
People have a lot of deeply held assumptions about sexuality, girls, technology, and media. But if you want to think about sexting in a way that’s not just reactionary, you need to dismantle those assumptions. It sometimes works to put the current panic about sexting in historical perspective—these panics just keep repeating every few decades. If you think about that, you can see that sexting in and of itself is not the problem—the issues are privacy violations and online harassment. It can also help to remind adults that they were interested in talking about sex when they were teenagers, but now there’s a new medium (the mobile phone) to do that.
What did your sex education look like growing up, and how does it affect your approach to your work now?
All I remember from sex-ed in high school is lessons on biology and anatomy. I got a lot of my information from a feminist book from the 70s that I found on a bookshelf in our basement, which in retrospect was probably put there specifically for me to find. I grew up with the internet in the mid-1990s, so gURL.com was also a go-to resource for me. As a teen I preferred to do my own research. So I think there’s a lot of value in simply pointing teens towards resources that are factual and sex-positive. There’s a lot of shame and stigma that prevents teens from asking questions in-person, so media—whether it’s books, websites, or a text-message answer service like ICYC—can help a lot.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to youth sexual health and education in America right now?
I think one challenge is that many parents and educators want to protect youth from all possible risk or harm. That’s a totally understandable position, but the problem is that it doesn’t work and it usually backfires. With sexting, for example, most people tell teens, “just don’t do it,” because it is risky and it can be illegal for teens. But even though it’s against the law, around one-third of 16- and 17-year olds are going to sext anyways. Those teens need safer sexting skills, and they’re the same kinds of skills they need to make in-person sexual choices, like weighing risks and benefits, figuring out how you know if you can trust your partner, and learning practical strategies to talk about consent and sex.
What advice about sex, sexuality, and/or sexual health do you wish someone had told you as a teenager/young person?
No one was out at my small high school, and there were also fewer representations of gay, bisexual, and trans people in popular media then. So it seemed like there was a vague stigma or taboo around these sexual and gender identities. I would have appreciated explicit lessons in school about the diversity of gender expression and sexual practices. I got all that in college eventually, but it would’ve been great to learn about a lot earlier.
What new trends and advances in technology and media do you anticipate influencing public perception of youth sexuality in the coming years?
It’s really hard to know where technology is going. But if we look at the historical precedents, it’s clear that each new media and communication technology is going to be used for representing and/or talking about sex. And we’ve panicked about teens doing just that with each one. I hope that as selfies and sexting become more common and mainstream (currently, well over half of 18-24 year-olds say they sext), that people will stop worrying so much about sexting. If we can do that, I hope we can start focusing on finding ways to reduce and address privacy violations.
What tips do you have for educators, parents, or young people about sexting?
I have tips for parents and educators and for safer sexting on my website. Basically, we should think about sexting as a sex act and use the same harm-reduction approaches we use for in-person sex. Since sexting is mediated, we also need to think about privacy, and how important it is to practice and promote respect for other people’s privacy, especially in digital environments. Finally, we need to stop blaming victims of privacy violations. Slut-shaming is still really prevalent among adults and young people alike, and we all need to work on resisting it.