The emotional bystander: sexting and image-based sexual abuse among young adults

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  • Sidsel Kirstine Harder
Digital sharing of sexually explicit imagery is a social and emotional phenomenon with at least three actors: A sender of an intimate image who is sexting with a consensual receiver – and a third party, who might non-consensually view the image later. In this paper, third parties are conceptualized as bystanders and it is analysed first, how non-consensual sharing makes the bystanders feel and secondly, how sexters feel about the potential bystanders. Data consists of 25 interviews with 18–25-year old Danes, who had experiences with sending, receiving and viewing intimate images digitally. Their narratives are analysed using Arlie Hochschild’s sociology of emotions to understand how young adults work with changing and expressing emotions in digital intimacy. Findings suggest that bystanders experience non-consensual sharing situations as awkward, uncomfortable and ethically problematic ‘oversharing’. Rather than intervening, bystanders manage their conflicting feelings by resorting to ‘surface acting’. In sexting, ‘deep acting’ and cropping technologies are used to reduce the emotional harm of bystander viewing. The role of bystanders constitutes an important research gap in relation to the affective complexities of sexual image exchange. The paper’s findings are applied in a critical discussion of campaigns advising young people to ‘sext safe’ and ‘speak-up’.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Youth Studies
Issue number5
Pages (from-to)655-669
Publication statusPublished - 2021

ID: 241750918