Attitudes to sexting amongst post-primary pupils in Northern Ireland : a liberal feminist approach

  • Leanne York

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The dominant discourse in the media is that we live in a post-feminist era, in which feminism is no longer needed as women have achieved equality (McRobbie, 2004). Women are assertive, confident, dominant, and equal. However, in sexting research (Ringrose et al., 2013; 2012), girls and boys still inhabit contradictory positions as to what it means to be a girl and a boy in this era. This thesis focuses on attitudes to sexting amongst young people in Northern Ireland about which there is, as yet, very little qualitative research that explores how young people understand sexting.

Sexting can be challenging to define. However, an uncomplicated definition of sexting is ‘the creation and transmission of sexual images by minors’ (Lounsbury et al., 2011, p.1). It is also difficult to ascertain the prevalence of sexting. A European study (Livingstone et al., 2011a) reported that 4 per cent of 11-16-year olds in the UK had sent a sexual message or picture. Reasons for sexting vary. Girls report that they send pictures to be sexually desirable, to progress romantic relationships, and for social status, power and control. Boys participate in sexting for similar reasons but have different motives such as rivalry between male peers, to demonstrate status, sexual prowess and popularity (Davidson, 2014).

One possible reason for sexist oppression is the sexual objectification of women, whereby women are viewed and treated as objects of desire. To explore this, the conceptual framework used in this study is liberal philosophical feminism which, simply defined, is concerned with treating people equally (Nussbaum, 1999). The analytical framework follows Nussbaum’s (1999) seven-stage model of objectification and Langton’s (2009) additional features to demonstrate what it means to treat a person as an object. The features of the model are: instrumentality; denial of autonomy; inertness; fungibility; violability; ownership; denial of subjectivity (Nussbaum, 1999); and reduction to body; reduction to appearance; and silencing (Langton, 2009).

Individual semi-structured interviews were conducted with the representatives of four stakeholder organisations (SOs) who assist schools in the delivery of Relationships and iii Sexuality Education (RSE); and with pastoral care co-ordinators (PCCs) in three different types of post-primary schools to ascertain how their school is currently responding to sexting issues. A Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG) was created to seek advice on data collection activities and resources to be used with the participants of the research. Focus group interviews were conducted in one youth club with seventeen young people (ten girls and seven boys aged 14-17 years) to find out about their views and attitudes towards sexting.

Stakeholder organisations and schools view sexting behaviour in various ways: as child sexual abuse, bullying, selfish gratification, a child protection issue, and a normal part of adolescent development. By contrast, young people see sexting as normal behaviour. Boys pressure girls for a picture. What the literature does not report but this study does is that girls can also instigate sexting and put pressure on boys to send pictures. There is, to a certain degree, objectification of girls and, in some cases, boys. Even though girls can be more assertive and request pictures there still exists an unequal relationship between girls and boys. The data, however, reveals that boys are aware of the harms that sexting can cause.

The thesis concludes that young people should be consulted on the content of RSE lessons and resources, and that RSE should move away from telling young people not to sext but to help them explore appropriate relationship behaviours, including sexting. Teachers should also feel confident in teaching such material and should have access to appropriate training.
Date of AwardDec 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorAlison MacKenzie (Supervisor) & Noel Purdy (Supervisor)


  • Sexting
  • Equality
  • Liberal Philosophical Feminism
  • Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE)
  • Objectification

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