Deborah L. Tolman is Professor of Social Welfare and Psychology at The Hunter College School of Social Work and The Graduate Center of The City University of New York. She is also the former director of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality, and Professor of Human Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University. She received her Ed.D. in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1992. Before relocating to San Francisco, Deborah Tolman was a Senior Research Scientist and Director of the Gender and Sexuality Project at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College.
Messenger Made Material: An Adolescent Drama
In a study of adolescent girls’ experiences of sexuality, I conducted 40 individual interviews to revisit questions about sexuality and desire in the present that I explored in my earlier work (Tolman, 1994, 2002). I bore witness to a relationship “drama” (Marwick & Boyd, 2014) that lay at the intersection of the public and private (Subramaham & Smahel, 2011), splicing online and offline fragments, transforming the ambiguity of a flirtatious Facebook Messenger chat into a rigid material “real life” tale of illicit desire, malevolence and betrayal. The “facts” of the situation are slippery at best: Two teenaged heterosexual couples (aged 16) within one social circle of one urban high school community, the boyfriend in one and the girlfriend in another, who are close friends, engaged in this private, playful, and sexually-tinged exchange of cryptic phrases and emojis. Through sly digital violations (stealing of passwords, furtive reading of the chat), the protagonist’s boyfriend discovered and wrested interpretation of the chat, arranging a reveal of the “the betrayal” by printing out—making material–and distributing the chat to 10 friends in a pizzeria. Transmogrified from private subject leveraging indeterminate meanings into voiceless object of female “whore,” who bears exclusive responsibility for treachery, the protagonist is branded and remade into a social pariah (boy recedes). Garnering insight into the drama from three study participants—the perpetrator/victim, the stand-up girl refusing to betray her, and the bystander who represents the chorus—I describe an unfolding set of relational engagements and violations, contested intentions and meanings, identity management, and emotional, material and social effects of this wresting of the private into the public sphere. I weave the three narrators’ telling of the drama focused on its effects and affects. I consider the offline implications when the ambiguity of digital intimacy morphed into an entrenched real-life heteronormative trope, where ambiguous affect became immobilized infraction fixed by sedimented affect with offline consequences.