R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Feminine respectability and sexuality for young women online
First Monday

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Feminine respectability and sexuality for young women online by Jennie Sivenbring and Frida Siekkinen



Abstract
In this article, we explore aspects of femininity as social capital for young women in one of Sweden’s largest Facebook groups, designated for women only. By conceptualizing the online forum as an affinity space (Gee, 2005) and by using theoretical concepts of bridging and bonding capital we analyze entries in the Facebook group that we identify as the Girlfriends. Empirical material is selected from a larger dataset with a focus on entries where young women ask for and provide advice. This study illustrates how femininity is connected with normative notions of respectability and sexuality as female traits and that these are reinforced rather than reduced in interactions between women in the group. Such aspects of femininity can be used as a form of social capital for women online.

Contents

1. Introduction
2. Life online
3. Facebook groups
4. Theoretical aspects
5. Girlfriends — A super network
6. Netnographic method
7. Analytical approach
8. Results
9. Concluding discussion

 


 

1. Introduction

For many people, participation and interaction on social network sites (here after SNS) has, in a relative short period of time, become a natural part of their lives. Some of the aspects and advantages of participating and engaging in SNS are social mobility, rapid exchange of information, and the possibilities of establishing new contacts. Furthermore, interactive spaces and arenas are believed to afford equality where social class, gender, sexuality, physical ability, and ethnicity play minor interfering roles. In this sense, and in this paper, SNS is regarded as an affinity space (Gee, 2005). An online version of an affinity space can be defined as a forum where people share a common space, coming together primarily because of a common interest, not primarily because of background variables, such as race, gender, age, or social class. A fan-based community online can, for example, be seen as an affinity space where people who otherwise share very little come together with the purpose of discussing a specific topic. Those that share an affinity space can therefore, but not necessarily, choose which information about themselves they wish to share and can choose different ways to participate and therefore accure capital, mingle with other as they wish and learn from each other. An affinity space also encourages and enable people to both spread and gain individual as well as distributed knowledge in a given area of interest. An affinity space features different kinds of leaders, where the boundaries between leaders and followers are vague since everyone who shares the affinity space has an ability to influence norms in the space (Gee, 2005).

The emergence of SNS has both changed and enhanced possibilities for social interaction between individuals (Bargh and McKenna, 2004). This has in turn led to an ever-growing interest in finding out how new media affects its users and how users interact; an interest that occasionally borders on moral panicking. Among others, Turkle (2011) describes that, in a world that focuses on textual and virtual communication, people have become lonelier and more uncomfortable with intimacy than ever before. Turkle states that texting has replaced face-to-face human interaction and that increased online communication creates problems with peoples’ abilities to relate to others. As Baym (2015) notes, this approach conceptualizes face-to-face conversations as the norm against which other kinds of communication, such as online communication, could be compared. This is also reflected in Putnam (2000) who discusses how technical individualization, along with a decrease in social interaction, potentially poses a threat to democracy in the Western world. This dystopic vision reflects notions of significant qualitative differences between interactions online and off-line, which in turn raises questions about pursuing the meaning of social media (Baym, 2015; Berg, 2015; van Doorn, 2011). In viewing online communication as a weaker form of face-to-face communication other aspects, such as people’s familiarity with technology, diverse interpersonal engagement and social relations between those communicating and expectations and motivations for interactions are played down. Therefore, it might be more fruitful to go beyond a question of the value of online communication and instead focus on those communicating and their experiences and expectations (Baym, 2015). In this article we explore some aspects of those communicating and the relationships that develop in a specific online space. Individuals are not bowling alone at all, but instead have found a way of bowling together, while accumulating social capital. Interactions online simply enable communication to assume another form.

 

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2. Life online

Some previous studies assume that differences in how men and women participate in SNS is due to traditional gender roles and that there are biological and essential differences in interests (Ask, et al., 2016). A common conclusion for these studies is that women are more engaged in relationships and more inclined to share personal information and emotional expressions. Men are described as taking more risks online and that they tend to focus on showing off their status (Muscanell and Guadago, 2012; Tiffert and Vilnai-Yavetz, 2014). Furthermore, men are considered more prone to break social conventions (Ask, et al., 2016). Women spend more time online than they intended; visual representations on Facebook can cause young women to appropriate negative body images (Thompson and Lougheed, 2012). As we see it, this might be a consequence of a theoretical stance of researchers conducting these studies. It might also be an effect of gendered societal norms being performed both online and off-line, where users simply perform gender through the ways that they communicate. Thus, social media makes some of the social norms that we take for granted visible (Baym, 2015).

Participation in SNS can be afflicted with a number of implicit rules and regulations. Bailey, et al. (2013) studied how young women make their self-presentations online by balancing between social norms, while taking risks of posting too much or too little information and the chance of having too many or too few friends in an environment rich in social surveillance. The ability to relate to — and act in accordance with — norms of femininity can become a commodity or a social capital on SNS; it can be reified in conjunction with cultural or symbolic capital, both online and off-line. Facebook is, in the words of van Dijk (2013), a “real-name-culture”, where performances need to be somewhat consistent to be found trustworthy. Furthermore, participants need to behave in line with what Goffman (1967) defines as interaction order, meaning that they have to act in accordance with social structures and regulations that condition interactions. The architecture of a social network, where performative repetitions create interaction orders and possibilities to perform, is also framed by normative assumptions about relations, sexuality, gender, and lifestyle. When referring to sexuality in this text, we use a broader definition where gender is intertwined with ideals, perceptions, and actions connected to sexuality. This mean that sexuality is not only about sexual actions or intercourse, it’s also about gaze, desirability, emotions, social relations, and speech acts that organize how normative sexuality dictates what is deemed as right or wrong (Skeggs, 1999; Ambjörnsson, 2004). In line with sexuality, respectability can be used as an analytical framework for highlighting normativity. According to Skeggs (1999) our perceptions of respectability characterizes our ways of speaking and thinking and it is one of the most important mechanisms in determining the value of others. From this point of departure Skeggs (1999) highlighted how women in their everyday life repeatedly perform in arenas where their femininity, respectability, and sexuality are valued by standards and objectives of others, where normative assumptions allow groups to be distinguished based on their ability to raise, oppose, and show respectability. In this sense, femininity is perceived as a gendered social construction based on a heterosexual norm that renders idealized versions of being female (Ambjörnsson, 2004). “To pass as a normal girl one not only has to embody a certain emotional register. One also had to engage in specific relationships: homosocial friendships with other girls, and heterosexual relationships with boys” [1]. In her thesis Ambjörnsson (2004) illustrates how girls try to balance and negotiate femininity by walking a tightrope of “just right sexuality” between two extremes of being sexual (but not a slut) and not too sexual (but not unattractive and unfeminine). These forms of negotiations of sexuality and respectability would also seem to be the case in different arenas online. According to Ringrose, et al. (2013), normative framings and the gaze from others, affect perceptions for young women and a need to be attractive, sexy, free spirited, to have a boyfriend, a party life, and be socially active to achieve popularity. There is a need to balance performances in accordance with normative femininity on an edge between physical attractiveness and respectability (Ambjörnsson, 2004; Dmitrow-Dewold, 2017). Thus, online performances seem to be influenced by social stereotypes. In line with this, stereotypical performances of femininity, respectability, and sexuality can also generate a form of valuable social capital for young women online.

Needless to say, there are many reasons for people to engage in social networking, interaction, and sharing of content in different Internet arenas. For example, Brus (2014) demonstrated how flexibility in social relations in online gaming created a kind of free space in everyday life, where people could meet and hang out, even if they were situated in different locations. Some of the advantages of participating on Facebook were pinpointed by Kurian (2016) as possibilities to encourage relationships, while coordinating and cooperating between peers. Furthermore, identity construction and dissemination of knowledge are important aspects that motivate participation on SNS. In a study of online friendships, Sivenbring (2016) demonstrated how young people use SNS to anchor and develop relations that were initiated off-line.

Issues of identity and identity construction seem to be of particular value for researchers interested in online participation. Occasionally the Internet affords possibilities to express aspects of identity that in other circumstances could be found as embarrassing or complicated. Bargh and McKenna (2004) exemplified how individuals with stigmatized social identities benefited from online support from others with similar experiences. They concluded that relative anonymity offered in online settings can encourage self-expression and facilitate formation of new relationships.

Participation in different Facebook groups can offer freedom and opportunities to explore identities and norms for young women. However, interviews with female bloggers illustrated how online performances were governed by gendered norms and discourses that affected their performances off-line (Dmitrow-Devold, 2017). A femininity based on perfectionism, sexuality, and respectability was highlighted by self-presentations and performances in blogs by young women. Dmitrow-Devold argued that normative femininity was reproduced online, challenging normative ideals often ascribed to contemporary young people in Scandinavia. These normative “Nordic girlhood ideals” portrayed a strong and independent girl who can do whatever she wants despite potential hindrances due to structural dimensions of gender. Respectability was, according to Skeggs (1999), incorporating evaluations dealing with class, gender, and sexuality, in turn separating and distinguishing groups according to their abilities to generate, resist, or show respectability.

 

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3. Facebook groups

According to Van House [2], “Facebook is by far the gorilla among SNS” as the social network includes over one billion users around the world. In May 2016 Facebook featured more than 1.6 million users (Statista, 2018). In Sweden 93 percent of the population has access to the Internet and in the ages 16–24, 84 percent are regularly using Facebook. The Swedish Internet foundation (Internetstiftelsen i Sverige or IIS) estimates that the most active users of SNS are women in their late teens. On average, users in the age group 16–24, are connected to eight Facebook groups. Online groups on SNS afford spaces where users can discuss common topics and shared interests. Anyone can create a group on Facebook and an administrator for each group can control levels of confidentiality and access. In a secret or closed group, content is only available for its members. The confidentiality settings can also be adjusted so that an administrator has to actively accept new members. According to statistics from Facebook, there are around 620 million groups registered within the network. This large number of groups raises questions about functions and meanings attributed by its members as well as their specific social advantages.

The large number of groups registered on Facebook indicate a growing desire for interactivity between like-minded individuals, yet these groups appear to have earned little attention from researchers (Lampinen, et al., 2009). Online social networks enable interaction between individuals, despite limitations due to distance and time. The possibilities for group interaction and asynchronous communication have also been facilitated by the architecture of social media (Antoci, et al., 2014). Interactions in groups provide possibilities for generating contacts, encouraging communication between diverse and dispersed individuals. The affinity space offered by SNS also provides social opportunities to individuals who may have difficulties in normal face-to-face interaction. These interactions enable the emergence and development of social capital within and between networks, as participants in various groups interact on the basis of common interests, in an environment that allows loose bonds and communication without great effort (Lee, et al., 2014).

Besides offering spaces for social networking, SNS offers tools and accessible interfaces for establishing friendships and anchoring of already existing relations that can increase feelings of belonging (Sivenbring, 2016; Steinfield, et al., 2008). Positive responses and support from online friends has also shown to have positive effects on self-esteem (Oberst, et al., 2016). Thus, interaction and engagement in social networks online can yield benefits and values to its users.

Even if social media enables and facilitates social mobility and new connections, researchers agree that potentials for global networking are rather restricted to anchoring already established friendships (Lampe, et al., 2006; Livingstone, 2008; Sivenbring, 2016). This means that users primarily interact with those that they already know. However, it appears that some users are connected to a number of Facebook groups and seemingly invest and engage in networks extending beyond the realm of their closest friends, allowing information and knowledge to be disseminated between individuals and networks.

 

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4. Theoretical aspects

Gee’s (2005) notion of an affinity space is utilized in this paper as a SNS group where individuals interact. It is a virtual space, structured and enabled by digital architecture, mediated through a common interface on Facebook. According to Gee (2005) this space is based on common interests, goals, or practices, where participation is based on free will and individual choice. In an affinity space, content is generated by users, encouraging dissemination and sharing of individual as well as collective knowledge. Furthermore, extended knowledge and information from other spaces and places are transformed as a means of developing social capital.

In her study of working-class women, Skeggs (1999) highlighted how women in their everyday life repeatedly performed in arenas where their femininity, respectability, and sexuality were valued by standards and objectives of other individuals. This seem to be the case also in contemporary social spaces on the Internet; studies have shown young women’s performances to be highly structured by social stereotypes (Ringrose, et al., 2013; Dmitri-Dewold, 2017). Skeggs (1999) wrote, that for women, femininity can on one hand provide spaces for hedonism, autonomy, kinship, joy, and lust. On the other hand, femininity is governed by disciplining regulations that can create feelings of insecurity. But what happens with performances of femininity, respectability, and sexuality in a space exclusively assigned for members that define themselves as female? We believe it’s interesting to find out what happens in a space defined as an affinity space, where race, class, age, or functionality are of little importance, encouraging equal participation. Furthermore, the functionality of this space raises questions about negotiations that take place where the gaze of “the others” (males) are absent.

Social network sites and social capital in affinity space

In this study, we use the notion of social capital in relation to social networking. Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992) defined social capital as “the sum of resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” [3]. Thus, social capital consists of an exchange and sharing of knowledge, ideas, trends, news, and views (Bohn, et al., 2014). Interaction on SNS can be related to the creation and maintenance of social capital (boyd and Ellison, 2007). We argue that advantages, knowledge, and affirmation can be negotiated and generated in affinity spaces like groups on Facebook, so it can be treated and examined as social capital. This capital also affects life off-line and everyday assumptions about what is normal and acceptable.

Putnam (2000) divides social capital into bonding and bridging capital. Bonding capital connects to emotionally close and important relations like family and close friends. For Putnam, bridging capital refers to relations with weaker bonds, that is, loose connections between individuals. These ties and connections provide useful information and perspectives but do not necessarily involve emotional support. Loose or weak ties are important as they can function as bridges between individuals and networks and have positive effects in creating social cohesion. Granovetter (1973) noted that the strength of weak connections lies in their ability to provide information not absolutely dependent on social closeness. Participation in online groups provides access to bridging and bonding capital which can especially benefit those who might be missing local support groups (Baym, 2015).

Participation in Facebook networks can support the development and maintenance of bridging capital and there are empirical indications that interaction on Facebook enhances self-confidence (Ellison, et al., 2007; Steinfeld, et al., 2008; Lee, et al., 2014; Bohn, et al., 2014). Thus, bridging capital can be used in a community where bonds between participants are weak. In this study, we examine a Facebook group where thousands of users log in on the basis of shared interests and where negotiations of femininity, respectability, and sexuality take place.

 

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5. Girlfriends — A super network

The Facebook group Girlfriends was initiated by a group of young women in Sweden, with an objective to create a supportive network for girls on Facebook. The rules of the group dictate that women of all ages are welcome to join, as long as they act in a respectful manner. Administrators have the right to exclude members that break formal rules and conditions, which include a ban on the ill treatment of others, and restrictions against discussions of religion or politics, as well as a ban on disseminating information that glorifies drugs or sharing pornographic content. The group is exclusively assigned to those that define themselves as female; members are free to invite friends as new members, however all new members must be approved by an administrator.

During 2017, the Facebook group, Girlfriends, had more than 100,000 registered users. Due to the huge number of connected profiles, Girlfriends is what Donath (2007) defined as a social super network, offering researchers unique possibilities to study aspects such as normative assumptions about femininity. In affinity space, femininity is created and negotiated by its participants in intertextual chains or links and repeated performances, narratives, and storytelling (de Ridder and van Bauwel, 2015). The architecture of Facebook is based on classic biographical storytelling (on a timeline) and on emotional, affectional expressions (varieties of likes and emoticons), which encourage confessions, revelations, and sensational elements (Skeggs and Yuill, 2016). Therefore, online social networks are a kind of commodified arena where certain performances are afforded a value that can be exchanged for reactions, likes, popularity and subsequently, social positions within the network. This is also a form of capital, that can enhance self-esteem and confidence and has effects in life off-line.

 

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6. Netnographic method

In studying bridging capital in social networking among young women, we used an approach inspired by netnography. Netnography can be simplistically defined as studies of the Internet on the Internet (Berg, 2015), or more elaborately as an approach focusing on intersubjective mapping of intercommunication on social media (Kozinet, 2015). A netnographic approach calls for articulated definitions of how the Internet is perceived and contextualized by a given researcher. We regard the Internet as an arena for social meetings where SNS and its digital architecture enables and conditions interactions. We do not think that dichotomous distinctions between interactions online and off-line are qualitatively different. We argue that communication on social media should be perceived as yet another way to interact, like another open window or space that permits possibilities to bridge distances, interact, exchange experiences and knowledge while establishing and anchoring friendships (Sivenbring, 2016).

The netnographic approach calls for an “inward — outward” movement (Kozinet, 2015). The researcher initiates observations in the outskirts of a specified field, and then move closer to interactions and sometimes participates, and then leaves the field in order to explain and make sense of what’s going on inside. This has meant that we, by approaching users of the Girlfriends Facebook group, have received invitations to join. During a year (2016–2017) we observed interactions while internally discussing and analyzing what was shared and posted in the group. We were became acquainted with the group; in terms used by Kozinet (2012), this stage was about lurking. For ethical reasons, and in order to not affect interactions, we decided not to actively engage or interact with members of the group.

Studies of interaction on SNS demands a certain ethical awareness. Material that is published on the Internet is always in some extent already public, even if there are differences in how confidentiality and privacy are perceived and understood (Berg, 2012). Girlfriends is indeed a secret group, meaning that what goes on in the space is only available to its members. Hence there is a need for precaution and ethical considerations; however with more than 100,000 participants, it was impossible to secure full consent. However, by data minimization in coding and translations from Swedish to English, it appears impossible to specifically identify participants. In accordance with the ethical guidelines of the Association of Internet Researchers (Markham and Buchanan, 2012) we understand that there is a fine line between public and private. Even though participants were numerous and unidentifiable, we elected not to use images, screen shots, or visual images in this paper. Where quotations appear, they were translated by the authors and are therefore not “searchable”. No names, ages, or other identifying elements appear in this article. Examples that are used in this work illustrate merely commonalities and patterns in interactions for the group.

 

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7. Analytical approach

In order to study aspects of feminine social capital and the possibilities that are afforded women in an affinity space on Facebook, we registered 1,000 entries from members in the Girlfriends Facebook group. This probing was used as an initial mapping of what’s going on in this space. These entries were coded, based on its empirical thematic objectives. In this initial stage, coding was based on a quantitative content analysis, which rendered defined themes at the center of attention for Girlfriends. Primarily the analyzed data consists of texts posted in the group, and although the use of visual media is common, it is mainly, as the Girlfriends tend to formulate it, “for attention”.

The posts were initially coded into empirically derived themes, based on our perceptions of their objectives. These themes are in descending order: requests of advice; initiation of discussion; seeking confirmation; seeking cooperation or help; advice or recommendation of consumption; information about societal issue and questions about technicalities or regulations of the group itself. The most prevalent posts (N=411) were requests of advice. Within this theme, members of Girlfriends sought advice, support, and reflections from other members in trying to handle various dilemmas, problems, and opinions. Studies have shown that posts that are generated from users or formulated by individuals and has a clear consigner (as opposed to being shared or automatically generated from algorithms) renders more reaction and communication with others. This favors the emergence and development of social capital (Bohn, et al., 2014). In this article, the entries (N=411) that requested advice, along with reflections, discussions, and answers constituted the analyzed data.

With a point of departure in the quantitative content analysis we focused on social messages that emerged in advisory entries and how they could be transformed into social capital for young women. Thus, this is an endeavor centered around understanding common and negotiated knowledge about being a young woman in relation to normative assumptions of femininity, particularly in relation to respectability and sexuality (Skeggs, 1999).

 

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8. Results

In the following section, we show how members of Girlfriends used the affinity space for negotiations and constructions of social capital in the forms of femininity, respectability, and sexuality. Examples used in this paper are meant to illustrate common notions and patterns, or a longer discussion.

The weak ties and bridging social capital that are negotiated online between individuals allows and facilitates possibilities to transfer and gain knowledge and information from other spaces and networks. However, these weak bonds and loose connections between members sometimes afford limited space for negotiations of norms. In line with these limitations, this study will show how perfectionism and respectability were highlighted as common preferred social capital for girls, women, girlfriends, and wives (Skeggs, 1999). This is imbued by a hegemonic heteronormativity (Butler, 1990) that was obvious in Girlfriends group discussions of what a girl should expect from her partner, and how she was supposed to act if she wanted to “keep” him.

In these negotiations, a capital emerges around certain narratives that are deemed by members as trustworthy and likable. The art of mastering respectability and perfectionism in postings and online discussions could be regarded as a form of literacy that was successful in the interaction order that governed network communication (Goffman, 1967). It is also a capital that became useful in the affinity space. Thus, it was a capital that was active in constructions of normative femininity, centered around maintaining a balance. Furthermore, respect was already declared in rules and regulations for the group where members were required to act respectfully towards each other in posting entries, comments, and discussions.

Interactions in the Girlfriends group was substantially friendly, supportive, and confirmative while negotiating and constructing knowledge about being a young woman. This knowledge is a capital that was developed as a form of social cohesion through interactions among weaker ties that constituted the network (Granovetter, 1973). Knowledge was developed in postings and comments in terms of negative and positive remarks, in recommendations and discouragements and between irony, sarcasm, and encouragement. In the affinity space, negotiations of normality were constantly present, as young women reflected about accepted ways to handle differing issues and choices. The following section aims to clarify social capital that emerged and how it was connected to, and reproduced normative femininity and in particular, aspects of feminine respectability and sexuality.

Social capital

Knowledge that was produced in the Girlfriends Facebook group was regarded as bridging social capital. Information, ideas, and notions that were shared and disseminated were collected and earned from other arenas and experiences, and, in turn, transferred to other networks (Putnam, 2000), enabling, for example, normative femininity. Members of the Girlfriends group who wrote responses and offered advice primarily assumed friendly, supportive, and helpful positions. They were often motivated by stating that they had been in similar situations, speaking from their own experiences. Such support acted as a social lubricant, while offering emotional support (Steinkuehler and Williams, 2006, in Baym, 2015). Commentaries were sometimes imbued with parables and metaphors. In one example, members provided advice and support on handling infidelity. Some of the idioms used in advice, where all recommended a termination of a relationship, were: “swallow the bitter pill”, “there are plenty of fish in the sea”, “honesty pays off”, and “keep your head up princess, your crown is falling.” The use of idioms demonstrated understanding and sympathy, providing support while contributing to social cohesion (Granovetter, 1973).

Facebook is a “real-name-culture”; participants in the Girlfriends group interacted with their real names and most often with real photos as profile images. Anonymity, that de Ridder and van Bauwel (2015) attribute to interactions on the Internet, was restricted, affecting efforts to negotiate with identities and capital beyond normative limitations. The creation of community, cohesion, and support, highlighting respectability, worked all within a framework of normative femininity.

When members of Girlfriends asked for advice and support, it was mostly related to relationships, physical and mental health, beauty, and how they were expected to act in accordance with social and juridical rules when engaging with authorities. A traditionally coded femininity was present in posts, and in line with previous findings, girls tended to focus on relationships (Muscanell and Guadago, 2012; Manago, et al., 2008). This was evident in issues that were subjects for advice and those topics at the center of attention in discussions. It was obvious how posts were extracting ideas public lifestyles and from cultural references (de Ridder and van Bauwel, 2015; Ringrose, et al., 2013). Following Skeggs (1999), we choose to name the different capitals and knowledge as feminine respectability and as respectable sexuality. The section called distinction and concurrence shows how interaction orders concerned with respect, are maintained as the young women make clear distinctions between themselves and “the others”: the men — and occasionally other women.

Feminine respectability

Feminine respectability involves judgements and evaluations related to gender and sexuality (Skeggs, 1999), aspects which are constantly present in discussions among members of Girlfriends. The performances of feminine respectability took perfection as a normative point of departure. Respect for oneself and respect as something that was deserved when acting respectable was frequently used in discussions about relationships. Respect for oneself, combined with the right way of life together with a partner, emerged as a common goal. In this hegemonic script of life, there was a certain small amount of uncertainty connected to being single. Even when members of Girlfriends discussed themselves, or other women, as self-sufficient, independent, strong, with no need for a partner, single life was seen as an intermediate point towards family life; weddings, marriage, and reproduction were frequently the center of attention.

In one entry, advice was requested about true love and “men that will treat you with respect,” or if indeed a happy single life should be preferred. This entry earned around a hundred responses, primarily focused on not engaging in the pursuit for love or simply “you can’t hurry love,” sooner or later the right one will come around.

Girlfriend: If you give yourself all the love that you would otherwise waste on a guy on yourself instead, the right one, the one who really deserves you, will turn up <3.

Girlfriend: Stop searching for love, it will happen when the time is right. You should never chase love, it will come when you least expect it. It’s a cliché, but true.

A normative feminine script of life, dictating that young women fall in love, become married and start families, was hardly negotiable; rules for partners and relationships were constantly present in discussions among members of Girlfriends. Repeatedly, a narrative was presented to “stop pursuing love and it will come to you,”; single life was not really a respectable option in the long run. The exhortation to not pursue or chase love, but to wait for it, could be regarded in terms of passivity as a stereotypical female attribute (Skeggs, 1999). In this sense, it was stereotypical femininity that was generated and repeated among weak ties in the Girlfriends Facebook group (Granovetter, 1973).

When members of Girlfriends asked for advice, they often did so in positions as girlfriends or wives, where only heterosexual relationships were represented. Heteronormativity functioned as a reference. As Foucault (1980) argued, we are born into a heterosexual norm where femininity and given positions as girlfriends, wives, or mothers are defined and reproduced in ritualized everyday practices (see also Butler, 1990).

The social capital related to girlfriends or wives was, in an aggregated analysis, presenting itself as a certain knowledge of being strong and independent. An individual knows what’s good for her and communicates her needs and will with strong self-respect. She is faithful and never becomes interested in anyone other than her partner. When she is engaged in a relationship, she is careful to not overanalyze what her partner says and never becomes dependent or clingy. She lives her own life, follows her heart, and chooses a path to happiness. She is somewhat “hard to get” and her behavior is always ladylike and feminine. In one post, a one member of the group asked how a relationship could be terminated and in quick response:

Girlfriend: Eat onions, burp, fart, don’t clean the house, talk like a guy and dress like you’re homeless.

That advice could be understood as encouragement not to act as a desirable, respectable woman would do. By acting in a less respectable way, she was seen as less feminine, less attractive, and desirable, which might result in her partner terminating a relationship. Norms of femininity were reproduced as a social capital (Bailey, et al., 2013). Desirability was based upon an explicit or internalized hetero(sexual) market where men and women were opposites and where “the right man” held desire that a given woman should receive (Butler, 1990; Skeggs, 1999).

As a parallel, the perfect man was constructed along with the perfect woman in a Girlfriends parley over what was acceptable. The perfect boyfriend appeared in the aggregated analysis as a monogamous, faithful man treating his partner with respect. He was reliable, putting the needs of his partner first and he was not attracted to other women. He was honest about his feelings, providing complements, never taking his partner for granted. He was not violent and he was, or would be, a good father and a responsible adult with a healthy, distanced relation to his mother. He provided his woman with emotional, empathic support, willing to wait for a sexual relationship. The joint construction of the relationship between the respectful girlfriend and boyfriend constituted a stereotype representation reflecting popular culture references, found in romantic movies and literature (de Ridder and van Bauwel, 2015; Ringrose, et al., 2013).

In conclusion, the construction of feminine respectability in the affinity space constituted a capital that mirrored heteronormative scripts, where the plot provided an attractive but (sexually) passive young woman awaiting the right respectful, mature man and the beginning of a life with marriage and family. Negotiations about the boundaries for relationships and sexuality, along with rules and norms for sex and sexual actions, tended to be centered around respectability.

Respectable sexuality

Respectable femininity was occasionally challenged by other social capitals related to sex and sexuality, and it seemed to invoke mixed emotions and reactions among members of the Girlfriends group. Sexuality is the result of its representations as well as its representation process (Foucault, 1980; Butler, 1990). Therefore, sexuality can be negotiated by exchanges of experiences, knowledge, and attitudes. Discussions about sexuality tended to incite reactions among members of Girlfriends. These reactions were both censorious and catalytic, with frequent invitations to other members to join in discussions. For example, when a member of Girlfriends posted an entry that asked simply “what is the worst thing a guy can do in bed?” the ensuing discussion quickly involved more than 500 members and continued for several days. This type of active discussion occasionally branched out into different threads and directions. Resembling storytelling, members of Girlfriends gradually challenged normative respectability that otherwise governed online interactions. Negotiations and resistance were especially evident when opposite positions were highlighted in discussions (cf., Skeggs and Yuill, 2016).

The feminine gaze that regulated what was allowed was largely authoritarian and disciplinary, although it was challenged. For example, a member of the Girlfriend group posted an entry expressing a wish to not have a permanent partner. She noted that she would rather engage in occasional encounters and sexual experimentation since she really enjoyed sex but was tired of the conflicts that accompanied long-term relationships. She was curious if there were other members of the group who shared her views. The discussion that following occupied several days generating hundreds of comments. An emerging narrative around this entry was negotiations between religious ethics and sexual confessions. The representatives of religious ethics invoked Jesus, Muhammed, and Buddha, along with mothers in general, for support and argued for more confidential discussions on sex and sexuality.

Girlfriend: I get really mad when you write that “some people have so much self-respect that they don’t have sex”. What? Didn’t your mother and father have sex? Did they not show self-respect? And what do you mean with “Jesus didn’t die for this?” Why is it disrespectful to enjoy sex and set endorphins loose in one’s body? Is sex wrong to you? I don’t understand where this is coming from..

For some members of the group, there was a need to emphasize morals and respectability.

Girlfriend: In my opinion, this is nothing to speak so openly about, sex is something between you and your partner. It’s not very serious and very non-personal to write about it here. That’s a kind of attention that you should search for elsewhere..

Girlfriend: On this side, we also have the ones that firmly rejects sex and sexuality as relevant issues for public discussion..

Girlfriend: To write in this way shows a terrible lack of respect it’s a sin! Honestly, are you not ashamed at all? You ought to show respect to the rest of us that are Christian and religious. You should be ashamed of yourself..

These efforts to moralize expressions of sexual practice were efforts to regulate discussion within this online space. The shame discourse efficiently made some women regulators in order to establish parameters for the group. A respectable and restrained sexuality was seen by some as part of the operational conditions for members of Girlfriends (see Skeggs, 1999). Female sexuality and lust were contested in interactions among some members of the group. By explicit and vivid descriptions of their preferences and sex life, some of members of Girlfriends challenged those that wished to censure discussion. In line with Skeggs (1999), the affinity space defined by Girlfriends’ afforded hedonism, kinship, autonomy, enjoyment, and lust, while at the same time constructing regulations relative to sexuality.

In conclusion, discussions about sex and sexuality were complex and reflected different aspects of respectable sexuality appearing in confrontations among members. If these negotiations tended to produce differing strands and positions, there were other issues at work that constructed cohesion by drawing lines and distinctions of “the others” through an emphasis on polarity, demarcation, and distance.

Distinction and concurrence

In interactions among members of Girlfriends, normative and stereotypical assumptions of being a young woman were frequently challenged. There were numerous opportunities to take a stand on a given position: to be a respectable woman and relate to conservative norms, or to stand with attitudes that seem to be more emancipated and liberal (Oberst, et al., 2016). In line with Skeggs (1999), respectability rendered distinctions between moral righteousness and liberal sexuality. The values that emerged and developed as social capital were afforded by both positions, confirmed by negotiations and social cohesion.

Cohesion, feminine kinship, and autonomy (Skeggs, 1999) were present in interactions in the Girlfriends group, especially in discussions on the behavior of partners. In entries concerning boyfriends, husbands, and men, it was obvious how femininity was distinguished from manly behavior. In this sense, respectability became even more accentuated and framed. In these instances, members of Girlfriends tended to come together on a need for respect from their (male) partners. In social cohesion, the feminine position was negotiated and regulated in relief to “the other”: men. A collective, cohesive femininity was a bridging capital that held ideas and attitudes extracted from outside individuals and networks, enhancing cohesion and understandings of right and wrong. Members of Girlfriends sought support over issues that might be too sensitive in other cases (Bohn, et al., 2014; Granovetter, 1973). In a discussion involving hundreds of participants, it was asked if it was reasonable to accept that a partner was watching videos of naked women posing in sexually suggestive manners, while their girlfriends were present. Members of Girlfriends were in full agreement that this behavior demonstrated a lack of respect as well as representing a sign of immaturity.

Girlfriend: My boyfriend respects me, he would never treat me like that. If he would want to watch something like that, he does it when I’m not around. I think it’s wrong of your boyfriend, he could have waited until you left or said like “Be back soon” and quickly run away to the bathroom and watched it in there, or whatever, but not in front of you..

Thus, respect was demonstrated by its performance. In the discussion on this topic, the word ‘respect’ appeared in nearly every entry. A woman was asked to respect herself rather than accept this behavior; a man should respect her rather than engage with other women in her presence. In this discussion, men were constructed as “the others”: abnormal, corrupted by porn, disrespectful and immature. In the judgements and distinctions between men and women and in negotiations about normal and abnormal behaviors and actions of partners, the frames for respectable sexuality were once again (re)produced (Skeggs, 1999).

“Othering” also occurred in negotiations about women who appeared as antagonists in various narratives. For example, one member of the group wondered if she should accept that her boyfriend’s best friend is female. Once again, respect was used as a common denominator for negotiations, combined with morality and fidelity between partners. Members of Girlfriends agreed that a respectful boyfriend could never be just friends with potentially desirable others. Female friends of male partners were portrayed as threats; such friendships between males and females needed to be terminated.

Girlfriend: There’s no such thing as friendship between men and women. Girls, never forget this!.

Girlfriend: This only shows that the girl lacks morals and respect. The fact that your boyfriend is also keeping it up show that the best thing you could have done, is to already have left him. You should show that you are prouder of yourself, so that God gives you a better man that knows how to love and respect a woman..

In negotiating relations between men and women and possible relationships among them, opposite positions were constructed. It was assumed that opposites always attract; a relationship leaves space for only two: a man and a woman. The hegemonic heteronormativity (Butler, 1990) was certainly reproduced in this group. Members of Girlfriends occasionally assumed a supervisory function (Bailey, et al., 2013), governed by a feminine gaze. The absence of masculine participants in the group did not seem to affect negotiations about respectability. Negotiations, disciplining and discursive placing of shame seemed to enhance a rigidity of norms (Skeggs, 1999).

In conclusion, members of Girlfriends came together when “the others” challenged the normative order of the group. These challenges were productive in the construction of a collective “Us” and in the reproduction of heteronormativity, femininity, respectability, and sexuality, which in turn challenged the otherwise equal ideals that are often ascribed to contemporary, perhaps particularly, Scandinavian women (Dmitrow-Devold, 2017).

 

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9. Concluding discussion

The purpose of this article was to shed light on aspects of femininity as social capital among young women in one of the largest Facebook groups in Sweden, a group that we identified as Girlfriends.

Bridging social capital was constructed in negotiations and in exchange and sharing of knowledge, information, ideas, trends, news, and opinions (Bohn, et al., 2014), generating notions of what was normal and acceptable for a young woman. This capital incorporated a heteronormative script where stereotypical assumptions and performances of femininity were structured by a respectability based upon notions of a woman as girlfriend, wife, and mother. The respectability discourse affecting sexuality was monogamous heterosexuality building on female passivity, even if this notion was contested. In line with Bourdieu’s treatment of various metaphorical forms of capital, social capital could be reproduced or transformed into other forms of capital, i.e., cultural or symbolic capital. We argue that the negotiations and knowledge that members of Girlfriends extracted from the group could be incorporated and reproduced in their everyday lives off-line.

Sharing and disseminating capital between individuals and networks can be regarded as volatile. It can have remarkable impact when individuals and loose bonds are linked together (Granovetter, 1973). The weak links and loose bonds seemed to assume that participants were standing by interaction orders (Goffman, 1967), holding stereotypical assumptions of what was acceptable. This kept most discussions and negotiations comfortable and acceptable for as many participants as possible. To adjust and perform in accordance with the interaction order was a way to remain acceptable in the group. Hence, members of Girlfriends also performed a kind of internal social surveillance. It was simply not possible to make any kind of radical, by the norms of the group, statement, imagining that one would gain acceptance from other participants (Baily, et al., 2013). To challenge the prevailing interaction order and stretch the rigidity of norms required enormous trust and support from other participants. In a network containing more than 100,000 members, this certainly was a challenging option.

There were certainly advantages for members of the group to discuss and reflect about issues that were of interest and importance to young women, in a space that was relatively safe. When support and confirmation was afforded by others in similar circumstances, feelings of well-being and satisfaction were enabled (Ahn, 2012; Steinfeld, et al. 2008). Even if the emerging bonds and connections were primarily weak, loose, or latent, they were available at little or no cost, demanding little effort. Bonds and connections were activated by those that sought and provided advice and support in the choir of voices that represented members of Girlfriends.There were contacts and opportunities to establish bonds not possible off-line (Haythornthwaite, 2005). Whether these new bonds and connections were further developed into more lasting relations is beyond the scope of this study; however we assume that new friendships were initiated and anchored among members of Girlfriends.

Concept of femininity are always layered with other categories, such as class and race (Skeggs, 1999). Our study of interactions among members of the Girlfriends group, was specifically concerned with femininity. Future studies of affinity spaces on SNS could examine an extended analysis incorporating other aspects of power. In this study, the individual voices of members of Girlfriends were absent, and therefore we do not understand specific experiences of afforded capital in such a super network. That sort of study could provide more knowledge about how individuals are not really bowling alone, but instead have simply found new ways to bowl together. End of article

 

About the authors

Jennie Sivenbring holds a Ph.D. in child and youth studies and works as a senior lecturer at the Department of Education, Communication and Learning at the University of Gothenburg. Her research interests are concerned with contemporary society and the possibilities for children and youth and their position in accordance to social justice, democracy, and participation.
E-mail: Jennie [dot] sivenbring [at] gu [dot] se

Frida Siekkinen is doing her Ph.D. studies in child and youth studies at the department of Education, Communication and Learning at the University of Gothenburg. Her research interests are concerned with youth and identity, equity, and societal power relations.
E-mail: Frida [dot] siekkinen [at] gu [dot] se

 

Notes

1. Ambjörnsson, 2004, p. 307.

2. Van House, 2011, p. 424.

3. Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992, p. 14.

 

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Editorial history

Received 5 April 2018; revised 18 December 2018; accepted 28 December 2018.


Copyright © 2019, Jennie Sivenbring and Frida Siekkinen. All RIghts Reserved.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Feminine respectability and sexuality for young women online
by Jennie Sivenbring and Frida Siekkinen.
First Monday, Volume 24, Number 1 - 7 January 2019
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/9103/7717
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i1.9103





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