Sexting (sending sexually explicit messages or pics) is definitely a thing. Not everyone is doing it, but it’s become more socially accepted, and that means it’s a good idea to talk about it. Like any intimate activity, sexting has real risks and can have long-term consequences.
If you’re thinking about sexting, it’s smart to reflect on how you can mitigate those risks and ensure everyone has a positive experience. Even if you’re not planning on sexting, it’s helpful to think about how you might advise a friend or handle a situation where someone sends you an unsolicited message.
How common is sexting?
Sending sexually explicit photos when you’re a minor comes with some baggage, including possible legal implications. That’s probably one of the reasons most students (about 60 percent) say they’ve never sexted, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey. A 2012 study (in which half of the high school students surveyed said they’d been asked to sext) reported that most of the students were annoyed by the request. So if you’re not into sexting, you’re not alone.
Unfortunately, while sexts are usually intended for just one person, too often they’re forwarded, edited, or shared without permission. In fact, more than 30 percent of students say that they’ve sent a private photo or text to someone and later found out it was shared with others, according to another Student Health 101 survey. Having an intimate image shared without permission is a serious violation of trust, and students used words like “victim” and “betrayed” to describe how this made them feel.
“A good friend of mine was a victim of leaked nude photos that she had sent to a guy she liked. At first, I was shocked at my friend but then angry [at the person who leaked it]. I found it repulsive to invade someone’s privacy and to expose it to a group of strangers,” says a student in Brooklyn, New York.
Digital privacy: Does it exist?
Once they leave our devices, the posts and messages we send out into the digital world can’t be controlled. Even if the person on the other end is someone we trust, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend, relationships can change.
“Unfortunately, sometimes things can go wrong when relationships end. The person we trusted with our photos might [later] act in ways we didn’t expect,” says Dr. Marla Eisenberg, associate professor and director of research in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
“I don’t sext, but if I did, I’d definitely worry, and it would bother me to the point where I wouldn’t want to show my face. Just the [idea that] I sent that to someone personally and they shared it with others would crush me,” says Bianca*, a sophomore in Chicago, Illinois.
“When we’re applying for jobs, we can assume that any potential employer will Google us to see what they can learn. A suggestive picture is probably not the kind of strong first impression anyone wants to make. The bottom line is that once a picture is out there, we can’t get it back,” says Dr. Eisenberg.
Strategies for turning down a request
If someone asks you to sext, consider how you’d like to respond. If you’re interested, start a conversation about what a good experience would look like for you, and keep anonymity and safety in mind. If you’re not interested or are unsure, there are many ways to refuse, from a straight-up “nope” to a strategic subject change or a witty retort. Here are a few possible ways to turn down a sext.
In the eyes of the law, sexting is usually defined as the creation (taking the photo), possession, or dissemination (sending or sharing) of sexually explicit photos. When these photos are of minors, the stakes can be even higher.
Twenty states have laws that address sexting between minors. These laws apply to the person who’s in possession of the photo and the person who takes the photo, even when it’s a photo you took of yourself. Consequences can include fines, community service, probation, and even jail time. (Jail would be the consequence of someone 18 or older possessing sexual photos of a minor, which is considered child pornography.)
If you’re being pressured to sext
Pause and think about the person who’s asking you to sext. Regardless of whether they’re your partner, crush, or friend, if they’re pushing you to sext, they’re pressuring you. Pressure has no place in a healthy relationship or friendship. If you’re uncomfortable doing something, it’s OK to say so. The people who care about you will understand.
“The problem with pictures is that it’s easy for us to start thinking of people as objects: just body parts in a photo for our own enjoyment. It’s important to think about how you want to be treated and how you would want others to treat the people you care about,” says Meaghan Tracey, school counselor at Calvert Hall College High School in Towson, Maryland.
What to do if someone forwards you a sext
We can’t control what comes into our inboxes. Friends or classmates may send photos to you that you know aren’t meant to be shared—so what do you do?
Here are some easy steps you can take:
- Break the forwarding chain and delete the picture. It may seem like no big deal when other people are also circulating the message, but sharing a sext is a serious violation of another person’s trust and can have far-reaching consequences. No matter what you think about the person in the picture, imagine how you’d feel if you were in their shoes. Treat them with the respect you’d want shown to you.
- Tell the person who sent you the sext that you don’t want to be involved or have pictures like that sent to you.
- If you see a sext being sent around, say something. Remind the people spreading the image what it would feel like if the picture were of them or of a loved one.
- Find an adult you trust (such as a teacher, parent, or school counselor) and tell them about it in private so they can put a stop to it.
*Name changed for privacy.
Marla Eisenberg, ScD, MPH, associate professor and director of research in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Holly Moses, PhD, MSHE, CHES, instructor, academic advisor, and internship program coordinator in the Department of Health Education and Behavior at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
James Nau, high school teacher, Chicago Public Schools.
Meaghan Tracey, school counselor, Calvert Hall College High School, Towson, Maryland.
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