Sexting refers to the sending of sexually explicit items, particularly photos and videos, via phone or computer. The term “sexting” is a combination of the words “sex” and “texting”. However, sexts can also occur over social media, email, and other digital platforms.
In the digital age, sexting has become increasingly common among people of all ages. In many cases, sexting is used to achieve intimacy in a committed relationship. However, sexts can also be sent to unwilling parties as a form of sexual harassment. Sexting by itself is neither good nor bad; like other sexual activities, its meaning depends on the context.
What Is Sexting?
When most people think of sexting, they imagine photos in which the subject is nude or partially clothed. These are sometimes called “nudes”. When a sext focuses on a penis specifically, it’s often called a “dick pic”.
However, sexting can involve more than photos. A sext can also take the form of flirtatious written messages, explicit recordings, or video clips. There are a few differences between sexts and pornography or erotica, such as:
- A sext typically focuses on a living individual rather than a character or set of actors.
- A sext is produced by that same individual rather than a professional team.
- A sext is typically meant for a specific person rather than a general audience.
How Common is Sexting?
Different studies define sexting differently, so prevalence rates can vary.
There are many studies around sexting in adolescents. However, despite cultural fears, young people don’t seem to be sexting nearly as much as their older counterparts. Research shows:
- 15% – 30% of adolescents engage in sexting, depending on the study. Older teens are more likely to sext than younger teens.
- 40% – 60% of young adults engage in sexting.
- 88% of adults (ages 18-82) have sexted before, according to a 2015 survey. Most (82%) reported sexting in the past year.
Studies suggest sexting typically occurs within the context of a committed relationship rather than between strangers. Couples often use it as a form of flirtation or foreplay. Others may use it to maintain intimacy when the current circumstances prevent them from having sex physically. For example, a woman may send her spouse erotic photos while she is away on a business trip.
In relationships, men are more likely to request sexts, but men and women tend to send sexts in equal measure. Sexting seems to be prevalent among both cisgender, heterosexual couples and LGBTQ+ couples. Some LGBTQ+ couples may use sexting to achieve intimacy when it is not safe to be together in person.
SEXTING AND TEENAGERS
Teenage sexting is a controversial topic that has received significant media attention in recent years. Some adults worry that sexting will be a gateway to risky sexual behaviors or exploitation. Others claim consensual sexting is simply a new first step in sexual development for the digital age.
Teens who sext are more likely to engage in sexual activity during the following year. However, it’s unclear if sexting increases a teen’s receptiveness to sex. It’s also possible that teens are more likely to sext if they are already in a romantic relationship. Research shows no connection between sexting and risky offline sexual behavior, such as having intercourse while drunk.
Worried parents may want to have a broader discussion about safe sexual activity with their teens. Even if a parent is sure their teen does not have sex offline, erotic photos can still be used for blackmail or exploitation. It is important to teach one’s teen about consent and cyber safety, regardless of the type of sexual activity taking place.
In some states, sexting between teens is actually a felony. Even when teens are above the age of consent and in a relationship, they can still be prosecuted for the possession of child pornography. In the states of Virginia and Washington, for example, a minor involved in consensual sexting faces felony charges and must register as a sex offender. This includes the individual in the picture, the sender of the picture, and any recipients of the picture, whether they wanted to receive it or not.
Some people argue such prosecutions serve as an example of laws not keeping up with technology, as a photo shared between a consenting couple is not an exploitative act. However, parents might still wish to have a discussion with their teen about any legal consequences of sexting.
Sexts count as “unsolicited” when they are sent to a person who has not asked for them and has little reason to expect them. Although sexting within a relationship is more common, unsolicited sexts are by no means rare. In a 2017 study of women ages 18-29, over half of respondents said they had been sent lewd images online. Men can also receive unsolicited sexts, but due to cultural stereotypes around male desire, they are less likely to report these sexts as harassment.
So far there has only been one empirical study on the motivations for unsolicited sexting. It focuses on cisgender men sending photos of their genitalia to female recipients. According to the study, the most common reason men send “dick pics” is because they want the woman to become sexually aroused and send an erotic photo of her own. These men tend to have higher levels of narcissism than their non-sending peers.
However, unsolicited sexting is not always caused by a misunderstanding. Many of the sext-senders also possessed high levels of sexism. They used sexting as a show of power to shock or anger the recipient. Some men found their target’s distress arousing, while others engaged in harassment to amuse themselves.
Flashing one’s genitals at strangers offline is illegal almost everywhere. Recently American lawmakers have begun to punish cyberflashing and similar forms of exhibitionism. But while unsolicited sexting is illegal in several states, it may be hard to prosecute due to free speech laws.
Sexting, Bullying, and Abuse
When all parties are willing participants, sexting can be a harmless way to connect with a long-distance partner or engage in foreplay. However, sexting can be stressful or even traumatic when it is coerced.
A 2015 study found 1 in 5 young adults have engaged in sexting when they did not want to. Women and girls are especially likely to be pressured to send sexts. Part of the push stems from peer pressure and the idea that everyone sexts once they are in a relationship. An individual may worry that if they don’t provide pictures, their partner will dump them for a more willing peer.
Pressure may also come from the lover specifically. This coercion often extracts a ‘yes’ by playing on an individual’s affection or insecurity. The lover may send their own, unsolicited nudes and then demand the person reciprocate. They may also try to guilt the individual, saying things like, “You would send sexts if you really loved me.” This sort of behavior is often a red flag for intimate partner violence down the line.
Even if a sext is given willingly at the time, it may later be used against the sender. Common forms of misuse include:
- Using sexts to blackmail the victim. A picture may be used to extract offline sexual favors or further sexting.
- Sending pictures to peers for bragging rights. Around 12% of youths have forwarded a sext without the sender’s consent.
- Distributing the pictures after a breakup as “revenge porn”. (This behavior is illegal in 46 states.)
Once a sext is made public, the sender is likely to face bullying and ostracization. Even when an explicit photo was only meant for the eyes of one committed partner, the sender may be labeled as immoral or promiscuous. Women and LGBTQ+ individuals are especially likely to face stigma for their sexts, as their sexuality has long been considered taboo.
Sexts can be downloaded and copied easily by each person who sees them, Thus, a sext is nearly impossible to erase once it has been sent. A single photo can cause harm years after the fact, sabotaging careers or relationships when it resurfaces in the public eye. Senders often face copious amounts of victim-blaming, which itself can be quite traumatic.
People who have been victimized through sexting may develop anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns. Therapy can be a safe, confidential place to work through these issues. Find a therapist today.
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- Culp-Ressler, T. (2014, October 7). Why parents should stop freaking out about teens sexting. Retrieved from http://thinkprogress.org/health/2014/10/07/3576718/experts-teen-sexting-public-health
- Drouin, M., Ross, J., & Tobin, E. (2015). Sexting: A new, digital vehicle for intimate partner aggression? Computers in Human Behavior, 50(1), 197-204. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563215002836?via%3Dihub
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- Matei, A. (2019, September 19). The war on (unwanted) dick pics has begun. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/sep/19/its-a-violation-the-war-on-unwanted-dick-pics-has-begun
- Oswald, F., Lopes, A., Skoda, K., Hesse, C. L., & Pedersen, C. L. (2019, July 18). I’ll show you mine so you’ll show me yours: Motivations and personality variables in photographic exhibitionism. The Journal of Sex Research. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00224499.2019.1639036?journalCode=hjsr20
- Sliwa, J. (2015, August 8). How common is sexting? Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/08/common-sexting
- Van Ouytsel, J. Van Gool, E. Walrave, M., Ponnet, K., & Peeters, E. (2017). Sexting: Adolescents’ perceptions of the applications used for, motives for, and consequences of sexting. Journal of Youth Studies, 4(20), 446-470. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13676261.2016.1241865
- Van Ouytsel, J., Walrave, M. Ponnet, K. & Temple, J. R. (2018, September 4). Sexting. International Encyclopedia of Media Literacy. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/9781118978238.ieml0219
Last Updated: 11-15-2019
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AnjaliJune 20th, 2017 at 12:00 AM
Very informative article. One of my friend is having this issue. He all the time does this.verbal communication is almost zero. If anyone communicates with him he listens half version of it. Don’t know how to tackle this issue.
Amy L.March 27th, 2019 at 6:17 AM
In the context of a therapeutic relationship with a minor, does sexting fall under the category of imminent risk such that you would be required to break confidentiality?
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