Sexting (sending sexually explicit messages or pics) is definitely a thing. In fact, it’s become a fairly common way to flirt and express sexuality. When asked in surveys how sexting made them feel, many young people reported that—under the right circumstances—they had a positive experience (British Journal of Criminology, 2015).
Sexting can be a pleasurable part of a healthy sexual encounter, but like any sexual activity, it has its risks and can lead to long-term consequences. If you’re thinking about sexting, it’s a good idea 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.
While sexts are generally intended for narrow audiences, sometimes they’re forwarded, edited, or shared without permission. In a 2014 study, non-sexting students cited the risk of images becoming public as their primary reason for not exchanging erotic pics. While there’s no such thing as risk-free sexting, being thoughtful and respectful can reduce the risks for everyone.
“We had discussed our rules about it beforehand. We agreed on not saving the pictures and deleting the messages. We always felt safe and comfortable after the fact due to the pre-established rules we had.”
—Richard K.*, fourth-year graduate student, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
Communication is key
If you’re about to send a sexy pic or message, first check in with the person about what you both want and feel comfortable with. Ask if the person is open to receiving and sending messages, and set clear boundaries. For instance, you could agree that you’d send sexual messages but not photos. Check in regularly with questions like this:
- What kinds of messages do you like? What kinds are you not OK with?
- How can I make this a good experience for both of us?
While estimates of the prevalence of sexting vary, a study published in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality (2014) involving 1,650 first-year undergraduates at a large southeastern college found the following:
- 65 percent of the students had sent at least one sext to a current or potential partner.
- 60 percent of the students thought that they may regret sexting, and 58 percent said sexting could hurt their reputation.
- Seven out of ten students had received a sexually suggestive text or photo, and three out of ten had shared a sext with a third party.
Be mindful of potential risks
Remember that once an image is shared digitally, it’s impossible to fully delete.
“When we’re applying for jobs, we can assume that any potential employer will Google us to see what they can learn,” says Dr. Marla Eisenberg, associate professor and director of research in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota. “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.”
“I sexted because I was in a committed relationship. If I had any doubts that he would post my texts or pictures, I would never have sent them in the first place. You really have to trust the person you’re sexting.”
—Naomi P.*, first-year student, St. Clair College, Ontario, Canada
Leave something to the imagination
Consider not revealing anything that your bathing suit wouldn’t. A little mystery can keep the conversation exciting. Additionally, not showing your face or identifying features (such as birthmarks or tattoos) helps you maintain a measure of privacy should the images become public.
Strategies for turning down a request
If someone asks you to sext and you decide you’re not interested, there are many ways to refuse, from a straight-up “nope” to a strategic subject change or a witty retort. Here are five possibilities.
Receiving an unwanted sexual image or message can be jarring and upsetting. If you receive an unsolicited sext, you have options for how to respond. Some people choose to ignore these messages or block the sender, while others send responses saying they’re not interested.
If you receive repeated unwanted messages, you may be able to find support from a university Title IX coordinator who can ensure that the behavior stops and can help you explore potential courses of action. If you’re thinking about contacting a Title IX coordinator, take screenshots to save evidence of the messages. Saved messages can be instrumental in helping a Title IX coordinator respond to a case of harassment.
If sexts are shared without consent
Unfortunately, people sometimes violate a person’s trust and share private images or messages. “Things can go wrong when relationships [and sexual encounters] end. The person we trusted with our photos might act in ways we didn’t expect,” says Dr. Eisenberg.
If an image of you is circulating without your consent, contact a Title IX coordinator. They can explain the potential disciplinary and legal penalties and help you explore potential courses of action.
“Title IX coordinators are available to talk confidentially to any student who has concerns about an uncomfortable situation or experience,” said Ksenia Sidorenko, Title IX coordinator at Yale College in Connecticut. “Students can come to a Title IX coordinator to let them know of problems or behaviors that need to be addressed, to access support resources, or to learn more about the options for filing a complaint of sexual misconduct. Title IX coordinators can also help arrange accommodations and practical remedies—things like academic extensions, changes in class schedules, alternate housing arrangements, and no-contact agreements between students who want to avoid further interactions. They’re here to assist and support students based on the students’ needs.”
“There are some individuals who might be aware of the fact that their pictures can be seen by others, and who are passive to this fact,” says Claire M.*, a first-year graduate student at Cornell University in New York. “I think education about the very real dangers that image sharing poses is important. Sharing images without consent might lead to feelings of insecurity, sexual objectification, hurt at this abuse of trust, and a desensitized value of sex and sexual intimacy.”
If someone sends you another person’s images without their consent, break the chain right away. Don’t share the photos with anyone else, and encourage your friends not to share them either. Sharing images like this can constitute sexual harassment. If an image involves a minor, some states will classify this as a felony. Consider reaching out to a Title IX coordinator, who can help ensure that the content doesn’t spread further.
*Name changed for privacy.
If you are experiencing an issue with online harassment or stalking on campus,
your university’s Title IX coordinator or a representative of the campus counseling center can help.
Marla Eisenberg, ScD, MPH, associate professor and director of research, Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota.
Holly Moses, PhD, MSHE, CHES, instructor, academic advisor, and internship program, coordinator in the Department of Health Education and Behavior, University of Florida.
Ksenia Sidorenko, PhD, deputy Title IX coordinator for Yale College, Yale University.
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