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
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?
A Canadian study published in JAMA Pediatrics (2018) looked at 39 studies of sexting. They found that:
- 8% of young people send sexts.
- 4% receive them.
- These numbers are on the rise.
- 12% have forwarded a sext without consent.
- 4% have had a sext forwarded without consent.
Be mindful of potential risks
“Students may think sexting is secure in the context of a trusting relationship. However, this private communication is being made using a public communication device—one that makes it possible for the message to be shared with many people very quickly if that trust is broken,” says Dr. Frances Owen, Psychologist and Professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University, Ontario, whose research focuses on the consequences of youth sexting.
Nothing online is truly delete-able. “When the image is distributed beyond the intended receiver, the sender might not even know it, but they’ve lost control of where it may turn up—in the immediate or distant future,” says Dr. Owen. “A future employer could even discover it when conducting a background search later down the line.”
“A girl in my class sent topless photos to a guy she was dating. They ended up breaking up towards the end of the year, and he showed people the picture. Some girls called her names for even sending the photo, but he was the one who shared it when it should’ve been kept private.”
—Christina L.*, second-year undergraduate student, Dawson College, Quebec
“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
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 the image is from anyone but your consenting adult partner, break the chain. Sharing a sext is a form of cyber harassment. Cyber harassment involves posting content online that’s designed to cause distress or other harm to the person being targeted. This is also a key feature of cyberstalking, which may include offline attacks too, according to WiredSafety, a nonprofit organization dedicated to online safety.
Tell the sender you don’t want pictures like that in your inbox and you won’t be involved. If you see a sext being shared, speak up. Remind the people spreading the image what it would feel like if the picture were of them or a loved one.
If you’re thinking about contacting a professional, take screenshots to save evidence of the messages. Saved messages can be instrumental in helping respond to a case of harassment.
Sexting, cyber harassment, and the law
Sexting is defined as the creation of an image (taking a sexually explicit photo or video), possessing it (including keeping an image that someone has sent you), or disseminating it (sending or sharing).
In Canada, sexting that involves images of minors (people aged under 18 or 19, depending on the province) is considered child pornography (a felony); penalties can include jail time and registration as a sex offender.
The narrow exception to this law is that an exchange of nude or suggestive pictures between intimate partners won’t be prosecuted, so long as the sexual relationship is legal (both partners are older than the age of consent in their province) and the pictures aren’t distributed to anyone else.
The law can penalize people who share intimate images of another person without their consent. There have been several reported cases of Canadian teens being prosecuted for child pornography offences in which they distributed sexual images of others.
“Yes, I would [worry about the potential long-term consequences of sexting], because even though I would only ever send such an image to someone I trusted, there’s still the possibility that they could be stolen by hackers—I seem to recall this happened to several celebrities a few years ago.”
—Bobby D.*, third-year graduate student, University of Western Ontario
*Name changed for privacy.
If you’re experiencing an issue with online harassment or stalking on campus, contact the office of the Dean of Students or the Office of Diversity Education (or equivalent).
Frances Owen, PhD, Registered Psychologist, Professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies, Brock University, Ontario.
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.
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Student Health 101 survey, June 2015, August 2018.
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