Sexting

Introduction

“Carlos Danger” was the pseudonym assumed by once United States Congressman Anthony Weiner who was forced to resign his seat in New York’s Ninth Congressional District after the public discovered his lewd sexting habits. In a scandal humorously dubbed “Weinergate,” the Congressman was accused of sending sexually explicit and suggestive photographs to a woman in Seattle, Washington using the popular social networking site, Twitter.  The pictures were sent during his tenure as a member of the House of Representatives and shortly after admitting to having sent the sexts, Weiner resigned in June of 2011.1

Sexting is defined simply as electronically communicating sexually explicit messages or pictures. Many people of many different demographics sext under a variety of different circumstances.  A lot of people sext with the intention of receiving sexts back while other people do not expect anything in return.  Some normally sexually active partners sext when they are forced to be apart for long periods of time (i.e. business trips, vacations, obligatory visitations).2  Commonly reported reasons for teenagers to sext include peer-pressure and the wish to feel popular or admired.3

 

Statistics on Sexting

In 2008 researchers from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy studied roughly 630 young adults (ages 20-26 years old) and 650 teenagers (ages 13-19 years old). They found that 33% of young adults and 20% of teenagers openly admitted to having posted or sent “sexually explicit” images of themselves. Of the same sample group, 38% of teenagers and 58% of young adults openly admitted to having sent or posted “sexually suggestive messages.”4 Two further studies, one conducted by the Associated Press and another conducted by Music Television, found roughly similar results.  Although the small sample size and the potential for sampling bias may slightly affect the accuracy of the findings, these studies show that sexting is happening frequently and is becoming an increasingly common practice among the younger members of society.3

 

Appeals of Sexting

Sexting can be a very appealing way to try to effectively communicate intentions or feelings to an intended or previous sexual partner.  Sexting, by definition, utilizes increasingly popular forms of electronic communication and receives the benefits of those modes of communication.5 When sexting, the sexter, or sender of the sexually explicit message (the sextee is the receiver of the message), can enjoy the benefits of privacy, sense of protection, efficiency, and self-control that may not have been present if the sexter and sextee were in the same room communicating face to face.  The added barrier of cyber space allows the sexter to send a reviewable and exact message while still being sexual, flirtatious and generally in control of the situation.  Adolescents living in more sexually conservative households may also find this method of sexual expression convenient because it can be done alone in privacy: the messages can be hidden easily and does not require direct contact with the intended sexual partner (who may not ever be given the chance to be alone with their intended partner).3

Sexually active partners in long distance relationships or who are temporarily away from one another could also find sexting to be very appealing.  In fact, Cosmopolitan magazine claimed sexting to be one of the top nine ways to survive a super long-distance relationship, and several websites including long-distance-lover.com claim that sexting is common in most long-distance relationships, hailing it a fantastic way to “keep the spark alive” between periods of being physical with a sexual partner.2

Sexting also has no chance of spreading any sexually transmitted infections or causing pregnancy. Because neither the sexter nor sextee have any actual physical contact with each other, there is no possible way to spread sexually transmitted infections or fertilize an egg from sexting, regardless of situation.  This is potentially the strongest benefit offered by this form of sexual expression which provides another undeserved layer of comfort for adolescents who often are just beginning to experiment with their sexuality.5

 

Dangers of Sexting

The fundamental problems with sexting behavior are trust and exclusivity.  When a sexually explicit text message is sent, the receiver is almost always openly asked or expected to keep the message private. This rule is often ignored.  One study conducted in 2009 found that 17% of teenagers and young adults openly admitted to sharing, forwarding or otherwise replicating a nude or semi-nude picture sent to them via sext.  Of those who admitted to sharing these photos, 55% admitted to having shared or forwarded the sexts to more than one person.  It is here where the danger lies: sexters, especially teen or adolescent sexters, tend to not understand the lifespan, accessibility and how quickly electronic information spreads.4

Sending explicit messages electronically creates a digital record of the event which “live” in the phones and computers of sextees. A sexter may experience great psychological damage when these messages are spread.  Reports of youths feeling shamed, embarrassed, and humiliated to the point of committing suicide after the spread of a sext are common.  Many political careers have been ended or marred by sexting scandal, including that of aforementioned Anthony Weiner.  Adolescents and adults have been charged with sexual harassment for spreading sexts. Additionally, young adults or adolescents who possess sexts from people under 18 years old can be charged with serious crimes such as the possession and distribution of child pornography.5

Psychological damage caused by public shame and humiliation is very real, especially in youths.  Hope Witsell was a 13 year old student at Shields Middle School in Florida when a sext that she sent to her boyfriend went viral.  The photograph circulated to six different schools from the area and kids would regularly verbally abuse, physically abuse, bully, and be generally cruel to her over her publicly known sexts.  Teens walked up to her and call her ‘slut,’ ‘whore,’ and in all senses of the word, bully her.  This continued for some time with Hope never reaching out to her parents for guidance or help (just as many adolescents in her same situation do not seek help with their sexual harassment issues).  On September 12, 2009, Hope hung herself by her favorite scarf off her canopy bed.6  Hope is not the only child to end her own life over incidents involving sexting, this story is deeply troubling and by no means an isolated incident.

 

Sextbullying

Actively participating in sexting also leaves a person open to sextbullying.  Sextbullying is similar to cyberbullying and can have outcomes similar to the unfortunate story above.  Specifically, sextbullying is when the threat of leaking sexts is used to coerce, harass or otherwise humiliate a sexter.  In a very modern combination of blackmail and cyber sexual expression, sextbullies use fear, insecurity and very legitimate threats to get what they want. For example, some sext bullies try to get large sums of money from men in extra-marital affairs. Unfortunately, sextbullying can also push adolescents to suicide. Sextbullying is sometimes known to occur after harsh break ups, where the sextee was once a highly-trusted sexual partner.  When considering sexting, it is important to consider that relationships are dynamic and will change over time. For better or for worse, once sexually explicit pictures are sent out, it is nearly impossible to get them to disappear.5

Adolescents who acknowledge the potential dangers of sextbullying and sext forwarding may try to use a mobile phone or electronic application such as Snapchat, a sort of digital sexting condom.  Snapchat is an application on mobile electronics that allows a user to send a photo to any number of recipients for a temporary amount of time. The photo is then deleted and rendered inaccessible immediately after the time the user denotes expires.  Unfortunately, even digital condoms break, and pictures still get saved and shared.  One of Snapchat’s founders, Evan Spiegel once said in an interview “We have to remind people that Snapchat is not a great way to share photos that you want to keep safe, secret or highly secure… the recipient can always take a screenshot... [and] it turns out that people with a lot of money and time can hack into it.”  Today there are extremely low cost mobile phone applications that are able to save images sent to a recipient on Snapchat. Sexting routes other than Snapchat do exist, but should not be trusted as they all suffer from similar security problems.7

 

Sexting and the Law

Anyone who has sent or received a sext from an adolescent under 18 years of age has violated child pornography laws.  There are laws in all 50 states of the United States which prohibit anyone under the age of 18 to send or forward sexts and prohibit any person to possess sexts from children under 18 years old.  It is also illegal to promote, coerce, solicit or receive any sext from any minor.  Legal penalties vary greatly state-to-state and by nature of the offence, but the repercussions are generally harsh and can be comprised of felony convictions and life-time sexual offender registration.5

 

Sexting as a Topic in Sexual Education Classes

Even with the prevalence and continued increase in popularity of sexting, most sexual education courses do not cover it as a topic.  Teenagers and young adults are preached abstinence and taught about various methods of sexual expression and their dangers, yet sexting, which has resulted in the suicide of many innocent youths is often ignored.  There is a very strong need for further research and study in the topic of sexting which could one day allow health and sexual education teachers to design practices which could help reduce the frequency of youth sexting and potentially save the lives of many innocent children.5

Increasing the age at which children begin sexting and supplying adolescents with knowledge and techniques to avoid being coerced into the practice should be prevailing goals in modern sexual education. Minors and adolescents overwhelmingly tend to not understand the long-term consequences of sexting and are practicing the behavior with very little guidance, consistently rolling the dice with potentially grave outcomes.4

 

Conclusion

“Sexting” was given the honor of Time magazine’s number one buzzword of 2009 and was also a close finalist for the New Oxford American Dictionary’s “word of the