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Sexting often involves sending sexually explicit messages.

Sexting is sending and receiving sexually explicit messages, primarily between mobile phones. The term was first popularized in the early 21st century, and is a portmanteau of sex and texting, where the latter is meant in the wide sense of sending a text possibly with images.[1] In August 2012, the word sexting was listed for the first time in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.[2]


The first published use of the term sexting was in a 2005 article in the Australian Sunday Telegraph Magazine.[3] The Pew Research Center commissioned a study on sexting, which divides the practice into three types:[4]

  1. Exchange of images solely between two romantic partners
  2. Exchanges between partners that are shared with others outside the relationship
  3. Exchanges between people who are not yet in a relationship, but where at least one person hopes to be.

Sexting has become more common with the rise in camera phones and smartphones with internet access, that can be used to send explicit photographs as well as messages.[4] While sexting is used by married couples,[5] most media coverage fixates on negative aspects of adolescent usage. While film cameras often required a dark room to process negatives, modern camera phones can record sexually explicit images and videos in privacy. Young adults use the medium of the text message much more than any other new media to transmit messages of a sexual nature.[6] Teenagers who have unlimited text messaging plans are also more likely to receive sexually suggestive texts.[4]

As a result of sexting being a relatively recent practice, ethics are still being established by both those who engage in it and those who create legislation based on this concept. Whether sexting is seen as a positive or negative experience typically rests on the basis of whether or not consent was given to share the images. Nevertheless, the law currently views under-18s as being unable to give consent to sexting, even if they meet the legal age for sexual consent.[7][where?]

Snapchat and other applications have been used by teens as another medium of sexting

Sexting and social media applications[edit]

Sexing has been promoted further by several direct messaging applications that are available on smartphones. The most popular applications for this use are Kik, Snapchat and WhatsApp.[8][9] The difference between using these applications and traditional texting is that content is transmitted over the Internet or a data plan, allowing anyone with Internet access to participate. Kik and WhatsApp appeal to teens because of the anonymity of the applications. Snapchat appeals to teens because it allows users to send photos for a maximum of ten seconds before they self-destruct. Those sending photos over Snapchat believe they will disappear without consequences so they feel more secure about sending them. There have been several cases where teens have sent photos over these applications, expecting them to disappear or be seen by the recipient only, yet are saved and distributed, carrying social and legal implications. Even though users believe their photos on Snapchat for example will go away in seconds, it is easy to save them through other photo capturing technology, third party applications, or simple screenshots. These applications claim no responsibility for explicit messages or photos that are saved. Snapchat's privacy policy on sexting has evolved to include sending content over new smartphone applications because of their appealing features such as the anonymity or temporary elements. Unfortunately these applications carry the same risks and consequences that have always existed.

Sexting and relationships[edit]

Sexting is a prevalent and normalized practice among youth in many western, liberal democracies.[10] Many couples engage in sexting. In a 2011 study, 54% of the sample had sent explicit pictures or videos to their partners at least once, and 1/3 of their sample had engaged in such activities occasionally.[11]

In areas where gender roles traditionally expect men to initiate sexual encounters, sexting is used by women to offer nude images to male partners, allowing women greater latitude to instigate sex.[12] Sexting allows some adult women to be more confident and demanding of their partners, because they are not as confident asking favors face-to-face. Mass media does not encourage teen or underage sexting, because of the child pornography laws they could violate.[12][according to whom?]

In 2013, it was found that sexting is often used to enhance the relationship and sexual satisfaction in a romantic partnership. Sexting thus can be considered a "behaviour that ties into sexuality and the subsequent level of relationship satisfaction experienced by both partners". Based on the interviews conducted by Albury and Crawford, they discovered that sexting is commonly used in positive aspects. According to Albury and Crawford, sexting was not only an activity occurring in the context of flirtation or sexual relationships, but also between friends, as a joke or during a moment of bonding.” [13] Reportedly, hedonism played a role in motivating sexting, and the length of relationship was negatively correlated with sexting behaviors. The study had a small sample size, so more research needs to be done surrounding sexting and motivation, but it is clear that sexting is a phenomenon that is not constrained to simply unattached individuals looking for fun; it is used by those in intimate relationships to increase feelings of intimacy and closeness one's partner.[13] For teens, sexting can also act as a prelude (or in lieu of) sexual activity, as an experimental phase for those who are yet to be sexually active, and for those who are hoping to start a relationship with someone.[4] In a 2013 study conducted by Drouin et al., it was found that sexting is also associated with attachment styles, as those with attachment avoidance are more likely to engage in sexting behaviours (just as these individuals are also more likely to engage in casual sex). Thus, instead of increasing intimacy in these types of relationships, sexting may act as a buffer for physical intimacy.[11]


While some studies have evaluated sexting by married couples or young men who have sex with men,[14] the majority of attention is directed at heterosexual adolescents.Some studies of adolescents find that sexting is correlated with risky sex behaviors,[15][16][17][18][19] while other studies have found no link.[20][10][21]

In a 2008 survey of 1,280 teenagers and young adults of both sexes sponsored by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 20% of teens (13-20) and 33% of young adults (20-26) had sent nude or semi-nude photographs of themselves electronically. Additionally, 39% of teens and 59% of young adults had sent sexually explicit text messages.[22]

A widely cited 2011 study indicated the previously reported prevalence was exaggerated. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire surveyed 1,560 children and caregivers, reporting that only 2.5 percent of respondents had sent, received or created sexual pictures distributed via cell phone in the previous year.[23] Perhaps shedding light on the over-reporting of earlier studies, the researchers found that the figure rose to 9.6% when the definition was broadened from images prosecutable as child pornography to any suggestive image, not necessarily nude ones.[24]

Despite this, a 2012 study conducted by the University of Utah Department of Psychology[25] has received wide international media attention for calling into question the findings reported by the University of New Hampshire researchers. In the University of Utah's study, researchers Donald S. Strassberg, Ryan Kelly McKinnon, Michael A. Sustaíta and Jordan Rullo surveyed 606 teenagers ages 14–18 and found that nearly 20 percent of the students said they had sent a sexually explicit image of themselves via cell phone, and nearly twice as many said that they had received a sexually explicit picture. Of those receiving such a picture, over 25 percent indicated that they had forwarded it to others. In addition, of those who had sent a sexually explicit picture, over a third had done so despite believing that there could be serious legal and other consequences if they got caught. Students who had sent a picture by cell phone were more likely than others to find the activity acceptable. Strassberg, McKinnon, et al. note: "The news-worthiness of [the University of New Hampshire study] derives from [their] figure [2.5%] being far below (by a factor of 5 or more) the prevalence rates reported in the previous surveys. However, while technically accurate, the 2.5% figure is actually rather misleading. As seen in Table 1 of their publication, Mitchell et al. found that among the quarter of their sample that were ages 10–12, [less than] 0.6% 'appeared in, created, or received a nude or nearly nude image' while among those age 15–17, 15% of participants reported having done so. Despite it being widely reported in the media, the overall prevalence figure of 2.5% masks a dramatic age effect that indicates that more than 1 in 8 mid-teen minors admit to having sexted." Strassberg, McKinnon, et al. conclude: "These results argue for educational efforts such as cell phone safety assemblies, awareness days, integration into class curriculum and teacher training, designed to raise awareness about the potential consequences of sexting among young people."[25][26][27][28]


If a person sends an explicit image of themselves to a partner, then it can be a against the law to re-transmit a copy of that image to another person without the consent of the originator.[29] Some countries have revenge porn laws that prevent the publication of sexual images without consent of parties in the image. While there are many possible legal avenues for prosecution of people who knowingly breach the confidence of those sending sexual messages, in practise, nude images can be widely propagated without the consent of the originator.[30]

Some young people blackmail their sexual partners and former partners by threatening to release private images of them.[31][32][33] In a study conducted by Drouin et al. analyzing sexting behaviours among young adults, it was found that men would show the sexually-explicit photos of their girlfriends to their friends.[6][34] This is a new risk associated with new media, as prior to cell phones and email, it would be difficult to quickly distribute photos to acquaintances; with sexting, one can forward a photo in a matter of seconds.

Studies have shown that sex crimes using digital media against minors reflect the same kind of victimization that happens offline.[35] Family members, acquaintances and intimate partners make up the mass majority of perpetrators for digital media sex crimes.[35] Research by the Internet Watch Foundation in 2012, estimated that 88% of self-made explicit images are "stolen" from their original upload location (typically social networks) and made available on other websites, in particular porn sites collecting sexual images of children and young people. The report highlighted the risk of severe depression for "sexters" who lose control of their images and videos.[36][37]

These risks do not only apply to young people. Lifestyle magazines often portray sexting as a positive activity for adults without mentioning the risks. Sexting is seen as irresponsible and promiscuous for adolescents, but "fun and flirty" for adults.[38] These risks tend to be exaggerated by news media, especially in regards to adolescent girls.[39]

There are undoubtedly multiple risks when sending or receiving a sext, and these risks are something that often teens do not consider. The University of Utah study (with a population sample of 606 teens ages 14–18) stated that about one third of respondents did not consider legal or other consequences when receiving or sending sexts.[40] Albury and Crawford (2012) argue that adolescents are well aware of the differences between consensual sexting and distribution of private images with negative intent. Further, they argue young people are developing norms and ethics of sexting based on consent. According to "Sexting as a media production: Rethinking social media and sexuality," there is a disconnect between the law and a young person's use of mobile media when it comes to sexting. Under US federal and state laws, all participants in adolescent sexting are potentially child pornography offenders, whether they are victims, perpetrators, or consensual participants. All forms of explicit teen sexting is illegal(US federal and state laws ). This inhibits the ability to distinguish between teens' uses of social media for sexual harassment and their consensual sexual uses of technologies. Viewing sexting as media production highlights the importance of consent, which would go against current assumptions that sexting inherently in non consensual.[35] Additionally, teenagers may simply text to satisfy their sexual curiosity and sexting may increase as teens get older.

According to a study done by the health journal Pediatrics, more than one in five middle school children with behavioral or emotional problems has recently engaged in sexting. Those individuals who have reported sexting in the past six months were four to seven times more likely to engage in other sexual activities such as intimate kissing, touching genitals, and having vaginal or oral sex, compared to children who stated they did not partake in sexting. The study included 420 participants who were between the ages of 12 and 14 years old. The children were pulled from five urban public middle schools in Rhode Island between 2009 and 2012. 17 percent of the children tested claimed they had sent a sexually explicit text message in the past six months. Another 5 percent admitted to sending sexually explicit text messages and nude or seminude photos.[41][42]

Legal issues[edit]

Sexting is generally legal if all parties are over the age of majority and images are sent with their consent and knowledge; however, any type of sexual message that both parties have not consented to can constitute sexual harassment.

Sexting that involves minors over the age of consent sending an explicit photograph of themselves to a romantic partner of the same age can be illegal in countries where anti-child pornography laws require all participants in pornographic media to be over the age of majority. Some teenagers who have texted photographs of themselves, or of their friends or partners, have been charged with distribution of child pornography, while those who have received the images have been charged with possession of child pornography; in some cases, the possession charge has been applied to school administrators who have investigated sexting incidents as well. The images involved in sexting are usually different in both nature and motivation from the type of content that anti-child pornography laws were created to address.[43][44]

A 2009 UK survey of 2,094 teens aged 11 to 18 found that 38% had received an "offensive or distressing" sexual image by text or email.[45]

In the United States, anyone who is involved in the electronic distribution of sexual photos of minors can face state and federal charges of child pornography. The laws disregard the consent of parties involved."...regardless of one’s age or consent to sexting, it is unlawful to produce, possess, or distribute explicit sexual images of anyone under 18."[12]

In a 2013 interview, assistant professor of communications at the University of Colorado Denver, Amy Adele Hasinoff, who studies the repercussions of sexting has stated that the "very harsh" child pornography laws are "designed to address adults exploiting children" and should not replace better sex education and consent training for teens. She went on to say, "Sexting is a sex act, and if it's consensual, that’s fine..." "Anyone who distributes these pictures without consent is doing something malicious and abusive, but child pornography laws are too harsh to address it."[46]

According to Amy Hasinoff, if sexting was viewed as media production and a consensual activity, this would change the legal assumption that sexting is always non-consensual and reduce the culpability of victimized youth. This turns sexting into a situation that would lead to different legal consequences when distribution of the material was not consented to by the creator.[47]

Legal professionals and academics have expressed that the use of "child porn laws" with regard to sexting is "extreme" or "too harsh". Florida cyber crimes defense attorney David S. Seltzer wrote of this that "I do not believe that our child pornography laws were designed for these situations ... A conviction for possession of child pornography in Florida draws up to five years in prison for each picture or video, plus a lifelong requirement to register as a sex offender."[48]

Legal cases[edit]

  • In 2007, 32 Australian teenagers from the state of Victoria were prosecuted as a result of sexting activity.[49]
  • In 2008, a Virginia assistant principal was charged with possession of child pornography and related crimes after he had been asked to investigate a rumored sexting incident at the high school where he worked. Upon finding a student in possession of a photo on his phone that depicted the torso of a girl wearing only underpants, her arms mostly covering her breasts, the assistant principal showed the image to the principal who instructed him to preserve the photo on his computer as evidence, which he did. The court later ruled that the photo did not constitute child pornography because under Virginia law, nudity alone is not enough to qualify an image as child pornography; the image must be "sexually explicit". Loudoun County Prosecutor James Plowman stood by his initial assessment of the photo and says he would not have pursued the case if the assistant principal had agreed to resign. Instead, the assistant principal got a second mortgage on his house and spent $150,000 in attorneys' fees to clear his name.[50][51]
  • In 2009, a Fort Wayne, Indiana teenage boy was indicted on felony obscenity charges for allegedly sending a photo of his genitals to several female classmates. Another boy was charged with child pornography in a similar case.[53]
  • In 2009, police investigated an incident at Margaretta High School in Castalia, Ohio, in which a 17-year-old girl allegedly sent nude pictures of herself to her former boyfriend, and the pictures started circulating around after they had a quarrel.[54] The girl was charged with being an "unruly child" based on her juvenile status.[55]
  • In 2009, two southwest Ohio teenagers were charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a first-degree misdemeanor, for sending or possessing nude photos on their cell phones of two 15-year-old classmates.[56]
  • In July 2010, Londonderry High School teacher Melinda Dennehy pleaded guilty and received a one-year suspended sentence for sending racy photos of herself to a 15-year-old student.[62]
  • In August 2014, a teen from Manassas City was placed on one year's probation after being charged with two counts of child pornography for allegedly sexting an explicit video to his 15- year old girlfriend. This case become controversial after attempts by the Manassas city police and prosecutors to photograph pictures of the teen's erect penis as evidence to compare with the video he sent to his girlfriend in January.[63]
  • In November 2015, officials discovered widespread sexting at Canon City High School in Colorado.[64] Photos of at least 100 different students were involved, in what appeared to be a contest. District Attorney Thom LeDoux said consenting adults can send send and receive sext messages, but minors can face felony charges for doing the same activities. Before deciding to prosecute, he said he would consider if coercion was involved, if adults were involved, and if actual physical contact was made.[65] When The New York Times reported on this incident, the reporter referred to a book titled "Sexting Panic," written by Adele Hasinoff an assistant professor at the University of Colorado. Hasinoff said schools should talk to students about sexting, instead of simply demanding that they stop doing it.[65]

Legislative responses[edit]

In Connecticut, Rep. Rosa Rebimbas introduced a bill that would lessen the penalty for "sexting" between two consenting minors in 2009. The bill would make it a Class A misdemeanor for children under 18 to send or receive text messages with other minors that include nude or sexual images. It is currently a felony for children to send such messages, and violators could end up on the state's sex offender registry.[66]

Vermont lawmakers introduced a bill in April 2009 to legalize the consensual exchange of graphic images between two people 13 to 18 years old. Passing along such images to others would remain a crime.[67]

In Ohio, a county prosecutor and two lawmakers proposed a law that would reduce sexting from a felony to a first degree misdemeanor, and eliminate the possibility of a teenage offender being labeled a sex offender for years. The proposal was supported by the parents of Jesse Logan, a Cincinnati 18-year-old who committed suicide after the naked picture of herself which she sexted was forwarded to people in her high school.[68]

Utah lawmakers lessened the penalty for sexting for someone younger than 18 to a misdemeanor from a felony.[69]

In New York, Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-Rockland) has introduced a bill that will create an affirmative defense where a minor is charged under child pornography laws if they possesses or disseminate a picture of themselves or possess or disseminates the image of another minor (within 4 years of their age) with their consent. The affirmative defense will not be available if the conduct was done without consent. It also creates an educational outreach program for teens that promotes awareness about the dangers of sexting.[70]

See also[edit]


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