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We have a sexting situation on our hands. Or, more accurately, in our hands. Sexting is a type of cyber-flirting, an expression of sexuality. But if our words and images are forwarded, edited, or posted without our permission, there’s nothing LOL about that. Indiscrete images posted by you or anyone else can sabotage a job hunt, date, election campaign, or Thanksgiving dinner. In a 2014 study, non-sexting students cited this as their primary reason for not exchanging erotic pics (Deviant Behavior journal). There’s no such thing as risk-free sexting, but if you choose to sext, you can limit the risks to yourself and others.

Safer sexting

Don’t count on Snapchat; screenshots are a thing. In the 2014 study, students described risk-management strategies:

Keep it classy

Be thoughtful about language; keep it lighthearted. Before sending a sext, get the recipient’s consent. Agree on what language you’re comfortable with (one person’s sexy may be another person’s vulgar).

Leave something to the imagination

Consider not revealing anything that your bathing suit wouldn’t. Limiting the reveal also limits the potential damage (and keeps the conversation exciting).

Go incognito

Not showing your face or identifying marks (birthmarks and tattoos) allows you to retain plausible deniability.

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How to respond if someone asks you to sext

Question: Hey, send me a naked pic. Answer: No thanksThe want topless? Give them topless. (picture of ketchup bottle with top off)This guy does not approve (picture of an angry cat)You wanted a picture of my junk (picture of a messy room)Question: What are you wearing? Answer: Let's not go there. We'd regret it when you ask me for a job 5 years from now #FuturesWithoutBaggageAsking for naked? (picture of Naked Juice product)

How risky is sexting, really?

Sexting can work when we get to choose the audience. Sexts that feel healthy and empowering at the time may be judged negatively if they go public. In the 2014 study, students commonly acknowledged that risk of social disapproval and stigma (Deviant Behavior).

“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. Marla Eisenberg, associate professor and director of research in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota.

Nothing online is truly delete-able. “When we’re applying for jobs, we can assume that any potential employer will Google us to see what they can learn,” says
Dr. Eisenberg. “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.”

You may have witnessed this already. “A good friend of mine was a victim of leaked nude photos that she had sent to a guy she liked. At first I was shocked at my friend, but then angry [at the person who leaked it]. I found it repulsive to invade someone’s privacy and expose [her] to a group of strangers,” says Javier*, a student from Brooklyn, New York.

*Name changed for privacy.

Who’s sexting in college?

A study involving 1,650 first-year undergraduates at a large southeastern college (Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 2014) 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.
  • Women were significantly more likely than men to report having been pressured to send a sext (24 percent of women, 5 percent of men).

How to handle an uninvited sext

If the image is from anyone but your consenting adult partner, break the chain. Delete the picture, regardless of what anyone else might be doing with it. Sharing a sext is a form of cyberharassment. Cyberharassment involves posting content online that is 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. Cyberstalking and cyberharassment are federal crimes.

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.

Sexting, cyberharrassment, and the law

Sexting is defined legally 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 some states, sexting that involves images of people aged under 18 is considered child pornography (a felony); penalties can include jail time and registration as a sex offender. In some states, sexting laws carry more moderate consequences for teens up to age 18.

More than 25 states have laws designed to penalize people who share intimate images of another person without their consent. People can face felony or misdemeanor charges, depending on the state; federal laws may also apply. Charges may include harassment, invasion of privacy, or cyberharassment.

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Anna-Marie Jaeschke is a West Virginia University doctoral student in sport and exercise psychology.