The Faces of Sexting: The Good, the Inappropriate and the Risky
Language, our best tool for revealing desires, has in recent decades amalgamated with technology, expanding the ways we relate to each other. Where once we could only share our baser thoughts through words and actions, we can now send, receive or forward sexually explicit messages, photographs or videos—actions we refer to as "sexting."
Most often, sexting serves as an element of foreplay but can also be a substitute for physical encounters in long-distance relationships. Sexting often involves fantasy, anticipation, seduction and delayed gratification, all (hopefully) generating a pleasure bomb for lovers.
However, in our virtual world, there are dangers, too: Content might fall into the wrong hands, and the act itself is rife with the potential for sexual harassment.
The good and the sexy about sexting
Between adults, and with consent, sexting can be very exciting. According to data presented in 2015 at the annual convention of The American Psychological Association, 88 percent of surveyed adults—870 participants from the U.S. ages 18 through 82—admitted to sexting at some point in their lives, while 82 percent sexted in the past 12 months.
"A lot of research shows that increased pleasure through sexting is a reality," said Luz Jaimes, M.D., a specialist in clinical sexology and relationship therapy. "The relationship is strengthened because it generates more connection and couples become more fun."
This type of sensual communication amplifies well-being and sex drive. People who use sexting to talk about what they really want during sex can see improved self-esteem, as well. When fulfilling fantasies, sexting could additionally help reduce shame.
Take a lot of precautions with written messages, especially when attaching photos and videos.
"There are many people who do not know how to talk about sex directly," Jaimes said. "Nevertheless, the decision to sext someone should be a very personal call. It's not an obligation just because sexting is a trend."
Sexting has received a lot of attention in movies and literature and on television. One of the most popular examples involved Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele—protagonists in the "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy by E.L. James—who were constantly sending each other explicitly sexual messages.
However, real life is more complex than fiction. When Jaimes' patients ask her about sexting, she recommends taking a lot of precautions with written messages, especially when attaching photos and videos.
When things get inappropriate
While sexting can be used to explore the sexual boundaries of a relationship, all partners need to be on the same page and respect each other's decisions. Of course, openly discussing it is the best method to fully understand each person's expectations, especially since genuinely sexy communication has to be reciprocal—anything else can quickly veer into sexual harassment.
Clinical sexologists consistently emphasize the need for consent in any relationship, and this inherent necessity doesn't change in the virtual space. Even within the confines of a consensual relationship, anyone should be able to withdraw their permission at any time if a decision or activity makes them uncomfortable.
The HBO satirical drama-comedy "Succession" uses sexting to great dramatic, and educational, effect—skim ahead to avoid spoilers. In one episode, Roman Roy (played by Kieran Culkin) intends to text a dirty photo to interim CEO Gerri Kellman (J. Smith-Cameron), who'd already indicated that she wasn't interested. Instead, during a business meeting no less, Roman accidentally sends the photo to his father, Logan Roy (Brian Cox). It's embarrassing for Roman, sure, and a moment that shows us how easily mistakes can be made. But Roman not only made a mistake by sending the message to the wrong number. Critically, he also continued to send sexual content without the other person's permission. Gerri clearly pulled out of the game sometime earlier, so the photos turned into harassment.
"On Twitter, there are many women who say, 'Whoever sends me a picture of their erect penis again, I'm going to block them,'" Jaimes said. "Very few people respond positively to receiving unsolicited nudes. The reply is mostly rejection because it's a modality with sexual violence included."
The risks and nightmares of sexting
Before sending sexually explicit content via social media, text messaging or email, you must completely trust the person to whom you're sending it.
"If you are going to engage in sexting with a stranger, the security system has to be more robust because they can disclose it," Jaimes said, adding there are still risks even with a stable partner. Jaimes especially advises staying on high alert if a relationship fails, as one partner may choose to post past sexts as revenge.
In this kind of scenario, there are precautions you can take before sending naughty messages, such as using apps less vulnerable to hacking, or others where photos included in messages are deleted within seconds.
Some of these issues are highlighted in another of HBO's most popular shows, "Euphoria." The lead character, Rue Bennett (played by Zendaya), asserts, "Unless you're Amish, nudes are the currency of love." "Euphoria" has also demonstrated how nudes have the potential to hurt the people that send them, even landing them in trouble with the law.
According to a meta-analysis published in 2018 by researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary, 1 in 7 minors sends sext messages, 1 in 4 receives them and 1 in 8 admitted resending them without getting the consent of the person in the images or the person who sent the content.
"Research [indicates] that children start sexting practices as young as 12 years old," Jaimes pointed out. "Communication is crucial between parents and their children. Unfortunately, parents know very little about sex education. Prohibiting sexting doesn't seem to give the right results. The key is to teach children, depending on their age, to understand the reality of today's world. However, adults probably need to figure that out first."