Let's talk about sexting

September 29, 2015
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We’ve all been cautioned countless times about the dangers of sexting and the horrific consequences associated with it. In high school, it seemed that each week we were being introduced to a new scaremonger who would address the all-girl cohort, warning us that sending a dirty message would tarnish our reputation forever and make us easy targets for sexual assault.

Although this approach now seems misguided and sexist, I know that the school was just trying to do its job and ensure we don’t face legal consequences. But even after leaving high school, a lot of the conversation around sexting still seems to be largely negative. This doesn’t really make sense, considering recent research by the American Psychological Association that found that 88 per cent of people have sexted. So if almost everyone’s doing it, why is it so widely feared?

Sex therapist Jacqueline Hellyer attributes the source of this taboo to the older generation’s unfamiliarity with sexting, and the technological affordances of it.

“People have fear of the new, and [sexting] tends to be adopted more by younger people than older people,” she says. “Older people always seem to be worried by what younger people are doing … they worry that young people will be hurt by it or taken advantage of.”

She notes that, contrary to popular belief, sexting can be a positive form of communication, particularly in a trusting relationship.

“One of the key things that keeps a relationship strong is that there’s some quality ongoing interaction between the couple, and you can use technology to keep that going,” she says.

It’s just an extension of sexuality into the modern world. The technology is there to do it, so why wouldn’t we?

Julian*, 20, says that he and his girlfriend sext each other regularly over iMessage and Snapchat.

“It’s just an extension of sexuality into the modern world. The technology is there to do it, so why wouldn’t we?” he says.

Julian thinks that, for young people, sexting is becoming more normalised.

“Older generations think it’s a bad thing, but at our age, it’s becoming less and less of a taboo subject. For youth, it’s becoming a normal part of our sex lives.”

Rosie*, 19, agrees, and says a lot of the apprehension surrounding sexting comes from a lack of understanding about this “unconventional” method of expressing one’s sexuality.

She says sexting can be a really positive way of gauging what her and partner want from sex, although she acknowledges that it can sometimes take focus away from the important non-sexual aspects of their relationship.

“I think people should sext away! It’s just important not to get too caught up in it being the core of a relationship,” she says. “Sometimes it makes sex a larger part of the relationship than it should.”

Of course, like anything involving technology, there are a number of risks, and Jacqueline urges young people to sext responsibly.

“Young people don’t realise that things that are done on the Internet stay there forever,” she says. “They need to be careful when it comes to future employers and that sort of thing.”

With social media usage becoming increasingly pervasive, it’s easy to overestimate the security of platforms such as Snapchat, WhatsApp and iMessage, to name a few. Especially now that many of us own multiple devices that are connected to each other, our sexually charged pics or dirty messages could end up being seen by the wrong eyes.

It’s scary what a bad breakup can lead to and what some people can inflict on their exes … People have to realise that social media are platforms exploitable for abuse.

Additionally, there’s the issue of screenshotting. While sexters may use Snapchat believing their photo will disappear in seconds, a number of apps enable the discrete screenshotting of images without the sender’s knowledge – and that’s not to mention Snapchat’s new ‘replay’ feature.

Julian mentions the “horror stories” he’s heard involving friends of friends. “It’s scary what a bad breakup can lead to and what some people can inflict on their exes … People have to realise that social media are platforms exploitable for abuse. People can screenshot Snapchats, so you need to know that the person you’re sexting is someone you completely trust.”

Jacqueline echoes this advice, and refers to the illegal and non-consensual circulation of images that occurs as “revenge porn”, which can have disastrous emotional, social and financial consequences for victims.

“Unfortunately, things can be forwarded on until you lose control of your own ‘private’ images. Even when you think you’re in a fantastic relationship, when relationships go bad, things can get nasty,” she says.

Ultimately, sexting should be treated in the same way as physical sex, while also keeping in mind the capabilities of modern technology. It essentially all comes down to trusting your instinct and only doing what feels right, says Jacqueline.

“Our sexuality is a really unique thing, and for some people, it might be completely authentic for them to be crazy and out there,” she says. “But it’s also perfectly authentic for someone to be quite reserved and modest and not do anything until they really know [their partner].”

Sexting can be a fun, exciting and empowering way of connecting with a partner, and it’ll be interesting to see where continuing developments in modern technology take it.

“People have always used new technologies to communicate better with,” says Jacqueline. “Our society has been so oppressed when it comes to sexuality, and it’s only really recently that that’s been changing, especially with things like sexting.

“What people need to know is that there are no actual rules, as long as it feels right. And that rightness is something you need to be able to learn to tap into yourself -and it’s going to be different for different people.”

*Names have been changed for privacy purposes.

Aobh O’Brien-Moody

Aobh studies journalism at UNSW, eats too much ice cream and is half Irish in case you couldn’t tell. She tweets at @Aobh_OBM.

Image: Garry Knight, Flickr Creative Commons license