Sexting is the act of sending a nude or sexually provocative picture over a mobile phone or the Internet. Most sexting takes place over mobile phones and is related in part to the ease of using a mobile phone camera in a private place. While there can be many reasons individuals choose to send a nude or provocative picture to someone else, sexting shows not only how we often use technology in very personal ways, but it also shows how easy it is to forward a message meant for one person on to an entire group of people. When a person knows who is receiving the sext a certain amount of intimacy between or among the sender and recipient(s) can be assumed, but often sexts are forwarded to others by the original recipient. When that happens, a number of problems might arise. While there can be social and moral consequences to sexting, most of the controversy surrounding the subject deals with teens sexting each other, or messages that cross into the boundary of child pornography.
Because mobile phones in particular are personal technologies, there are very few legal guidelines to limit what one person does with their own mobile phone and how the content of the message is accepted by the intended receiver of that message. But when it comes to teens who are experimenting with what may seem like testing sexual boundaries, the consequences of sexting become more complicated. For the most part, the biggest problems occur when messages are shared with others, and the sender of the sext is humiliated or embarrassed by the mass distribution of a sext. Photo messaging services like Instagram or Snapchat can become disseminators of messages meant to be personal and aimed to an individual but that often become collections of similar types of images.
In the cover story to an Atlantic Monthly article on why teens sext, journalist Hanna Rosin profiled several teens who sent and received sexts and discussed the problems for those individuals, parents, and law enforcement personnel who are often called in to deal with the problems of sexting among teens. While Rosin reports that the most common reason teens say they sext is that “their boyfriend of girlfriend wanted the picture” and that most experience no major consequences for engaging in the behavior. However, Rosin also cites a study by Professor Elizabeth Page 307 | Top of ArticleEnglander indicating that about 70 percent of the girls reported feeling that they were under some pressure to send a sext, while 12 percent reported that they felt very pressured to send a sext. The “pressured sexters” were much more likely to feel bad about their actions, and often felt less assured about “their place in the social hierarchy after sending a sext” ( Rosin 2014 , 73–74). Furthermore, it is more likely that those images taken as a result of pressure are often those that are more likely to be shared with others, rather than by the one person who requested that the picture be taken.
While there are a number of studies that have conflicting reports about the problem of sexting among teens, most acknowledge that sexting is a popular activity for teens in particular because they are trying to come to terms with sexuality and their own value of individualism and control over their own body. For these reasons, law enforcement is often uncomfortable seizing the mobile phone of a person who sends or collects sexts, because what might be a youthful indiscretion has the potential to create a permanent record of possible sexual deviance. While some states have very explicit laws about how to classify sexts (particularly among age groups that have not yet reached majority), some states are more heavy-handed than others. For example, some states classify visual images of nude individuals who are under the legal age of majority as child pornography, and possession of this type of content is illegal and a criminal offense.
The laws regarding teen sexting are sometimes complicated. Florida is one state that has passed laws specifically relating to minors who transmit sexts. A first offender might have to pay a fine, complete community service, or attend a class on the implications of sexting, but a second offense is classified as a misdemeanor, and a third offense is a felony. In Virginia, though, anyone who takes a picture and distributes it, or anyone who has a sext stored on their phone, could be arrested on a felony charge.
But while sexting is particularly troubling when it comes to teens, the act of sending and receiving sexts is by no means the purview of teens alone. The Pew Research Center conducted a study of technology and couples’ relationships and found that 9 percent of adult mobile phone owners have sent a sext of themselves to someone else; 20 percent have received a sext of someone they know on their mobile phone; and 3 percent have shared a sext they have received with others ( Lenhart and Duggan 2014 ).
Often, people who sext (whether teens or adults) are carried away by the personal use of mobile phones or the idea of sending an image over the Internet to a specific person and they forget how easy it is for that message to be intercepted or forwarded to others. In 2011, U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner of New York was forced to resign from Congress because of sexts he took of himself and shared over his Twitter account. Though he first denied that he sent the messages, and Page 308 | Top of Articleactually used the pseudonym “Carlos Danger,” he finally confessed that he had shared the explicit images with six different women over a three-year period. The humiliation and negative attention forced him to resign from public office.
See also: Cyberbullying ; Mobile Phone Cameras ; Pornography
Lenhart, Amanda, and Maeve Duggan. 2014. “Couples, the Internet, and Social Media.” Pew Research Center. Accessed March 16, 2015: http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/02/11/couples-the-internet-and-social-media/ .
Rosin, Hanna. 2014. “Why Kids Sext.” The Atlantic Monthly, 314: 65–77.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6485200143