By Grisselle DeFrank, MPH
Sex isn’t just one act, but a whole spectrum of different activities and experiences. And while some sexual activity is physical, not all of it is.
Even though it doesn’t involve physical touch, sexting is still a kind of sexual activity. Just like it’s important to understand the risks of physical sex before you have it, it’s important to educate yourself about sexting before you decide whether to do it. Here’s what you need to know.
For the record, when we talk about “sexting” we generally mean sending or receiving any image, video or text message that shows or describes someone’s genitalia or private parts (like a penis, vulva or breasts) or a sex act (like oral, vaginal, or anal sex).
1. Consent matters
All the normal rules about consent also apply online. Sending someone an unwanted sext is sexual harassment, and NOT ok. Always ask before you send a sexy photo or text: “Would it be ok if I…?” “How would you feel about…?”
It’s also never ok to pressure someone to sext you, just like it’s never ok to pressure someone to do something physical with you. If someone seems uncomfortable or says that they’re not interested, you HAVE to respect that. And if someone says yes only after you’ve asked five times and made them feel bad? That’s not freely-given consent, either.
2. Boundaries are important
Boundaries online are just as important as other boundaries. Think about what you’re ok and not ok with. Maybe you feel comfortable being sent nude photos, but not sending them. Or describing something sexy, but not sending photos of yourself. You don’t need a reason to set a boundary. Remember: when you set a boundary, your partner needs to respect it. It’s never ok to ignore someone’s boundaries.
Keep in mind that what you consider graphic or explicit may be very different than what someone else considers graphic or explicit.
3. You’re not in control
Having physical sex carries risks, but there are also lots of ways to help prevent them (like using condoms, getting tested for STIs and using birth control). But there’s no equivalent of safer sex when it comes to sexting. Even though you can take some precautions (like not including your face in photos), there are no guarantees.
Some people feel safer and more comfortable sexting than being sexual with someone else in person. That’s completely normal and ok! But, it’s important to be mindful of potential unwanted outcomes. Once you send a photo, video, or message, it’s in someone else’s hands. Think about how you would feel and what you would do if your photo got shown to someone who you didn’t want to see it. Even if you know they’ve deleted it off their phone, they could have sent a copy to someone else or saved it on a computer. Phones are also not has private as we think – they can be hacked, and often times people share their phones with others. Having explicit images or conversations go public can make people feel embarrassed, ashamed, stressed, or other intense emotions. Sometimes, people get bullied because of it.
None of these situations are fair. In an ideal world, private messages would stay private, and no one would shame others for expressing their sexuality. But ultimately, other people’s reactions are out of your control.
4. Know the law
Nude photos of minors are considered child pornography. This means that taking, having or sharing explicit photos of anyone under 18 could have serious legal consequences—even if the person in the photo is you. Having nude photos of someone under 18 (even if you didn’t ask for them) means you could be charged with possession of child pornography. Taking or sharing nude photos means you could be charged with disseminating (sharing) child pornography. It doesn’t matter whether the photos are consensual or not.
Even though law enforcement rarely prosecutes teens who have or share images consensually, it has happened. In addition to possible jail time, this also puts you at risk of being put on the sex offender registry, which has a major impact on your personal and professional life.
5. We can change how others feel about non-consensual sexting
You can’t control what other people do. But you can help change what your friends and peers think about sexting—especially when it’s nonconsensual. If someone shows you an explicit image that wasn’t meant for you, don’t let it slide. Let them know that what they’re doing is a MAJOR breach of trust, and not ok. Definitely do NOT share the images or messages with anyone else.
6. Sexting isn’t consent
Someone might feel comfortable describing sex acts they don’t feel comfortable actually doing in person. Or they might feel comfortable getting naked for the camera, but not in front of a real live human being. Never assume that someone is ok with something because of what they’ve sexted. Open communication and enthusiastic consent are still super, super important!
Having questions about sex, relationships and your body is completely normal! If you’re 10-22 years old, stop by the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for free, confidential sexual health care and health education! No judgment, no charge.
Grisselle DeFrank, MPH is a Health Educator at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center School Based Health Program where she provides health education counseling and tailors health education programming to the needs of youth in the community. She holds an MPH in Health Policy and Management from the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy and also holds a BA in Health and Societies from the University of Pennsylvania. She is interested in advancing health equity through health education, research, and policy.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.