Digital romance & lockdown love – sexting expertise from Dr Emily Setty
Updated: Mar 29
Valentine’s Day is the perfect catalyst for thinking about how young people communicate around love, intimacy, relationships, sex and sexting (aka sending nudes). In studying sexting and consent, Dr Emily Setty – lecturer in criminology at the University of Surrey, author of Risk And Harm In Youth Sexting and articles on consent and sexting and teenage boys – has been quizzing young people about how, whether they send or receive images or not, they are part of a sexting culture.
Here she talks to us about dick pics, slut shaming and how to talk with kids about sexting…
WHAT SEXTING ACTUALLY MEANS
The word “sexting” isn’t helpful because it’s not specific enough – it can refer to a message, picture, video or livestream. The term “youth-produced sexual imagery” is becoming more common, but even that isn’t helpful because sometimes it’s not just images and they’re not necessarily just intended to be sexual. Evidence suggests that kids also share intimate or revealing images to be flirty, to arouse or to get feedback on how they look.
The motivation can also be social – when kids experiment with sexting at age 12 or 13 it’s more about peer pressure and that can involve boys trying to get images from girls to show other boys and to shock each other. When kids are aged 15, 16 or 17, two things happen: 1) they see themselves as more relationship orientated and put more thought into intimacy and trust and 2) they’ve become more risk averse because they’ve seen things go wrong.
Young people, especially girls, are being asked for sexual images, but kids who share images of themselves are in a – perhaps substantial – minority. More images get sent round than there are individuals producing them, indicating a widespread distribution which may or may not be consensual on the part of either the sender or the recipient! Interestingly the jury is out as to whether boys sext more than girls – rates are often similar, and that may be because boys are sending dick pics.
Kids call sexts “pics”, “nudes” or “messages”. Whether they’re sexting or not, all young people are aware of it and are part of a sexting culture. Sexual portrayals are normalised in the day-to-day visual landscape that young people operate in – there’s an intense focus on the body in terms of celebrities, weight loss and fitness. Sexting is part of that visual culture.
The natural progression for sexting has been from written messages to still images to videos. The step-up from a dick pic is a video of someone masturbating. Livestreaming, FaceTime and videos have increasingly been happening among kids aged 16 and 17. They consider livestreamed videos in a trusted relationship less risky than sending still images because they’re transient and in real time and kids know if the “record” button is on.
Hanging over all of this is the fact that if someone under 18 takes a nude picture of themselves, or films/livestreams themselves, it’s child porn. It’s illegal. That image should not exist even if it’s just on their mobile phone and nobody sees it.
RISKS, REWARDS & DICK PICS
For kids there isn’t a divide between real life and the digital space. If you go in gung ho about how sexting is dangerous, that isn’t going to resonate because sexting is part and parcel of how young people practise relationships.
Sexting can be a normal part of sexual exploration and self-expression, a source of mutual pleasure and connection, a way to build body confidence. It’s understandable that young people would seek out validation in a romantic or sexual way.
But the rewards of sexting are located within a culture of risk. Sometimes the rewards and pleasures are harmful or at the expense of others – for instance, some boys enjoy sharing images of girls because they can show off and get social capital. That’s predicated on exposing girls and shaming them.
Parents commonly believe that sexting predominantly involves boys asking girls to send them images and girls feeling pressured. That is an issue. But the most pervasive issue, I would say, is boys sending unsolicited dick pics and girls receiving them. That continues into young adulthood with dating culture.
Dick pics are ubiquitous. They’re normalised as a thing girls have to put up with if they want to participate in digital-media spaces. Parents need to think about this – and about consent – when they talk about sexting.
For young people the term “dick pic” has connotations: it’s unwanted, a bit hostile and possibly shared with dozens of people by one boy. Dick pics are synonymous with almost harassment or flashing behaviour. But if someone is sent an image by their boyfriend they wouldn’t call that a dick pic.
With sexting a certain masculinity type is rewarded: that narrative of being cool, popular and successful with the ladies. Boys can be shamed if not they’re not adhering to that ideal. A dick pic can make a boy look desperate and creepy, but unlike with a girl’s sexual image, it’s less likely to be identifiable.
In those peer groups, bodies are a big joke and porn is funny; it’s not a big deal. There’s entitlement going on. Those boys downplay and trivialise sending dick pics. Some boys I’ve spoken to are trying to get a rise out of someone; they like that it’s shocking; they think it’s hilarious. Or they think that sending a dick pic is sending a request, an initiation. They know that 99% of girls won’t reply but they’re waiting for the 1% to respond positively. For the boy the consent point is not in his sending the picture but when the girl says she’s into it: “If she isn’t down for it, I won’t hear back.”
For so long we’d focused on girls being the “troubled” or “troubling” sexters that we didn’t even clock the fact that boys were sending dick pics. That’s why it’s important to take a youth-centred approach to understanding what’s going on and not go in with too many preconceptions.
Parents often say: “I’d be worried if I had a girl because of sexting and self-respect issues.”
I think that’s interesting because it’s as much boys sending images around as it is girls. But boys are given a free ride. Their sexuality is not interpreted as a problem. They don’t have “You’re doing it wrong” whacked into their heads, whereas society tells girls: “If you sexualise yourself, you’re lacking in self-respect.”
But if a boy sends a dick pic, where’s his self-respect? Why are the same narratives not being directed towards boys? There’s an over-focus and over-regulation of what girls do. We’ve created conditions for a “boys will be boys” free-for-all – and girls have to put up with it.
We have to fight against that. We have to change our attitude.
When a boy sends a dick pic it’s a power thing, but if a girl sends an unsolicited image of her boobs she’s seen as pathetic and low status and boys brush it off with: “She’s looking for a bit of attention.” Some boys freak out, worrying about getting in trouble and that these images might be child porn. Some boys say it’s kind of random to be sent an image you didn’t ask for, but it’s alright.
The ramifications of risk for boys and girls are completely different. That’s why you can’t talk to boys about risk: it’s not risky for them to send a dick pic. You have to talk about the ethical side – about consent, respect, boundaries and caring about the person who’s receiving it.
It’s fine to teach a girl to report or block a dick pic, but that’s a tech solution to an underlying problem of consent and harassment. Being sent a dick pic is not caused by technology – it’s caused by a sense of entitlement and sense of disregard for the impacts on the recipient. Also many girls are reluctant to report dick pics because they don’t want to rock the boat or for the boy to have a go at them. It can cause more problems than it solves.
Really kids need education about consent and harassment. We need to give them a language for talking about it.
RUMOURS, PLEASURE & SLUT SHAMING
Boys frame the heterosexual dynamic by saying: boys want sex and girls give sex to boys.
Boys have an unencumbered sexuality, while stigma is deeply embedded in our understanding of female sexuality. Girls are more affected by rumours and shame. Even if a girl keeps her face out of an image, if it gets shared or gossiped about, the damage is done.
Girls know that sharing an image of themselves is so loaded and communicates intimacy and trust: “Here’s how much I trust you – you have my life in your hands.”
It’s rare for girls to distribute a boy’s dick pic to shame them. Girls don’t do that because 1) it would make them look strange, since the stereotype is that girls are too nice to do that and using nudes for social capital is seen as a boy thing and 2) girls feel ashamed and didn’t want to admit that they’ve been sent a dick pic – they think: “What kind of girl am I?”
When asked to send an image, a girl has to consider: “Do I say no and alienate the boy or send it and risk him rejecting me or sharing the image?” After she sends it, constantly running through her mind is: “Did he delete the pic? Will he share it?” Because girls consent under a condition of risk, how freely given is that consent?
You have to look at how these things fit together to see why girls react in a given situation. You can glimpse of parts of the puzzle but they’re all moving around and connected to each other.
Where in the middle of that is what girls want? Girls talk about their sexuality in terms of boys and say they get pleasure through becoming an arousing object: “I find sexting pleasurable because I’m fulfilling this boy’s desires.” That’s not a great sense of ownership. They’re sexualising themselves through the male gaze whereas boys are sexual agents who embody and own their sexuality.
The pleasure that girls get in feeling “Look how sexy I am because I can turn someone on” – where is that coming from? This feeling privileges men’s desire and holds up women to feel powerful by playing the role of object.
Sex ed for girls is very much about risk, pregnancy and being used by hypersexual boys. For them the “discourse of desire” – as scholars have long identified it – is missing. As young adults they might have an unapologetic reclamation of their sexuality – as in: “I want to be single and have sex and be sexually pleasured.” But a language legitimising learning about sexuality and pleasure is still, in 2021, not accessible to teenage girls. There are no narratives about sexuality being something they can embody and own, about connecting with their body and understanding their desire.
In what universe are we giving girls the skills to articulate what they want?
We tell girls they can’t be sexually desiring subjects: “You have to abstain. Boys will use you.” No wonder girls aren’t articulating what they need or are interpreting it through what they think boys want. The narrative is all about boys’ sexuality.
We need to give girls that same narrative so they can exercise autonomy and self-knowledge and so boys can respect girls not as vessels for their own sexual pleasure but as individuals with bodies, feelings and pleasure that are as important as what’s going on for them. Then grounds for violating girls’ consent would be diminished because they’d be respected as equal partners. We should be giving girls the tools to identify what is pleasurable, to go through that journey of understanding their own and others’ sexuality.
Boys aged 13 and 14 who’ve watched porn can often be preoccupied with learning: “What do girls really find pleasurable? How can I understand?” We have low expectations of them. They’re aware. They care. They want to know. Boys are interested in girls’ pleasure and girls are interested in expressing desire – but we keep perpetuating the old stereotypes so those remain the norm.
Girls do challenge assumptions that they don’t have bodily reactions, but it has to be packaged in a socially appropriate way. Girls have to manage the line of not being called a slut. That “slut” label is a regulatory thing – it has so much power over how girls express themselves. Their defensive action against being called a slut shoots down their ability to connect with themselves.
A girl who slut-shames someone feels powerful adhering to patriarchal ideals of femininity and positioning herself as a good girl – but long term she ends up being disadvantaged by contributing to a situation that subjugates women.
I say to girls: “It makes me sad when girls slut-shame each other”, then we talk about why and I ask: “What if your friend was called a slut?”
It’s easy to say: “Don’t slut-shame”, but I break down that message and say: “When you slut-shame someone you feel powerful for 5 minutes – you’re having a laugh, spreading gossip – but what about in a few weeks when everyone is judging your actions? Look at the sexism that slut shaming is predicated on and what it does to you.”
HOW TO TALK WITH KIDS ABOUT SEXTING
Be up front – young people really respect that. They’re cool with your being honest as long as they don’t think you’re judging them or telling them what to think because you’re an adult and automatically knowledgeable.
Don’t be adult-centric and come in wanting to convey the facts in a lecturing way. The model of an adult expert and a child passively absorbing knowledge never really worked. Kids can come away with facts, but decision-making isn’t just about knowledge. You want young people to define what the issues are, talk about what they think and feel, and be at ease with things that might be problematic. If you tell them the way they think is wrong, that will only alienate them.
Think about what you want to talk about. It’s about speaking very specifically. When you ask: “Would you do sexting?” that comprises a range of behaviours. Do you want to know if your son would mass-send a dick pic to all the girls in school or if he’d share an image with a girlfriend? Do you want to know if your child who isn’t sexting might have been sent an image or forwarded one on?
Learn from your child what they understand sexting to be. Maybe your daughter has never heard of dick pics; maybe your son is not involved in friendship groups that share images. You have to be led by your child: what they see as significant, what they may be experiencing, what they want to talk about. Go into it thinking: “This what I understand about sexting, these are my values and now I’m going to learn with my child in a 2-way conversation.” Let that conversation unfold on the basis of how your child defines the situation and understands the problem. They might have solutions. Keep learning together.
It can be better to have a hypothetical discussion first, so ask an open question: “I’ve heard that young people use tech to send sexual pictures. Back in the day people did phone sex, but things have moved on! What situations does it happen in? Who’s doing it? Is it boys sending dick pics or does it happen when kids are in a relationship? What do you think of those situations?”
Then you can ask about their direct experience: “Would you ever take an image of yourself? If you got sent an image – a dick pic or a picture forwarded by a friend – what do you think the right thing to do would be? How would you feel?”
You can say: “If you did experience X, Y or Z, this could be something to think about…” There’s different advice for a girl who was sent a dick pic than for a boy who was sent an image of his best mate’s girlfriend.
It’s all about breaking down the context, otherwise we’re just saying: “Don’t ever send images! Report and delete!”
There might be a message you want your kids to internalise, but telling them the message won’t work – you have to encourage them to get to that point. If boys have problematic attitudes about consent, don’t tell them they’re wrong and hammer home points about victim blaming or they’ll never talk to you again. Work out how you sit with ambivalence and take them with you on the journey, support them with the development of their idea so at the end they think the way you want them to.
Hold onto and have in mind your value system and the ethics you’d like your child to learn. First self-examine: “What are my values? What’s my history of understanding my sexuality?” We have to look inside ourselves and see how we operate, see what we understand about sexuality, masculinity, femininity, gender. There are value systems that get communicated with educating kids – and things move on. Things my mother said to me I won’t say to my teenage daughter if I have one.
Be honest about who you are. You can say: “I know nothing about sexting. It sounds random. Tell me about it.” When they reply, convey your values: “Look, it really freaks me out that you’d take a picture of yourself and I’d love you to think about it.”
With values there’s no right and wrong; they can’t disagree. Explain that everyone’s values are equal and both people have something interesting to say.
It’s hard for parents. They can go down the route of warning their child about the negative consequences of sexting and telling their child not to get involved – which is what I’ll secretly be hoping my child does if I have a child one day. We’ve got to be able to talk with our kids about why sexting is risky rather than normalising it and using shame to frighten girls off sexting by saying: “You’re at risk of being stigmatised, so don’t do it.”
Break it down into what’s fair and right. We need to try to have conversations with all our children – girls, boys and other genders – about what is playing out in digital media, why different young people are at risk, if it’s fair and what we can do about it. We need to talk to boys about consent. We need to talk to girls about the importance of being an ally to other girls and not slut-shaming and bullying them. If your child says: “I’ll never do it”, will they potentially be the bully? You don’t want them to think in a judgmental, divisive way that pulls other people down and contributes to a bullying digital landscape.
CHANGING THE SEXTING CULTURE
How do you generate empowered decision-making among girls and boys? You have to look at both sides of the coin: how are they talking about decisions but also in what context they’re making decisions and forming ideas about what’s OK. The task is tricky – it’s too simplistic to say: “Do what you want and figure out what you don’t want” because there are factors like risks, what the other person wants and what’s seen as normal and not normal.
What’s been normalised through learning about sexting can be problematic. It’s not great that girls are careful and risk averse because they’ve learned that they’re at risk of being shamed and bullied. It’s not great that boys, having learned to not create a footprint by forwarding images, instead show them to people on their phone. So boys try to not get caught and girls avoid getting into trouble – but is that really ethical, responsible behaviour?
It’s about creating a more ethical climate where everybody isn’t living under the tension and hostility of judgment and regulation. If young people police each other’s behaviour it all gets turned back on them in the end.
I try to convey to young people: “What carries reward and social capital in your peer group: gossip or seeing a picture? It’s powerful to get kudos – you decide if you are going to seek that reward, likewise you can change what’s rewarded. If when someone sent a pic people said: ‘That’s really harsh’, it wouldn’t happen. Even if you’re not engaging in sexting behaviour, you stand to benefit from a climate in which people are not being shamed – because then you also won’t be shamed. Change the fatalistic idea about the role you play. It’s not a zero sum game. It’s about how you stand to benefit from or be harmed by this culture you’re operating in.”
How can we take the power away from sexting culture? If we refuse to engage, then we take away its power.
THE YOUNG LOVE LOCKED DOWN SURVEY – GET YOUR CHILD TO TAKE PART!
With Dr Emma Dobson from Durham University I’m running the Young Love Locked Down survey for kids aged 13 to 18 to find out how young people used digital media for sexual, romantic and intimate purposes during the March-June 2020 lockdown. Was digital media a valuable tool for maintaining relationships? Did it open up scope for more problematic stuff? The kids can skip any question – and it’s anonymous.
Young people have been living with their family – but if they’re 15, 16 or 17 and in a relationship, these are times of their life when their understanding of intimate relationships is being fomented. I can’t imagine the impact of being removed from friendship groups for such a long time and it all being digitally mediatised. If education around digital media doesn’t change after the pandemic, I’ll despair! We need to understand the positive and negative sides of the future for this cohort and how we can prevent young people from being harmed. Where is it going to go from here?