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  • Leah Jewett

“Happens all the time. No harm done”: how young people see sexting & how parents can talk about it

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

Photo of 2 young people holding up a sign of a mobile phone and the word "share"

Whether they’re sending nudes or receiving them or not, young people are aware of sexting. They’re all part of a sexting culture.

Dr Emily Setty – a lecturer in criminology at the University of Surrey and author of Risk And Harm In Youth Sexting – is a sexting expert specialised in researching issues like consent, self-respect, healthy relationships, gender double standards, risks and peer pressure.

Here is what Emily has to say about dick pics, victim blaming and how to talk with your child about the social and personal complexities of sending nudes…

So what does sexting even mean?

Picture of Dr Emily Setty smiling

Sexting is the production and exchange of sexual, explicit or intimate digital material that’s written – like a text message – or photographed, like still or moving images that are recorded or livestreamed.

The official term for sexting is “youth-produced sexual imagery“ (YPSI).

“Sending nudes” is what young people say – or just “pic”, “nude pic”, “sexy pic”. “Send me a pic” has sexual connotations. The most loaded is “dick pic” – an image of a penis. For girls that’s a derogatory term: when they talk about dick pics, they’re layering on issues around consent, cyberflashing and harassment.

How does sexting affect children of different ages?

At 12, 13 or 14, kids become sexually aware – that’s part of their development. Sexting is more about social pressure, expectations and goals – about discovering the power of collecting and sharing sexual images.

Older teens might feel: “Sending nudes is about caring, intimacy and identity.”

Young people aged 15, 16 or 17 explain: “We’re not bothered about showing off for our mates. You wouldn’t forward an image of a girl en masse to your friends – you just show it on your phone so you won’t get caught or get them in trouble. We’ve learned how to get away with it.” They see that as maturity.

But some nonconsensual or coercive narratives – boys sending dick pics because they think it’s funny and girls feeling under pressure – are still playing out with the older kids. That’s the problem with just teaching kids the risks: you end up making them good at avoiding risks, not good at behaving ethically, kindly or responsibly.

How does sexting overlap with the objectification of bodies that we see in the media and social media?

Children learn to relate to their changing body in the context of all the scrutiny over idealised bodies in celebrity culture and advertising. Now young people can create, edit, Photoshop and curate their own self-image just like celebrities – and sexualised image-sharing is part of that landscape.

Young boy in shirt and tie with fake six-pack muscles
From “Rise of the ripped teen” (Guardian, 9/5/20). Image: Kellie French

How young people represent themselves in cyberspace, and where they sit along a spectrum of what they consider shameful or appropriate, varies. There are some revealing images that they define as non-sexual. In terms of fitness, exercise, weight loss and diet it’s normalised for boys to stand there with a six-pack and weights looking ripped, and girls to pose in a bikini.

Not all images are shared under pressure or distributed in a widespread way. So we have to be balanced in how we talk to young people, because if we go in with: “It will all end in tears” they might think: “Those horror stories didn’t happen for me.”

Sometimes parents can get bogged down by the idea of: “I need my child not to participate in sexting.” You can tell them not to, but they’ll have a relationship and be sexual at some point. Sex and relationships is going to be happening online whether we like it or not.

Can sexting be positive for young people in terms of sexual exploration, self-expression and pleasure?

Drawing of 2 mobile phones with 2 boys reaching out from them almost touching hands

Young people talk about the benefits of seeing each other’s bodies, trialling something that might be intimidating face-to-face, playing around with sexual boundaries and exchanging fun, flirty, read-between-the-lines messages.

With sexting young people can challenge stereotypes and expectations and carve out space for experimenting and self-expression.

But one person’s pleasure can be another person’s pain. Boys describe checking out a girl’s image together on one of their phones as enjoyable. They don’t see it as a big deal, but of course the girl is being violated.

Drawing of a girl on a mobile phone with her underwear on the floor and the words "Love hope sex dreams"

Girls say about sexting: “I turned on my boyfriend, so now I feel good about myself.” We need to interrogate that and break it down: “Where does that sense of obligation come from? Is it really empowering?”

But even in adulthood pleasure is a tricky thing…

So if girls tend to define themselves through how sexy they are to the male gaze, how can they figure out their own sexuality and what they really want?

We see ourselves as living in a more egalitarian world now in terms of gender and sexuality, but there’s still the narrative that girls are not interested in sex and boys are very sexual.

Of course some girls are lesbian, bisexual or any other LGBT+ identity. But in a heterosexual dynamic girls are told: “You are equal. You have every right to pursue your own sexual pleasure.” But girls are not participating in sexting on an equal basis – their sexuality is problematised. They have to juggle: “If boys want sex, I have to give it” with the idea that girls should be passive, not overly sexual and not slutty otherwise boys won’t like them.

Some girls can be resistant and say: “I’m going to act like boys do. I’m going to go out and take it. And I’ll tell everybody who calls me a slut that I don’t care.” That can be a display of strength, but that stereotypical version of empowerment can also crumble quite quickly – some girls say it’s still horrible when they’re shamed, blamed and bullied.

It’s not enough to expect girls to overcome those contradictions about female sexuality on their own. We need to change how we speak to girls about their sexuality and dismantle the idea that boys will be boys and will always seek out sex and treat girls badly.

We should not be telling girls: “Don’t participate in sexting.” That’s like saying: “You could be attacked outside, so don’t leave your house.” We have to question: why are they at risk?

In talking to boys aged 13 or 14 who watch porn, you’ve found that they want to know what girls really find pleasurable…

It’s sad that some gender stereotypes about how boys relate sexually to themselves and to girls are letting boys down. Teenage boys’ group banter and bravado can be entertaining. You can see this pressure to be sexually capable: “I know what I’m doing.” Pornography is just a big laugh – they want to shock each other with it. But when you speak to boys one-to-one it’s more complicated. Porn is unsettling them about how they feel about themselves and their bodies: “We don’t look like the guys in porn. We don’t think we can act like they do. And is that really how you pleasure a girl? No one tells us what sexual pleasure involves.”

Drawing of a phone with XXX coming out of it

There’s often very poor media literacy: they don’t realise that porn is edited and airbrushed, that the performers are professionals. Some older teenagers realise that sex in real life is different because they’ve learned it literally from experie. But 13- and 14-year-olds think: “Oh my god, is that what I’ve got to do?”

It’s not just that boys want to exploit girls – it’s that porn is normalising and impacting their expectations. We say porn shouldn’t be sex education. OK. What should sex education be then? How do we teach young people about pleasure and what sex looks like? The easy bit is criticising porn; the harder bit is educating in a different way.

Let’s talk about dick pics…

A girl could be in any scenario – maybe sat with her mum and dad watching TV – and this picture of an erect penis suddenly comes into that space.

Girls say: “Happens all the time.” Boys don’t deny it. They say: “Yep, that happens to girls.”

You can’t get more clear in terms of what you’re looking for than sending a picture of your penis and maybe a message like: “Send me something back.” Boys know that 99% of girls will delete it, maybe block or ignore them and move on. Boys think: “No harm done.” For them it’s efficient: send out 100 dick pics and one girl might reply. It’s also relatively low risk. Even if the image is shared, well, it’s just a penis – it can’t be traced back to them; it’s kind of anonymous – and even if the image is identifiable, people will laugh it off.

But there’s a sense of entitlement and a complete disregard of how violating this nonconsensual behaviour is. Boys see it as: consent isn’t required because the dick pic is the initiation. It’s the equivalent of saying: “I want to have sex with you. Are you interested?” It’s not: “I would like to send you a dick pic. Are you OK to receive it?” They don’t see the issue.

"Protect your daughter" crossed out, with underneath: "Educate your son"

So is it misplaced for parents to worry about sexting in terms of their daughter and her self-respect but not in terms of their son and his sending unsolicited dick pics?

Yes, 100%. If a girl’s picture gets out, it’s reputationally the end for that girl. She’ll be bullied, shamed, ostracised. Girls are much more likely to experience harmful, nonconsensual behaviour and to be victims of sexual violence.

We should care about boys and sexting! If a boy wouldn’t pull his trousers down in front of a girl walking home by herself, he shouldn’t be sending her a dick pic, because it’s a violation; it’s harassment. In fairness, I don’t think any parent would brush it off as no big deal if their son were sending dick pics.

Boy in hoodie holding up a phone that blocks his face

We need to talk to boys about two things: sending dick pics, and how they treat girls and girls’ images. So you can ask your son: “If your mate has a picture of a girl on their phone, what will you do? Look at it? Ask them to send it to your phone?”

It’s about sexual ethics. Sexting is part of the repertoire of sex. So if you behave unethically with sexting, that’s part and parcel of your sexual identity. It’s about how you interact with people’s personal online content, about how you want to treat your fellow human being.

Just because something can be shared doesn’t mean it should be. Even if you think someone has been reckless and it’s their fault if it all goes wrong, it isn’t – someone else decided to do something harmful with it.

Cartoon showing sexting messages "you're sexy" "I don't want you showing my pic to your friends" "I won't show anyone" and a picture of Venus by Botticelli

Warning girls that they risk being stigmatised for life if they participate in sexting is a negative way to frame girls’ bodies and it’s a de-legitimising of girls’ sexuality. That often goes hand in hand with a normalisation of boys as being hypersexual and hormonal. Young people pick up on that narrative to behave harmfully.

We tell girls that the only way to have any sexual self-respect is to say no and keep their body covered up. That’s almost Victorian in its morality. I think we need to legitimise people’s bodies and not talk about them under an umbrella of shame. I don’t think we should say: “Don’t share an image because it shames you.” I’d love to see the day when a woman’s nipples are just a body part.

The attitudes towards dick pics are: boys just want sex, so it’s predictable that they’d want to share their penis around, be proud of it and want a girl to respond to it. But if a girl’s image gets leaked everybody piles on her and bullies her because “what she did is slutty”.

So re-legitimising sexuality and giving an equal narrative to girls and boys about their sexuality is important. It’s about rights to pleasure and to a sexual identity away from stigma.

We need to teach both boys and girls that girls have a right to their own bodies, and that should not be violated. The first step is to stop saying that every girl who is sexual has low self-esteem. What we call a self-esteem problem is actually the contradictory dilemmas girls face in figuring out their sexuality: “You’ve got to be desirable to boys; boys are hypersexual; boys don’t like girls who are slutty. Don’t be a slut but be sexual.”

And boys will say: “You wouldn’t sext with a girlfriend, just with the dodgy girl. Give her a few compliments to make her send you the stuff then dump her because: how gross.”

So how are girls meant to figure out how to be desirable? That’s what girls are trying to manage, and we call it low self-esteem. I don’t call that low self-esteem. I call that sexism.

We’re all exposed to highly sexualised images of women. So why wouldn’t a tween or teen maybe want to take pictures of herself in a pose or bikini to see: “How do I measure up?” Girls and women are set up by our culture to be judged on their looks…

Girl with long hair and denim shorts posing to take a selfie

You’ve hit the nail on the head: we set up girls and women to measure their value and self-worth on the basis of how visually appealing they are, then we tell them: “You don’t respect yourself. You’ve got low self-esteem.” It’s a way of blaming individual girls for something that’s social, that they’re doing in response to a culture that we’ve created.

It’s so important, as adults, to break down sexting and reflect: “What else is going on in society? Where might these narratives be coming from?” Young people value honesty about the fact that this is a societal issue. They’ll say: “We’re told we’re using technology irresponsibly, but people who are 30 and 40 are too.” They see the double standards.

And now for the million-dollar question: how can parents talk with their kids about sexting?

Young people appreciate candour and honesty. But if you steam in with a direct, almost accusatory approach, you’ll probably alienate your child. To build a dialogue you need to establish trust and show lack of judgment…

If you’re too serious it can feel uncomfortable. Use a bit of humour. When I bring up dick pics with a bunch of girls, often they crack up laughing, and I’ll say: “Come on, girls, you know what I’m talking about”

Don’t make it too personal</