At 13, Bianca stood a little over 5-foot-3 and had long brown hair. So did another girl at her private middle school in San Francisco. While they were both in class one day in 2013, a staff member entered the classroom, walked over to Bianca, took her school-issued iPad, and left. Later, the eighth grader was told to report to the principal’s office, and everyone watched her go. Apparently, the other girl had sent a naked photo of herself to a boy in the class, “and the person who received that, their mom saw, thought it was me, and reported it to the middle school head,” says Bianca (a pseudonym for privacy reasons), who is now a senior in college. Bianca was upset, but she was also brazen, sometimes jumping on her bike and riding home in the middle of the school day. She did just that, and no one called her departure a suspension. Her parents believed her, but it felt like they were the only ones, even though the picture wasn’t on her iPad. Bianca’s classmates started to look at her differently. The fallout had only just begun.
Her school’s response epitomizes the abstinence-only approach that most American adults have taken to teen sexting, echoing the way sex education has often been handled in our puritanical culture. Despite a strategy largely focused on prohibition, sexting is common among adolescents: In a 2008 study of teen sexting, 39 percent of respondents reported exchanging text-only sexual messages, and in a 2013 study, nearly 60 percent did. A 2021 meta analysis found that 16 percent of teens have sent a nude photo, while 33 percent have received one. With many teens engaging in some kind of sexual messaging and 1 in 6 admitting to creating explicit pictures, the evidence suggests it’s time to move beyond a DARE-like response to sexting.
After Bianca’s school reprimanded her, her parents pushed back, and the school returned her iPad. Shortly thereafter, the entire eighth grade was required to attend an assembly. “Someone just came in and was like, ‘This is illegal. It’s child pornography…. It will be on the Internet for the rest of your life,’” Bianca says. She remembers sitting there mortified as classmates and teachers sneaked glances at her. She shifted her shoulders back and her chin forward, but her insides were churning like bingo balls. These were Bianca’s first sext education lessons.
Stories like Bianca’s are not uncommon. When a boy at a Santa Barbara middle school posted naked pictures of a female classmate online, “kind of like revenge porn” or “bullying,” says Emma (a pseudonym for privacy reasons), a former student at the school, “all the attention was on the young woman.” Teens like her have been barred from seeing a boyfriend or a girlfriend. After parents and schools discover nudes via oversight or Big Brother apps like Gaggle, athletes get benched and therapy is imposed as punishment. Some teens are prosecuted, like the North Carolina quarterback who was charged in 2015 with possession of child porn and exploitation of a minor for sexting his girlfriend. The same prosecutors charged the woman for having photos of herself.
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Modern public health campaigns, sex-ed curricula, and press coverage have often framed sexting as a matter of deviance, especially when it features women’s bodies. In her 2015 book Sexting Panic, Amy A. Hasinoff, a professor of communication at the University of Colorado Denver, noted that online safety education provided from the late 1990s to early 2000s emphasized the threat of potential sexual predators. A second wave of PSAs in the mid- to late 2000s primarily targeted girls and blamed low self-esteem for their decision to post nudes or suggestive pictures on the Internet, a choice the PSAs depicted as irresponsible and self-destructive. Fingers were also pointed at girls’ hormones and internalization of sexualized media. Although the term “sexting” was not common when these campaigns debuted, their message—that harassment and violation are the table stakes of creating nudes—is echoed in the “Just say no” policy that many parents and educators adopt today. As of a 2014 study, only half of education campaigns surveyed included a single anti-forwarding or anti-bullying message.
Driving these messages, at least in part, is a fundamental underestimation of teens’ decision-making ability. In 2009, an ACLU attorney defending girls threatened with sexting-related criminal charges referred to his clients as “careless,” “clueless,” and “irresponsible” and called sexting “stupid” and “impulsive.” That’s the thinking behind the 2006 campaign 2 SMRT 4U, which sought to make girls aware of their potential victimization online, supplying them with info they supposedly lacked. But surveys demonstrate that adolescents know about the risks of sexting. They’re knowledgeable about digital communication and judge the likelihood and magnitude of harm by what they see around them.
At Urban School of San Francisco, where Bianca attended high school, she never took or sent a nude, but she watched friends do it. They used sexting, she tells me, to signal sexual interest or investigate a potential partner’s respect for boundaries. Like her friends, Bianca received unsolicited “dick pics.” Sometimes the images felt violating, but sometimes they served the same prosocial purposes as gossip. “It was eye-rolling, like, ‘Oh, you’re so gross and lame,’” Bianca says. She and her friends looked at forwarded nudes, often female ones. “I wanted to see other girls my age and what their bodies looked like,” she says. Using real examples, rather than porn, can be reassuring.
Adolescents’ brains prime them for this kind of thing, says Dr. Lonna Gordon, chief of adolescent medicine at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando, Fla. Comparisons with peers “really excite the amygdala, which is on fire during adolescence.” The effect isn’t gender-specific, which is likely why—contrary to common assumptions—boys and girls send and forward sexts at the same rate. Teens also have a developmental need to individuate, Gordon says, which can manifest as experimentation—not only with behavior perceived to be “mature” but also sometimes with exactly what adults have discouraged.
At Urban, Bianca joined a club called SWEAR, or Students for Women’s Equality and Rights. There, older girls would share stories “of feeling like a bad bitch when…taking a photo of their naked body,” she recalls. She started to view sexting more positively, a way to express “your autonomy as the person creating that art piece.”
But Bianca sometimes still saw sexting’s darker side. Throughout high school, she often felt like she couldn’t “trust these boys.” Male classmates collected nudes and shared them around—a practice that is not unique. From Virginia to Michigan to Colorado, high schoolers have shared nude collections like Pokémon cards. Sometimes the pictures are shared online without the knowledge or consent of whoever took them. According to a 2021 study of students, 40 percent of male respondents and 30 percent of female respondents had visited one such “slutpage.” Sharing a sext without the consent of those pictured is considered “image-based sexual abuse.” That term also includes a classmate threatening to distribute a photo unless you sleep with them, nudes used as an insurance policy against a breakup, and other forms of “sextortion” that research suggests younger teens are more vulnerable to than older ones. A meta analysis from 2018 indicated that 12 percent and 8.4 percent of teens report forwarding a sext or having their sext forwarded, respectively. In a more recent analysis, the number on forwarding was 14.5 percent.
When Bianca started sexting a guy after graduation, she experienced another downside: pressure. “It sometimes feels like it’s part of the [girlfriend’s] job,” she says. A 2014 study of college students found that about half of those in relationships had engaged in this kind of consensual but unwanted sexting.
When it comes to teens, a 2022 paper reported that 12.6 percent had felt pressure to send a sext in the previous year. According to a 2021 study of Dutch teens, LGBTQ+ youth experience more pressure than their heterosexual counterparts, likely for the same reason they send and receive nudes more: A smaller dating pool and fear of harassment tend to shift sexual interactions online. Girls receive more sexts than boys, a 2021 paper concluded, but another showed that boys are more likely to perpetrate “digital dating abuse,” including pressuring someone to send sexual photos. In an earlier study, researchers surveyed 12-to-18-year-olds from big cities. Girls were far more likely to report being judged for both sending and not sending nudes.
Before Bianca started sexting with that guy, she was already sleeping with him. But they didn’t have many options for intimacy once he returned to college. She says sexting is “way nicer” than watching porn, and “there is an element of feeling very empowered by sharing your body and having your body appreciated by someone.” In other words, Bianca didn’t create images because she felt insecure; it was when she felt more confident in her skin that she wanted to show it off.
Girls’ self-esteem is just one context in which hearing from adolescents flips the script on sexting. Adults warning against it often cite the online disinhibition effect: how sexting feels more like a game in which the receiver is invisible, and how that can lead to exposure a teen comes to regret—and they’re right sometimes. But being emboldened to say what works for you is a good thing in a society that undervalues female pleasure. In high school, “I felt much more comfortable sexting than I did actually engaging in physical sex acts, because I had PTSD from former abuse, and I just really appreciated that I would be physically safe,” Emma recalls.
Sexting can stem from desire, pressure, or both. These lines are blurry, yet also essential. A 2019 study of young adults found no link between consensual, coercion-free sexting and psychological distress. But for nonconsensual sexting, including sexts extracted with repeated, manipulative requests and forwarded without permission, the data demonstrates harm. Bad emotional outcomes can even rise to a clinically significant level, though that’s rare, says Elizabeth Englander, a psychologist who directs the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center. Her research suggests that only 2 percent of teens who engage in image-based sexting report losing an opportunity because of a picture they’ve shared. It’s more common to feel anxious. “Maybe they sent a photo to somebody they thought really liked them and that person doesn’t,” Englander says.
At Urban, Bianca met a health teacher who she refers to as “Queen Shafia.” Shafia Zaloom, author of Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between, was named School Health Education Teacher of the Year for 2021 by the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. Zaloom says sexting’s mixed bag of motivations and experiences should inform how adults talk to teens about it. “Kids listen if you understand the awesomeness of what they’re doing, why they’re drawn to it, and normalize it for them,” she says. “That’s not giving permission…but rather leading with compassion and empathy.” Traditional sext education’s prohibitory messaging does the opposite. For Bianca, Zaloom’s class was like a car wash scrubbing off the layers of shame applied in middle school.
What does a good replacement for deviance and danger messaging look like? Hart Blanton, the head of the Department of Communications at Texas A&M University uses cigarettes and alcohol use as analogs. The language of banning is more appropriate for the former, he says, since “there is not a healthy version of smoking.” It’s different for alcohol, a substance many grown-ups use regularly and with little detriment. In that context, health educators tend to eschew “deadly and addictive” in favor of messages like “wait until your brain is done developing.” Research suggests sexting is largely unproblematic for adults, and though there aren’t comparative studies to prove it, sending nudes almost certainly presents less risk for adults than alcohol does.
But there’s more to it than that, Blanton says. Once it feels like everybody is doing the same thing, compliance with a strict policy seems both less necessary and less possible to teens. Continuing to use a negative directive can set up perverse incentives: “It doesn’t give them anything unless they chose to violate it, and then it…might be something they are willing to wear as a badge of honor,” he says. Emphasizing the benefits of restraint rather than the risks can work better: “You would be trying to create some sort of image to reach for, and that you could be proud of.” But even an identity-based message around sexting, like the one in a Kaiser Permanente Web series—“What we say ‘yes’ to and what we say ‘no’ to sends a signal about who we are”—will backfire once a kid has tried a behavior. “They may now over-rationalize a past decision…owning it to a greater degree,” Blanton says. Given teen sexting’s prevalence, it may be better to focus on how to do it more safely.
In 2019, social media and cyberbullying researchers Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja suggested just that: a harm-reduction model that treats adolescents as capable decision-makers and provides them with advice like turning off location services and minimizing identifying features in explicit photos. It’s the modern version of teaching kids about contraception. As part of a comprehensive approach, Zaloom offers high schoolers suggestions for avoidance: saying things like “I used up all my data,” “My dad checks my phone,” or more direct refrains like “I’m not into that.” She asks teens to contemplate: “What are you going for? Fun in a moment? Are you bored? If it’s longing for connection, is this the way to get there?”
But there’s a problem with asking them to adopt an “I’m a person who thinks before I sext” identity. In Sexting Panic, Hasinoff describes a PSA featuring a young woman named Sarah, whose online photos attract an uncomfortable amount of male attention. She becomes distressed when a coach says, “Love the new tattoo, Sarah,” and a movie theater usher asks, “Hey, Sarah, what color underwear today?” The framing of the story insinuates that this is all Sarah’s fault: “Anything you post online, anyone can see…. Think before you post.” As Hasinoff puts it, this messaging asks adolescents “to be responsible for their own safety by making the choice to never trust anyone to respect their privacy.” To demonstrate what’s wrong with that, she compares it to an imaginary image of a girl being harassed while wearing a short skirt. The advice: “Think before you get dressed.”
Sext-ed that instead sets an expectation of privacy is a better way to go. Shifting the focus from creation to consent can mean establishing clearer boundaries: Don’t send a sext to someone unless you’re sure they want to see it. Don’t make repeated requests. Don’t forward without permission. These negatively framed edicts can stand because they don’t apply just to teens; they apply to everyone. But any message that amounts to “Don’t be a bad person,” Blanton says, “has historically been a very difficult message with adolescents.”
To overcome restrictive sexting recommendations, we could move to messaging that sounds like: “I’m the kind of person who sexts only if I think I’m going to enjoy it and do it in ways my partners will enjoy.”
In 2008, an Ohio teen died by suicide after allegedly being bullied over a nude that her ex-boyfriend forwarded without her consent. Similar scenarios have unfolded in Florida and Tennessee. These stories capitalize on two societal anxieties: suspicion around new technology and discomfort with girls becoming sexual. After all, most Americans still treat female sexuality as something that emerges at 18 fully formed, like Aphrodite out of the sea.
And for the most part, so does the law. Only 29 states and Washington, D.C., mandate sex education, and only 19 states require that contraception be included in the curriculum, despite decades of research proving that comprehensive sex education produces better outcomes. This state of affairs owes partly to contradictions. For both sex and sexting, vulnerability can be a reason to do it and also a risk. Sexual activity can be a way to feel more in control and independent, but it can also cause some to grow up too fast, either in actuality or in another’s perception. It should come as no surprise then that the adults who fight for Dobbs, anti-trans legislation, and Florida’s “Don’t say period” bill speak to teens about sexting the way Coach Carr talks about sex in Mean Girls: “You’re going to want to take off your clothes and touch each other. But if you do…you will get chlamydia…and die.” But there is another way forward.
When Bianca becomes a parent, she tells me, she won’t stop at harm-reduction messaging. Today, she’s reached 5-foot-4, her long brown hair has curtain bangs, and she’s no longer buying into the anti-sexting narrative. She finds the names of campaigns like “Respect Me Don’t Sext Me” downright insulting to teens. She plans to tell her kids one day that sensuality and sexuality are not “something you do in the dark and you don’t tell anyone.” She pictures having two or three kids, at least one girl and one boy. In her vision, they are free and compassionate spirits, “leaning into how beautiful and special it is that we get to engage with each other in these various ways and feeling really grateful for that instead of ashamed of it.”