Youth sexting: replacing abstinence with ethics

Youth sexting: replacing abstinence with ethics

Emily Setty

‘Sexting’ – the production and distribution of sexually suggestive images and messages using mobile phones and other technological devices – continues to capture the public imagination. Sexting involving young people, specifically those aged under 18, has attracted extensive attention from the media and, in wider public discourse, has come to be defined as a worrying social problem (or, ‘new norm’) that urgently needs to be addressed. As argued elsewhere, not only do sexters under 18 risk breaking the law (due to the application of child pornography legislation to sexting involving images of under 18s), as a social group they are often presented as impulsive, naïve, hormone-driven and vulnerable to the ostensibly damaging effects of technology and a hyper-sexualised cultural context that is ‘compelling’ them to sext. Their practices tend automatically to be rendered dangerous and inappropriate. Prevalent in the media are extreme stories of ‘sexts gone viral’, revealing experiences of humiliation, harassment and bullying of teen sexters. Their sexting is rarely, if ever, presented as legitimate nor countenanced as pleasurable or genuinely consensual. Consequently, youth sexters are rarely afforded rights to privacy.

Efforts to deter youth sexting tend to emphasise the risks to and responsibilities of the producers of images. Campaigns depict sexters as ‘inevitably’ losing control over their images and subsequently suffering abuse and shaming by peers, with the take-home message that they have no-one to blame but themselves for their ‘stupid mistake’. Any interrogation of the wider context (such as whether sexting was consensual) or the roles/responsibilities of the receivers/requestors of images or the wider peer group is absent. I (along with others) consider this unacceptable victim blaming and a failure to encourage young people to engage in ethical ‘digital sexual communication practices’. Consequently, I set out to explore how young people experience and understand sexting, and what they consider the ‘ethics’ of the practice to be, focusing on issues of privacy and consent. The findings suggest that far from being dupes of technology, sexualisation, hormones or whatever else we draw upon to disavow young people’s sexuality, they are actually undergoing a complex process of learning and negotiation of social and cultural norms and values when involved (in whatever way, from producers to bystanders) in sexting.

While it did not seem as though sexting was a ‘new norm’ for the 15- to 17-year-old young people involved in my study (in that all, or even the majority, were actually sexting), it definitely seemed normalised in that it represents a significant phenomenon in their sexual and digital cultures. It was quite striking that they appeared to be establishing and learning an ethical code of conduct through sexting, underpinned by social and cultural norms relating to gender and sexuality, while also being shaped by local peer group cultures. Take the notion of ‘trust’, for example. While participants varied in terms of their involvement in sexting, trust emerged as an important factor shaping their constructions of what is appropriate (and consequently should be respected) sexting behaviour. Unlike public discourse that decontextualises youth sexting in its portrayal of it as uniformly deviant and problematic, participants appeared to take a more context-specific approach when forming their judgments. Even among those considering sexting foolish, it was felt that if sexters thought they could trust their sexting partner (even if this trust was ‘naïve’ or ‘misplaced’), they had a right to privacy and it is wrong if their privacy is breached. They located a realistic expectation of trust, and thus privacy, within long-term, committed relationships. While such sexters were accorded some rights, those sexting outside this context (say with someone they fancy or haven’t known long) were described as having made a ‘mistake’ and it was considered inevitable that their privacy will be violated and they will suffer damaging social consequences. While some considered this potentially harmful, frequently it was described as something the sexter should have foreseen and perhaps, a helpful social process in terms of learning what is expected and acceptable.

However, notions of trust do not operate within a social and cultural vacuum. Underlying young people’s judgments were, at times, quite restrictive norms and standards regarding gender and sexuality. As has been found elsewhere, young women appeared subject to far greater peer surveillance and regulation regarding their sexual conduct, and here, the demand placed upon them to demonstrate their sexting occurred within a trusting, committed relationship (so to avoid being labelled a ‘slut’) appeared greater than that placed on boys. The young women often presented sexting in terms of its value to relationships and its potential to demonstrate love, trust and commitment. While I occasionally caught glimpses of embodied sexual pleasure, it seemed that relationship-centred narratives dominated as the girls tried to present sexting as socially legitimate. Boys, conversely, were positioned as more desiring and as taking pleasure in the act of sexting itself. While boys risked being labelled ‘desperate’ or ‘weird’, they appeared to have greater latitude to sext. However, it is insufficient just to emphasise gender; other elements of peer group culture are also relevant. For young people judged ‘unattractive’ or ‘undesirable’ in their physical and/or non-physical attributes, ‘sexting gone viral’ could be socially devastating and it was far from apparent that only girls suffered the consequences, with even those boys who ‘just get a bit of banter’ potentially suffering  greatly from the effects of privacy violations.

Further problematic practices relate to ‘consent’ and the influence of gender and sexual norms again emerge. The notion, prevalent among participants, that young men are naturally sexually desiring, and to some extent ‘predatory’, can be associated with the practice of boys sending unsolicited ‘dick pic’ images to young women. Virtually all the young women recounted numerous experiences of receiving such pictures, which were experienced as shocking, unpleasant and offensive. Boys who sent the pictures were described, by both young men and women, as just ‘trying their luck’, as though it would encourage a girl to send one back. Some boys do receive social opprobrium for unsolicited sexting, but more for looking ‘desperate’ than for breaching the consent of the unwilling recipient. An associated practice is the pressure on young women to produce and share images with boys and this pressure can occur on interpersonal, social and cultural levels. Sometimes pressure can become abusive or coercive, and some girls recounted feeling compelled to respond because they didn’t want to lose a boy’s interest. Even those who sext more positively described sometimes not feeling ‘in the mood’ but as having effectively created a ‘relationship obligation’ to sext so feeling they have to do it anyway. There seems to be an issue here in relation to negotiating consent and challenging the gender norms that shape consensual and non-consensual practices.

It is noteworthy that when discussing sexting it didn’t solely emerge as an unpleasant, harmful practice. Some recount more positive, pleasurable experiences and attitudes toward sexting, so it is not surprising that warnings presenting sexting purely negatively often do not resonate and young people continue to do it. Particularly important, however, is that warning messages focusing just on potential and actual producers of images arguably miss the mark in terms of how young people actually experience sexting and the aetiology of harmful sexting practices. As suggested elsewhere, it is breaches of consent and privacy, which are social actions, underpinned by socially constructed ideas of gender and sexuality, peer power hierarchies and so on, that seem to underlie harmful sexting. Failing to recognise and account for this not only promotes victim blaming but also implies that pleasurable sexting is impossible, which seems not to be the case and may be a damaging message to send out, particularly for young women (see also here).

We do urgently need to talk to young people about sexting, but these conversations should focus on empowered consent, respecting one another’s boundaries and bodily integrity, privacy rights and so on. This seems to be the right approach given that my participants seemed highly individualistic in terms of whether they recognised harm and in their attributions of responsibility in terms of foreseeing harm (Bay-Cheng has discussed the role of a neoliberal conception of ‘agency’ in sexuality). Kath Albury  talks about sex education and the potential for going beyond abstracting sexting as a social phenomenon to engaging in more open and candid conversations with young people about their experiences and the role of digital technology in their sexual lives.  Albury argues, however, that the regulation of youth sexting as child pornography presents serious barriers to countenancing an alternative harm-reduction approach to understanding and addressing it. Given that we expect (and legally require under ‘revenge porn’ legislation), young people to become responsible adults who respect one another’s privacy (see also (Jackson and Scott)  on the incongruence between our expectations for adult sexuality and our attitudes toward youth sexuality), my research, along with contributions from others, suggests that it is imperative we stop emphasising the ‘inevitability’ of harmful sexting practices and the expectation that potential victims (and those who may take pleasure in sexting) should abstain, and start challenging the pervasive and damaging social and cultural norms that underpin harm.


Further Reading

Crofts, T., Lee, M., McGovern, A. and Milivojevic, S. (2015) Sexting and young people. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Dobson, A.S. and Ringrose, J. (2015) ‘Sext education: pedagogies of sex, gender and shame in the schoolyards of Tagged and Exposed’, Sex Education, 16(1), pp. 8-21.
Hasinoff, A.A. (2015) Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent. Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.
Holland, J., Ramazanoglu, C., Sharphe, S. and Thomson, R. (1998) The Male in the Head: Young People, Heterosexuality and Power. London: The Tufnell Press. New resource: Exposed. Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.
Weale, S. (2015) ‘Sexting become the ‘norm’ for teens, warn child protection experts’, The Guardian, 10 November.


Emily Setty is a PhD researcher at the University of Surrey. Emily is interested in how and why we seek to regulate and control social phenomena and practices, particularly those involving young people, and the impacts and effects of such regulation her PhD is exploring young people’s practices and perceptions surrounding youth sexting, focusing particularly on their understandings of and attitudes towards notions of ‘privacy’ and ‘consent’..  Prior to commencing the PhD, Emily worked as a researcher for Catch 22’s Dawes Unit, exploring gang crime and youth violence, and as a researcher for the Ministry of Justice. She tweets @emilysetty