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We have a sexting situation on our hands. Or, more accurately, in our hands. Sexting is a type of cyber-flirting, an expression of sexuality. But if our words and images are forwarded, edited, or posted without our permission, there’s nothing LOL about that. Indiscreet images posted by you or anyone else can sabotage a job hunt, date, election campaign, or Thanksgiving dinner. In a 2014 study, non-sexting students cited this as their primary reason for not exchanging erotic pics (Deviant Behavior journal). There’s no such thing as risk-free sexting, but if you choose to sext, you can limit the risks to yourself and others.

Safer sexting

Don’t count on Snapchat; screenshots are a thing. In the 2014 study, students described risk-management strategies:

Keep it classy

Be thoughtful about language; keep it lighthearted. Before sending a sext, get the recipient’s consent. Agree on what language you’re comfortable with (one person’s sexy may be another person’s vulgar).

Leave something to the imagination

Consider not revealing anything that your bathing suit wouldn’t. Limiting the reveal also limits the potential damage (and keeps the conversation exciting).

Go incognito

Not showing your face or identifying marks (birthmarks and tattoos) allows you to retain plausible deniability.

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How to respond if someone asks you to sext

Question: Hey, send me a naked pic. Answer: No thanksThe want topless? Give them topless. (picture of ketchup bottle with top off)This guy does not approve (picture of an angry cat)You wanted a picture of my junk (picture of a messy room)Question: What are you wearing? Answer: Let's not go there. We'd regret it when you ask me for a job 5 years from now #FuturesWithoutBaggageAsking for naked? (picture of Naked Juice product)

How risky is sexting, really?

“Students may think sexting is secure in the context of a trusting relationship. However, this private communication is being made using a public communication device—one that makes it possible for the message to be shared with many people very quickly if that trust is broken,” says Dr. Frances Owen, Psychologist and Professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University, Ontario, whose current research focuses on the consequences of youth sexting.

Nothing online is truly delete-able. “When the image is distributed beyond the intended receiver, the sender might not even know it, but they’ve lost control of where it may turn up—in the immediate or distant future,” says Dr. Owen. “A future employer could even discover it when conducting a background search later down the line.”

You may have witnessed this already. “A girl in my class sent topless photos to a guy she was dating. They ended up breaking up towards the end of the year, and he showed people the picture. Some girls called her names for even sending the photo, but he was the one who shared it when it should’ve been kept private,” says Christina*, a second-year student at Dawson College, Quebec.

*Name changed for privacy.

Who’s sexting?

A 2014 MediaSmarts survey involving over 5,000 high school students across Canada found the following:

  • 15 percent of grade 11 students have sent a sext to a current or potential partner.
  • 36 percent of grade 11 students have received a sext.
  • About one in four of the students who have sent sexts later discovered that their messages were forwarded to others without their permission.
  • Men are twice as likely to report having received a sext that was forwarded by someone (28 percent compared to 14 percent of women).

A study involving 1,650 students at a large US college (Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 2014) found:

  • 65 percent had sent at least one sext to a current or potential partner.
  • Seven out of ten had received a sext, and three out of ten had shared a sext with a third party.
  • Women were more likely than men to report having been pressured to send a sext (24 percent of women, 5 percent of men).

How to handle an uninvited sext

If the image is from anyone but your consenting adult partner, break the chain. Delete the picture, regardless of what anyone else might be doing with it. Sharing a sext is a form of cyberharassment. Cyberharassment involves posting content online that is designed to cause distress or other harm to the person being targeted. This is also a key feature of cyberstalking, which may include offline attacks too, according to WiredSafety, a nonprofit organization dedicated to online safety.

Tell the sender you don’t want pictures like that in your inbox and you won’t be involved.

If you see a sext being shared, speak up. Remind the people spreading the image what it would feel like if the picture were of them or a loved one.

Sexting, cyberharrassment, and the law

Sexting is defined as the creation of an image (taking a sexually explicit photo or video), possessing it (including keeping an image that someone has sent you), or disseminating it (sending or sharing).

In Canada, sexting that involves images of minors (people aged under 18 or 19, depending on the province) is considered child pornography (a felony); penalties can include jail time and registration as a sex offender.

The narrow exception to the above law is that an exchange of nude or suggestive pictures between intimate partners won’t be prosecuted, so long as the sexual relationship is legal (both partners are older than the age of consent in their province) and the pictures aren’t distributed to anyone else.

The law can penalize people who share intimate images of another person without their consent. There have been several reported cases of Canadian teens being prosecuted for child pornography offences in which they distributed sexual images of others.

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Anna-Marie Jaeschke is a West Virginia University doctoral student in sport and exercise psychology.