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Sexting (sending sexually explicit messages or pics) is definitely a thing. In fact, it’s become a fairly common way to flirt and express sexuality. When asked in surveys how sexting made them feel, many young people reported that—under the right circumstances—they had a positive experience (British Journal of Criminology, 2015).

Sexting can be a pleasurable part of a healthy sexual encounter, but like any sexual activity, it has its risks and can lead to long-term consequences. If you’re thinking about sexting, it’s a good idea to reflect on how you can mitigate those risks and ensure everyone has a positive experience. Even if you’re not planning on sexting, it’s helpful to think about how you might advise a friend or handle a situation where someone sends you an unsolicited message.

Safer sexting

While sexts are generally intended for narrow audiences, sometimes they’re forwarded, edited, or shared without permission. In a 2014 study, non-sexting students cited the risk of images becoming public as their primary reason for not exchanging erotic pics. While there’s no such thing as risk-free sexting, being thoughtful and respectful can reduce the risks for everyone.

“We had discussed our rules about it beforehand. We agreed on not saving the pictures and deleting the messages. We always felt safe and comfortable after the fact due to the pre-established rules we had.”
—Richard K.*, fourth-year graduate student, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Communication is key

If you’re about to send a sexy pic or message, first check in with the person about what you both want and feel comfortable with. Ask if the person is open to receiving and sending messages, and set clear boundaries. For instance, you could agree that you’d send sexual messages but not photos. Check in regularly with questions like this:

  • What kinds of messages do you like? What kinds are you not OK with?
  • How can I make this a good experience for both of us?

While estimates of the prevalence of sexting vary, a study published in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality (2014) involving 1,650 first-year undergraduates at a large southeastern college found the following:

  • 65 percent of the students had sent at least one sext to a current or potential partner.
  • 60 percent of the students thought that they may regret sexting, and 58 percent said sexting could hurt their reputation.
  • Seven out of ten students had received a sexually suggestive text or photo, and three out of ten had shared a sext with a third party.

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Be mindful of potential risks

Remember that once an image is shared digitally, it’s impossible to fully delete.

“When we’re applying for jobs, we can assume that any potential employer will Google us to see what they can learn,” says Dr. Marla Eisenberg, associate professor and director of research in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota. “A suggestive picture is probably not the kind of strong first impression anyone wants to make. The bottom line is that once a picture is out there, we can’t get it back.”

“I sexted because I was in a committed relationship. If I had any doubts that he would post my texts or pictures, I would never have sent them in the first place. You really have to trust the person you’re sexting.” 
—Naomi P.*, first-year student, St. Clair College, Ontario, Canada

Leave something to the imagination

Consider not revealing anything that your bathing suit wouldn’t. A little mystery can keep the conversation exciting. Additionally, not showing your face or identifying features (such as birthmarks or tattoos) helps you maintain a measure of privacy should the images become public.

Strategies for turning down a request

If someone asks you to sext and you decide you’re not interested, there are many ways to refuse, from a straight-up “nope” to a strategic subject change or a witty retort. Here are five possibilities.

Graphic: 1. “Hey, send me a naked pic.” “No, thanks.” 2. They want topless? Give them topless. Picture of an open ketchup bottle 3. “You wanted a pic of my junk.” Picture of messy drawer. 4. “Asking for naked?” Picture of Naked brand juice. 5. “Want to exchange sexy pics?” “Let’s not go there. We both want jobs when we graduate and I don’t need those kinds of pics of me out in the world.”