Sexting—digitally sharing sexually explicit messages or pictures—has become a common part of young people’s lives. While estimates of the prevalence of sexting vary, a study involving 1,650 first-year undergraduates at a large southeastern college found that 65 percent of the students had sent at least one sext to a current or potential partner.
Despite worries among many adults, sexting can be a healthy part of a relationship or intimate encounter. However, like any intimate interaction, it carries risks. Because sexting has become such a common phenomenon and one in which many young people report having positive experiences, it’s important that we adopt a harm-reduction strategy to help students mitigate the risks.
Here’s how you can help develop productive conversations about sexting:
1. Talk about it
Acknowledge that students may decide to sext. Even if students aren’t planning on sexting themselves, it’s useful for them to reflect on how they might support a friend or handle an unsolicited message in their inbox.
2. Create a non-judgmental space
Avoid using excessive fear tactics. Focusing exclusively on the risks of sexting can increase shame and victim blame, decreasing the likelihood that people who receive unwanted sexts or who have their image shared without their consent will seek help. Assume a non-judgmental attitude and invite students to reflect on ways they can minimize the risks of their choices.
- Suggest that students talk to the person they’re messaging with about what types of messages they’re both comfortable with (e.g., they could agree to only send messages instead of images).
- If they decide to send images, recommend that they leave out their faces or identifying marks (e.g., birthmarks or tattoos).
- Stress the importance of maintaining privacy and respect by never sharing or forwarding sexts to others.
3. Broaden the conversation
Sexting is just one piece of the broader campus culture surrounding sexuality and relationships. Give students opportunities to reflect on their core values and to consider ways to live out these values in all areas of their lives.
When explicit images are shared
If you learn that sexual images of a student were shared without their consent, offer the student support. This is a serious violation of trust, and—depending on the specific circumstances—may constitute sexual harassment and may be a crime. Refer students to university counseling resources, as well as to Title IX coordinators.
“Title IX coordinators are available to talk confidentially to any student who has concerns about an uncomfortable situation or experience,” says Ksenia Sidorenko, Title IX coordinator at Yale College in Connecticut. “Students can come to a Title IX coordinator to let them know of problems or behaviors that need to be addressed, to access support resources, or to learn more about the options for filing a complaint of sexual misconduct. Title IX coordinators can also help arrange accommodations and practical remedies—things like academic extensions, changes in class schedules, alternate housing arrangements, and no-contact agreements between students who want to avoid further interactions. They’re here to assist and support students based on the students’ needs.”
Marla Eisenberg, ScD, MPH, associate professor and director of research, Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota.
Holly Moses, PhD, MSHE, CHES, instructor, academic advisor, and internship program, coordinator in the Department of Health Education and Behavior, University of Florida.
Ksenia Sidorenko, PhD, deputy Title IX coordinator for Yale College, Yale University.
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