It's Not Just About Showing Your Genitals: Time to Talk About Sexting

Around one in four teenagers has sent venereal texts or emails, and those who have are about seven times more likely to have old-fashioned, body-on-body sex. Often it's "risky sex," and not in the good way. 

sextflickrkiwanjaMAIN.jpgOminous.  [kiwaja/flickr]

Depending which of the recent self-reported studies you read, the number of teenagers who've emailed or texted illicit messages or photos of themselves is between 14 and 28%. A study yesterday in the journal Pediatrics called attention to an association between sexting and likelihood of  having real (too-often unprotected) sex. In an interview with Reuters, lead researcher Dr. Eric Rice of the University of Southern California said, "Is there a link between sexting and taking risks with your body? The answer is a pretty resounding 'yes.'"

Should you talk to your kid about sexting? If they use a phone or the Internet and are alive, the answer is an even more resounding "yes." "Ye-Esss," if you will. Because sexting isn't just about pubescent curiosity and lust; it's also about trust, commitment, self-image, and acceptance -- the timeless issues of our formative years, and topics on which you're surely by now an expert.

Many states impose criminal penalties for sexting ("When minors send explicit images of themselves, they are manufacturing and distributing child pornography"), but felony charges against teenagers haven't played out, and privacy and technology limitations largely preclude policing. That leaves the issue to health and social educatiosn; a hurdle to be taken on the dressage horse that is parental intuition.

The degree to which sexting actually leads to sex is debated. Would these same sexually-charged teenage subgroups be "getting physical" anyway? Could they actually be having less sex, because the sexting fulfilled the need for validation and symbolic commitment that would have previously invoked physical consummation? By age 18, around 70 percent of teens have had sex, and we don't have data to say that number has spiked since sexting began to be perceived as normative.


When we warn against sexting, a common focus is on the permanence of the action. "What if it gets out there, and for the rest of your life whenever you're googled by a potential employer, the first thing that comes up is a video of you stripping to Juvenile, the words 'Take me back, Dillon' scrawled hastily across your pelvis, discarded Ramen in the foreground, eyes still flushed from sobbing."

(That's what sexting is, right?)

But the fact you're trusting the other person with that intimate moment, in all its permanence, is itself a primary virtue of sexting. "Here. You could ruin me with this, but I trust you won't."  

In the same way that an engagement ring is a symbol of sacrifice for another person, sexting can function as a symbol of commitment and trust, if subconsciously. In a similarly progressive light, some teenagers will, as a sign of a certain level of intimacy, share their Facebook or email passwords with their partners. "I'm not doing anything secretive," and also "Here, you could seriously embarrass me with this, but I trust you won't."

The USC study also concluded that "knowing someone who sexted was strongly associated with an individual's own sexting behavior." There's peer pressure in every aspect of every teenage decision and action, sexting included. In that way, sexting is still about acceptance, but beyond that of the sext partner.

This stuff is well beyond the physiologic draw of sex. Since sexting puts vulnerable people in many of the same vulnerable social and emotional positions as real sex, it deserves to be talked about in the same awkward breath. At the very least, alongside other ancillary sexual endeavors like heavy petting. (We're still teaching them about heavy petting, right?)

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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