In Weiner's Wake, a Brief History of the Word 'Sexting'

More than you ever wanted to know about a word that is not going away anytime soon

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Unless you're a 14 year-old with a cellphone, the chances are good your mother has never heard of sexting. But with the Weiner scandal's digital messages and photos, "sexting's" time seems to have come. Even though the word does not appear to have not made it into any major dictionaries yet, it has now been splashed across news stories nationwide.

But where did the term come from, and what does it even mean? If the Oxford English Dictionary ever adds "sext" to its record of english vocabulary, this might be the first citation: way back in 2004, Canada's The Globe and Mail had an article about explicit text messages sent between David Beckham and an assistant that contained what seems to be the first instance of the word's use in a newspaper. "Text messaging (also known as Short Message Systems or SMS) has become the new phone sex," the article reported, adding that "for many people, 'sext messaging' has a disinhibiting effect, like having a couple of cocktails." In this instance, sexting refers to explicit SMS messages exchanged between people. (From the annals of sexual slang that never caught on, the Globe article includes the phrase "having a textie," as well.)

Sexting's American Establishment Debut

Sexting soon made it into the American press, though obviously following spoken use of the term. The first mainstream media written use appears to be in a Los Angeles Times' article from late 2005 about fads and trends by Gina Piccalo, one of which was "sext-messaging." While the word had made it to the American media, it would virtually disappear until late 2008, with the exception of a few articles overseas. This all changed however, with the release of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and survey in December 2008, that detailed the popularity of explicit images or texts being exchanged between teenagers without explicitly using the word "sext," that found that roughly 1 in 5 teens had been engaged in sending naked pictures to one another.

Riding on the back of this news, 2009 was the year "sext" really began to make a dent in mainstream culture. The New York Post headlined an article based off the NCPTP survey in January 2009 and stories about the trend, using the term "sext," popped up in the Chicago Tribune, CBS, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, NPR, NBC, and the New York Times particularly around a few notable stories of teens faced with child pornography charges due to the circulation of photographs of nude minors. Even some publication called Law Enforcement Tech picked up on the issue of pornographic material of nude minors in 2009 in an article titled "Let's talk about sexts, baby." "Police are not in the business of drafting laws but rather enforcing what's on the books," the article said, "but it's probably a good time to be proactive and help educate the community on the trouble with sexts."

The Definition Evolves, the Quotation Marks Fall Away

As state legislatures struggled with amending pornography laws for the phenomenon, they also wound up in a debate over the definition of sexting, which as time passed increasingly referred to the sending and receiving of nude pictures, which The Pew Research Center's late 2009 study found roughly 15 percent of cell-phone owning teens between the ages of 12-17 had received.  But in certain instances like the Tiger Woods sex scandal, text messages themselves were racy enough to merit the "sext" label, though digital pictures stayed prominent with the story of Brett Farve allegedly sending photos of his genitals to a sideline reporter for the New York Jets in 2008 picking up steam in fall 2010.

And in March 2011, sexting reached another peak: in the Sunday New York Times's multi-page feature on the fallout from teen sexting scandals, the quotation marks were gone from the word. In that article, the Times defined sexting broadly as "sending sexual photos, videos or texts from one cellphone to another."

Now maybe Congressman Weiner forgot to read his Times that morning, and thus didn't heed the warnings implicit in the Times expose about the many pernicious effects of a public sexting scandal. Or maybe he was fooled by the fact that sexting had been so thoroughly portrayed as a youth issue in the press, culminating with this sentence in the Times: "Two adults sending each other naughty pictures, dirty language? Just garden-variety First Amendment-protected speech," as the article chirped. Or possibly, Weiner wasn't even aware that what he did was sexting at all, considering it's not clear that a cell-phone played a part in his digital dalliances.

Yet given that it's the release and inevitable replication of these photos on the superhighways of the Internet, that ultimately end up being problematic--not the exact device they are snapped on--the definition of sexting seems to have been amended in Wiener's case, consciously or not, to include sexually explicit texts, chats, or photos sent over the Internet regardless of medium. In the Weiner case, many are referring to the Facebook chats as "sexts."

Sexting is no longer the fringe trend word of nervous parents writing into Dear Abby columns about their children, no longer the strict province of adolescent children or exhibitionist celebrities. Illicit sexting, if the continuing fallout from Weiner's scandal is any indication, is an act potentially equal to actual sex in the eyes of the public before whom the sext is reproduced. Maybe a true sign of the word's evolution will be when the sexters themselves begin to take it seriously.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.