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is the practice of sending or posting sexually suggestive text messages and/or images, including nude or semi-nude photographs, typically via cellular phones[1]. The case United States v. Broxmeyer in 2010 defined sexting as "an act of sending sexually explicit materials through mobile phones."[2] In the United States, sexting can be considered a criminal offense when involving teenagers or children and is punishable under laws against distribution of child pornography and possession of child pornography. [3]

Sexting has become extremely prevalent in the era of smartphones and social media apps like Kik, Snapchat, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger . While people of all ages participate in sexting[4], it is more notably associated with adolescents and young adults. The rise in popularity of sexting is still relatively recent, therefore both ethics and legislation surrounding the topic are constantly being renewed and developed. Sexting is often seen as acceptable in certain relationships, but there are many circumstances where it is still seen as taboo behavior. Moreover, sexting brings about several ethical concerns surrounding the notions of consent, privacy and sexual harassment - among others.


The first published record of the use of the word "sexting" can be traced back to an article in The Globe and Mail in 2004, referencing explicit messages between David Beckham and an assistant. This newspaper is one of the first records to have combined the words "sex" and "text messaging". The first official record of defining the word "sexting" was in 2009 by Pew Research Center who performed a study on sexting and broke down the practice of sexting into three different types:[5]

  1. Between two romantic partners as a part of, or instead of, sexual activity.
  2. As part of an experimental act for teenagers who are not sexually active.
  3. As a part of a prospective sexual relationship. [6]

Despite the relative novelty of the term, the concept of exchanging sexually explicit messages and images is not a new phenomenon. Explicit letters and portraits are commonplace in history.[7] The outrage that emerged in recent decades over the phenomenon has to do with (1) the moral panic over high-profile celebrities who were caught sexting, and cheating on their spouses and (2) the moral panic over the idea of teenagers (especially children) engaging in such acts.

Social Media

Social media provides a new platform for sexting. Anyone with internet access can use these applications. Sexting via social media is most popular among teens and young adults. Some prefer sexting on social media applications over text messaging because these platforms can provide the user with a sense anonymity or the ability to put a time constraint on how long the recipient can view the message.


Kik is one of the first social media applications that brought about the idea of sexting as a prominent issue. Kik was developed in 2009 by students at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Kik has over 300 million highly engaged, registered users with a large portion being college-aged young adults. Kik allows people to register with a username that obscures their identity; a sense of anonymity makes the social media platform more prone to sexting and predators. Once people discovered that a user's identity was able to be hidden on Kik, unsolicited sexting increased significantly. Many users have reported that they have received sexually explicit messages through the application and many scholars have noted Kik as an unsafe application.[8]

In addition to this, Kik is primarily used by young adults and even young teens from the ages of 16-24.[9] The teenagers using the app at the younger end of this spectrum are not considered adults and could fall victim to certain traps that have befallen the Kik app, such as the so-called "porn bots".[10] These bots are computer programs that sneak their way into Kik and target users in an attempt to flirt with them and get the users to click on and pay for their porn websites. The conversations are not always obviously from bots and they can sometimes act as people as they try to flirt and even seduce users into falling into their trap. Thousands of these bots exist within Kik.[10] The bots could attempt to obtain credit card or personal information, by having them pay for porn, which could cause quite a lot of trouble for the teenager.


Snapchat was first created in 2011 by Stanford alumnus Bobby Murphy and Stanford dropout Evan Spiegel for a product design class. The application was age-rated for users twelve and up as a multimedia messaging application in which you can share moments with friends instantly. Users are able to set how long a recipient can view a message prior to sending the "snap". In theory, the receiving user may only see the message for that certain amount of time before it is deleted automatically.[11]. Snapchat is one of the most popular messaging platforms with over 48 million monthly active users in October 2018, and its user base numbers are second only to Facebook Messenger.[12]

Credit: Aisling Moloney, "What are premium Snapchat accounts and are they just porn?" Metro.

Since its launch, Snapchat has been commonly viewed as an application for sexting[13].It was even named, “the greatest tool for sexting since the front-facing camera”[14].

Another feature Sanpchat users can utilize is "Snapchat Premium." Snapchat Premium involves accounts requesting a fee for users to view their content. These accounts are commonly used for adult, sexual content which explains the restriction with the fee. Once the "premium" Snapchat is set up, the user with the account could charge their Snapchat friends a membership fee for their content. "Snapchat Premium" began with the feature Snapchat enabled called "Snapcash" where users could link their bank accounts and pay each other using the Snapchat app. Once this feature was discontinued in Augst of 2018, users continued to informally carry out their Snapchat premium accounts through requiring users to pay through third-party sources like Cash app and PayPal. [15]

The application provides users with a perceived sense of safety with respect to sending explicit photos since they are meant to disappear from the user's device after a certain time period. However, the app only notifies the sender if the recipient screenshots a snap, but does not disable the screenshot functionality on the phone. In addition, certain plug-in apps, such as Casper, allow users to open snaps and take screenshots without the sender being notified[16]. However, many of these applications, including Casper, have since been banned by Snapchat for running without the consent of the company. The fact that other users can still screenshot explicit photos from other users, behind the false hope that their images are gone forever after they have been viewed, is not only unethical, but can be harmful to both receiving and sending parties. This not only breaks a sense of privacy between users but also causes a trust issue between the users sending sexually explicit images and the app itself.


A different study conducted to determine what percentage of an age population has received, sent or forward a sext
While sexting has only become increasingly popular in recent years, a large proportion of teenagers and adults are sending or receiving sexts. It is reported that 20% of teens and 33% of young adults have posted nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves online. Meanwhile, 39% of teens and 59% of young adults have reported sending sexually suggestive messages [17]. Although it may seem more likely that sexting is used between people who are looking for a short-term hook up, sexting is actually more predominant between those in a committed relationship [18].

Ethical Concerns

Texting and social media serve as platforms for users to express themselves and digitize aspects of their character and body. Sexting has given the human body the capacity to be more intimately intersected with technology, which gives rise to ethical concerns regarding data security and data privacy[19]. After sending a sext, a user no longer has control over that content; that piece of content could be stored in the computing cloud or on another user's device via screenshot or shared across an unlimited scope. Its ethical implications are not limited to just a loss of control over data but have also prompted privacy concerns regarding sexual harassment and bullying.

Privacy and Voyeurism


Screenshot of Twitter Account

When one chooses to screenshot a snap on Snapchat, the sender is notified. However, methods of saving photos or videos without giving the sender a notification, have been developed. The receiver might use someone else’s phone to take a photo of the snap which avoids the screenshot notification. Apps available for purchase have also been created that will save snaps without notifying the sender of said snap. This is an invasion of both physical privacy and decisional privacy, for the original sender of the photos no longer has the freedom to decide who views the photos of their exposed body [20]. The sender has no control over whether or not these photos are shared with other audiences, or on various social media accounts like Twitter's ‘Sexy Snapchat Sluts.’ These public Twitter accounts share the nude photos of strangers for anyone to see, allowing anyone to become voyeurs.

As stated by Tony Doyle in Privacy and Perfect Voyeurism, “Persons are worthy of having their autonomy respected because they are persons,” [21] and public accounts like these blatantly take away individuals' autonomy. These accounts also violate people's privacy, but one can make the argument that privacy is sacrificed when someone decides to send a nude picture. However, people are entitled to their own degree of privacy. Gavison writes that "privacy is [...] a shield that can protect [one] from embarrassment and enable [he or she] to maintain [their] self-respect," but due to applications like Snapchat and the growing prevalence of sexting, this shield has drastically diminished.


A notable example of third party individuals leveraging sexual photos was the blackmail and extortion attempt made by American Media Inc. AMI, against Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon. Bezos, who's messages with Lauren Sanchez had been compromised, revealed he had participated in sexting with a woman other than his wife. In a Medium article, Bezo's outlines the demands American Media Inc. makes in exchange for his personal photos remaining private. AMI's list of demands ranged from Bezos publicly stating that he and Gavin de Becker "have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces." [22] However, if agreed upon, AMI would not delete the photos, but store them if Bezos ever deviated from the agreed plan. This example brings up ethical concerns revolving around third-party individuals who are able to possess sexual photos used in a consensual exchanged between two individuals, and how the products of sexting can be leveraged against the senders with malicious intent.

Sexual Harassment and Bullying

Sexual harassment is the bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, and sexting is often a result of one person in the exchange asking or telling someone to send photos of themselves. Sexting can be characterized as sexual harassment because the request may be unwarranted and someone might be coerced into sending photos.

Public humiliation and sexual shame often result from the spreading of someone’s photos after they partook in sexting. In September of 2010, a video called Megan’s Story was put on YouTube to spread a message about sexting and demonstrate that, once you share something digitally, you lose control over who sees it and what they do with it [23]. Megan, a teenage girl, walks into school after sexting. When she enters her class, the sext she just sent begins to circulate around the classroom. Megan begins to get upset as her classmates react with a mixture of intrigue and disgust. Finally, even the teacher receives the message and Megan leaves the room in tears. [24] Having something that you sent privately for a particular person to see, shared publicly and spread around is an invasion of one’s privacy and sexual freedom. Not only that but “depression, suicide, mood disorder, adjustment reactions, and anxiety disorders are some potential mental health implications that can arise after falling victim to sexting” [25].

Sexual Pressure and Coercion

Example of Individual Pressure/Sexual Coercion

Another problem pertaining to sexting is that it is prevalent among adolescents and youths with little to no prior sexual experience. While young people are passing through puberty, they are in a stage where sexual exploration and expression may take on increased importance in their lives [26]. With these new technologies in place, adolescents find themselves in a more vulnerable position to be taken advantage of - or coerced into sending nude or sexually explicit photos of themselves.

Pressure and/or coercion is a key reason why young females (in particular) send images of themselves to others (typically young males). There are a variety of ways that this pressure and coercion can formulate.

Individual Pressure

Individual pressure is best defined as the form of pressure that exists within the relationship of two sexting partners [27]. Individual pressure is also the type of pressure that typically becomes coercive. This type of pressure could entail one partner in a relationship asking for a nude image and the other partner feels obligated to send because they are in a relationship. The severity of this situation is mild but it is still coercion because the sender did not have the desire to send the photos. In a more serious example, individual pressure could involve an individual being blackmailed into sending nude images of themselves because of some threat of maybe violence, shaming, or humiliation. This example of coercion also categorizes as cyberbullying.

Peer Group Pressure

Sexting behaviors may be positively reinforced within group culture. While this type of pressure is not necessarily sexual coercion, it still puts pressure on young individuals to sext, even if they do not have the desire to do so. Group dynamics can influence individuals to sext because if everyone in the group is participating in the sexting culture, then one individual member may feel less included in the group unless they too participate in the act of sexting. In a study conducted by The National Panel to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, revealed that 39% of teens had engaged in some form of sexting. One of the main reasons that was reported for participation in sexting was found to be peer pressure from this study. [28]


Sexting raises a plethora of new issues surrounding consent. Pressure and coercion at any level provide the legitimacy to question whether young women in some instances are able to fully and freely ‘consent’ to the activity even where they produce and send the image ‘consensually’. Consent is not always given and photos are sent to people who do not want to receive them. Consent is also specific to each action that may be involved in a sequence of actions, meaning it does not carry over to events that deviate from the original consented action. Even when consent is originally given, ethical issues arise when a third party individual gains access to the image of the sender. As mentioned previously, this is a blatant form of sexual harassment.[29]

One of the commonly used terms in regards to non-consensual sexting is the "dick-pic." It has become a trend for males to send images of their genitalia to others with no previous indication of the receiver asking or wanting to receive a photo. In fact, four in ten women between the ages of 18 and 36 report having been sent a dick pic without consent, while only 5% of men in this demographic reported having received unsolicited nude photos [30]. There have even been reports of women receiving dick pics via Airdrop, making anyone with the feature enabled susceptible. Lawmakers are calling the senders of these types of explicit images cyber flashers. In the UK, cyber-flashing can yield up to two years in prison.

However, US law views people under the age of 18 as being unable to give consent specific to sexting, even when many of them are over the legal age for sexual consent in their state. As of August 1, 2018, the age of consent in 38 out of the 50 states is under 18 [31]. This is particularly problematic because sexting is most prevalent among adolescents who already view themselves as having full sexual agency. Because of the laws set in place, a teenager who sexts consensually could be committing four different crimes: “solicitation, production, distribution and possession of child pornography” [32]. This has caused states to begin regulating the act of sexting amongst teenagers.


Sexting may be done anonymously, where one or both participants may not know the full or partial identity of the other. This anonymity may be achieved by applications that use anonymous profiles or the content of the sext excluding any identifying features of the sender. In Wallace's exploration of anonymity, she discusses how anonymity allows one to express themselves in ways that they would not publicly. [33] Online platforms can allow one to express their sexuality with less shame. The downside of the increased freedom of expression is that anonymity can increase the aforementioned nonconsensual sexting.


Many states have taken action to create laws that they feel will properly solve the ethical dilemma of sexting amongst minors. Vermont, for instance, created an exception for consensual sexting between teenagers of specific ages. Vermont Senate Bill 125 amended child pornography laws to exclude persons “less than 19 years old, [when] the child is at least 13 years old, and the child knowingly and voluntarily and without threat of coercion used an electronic communication device to transmit an image of himself or herself to the person” [34]. Other states, however, have created stricter sex offender laws in response to sexting. In 2012, South Dakota criminalized a minor’s intentional creation, transmission, possession, or distribution of “any visual depiction of a minor in any condition of nudity or involved in any prohibited sexual act” [35]. Another varying legal approach is educational programs. New York Assembly Bill 8131 “directs the attorney general to establish a 2-year juvenile sexting and cyberbullying education demonstration program in not less than 3 counties as a diversionary program for persons under 16 who have engaged in cyberbullying or sexting, in lieu of juvenile delinquency or criminal proceedings” [36]. A large ethical dilemma surrounding sexting is that many states fail to have existing laws that address its implications. In these such states, prosecutors are left to follow the laws that are already established, mainly child pornography or obscenity laws. This often results in teens being labeled as sex offenders which is something that could permanently affect their lives in a negative way. In the absence of effective and updated legislation, social media platforms should be held accountable or responsible for their role (i.e., failure to implement preventative measures) in the proliferation of sexting crimes.

There exist many laws against the sharing of revenge porn, or sexts shared without the consent of the subject in the media. Revenge porn is sexually explicit video or photographs produced in an intimate setting which is then shared to the public in an act of retaliation against the original party after a conflict or falling out. The United States covers the grounds of revenge porn through tort, privacy, copyright and criminal law. Forty states have specific laws addressing revenge porn. [37]Revenge porn aggregate websites such as the now-defunct IsAnyoneUp and the Texxxan have been subject to legal action in the past, resulting in their subsequent takedowns. IsAnyoneUp was investigated for engaging in a hacking scheme to illegally procure their content, and resulted in the indictment of fifteen felonies under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in January 2014. [38]

See Also


  1. Poltash, Nicole A. "Snapchat and Sexting: A Snapshot of Baring Your Bare Essentials," Richmond Journal of Law & Technology vol. 19, no. 4 (2013): p. 1-24. HeinOnline,
  2. United States v. Broxmeyer, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 16032 (2d Cir. 2010).
  3. US Legal, Inc. “Sexting Law and Legal Definition.” Sexting Law and Legal Definition | USLegal, Inc.,
  4. McDaniel, Brandon T.; Drouin, Michelle (November 2015). "Sexting among married couples: who is doing it, and are they more satisfied?". Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 18 (11): 628–634. doi:10.1089/cyber.2015.0334. PMC 4642829. PMID 26484980.
  5. Rosenberg, Eli. “In Weiner's Wake, a Brief History of the Word 'Sexting'.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 30 Oct. 2013,
  6. Lenhart, Amanda. “Teens and Sexting: Major Findings.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, 15 Jan. 2014,
  7. Kelly, D. (2016, September 26). "Sexting" Is Just a New Name for a Very Old Activity. Retrieved from
  8. Moloney, Aisling. "What is Kik Messenger and Is It Safe?," Metro News (2017),
  9. "Distribution of Kik Messenger users in the United States as of 2nd quarter 2015, by age",
  10. 10.0 10.1 Olson, Parmy. "Who is behind the Porn Bots on Kik?" Forbes,
  11. Poltash, Nicole A. "Snapchat and Sexting: A Snapshot of Baring Your Bare Essentials," Richmond Journal of Law & Technology vol. 19, no. 4 (2013): p. 1-24. HeinOnline,
  12. “U.S. Mobile Messengers MAU 2018 | Statistic.” Statista,
  13. Hill, Kashmir ’This Sext Message Will Self Destruct in Five Seconds’, FORBES,
  14. Poltash, Nicole A. "Snapchat and Sexting: A Snapshot of Baring Your Bare Essentials," Richmond Journal of Law & Technology vol. 19, no. 4 (2013): p. 1-24. HeinOnline,
  15. Moloney, Aisling. "What are premium Snapchat accounts and are they just porn?" 21 Feb. 2019. Metro.
  16. SL, Uptodown Technologies. “Casper (Android).”, 16 Aug. 2017,
  17. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. 10 December 2008.
  18. Weisskirch, Rob. “Why Do People Sext--and Who Is Likely to Do It?” Scientific American, 29 Aug. 2016.
  19. Lupton, Deborah, Digital Bodies (May 15, 2015). Available at SSRN: or
  20. Floridi, Luciano. The 4th Revolution: How the Infosphere Is Reshaping Human Reality. Oxford University Press, 2016
  21. Doyle, Tony. “Privacy and Perfect Voyeurism.” Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 11, no. 3, 2009, pp. 181–189., doi:10.1007/s10676-009-9195-9
  22. Bezos, Jeff, and Jeff Bezos. “No Thank You, Mr. Pecker.” Medium, Medium, 7 Feb. 2019,
  23. ThinkUKnowAustralia. 2010a. Megan's Story.
  24. Kath Albury & Kate Crawford (2012) Sexting, consent and young people's ethics: Beyond Megan's Story, Continuum, 26:3, 463-473, DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2012.665840
  25. Sexting and Cyberbullying in the Developmental Context. Judge, Abigail Sossong, Anthony D. Child, and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Media 2018
  26. Murray Lee, Thomas Crofts, Gender, Pressure, Coercion and Pleasure: Untangling Motivations for Sexting Between Young People, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 55, Issue 3, May 2015, Pages 454–473,
  27. Murray Lee, Thomas Crofts, Gender, Pressure, Coercion and Pleasure: Untangling Motivations for Sexting Between Young People, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 55, Issue 3, May 2015, Pages 454–473,
  28. "Sexting." Mental Health and Mental Disorders: An Encyclopedia of Conditions, Treatments, and Well-Being, edited by Len Sperry, vol. 3, Greenwood, 2016, pp. 1016-1017. Gale Virtual Reference Library [[1]]
  29. Roy, Jessica, "Non-Consensual Sexting: The Hot New Way to Make Someone Really Uncomfortable", Time,, April 25, 2014
  30. “What makes men send dick pics?.” Moya Sarner, The Guardian, 18 Mar. 2019,
  31. “Ages of Consent in the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Mar. 2019,
  32. Poltash, Nicole A. "Snapchat and Sexting: A Snapshot of Baring Your Bare Essentials," Richmond Journal of Law & Technology vol. 19, no. 4 (2013): p. 1-24. HeinOnline,
  33. Kathleen Wallace (2008) "The Handbook of information and Computer Ethics" Chapter 7 Online Anonymity
  34. S. 125, 2009 Leg., Reg. Less. (Vt. 2009), available at
  35. S. 183, 2012 Leg., 87th Sess. (S.D. 2012), available at
  36. Assembly. B. No. A08131, 2011 Leg., Reg. Less. (N.Y. 2012) available at
  37. Woodrow Hartzog, "How to Fight Revenge Porn", Stanford Law Center for Internet and Society (May 10, 2013).
  38. Roy, Jessica. "Revenge-Porn King Hunter Moore Indicted on Federal Charges". Time. Retrieved 19 April 2014.