Is Sexting a Dangerous Game?

It is hardly surprising that a recent Rhode Island study reveals that college students are sexting more than ever. Given my past career as a basic literacy teacher, I find it cause for celebration that young people are writing for effect in a concise, audience-aware manner. Writers of a successful sexts, sex tweets, and sexmails must be able to empathize with their target audience and clearly express feeling via the written word. When I asked Steve Almond, the Boston author of “This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey” and “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,” he said there was tenderness in the ideal of sexting: “A desire to share the illicit with your beloved, is a noble human pursuit, and has been for as long as people have loved.”

But Almond is also wary of the humiliation and harassment that can result from shared sexts, and the Rhode Island study also reflects this. Sometimes sexts, which can come in the form of photos, involve minors or wind up being shared with third parties without consent (17 percent of those surveyed fessed up to sharing sexts). One incident where high school staff viewed a student’s sex photos without permission before handing down punishment proves exactly how serious such breaches can be.

It can be hard to prevent these problems if we only define “safe sex” in terms of physical contact, which would then mean that virtual sex — with its distance and limitations — has the illusion of security. These myths, coupled with the rise of sexting, mean that we need to adapt our concept of safe sex accordingly. To do so, we might take a leaf from the BDSM community, where self-awareness and boundary-setting form the benchmarks of consent. Like sexting, BDSM does not necessitate genital contact. But its lessons are valuable to sexters: clear communication and safe words are paramount to safety. In terms of sexting, when you consider that sharing a sexmail with an illicit third party isn’t so different from planting hidden cameras in the bedroom, the emotional and legal importance of choosing a trustworthy partner are apparent. Though risking our own privacy can be part of the frisson that makes sexting so enticing, we need to be savvier about the nature of those risks.

Such issues are rarely covered in general sex education classes, where conceptualizations and definitions of sex need to catch up with 21st century thinking and behavior. After all, what sexual issue is more pressing than consent?

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