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You’ve probably read the phrase “send nudes? ;)” before; maybe it’s something that has been sent to you, you sent it, or you read it somewhere on the internet. It’s just one phrase that’s used to proposition a sext: the sharing of sexually explicit language, images, or videos of oneself through the internet or electronic devices, such as smartphones.

Sexting is more common than it’s ever been before—especially among young people—but its normalization has cause for concern.

What’s the harm? More serious than you might think.

Emotional Pain

There are several situations where sexting can cause emotional pain. A recent study by JAMA Pediatrics noted that males and females were equally as likely to be involved in sexting. However, females report feeling more pressure to sext, and also worry they will be judged harshly for sexting (i.e. “slut-shaming”). It is wrong to pressure or coerce someone into sending a sext, but that’s not the only emotional threat.

If and when a photo or message is shared with someone other than who the sender intended it for, it can lead to feelings of distrust, shame, embarrassment, or regret, which can lead to mental health struggles such as anxiety and depression. Think your photos won’t be shared? One of the most upsetting statistics to come out of the study mentioned above is that one in nine teenagers report forwarding sexts without consent. That statistic alone is cause for worry that intimate images will end up in someone else’s hands, or made public. In this case, the sender’s trust and emotional well-being has been violated, but there can also be legal implications.

Legal Consequence

The bottom line here is this: when sexting involves a minor, it is illegal. No exceptions. It’s illegal between a 50 year old and a 14 year old who are strangers. It’s illegal between a 17 year old and a 16 year old who are in a relationship. Any sexually explicit photos or videos involving minors are considered child pornography—whether or not they are taken or sent consensually. Promotion, possession, distribution, or production of child pornography is a serious crime and prosecutable offense. That means asking for, owning, sending, or taking sexually explicit images of anyone under the age of 18. The consequence depends on the degree of the crime, but can include hefty fines, jail time, and being registered as a sex offender for life.

Another legal consequence to sexting is the distribution of what is commonly called “revenge porn.” This is not specific to minors. In Missouri, as of June 2018, it is a felony offense to share, or threaten to share, private sexual images of a person with the intent to harass, threaten or coerce that person. To share nude photos or sexually explicit images of any other person without their consent is punishable by up to four years in prison, or one year in jail. The court also can impose a fine up to $10,000 or twice the amount of financial gain to the offender.

Safety Risk

Traffickers and predators have found that sexting becomes a tool to their advantage to threaten their victims—sometimes called “sextortion.” Predators use the explicit material sent to them to coerce people to comply with their demands by using scare tactics.

It isn’t just teens at risk, either. Predators look for anyone in a vulnerable situation—whether because of their age, economic status, life circumstance, or level of self-confidence. In one case, the victim was a married mother of four. After moving to a new place, hitting a rough patch in her marriage, and struggling to find friends, she turned to the internet to seek interaction—though she frequently warned her children of the danger of talking to people on the web that you don’t know.

She began connecting with a man on Twitter who seemed to share her interests. They struck up a friendship over the course of time, and unbeknownst to her, he “groomed” her to be his victim by telling her everything she was wanting to hear: validation that she was pretty, smart, funny, and deserved the attention she wasn’t getting at home. When he had built her trust, he asked her for nude pictures—and she complied. Not long after, he began to manipulate her, threatening to post the pictures publicly if she didn’t comply with his demands. He eventually hacked into her account, posting not only the pictures she had sent him, but images he had also photoshopped to look like her. While the photos were eventually removed, it was too late to prevent humiliation and extortion of the victim.

Now what? What if I have sent or received a sext before?

With all of this in mind, how do you keep yourself safe? The best way is to just not sext. If you are on the receiving end, delete the picture immediately and inform the sender that you don’t want to engage in sexting. If you are contemplating sending a sext, ask yourself: is sending this picture worth the risk? Am I willing to put my future—or someone else’s—in jeopardy by sending (or asking for, or sharing) a photo? If you already have sent a sext, and you regret it, ask the person who received it to delete it (and watch them do it). If your image has been shared without your consent, tell a safe adult and contact law enforcement. Even though you may regret sending a sext, if you are the victim of sextortion it is important to remember that it is not your fault.

The best choice you can make is one that is grounded in facts and knowledge. Don’t stop here—get educated on the laws in your state and the risks at hand. If you’re in a relationship and have questions about your sexual health, contact us today!

Sources are available upon request.