What Sexting Can Teach Us About Consent

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Academic studies can be fascinating… and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you

The Background

Sexting has gotten a bad rap. News stories about young people sending sexually explicit images and messages on their phones mostly feature scandals and anti-sexting campaigns. Recent research has found that 54 percent of teens sext, but only 28 percent send sexy images (other studies show comparably high numbers). If so many teens are sexting, what are they learning about sex in these X-rated digital exchanges? 

Quite a lot, apparently. A new study conducted by Amy Adele Hasinoff of the University of Colorado sorts through the types of advice people are getting when they turn to the Internet for tips on how to be a sexting pro. 

The Setup

Hasinoff looked at popular online advice to compare widely shared beliefs about sex vs. sexting. To do this, she used Google Trends to find the most relevant search terms for the two categories. She then analyzed articles that appeared on the first page of Google searches for these terms, since “most users never look beyond the first page of Google search results.” For “sexting,” she found that “how sexting,” “sexting examples” and “sexting tips” were the the most popular terms, which turned up 21 articles on the first page of Google search. “How sex” and “sex tips” were the most popular for “sex,” giving her 20 articles to analyze. The articles in the sample came from sites like Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, WikiHow and Gizmodo.

Once Hasinoff gathered the articles, she analyzed them with a focus on their treatment of affirmative consent, a concept in which ”the person who initiates sexual contact must receive a verbal yes (affirmative consent) from the other person before engaging in any sexual activity” – a.k.a. “yes means yes.”

The Findings

Turns out, the Internet gives pretty different advice for sex and for sexting. The sex advice articles Hasinoff analyzed never explicitly mentioned consent, and some of the sex tips even “eroticize[d] fantasy nonconsent scenarios.” (Oy.) When standard sex advice articles did encourage communication, it was only to suggest readers tell their partners about their desires to make sex hotter. One article from the “sex” sample stated, “Watch and listen for nonverbal clues — moans, thrusts, gasps. The better you’re able to read her, the more likely you are to please her.”

As Hasinoff put it, “The limitation in the general sex tips is that they merely mention communication as one of many sexual practices that can be fun and sexy, which may imply that it is optional.”

While the sexting advice articles Hasinoff analyzed did encourage communication for the sake of better sex, they also warned sexters about the potential harm they could cause by sending an unwanted sext. The articles described how a recipient might feel “shock and horror” or “weird, uncomfortable, impossibly awkward.” Sending unwanted sexts was also referred to as “creepy” and a form of “sexual harassment.” 

Seven of the 21 sexting articles actually instructed readers to seek explicit consent before hitting send on a sexy photo or message. As one article in the sample advised, “Sounds crazy, but there are people who assume that where a chat-up line fails, a picture of your penis may work. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Some of the sexting advice also tackled the myth that consent can be assumed based on relationship history. One article read, ”Just because a woman gives you her number doesn’t mean she wants to sext.” Another warned, “Don’t send unsolicited nakey pics. Ever. Even if it’s your wife.” 

While these sexting warnings don’t follow the affirmative consent model perfectly, Hasinoff said they “offer a rationale for adopting the principles of respecting sexual autonomy and engaging in explicit communication about consent.”

As for why there would be such a difference between popular sex and popular sexting advice, Hasinoff supplied two possible explanations. First, unlike IRL sex, sexting is fairly new, uncharted territory. People may just be trying to exhibit extra caution before making any assumptions about digital consent. Second, the cell phones themselves may promote explicit consent, since they eliminate the possibility of assuming implicit consent via nonverbal cues, like body language. That combined with the physical distance one has while sexting could also make it easier for potential sext recipients to say no — which would make consent particularly important to sext-senders.

The Takeaway

As Hasinoff put it, “general sex advice tends to rely on the conventional model that implicit consent is easily ascertained,” while “sexting tips writers seem to perceive a greater potential for ambiguity or miscommunication.” While the study didn’t look at whether or not sexters are actually following this advice and seeking explicit consent, the findings do suggest that the way popular culture looks at sexting could be a great model for IRL sex lives, especially for teens just beginning to explore their sexuality and sexual relationships. Hasinoff suggested that, rather than telling teens to abstain from sexting, people may want to focus on instructing them to respect the privacy of people who send them sexts by not sharing the content.

Of course, more research needs to be done before people can confidently proclaim, “Sexting is great for teens!” But hey, if it could teach young men and women not to take consent for granted, maybe it’s not so bad. 

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