Where harm is most likely to occur is when sexts are shared or forwarded. While a sext that is only ever seen by the original recipient is unlikely to cause any harm, the risks caused by sexts that are seen by others are obvious.
MediaSmarts’ research has found that roughly a third of youth are responsible for nearly all of the sharing behaviours, which includes sharing sexts (that they asked for, that they didn’t ask for or those shared with them by someone other than the original sender), in person, by forwarding them to individuals or by posting them to public spaces such as “revenge porn” sites.[ii]
Signs that a sext has been shared
While youth whose sexts have been shared without their consent often hear about it – or see it – directly, research has also identified some things that indirectly suggest a sext may have been made public:
- Rumours or gossip about the sender
- Insulting messages posted about the sender
- Others ask the sender to send them a sext
- Others behave differently towards the sender, such as avoiding them
- Making indirect comments such as laughing or making jokes about the sender[iii]
Why young people share sexts
So why do almost half (46 percent) of youth who receive sexts decide to share them, and why do they – and, in many cases, their peers who may not share sexts themselves but nevertheless choose to blame the victim for having sent it in the first place – see themselves as doing nothing wrong? MediaSmarts’ research has identified main factors: gender stereotyping, moral disengagement and unhealthy social norms.
Studies about the gendered aspects of sexting consistently show that while little criticism is attached to boys who send sexts, girls who do so are perceived as being sexually immoral: girls who sext are more easily seen as sexual, while boys who share sexts that were sent to them gain respect within their peer group.[iv]
This might explain why those who share sexts don’t appear to consider it to be an ethical issue. Girls who send sexts are seen as having transgressed appropriate genders roles and, therefore, have given up the right to expect that their images will not be shared or forwarded. Some researchers have found that girls may face social sanctions around sexting whether they send sexts or not: University of Michigan researchers Scott Campbell and Julia Lippman found that “boys in our study described girls who did send sexts as ‘sluts’ or ‘insecure,’ whereas they characterized girls who did not send sexts as ‘prude’ or ‘stuck up’… sexting is a lose–lose proposition for girls; regardless of whether or not they sext, their behaviour is evaluated in harsh—and often sexist—terms.”[v]
Gender stereotyping – which can be a result of media influence as well as other factors – can lead girls to believe they must produce sexual content online in order to be what society deems sexually desirable. These explicit images posted online on social media platforms such as Instagram are seen “as a form of self-display, which in some cases can be seen as a measure of attractiveness and a new form of feminine desirability.”[vi] Gender roles contribute to sharing sexts being seen as a positive act, both as a sanction on inappropriate behaviour by girls and as something that is rewarded by status among boys (some studies have shown that boys gain status by sharing and forwarding sexts that were sent to them[vii] and may also feel pressure to share sexts they receive or be seen as un-masculine).[viii] MediaSmarts’ research has found that holding traditional attitudes on gender, such as believing that “men should be more interested than women in sex” and “a woman cannot be truly happy unless she is in a relationship,” has a powerful association with how likely youth were to have shared someone’s sexts: half (53 percent) of those who believed strongly in traditional gender stereotypes had shared a sext compared to just over a sixth (18 percent) who had more neutral beliefs and only one in ten (9 percent) of those who did not believe in them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this effect was more powerful among the boys and young men in the study, though it was significant among the girls and young women, as well.[ix]
Moral disengagement describes the ways in which we convince ourselves to do something that we know is wrong or to not do something we know is right. MediaSmarts’ research looked at the impact of four moral disengagement mechanisms:
- finding a way to view sharing as being actually positive: “When a girl’s sext gets shared, it shows other girls the risks”
- denying the harm of sharing: “Sharing sexts is so common, nobody cares about it”
- shifting responsibility away from themselves: “If I share a text with just one person and then he shares it with others, it isn’t really my fault”
- blaming the victim: “A girl shouldn’t be surprised if her sexts get shared after a breakup.”[x]
Victim-blaming, in particular, is strongly linked to posting sexts in public forums. Nearly all of the photos posted to a “revenge porn” website, for example, were accompanied by comments from the poster justifying their actions as retaliation for some perceived harm done by the victim or flaw in her character.[xi]
Half (53 percent) of youth in the top third of moral disengagement scores have shared a sext, a sixth (17 percent) of those in the middle third have, and one in ten (11 percent) of those in the bottom third have – an effect that was the same for both boys and young men as it was for girls and young women.[xii]
Social norms, peer pressure and reciprocity
MediaSmarts’ asked study participants how common they thought sending and sharing sexts was among their peers, as well as how many of their close friends had done either. While this did have some correlation with their own sharing behaviours, a much stronger association was found with whether or not they thought their friends would expect them to share any sexts they received and, even more powerfully, whether they expected their friends to share sexts with them.[xiii] This supports the idea that sexts are traded by youth, either in exchange for other sexts or to gain status, or both.[xiv] Social norms can also interact with gender stereotyping, as youth often report pressure from peers – both of the same and opposite sex – to share sexts that they have received.
[i] Madigan, S., Ly, A., Rash, C. L., Van Ouytsel, J., & Temple, J. R. (2018). Prevalence of multiple forms of sexting behavior among youth: A systematic review and meta-analysis. 327JAMA pediatrics, 172(4), -335.
[ii] Johnson, M., Mishna, F., Okumu, M., Daciuk, J. (2018). Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth, Ottawa: MediaSmarts. Retrieved from http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/sharing-of-sexts.pdf
[iii] Quayle, E., & Cariola L. (2017) Youth-Produced Sexual Images: A Victim-Centred Consensus Approach. SPIRTO.
[iv] Naezer, M (2021). Only sluts love sexting: youth, sexual norms, and nonconsensual sharing of digital sexual images. Journal of Gender Studies. 30:1, pp. 79-90
[v] Lippman, J. R., & Campbell, S. W. (2014). Damned if you do, damned if you don’t… if you’re a girl: Relational and normative contexts of adolescent sexting in the United States. Journal of Children and Media, 8(4), 371-386.
[vi] Speno, A & Aubrey, J (2018) Adolescent sexting: the roles of self-objectification and internalization of media ideals. Psychology of women quarterly. 8:63, pp. 1-11.
[vii] Ringrose, J., Harvey, L., Gill, R. and Livingstone, S. (2013) Teen girls, sexual double standards and ‘sexting’: Gendered value in digital image exchange, Feminist Theory 2013.
[viii] DeKeseredy, W. S., Schwartz, M. D., Harris, B., Woodlock, D., Nolan, J., & Hall-Sanchez, A. (2019). Technology-facilitated stalking and unwanted sexual messages/images in a college campus community: The role of negative peer support. Sage open, 9(1), 2158244019828231.
[ix] Johnson, M., Mishna, F., Okumu, M., Daciuk, J. (2018). Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth, Ottawa: MediaSmarts.
[x] Johnson, M., Mishna, F., Okumu, M., Daciuk, J. (2018). Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth, Ottawa: MediaSmarts.
[xi] Hall, M., & Hearn, J. (2019). Revenge pornography and manhood acts: A discourse analysis of perpetrators’ accounts. Journal of Gender Studies, 28(2), 158-170.
[xii] Johnson, M., Mishna, F., Okumu, M., Daciuk, J. (2018). Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth, Ottawa: MediaSmarts.
[xiii] Johnson, M., Mishna, F., Okumu, M., Daciuk, J. (2018). Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth, Ottawa: MediaSmarts.
[xiv] Ringrose, J., Harvey, L., Gill, R. and Livingstone, S. (2013) Teen girls, sexual double standards and ‘sexting’: Gendered value in digital image exchange, Feminist Theory 2013.