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Sexting it up

By Nina Funnell - posted Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Like so many other “grumpy-old-women”, I’ve recently decided that anyone who is younger or skinnier than me must be up to no good. Especially if they are also good looking or in any way interested in sex. My most recent gripe is with teenagers who think it’s a smart idea to take naked photos of themselves on mobile phones before sending those images to others as an expression of sexual interest and availability.

This trend, commonly known as “sexting”, appears to be on the rise. A recent study released by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in the United States concluded that one in five teens had sent or posted a nude or semi-nude picture or video of themselves via text message or the internet. Two in five teens had also sent a sexually suggestive text message, email or instant message.

While it is easy to dismiss the behaviour as stupid or unthinking, the study also showed that those who sent images had a detailed understanding of the personal and professional risks associated with electronically transferring naked images, suggesting that increased education alone is unlikely to curb the trend. In fact some teenagers surveyed chose to send images precisely because of the thrill they received from engaging in such dangerous, taboo behaviour.


For six teenagers in Greensburg, Pennsylvania the gamble did not pay off. Recently three teenage girls took naked photos of themselves before sending them to three male friends. After authorities were alerted, the girls responsible for taking the photos were charged with manufacturing, disseminating and possessing child pornography and the boys were also charged with possession of child pornography.

It’s an extreme case but it raises the question of whether current child pornography laws (initially intended to protect children) are inadvertently being used to criminalise teenage sexuality. We might also ask whether it is appropriate for us to group healthy, sexually curious teenagers with mentally unwell criminal pedophiles. Moreover, what good can really come from these six teenagers being registered on a sex-offender list for the rest of their lives? Surely counselling would be a better alternative to prosecution.

While concerned parents and children’s rights groups have been very vocal on the subject of sexting, there is virtually no comprehensive research being conducted into this phenomenon in Australia. What there is, however, is a heap of anecdotal evidence coming out that suggests that young Australians who engage in sexting are doing so for a variety of complex reasons.

In the American study, most people believed that girls who engage in sexting do so because they have been pressured by boys. However, of those females who actually had “sexted”, very few listed pressure from others as a motivating factor. Instead, two thirds of teen girls said it was a “fun and flirtatious” activity that made them “feel sexy”. For others, sexting was seen as a form of initiation into the sexual culture.

One young person recently posted the following in a forum thread discussing the issue; “I think sexting is actually a way that kids who are not sexually active can experiment with sex without worrying about pregnancy or STI’s. Getting undressed for the first time in a room with another person can be pretty nerve racking as there is loads of room for rejection. With sexting you can control how much they see of you and from what angle - it’s a way for more shy, anxious teens to test the sexual waters.”

The risk of course is that even if these “shy, anxious” teens can control what is seen of them, they can’t control who sees the images or where those images end up. Then again, perhaps young people place a fundamentally different value on privacy and what it means to be seen naked.


Unlike older generations who grew up in an era where a rigid distinction between the public and the private existed, today’s teens view that distinction as far more muddied. Through online social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, the circulation of private information has been normalised and the traditional stigma attached to airing one’s dirty laundry (and exposing one’s body) has greatly decreased.

Another teenager recently posted the following comment; “In the era of Photoshop it doesn’t really matter if you circulate naked images of yourself. The fact is that with a simple cut and paste job and a little bit of airbrushing, other people can circulate naked images of you, even if you’ve never posed naked before a camera. Being nude just doesn’t mean the same thing anymore.”

What all this will do to the current moral order is yet to be seen. What we can be assured of though, is that while we need to develop legal and ethical frameworks for dealing with this issue, at some point we will just have to accept the fact that all people have private lives and that like it or not, chances are that we are going to be hearing more and more about them.

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About the Author

Nina Funnell is a freelance opinion writer and a researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. In the past she has had work published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, The Brisbane Times and in the Sydney Star Observer. Nina often writes on gender and sexuality related issues and also sits on the management committee of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

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