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Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages, primarily between mobile phones. The term was first popularized in the early 21st century, and is a portmanteau of sex and texting, where the latter is meant in the wide sense of sending a text possibly with images. In August 2012, the word sexting was listed for the first time in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.
The first published use of the term sexting was in a 2005 article in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine. Sexting has since been described as taking place in the UK, Australia, the United States, and Canada.
In a 2008 survey of 1,280 teenagers and young adults of both sexes on Cosmogirl.com sponsored by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 20% of teens (13-20) and 33% of young adults (20-26) had sent nude or semi-nude photographs of themselves electronically. Additionally, 39% of teens and 59% of young adults had sent sexually explicit text messages.
A widely cited 2011 study indicated the previously reported prevalence was exaggerated. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire surveyed 1,560 children and caregivers, reporting that only 2.5 percent of respondents had sent, received or created sexual pictures distributed via cell phone in the previous year. Perhaps shedding light on the over-reporting of earlier studies, the researchers found that the figure rose to 9.6% when the definition was broadened from images prosecutable as child pornography to any suggestive image, not necessarily nude ones.
Despite this, a recent 2012 study conducted by the University of Utah Department of Psychology has received wide international media attention for calling into question the findings reported by the University of New Hampshire researchers. In the University of Utah's study, researchers Donald S. Strassberg, Ryan Kelly McKinnon, Michael A. Sustaíta and Jordan Rullo surveyed 606 teenagers ages 14–18 and found that nearly 20 percent of the students said they had sent a sexually explicit image of themselves via cell phone, and nearly twice as many said that they had received a sexually explicit picture. Of those receiving such a picture, over 25 percent indicated that they had forwarded it to others. In addition, of those who had sent a sexually explicit picture, over a third had done so despite believing that there could be serious legal and other consequences if they got caught. Students who had sent a picture by cell phone were more likely than others to find the activity acceptable. Strassberg, McKinnon, et al. note: "The news-worthiness of [the University of New Hampshire study] derives from [their] figure [2.5%] being far below (by a factor of 5 or more) the prevalence rates reported in the previous surveys. However, while technically accurate, the 2.5% figure is actually rather misleading. As seen in Table 1 of their publication, Mitchell et al. found that among the quarter of their sample that were ages 10–12, [less than] 0.6% 'appeared in, created, or received a nude or nearly nude image' while among those age 15–17, 15% of participants reported having done so. Despite it being widely reported in the media, the overall prevalence figure of 2.5% masks a dramatic age effect that indicates that more than 1 in 8 mid-teen minors admit to having sexted." Strassberg, McKinnon, et al. conclude: "These results argue for educational efforts such as cell phone safety assemblies, awareness days, integration into class curriculum and teacher training, designed to raise awareness about the potential consequences of sexting among young people."
A study released on 4 February 2014 by security software McAfee, titled "Love, Relationships, and Technology", illustrates how many people send "risqué photos or intimate texts to people they know or strangers." According to the study, 49 percent of US adults use their smartphones to send or receive sexual content via video, photo, e-mail, or messaging. 50 percent of adults who sext save the sexts and images they receive. Of the sexters, 77 percent send explicit content to their significant other while 16 percent send it to complete strangers. 18 to 24-year-olds are the age group most likely to partake in sexting. Of this age group, 70 percent of people receive suggestive photos and messages. Men are more likely to send and receive intimate information than women. 61 percent of men sext while 48 percent of women do. The data from this study was gathered in a December 2013 survey of more than 1,500 US consumers between the ages of 18 to 54.
Sexting is a result of advances in technology enabling new forms of social interaction. Messages with sexual content can be exchanged from phones, emails, or social media website. Sexting also occurs online on social media websites for the public to view. Newer technology allows sending pictures, and videos, which are intrinsically more explicit and have greater impact, without the involvement of photo printing personnel, or the need of a photo processing dark room at home (just like using an instant camera, but even easier and less expensive). Sexting as a phenomenon began primarily through the extensive use of text messaging by young people; in fact, young adults use the medium of the text message much more than any other new media to transmit messages of a sexual nature. Further, text messaging use is related to sexting behaviours; for example, those that send any type of text message were more likely to have received a sexually suggestive image on their cell phone, and those that have unlimited text messaging plans are also more likely to receive sexually suggestive texts.
Despite the negative connotations that often surround sexting, many couples choose to engage in it; 54% of a study sample had sent sexually explicit pictures or videos to their partners at least once, and 1/3 of their sample had engaged in such activities occasionally, showing that sexting is actually quite prevalent in today's modern society. In a 2013, it was found that sexting is often used to enhance the relationship and sexual satisfaction in a romantic partnership. Sexting thus can be considered a "behaviour that ties into sexuality and the subsequent level of relationship satisfaction experienced by both partners". Based on the interviews conducted by Albury and Crawoford, they discovered that sexting is commonly used in positive aspects. According to Albury and Crawford, sexting was not only an activity occurring in the context of flirtation or sexual relationships, but also between friends, as a joke or during a moment of bonding.”  Reportedly, hedonism played a role in motivating sexting, and the length of relationship was negatively correlated with sexting behaviours. The study had a small sample size, so more research needs to be done surrounding sexting and motivation, but it is clear that sexting is a phenomenon that is not constrained to simply unattached individuals looking for fun; it is used by those in intimate relationships to increase feelings of intimacy and closeness one's partner. For teens, sexting can also act as a prelude (or in lieu of) sexual activity, as an experimental phase for those who are yet to be sexually active, and for those who are hoping to start a relationship with someone. In a 2013 study conducted by Drouin et al., it was found that sexting is also associated with attachment styles, as those with attachment avoidance are more likely to engage in sexting behaviours (just as these individuals are also more likely to engage in casual sex). Thus, instead of increasing intimacy in these types of relationships, sexting may act as a buffer for physical intimacy.
A social danger with sexting is that material can be very easily and widely propagated, over which the originator has no control. Research by the Internet Watch Foundation in 2012, estimated that 88% of self-made explicit images are "stolen" from their original upload location (typically social networks) and made available on other websites, in particular porn sites collecting sexual images of children and young people. The report highlighted the risk of severe depression for "sexters" who lose control of their images and videos. The photos can also be used as blackmail, or sent to friends after a nasty breakup (or even while still in the relationship). In a study conducted by Drouin et al. analyzing sexting behaviours among young adults, it was found that men would show the sexually-explicit photos of their girlfriends to their friends. This is a new risk associated with new media, as prior to cell phones and email, it would be difficult to quickly distribute photos to acquaintances; with sexting, one can forward a photo in a matter of seconds.
There are undoubtedly multiple risks when sending or receiving a sext, and these risks are something that often teens do not consider. The University of Utah conducted a study which contained a population sample of 606 teens who ranged from age 14-18. This study stated that about one third of teens did not consider or think of legal or other consequences of receiving or sending sexts. Teenagers may simply text out of curiosity of sexual activity and it may increase as teenagers enter deeper into their teen years which can be problematic.
According to a study done by the health journal Pediatrics, more than one in five middle school children with behavioral or emotional problems has recently engaged in sexting. Those individuals who have reported sexting in the past six months were four to seven times more likely to engage in other sexual activities such as intimate kissing, touching genitals, and having vaginal or oral sex, compared to children who stated they did not partake in sexting. The study included 420 participants who were between the ages of 12 and 14 years old. The children were pulled from five urban public middle schools in Rhode Island between 2009 and 2012. 17 percent of the children tested claimed they had sent a sexually explicit text message in the past six months. Another 5 percent admitted to sending sexually explicit text messages and nude or seminude photos.
Sexting that involves minors sending an explicit photograph of themselves to their peers has led to a legal gray area in countries that have strict anti-child pornography laws, such as the United States. Some teenagers who have texted photographs of themselves, or of their friends or partners, have been charged with distribution of child pornography, while those who have received the images have been charged with possession of child pornography; in some cases, the possession charge has been applied to school administrators who have investigated sexting incidents as well. The images involved in sexting are usually different in both nature and motivation from the type of content that anti-child pornography laws were created to address.
A 2009 UK survey of 2,094 teens aged 11 to 18 found that 38% had received an "offensive or distressing" sexual image by text or email.
In regards to sexting, any type of sexual message that both parties have not consented to can constitute sexual harassment. Some prosecutors have attempted to use child pornography laws to make sexting a criminal act.
Legal professionals and academics have expressed that the use of "child porn laws" with regard to sexting is "extreme" or "too harsh". Florida cyber crimes defense attorney David S. Seltzer wrote of this that "I do not believe that our child pornography laws were designed for these situations ... A conviction for possession of child pornography in Florida draws up to five years in prison for each picture or video, plus a lifelong requirement to register as a sex offender."
In a 2013 interview, assistant professor of communications at the University of Colorado Denver, Amy Adele Hasinoff, who studies the repercussions of sexting has stated that the “very harsh” child pornography laws are “designed to address adults exploiting children” and should not replace better sex education and consent training for teens. She went on to say, "Sexting is a sex act, and if it’s consensual, that’s fine..." "Anyone who distributes these pictures without consent is doing something malicious and abusive, but child pornography laws are too harsh to address it."
In Connecticut, Rep. Rosa Rebimbas introduced a bill that would lessen the penalty for "sexting" between two consenting minors in 2009. The bill would make it a Class A misdemeanor for children under 18 to send or receive text messages with other minors that include nude or sexual images. It is currently a felony for children to send such messages, and violators could end up on the state's sex offender registry.
Vermont lawmakers introduced a bill in April 2009 to legalize the consensual exchange of graphic images between two people 13 to 18 years old. Passing along such images to others would remain a crime.
In Ohio, a county prosecutor and two lawmakers proposed a law that would reduce sexting from a felony to a first degree misdemeanor, and eliminate the possibility of a teenage offender being labeled a sex offender for years. The proposal was supported by the parents of Jesse Logan, a Cincinnati 18-year-old who committed suicide after the naked picture of herself which she sexted was forwarded to people in her high school.
Utah lawmakers lessened the penalty for sexting for someone younger than 18 to a misdemeanor from a felony.
In New York, Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-Rockland) has introduced a bill that will create an affirmative defense where a minor is charged under child pornography laws if they possesses or disseminate a picture of themselves or possess or disseminates the image of another minor (within 4 years of their age) with their consent. The affirmative defense will not be available if the conduct was done without consent. It also creates an educational outreach program for teens that promotes awareness about the dangers of sexting.
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