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Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages and/or photographs, 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 sociologist at Colorado College interviewed 80 students and believes this claim is overblown; she claims "I had them go through their last ten messages, their last ten photos and I never saw it" however recent evidence in the scientific literature has called this conclusion into question.
Indeed, 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."
Sexting is a result of advances in technology enabling new forms of social interaction. Messages with sexual content have been exchanged over all forms of historical media. 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 when 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". 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.
Mental stability is also compromised when considering the possible long-term results of sexting. With sexts, such as pictures or videos being so accessible, it is inevitable that forms of bullying will occur in some way. Photos that have been solicited to others will undoubtedly put emotional distress on an individual who sent the particular picture or sext. In the same University of Utah study that was stated in the above paragraph, 25% of individuals who received a sext, forwarded it to other individuals. Emotional vulnerabilities and legal obligations can arise when considering individuals receiving or sending a sext.
According to a study done by the health journal Pediatrics, more than one in five middle schoolers 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 making out, touching genitals, and having vaginal or oral sex, compared to children who stated they didn't 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 pst six months. Another 5 percent admitted to sending sexually explicit text messages and nude or seminude photos.
Sexting that involves minors (sometimes) 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.
In 2007, 32 Australian teenagers from the state of Victoria were prosecuted as a result of sexting activity. Child pornography charges were brought against six teenagers in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in January 2009 after three girls sent sexually explicit photographs to three male classmates.
In 2008, a Virginia assistant principal was charged with possession of child pornography and related crimes after he had been asked to investigate a rumored sexting incident at the high school where he worked. Upon finding a student in possession of a photo on his phone that depicted the torso of a girl wearing only underpants, her arms mostly covering her breasts, the assistant principal showed the image to the principal who instructed him to preserve the photo on his computer as evidence, which he did. The court later ruled that the photo did not constitute child pornography because under Virginia law, nudity alone is not enough to qualify an image as child pornography; the image must be "sexually explicit". Loudoun County Prosecutor James Plowman stood by his initial assessment of the photo and says he would not have pursued the case if the assistant principal had agreed to resign. Instead, the assistant principal got a second mortgage on his house and spent $150,000 in attorneys' fees to clear his name.
In July 2010, Londonderry High School teacher Melinda Dennehy pleaded guilty and received a one-year suspended sentence for sending racy photos of herself to a 15-year-old student.
In Fort Wayne, Indiana, a teenage boy was indicted on felony obscenity charges for allegedly sending a photo of his genitals to several female classmates. Another boy was charged with child pornography in a similar case.
Police investigated an incident at Margaretta High School in Castalia, Ohio, in which a 17-year-old girl allegedly sent nude pictures of herself to her former boyfriend, and the pictures started circulating around after they had a quarrel. The girl was charged with being an "unruly child" based on her juvenile status.
Two southwest Ohio teenagers were charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a first-degree misdemeanor, for sending or possessing nude photos on their cell phones of two 15-year-old classmates.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against Wyoming County District Attorney George Skumanick Jr. on March 25, 2009, for threatening teenage girls who were the subject of allegedly risque photos with prosecution on child pornography charges if they did not submit to a counseling program. The case is Miller, et al. v. Skumanick. Skumanick stated in an interview with Julie Chen on CBS News's The Early Show that his office decided to make an offer of limiting penalties to probation if they attend a sexual harassment program. The girls and their parents won a ruling that blocked the district attorney, who appealed. It is the first appeals court case concerning sexting.
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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