Teens in our focus groups outlined three general scenarios in which sexually suggestive images are shared or forwarded. In one situation, images are shared between two romantic partners, in lieu of, as a prelude to, or as a part of sexual activity.
- “[I’ve sexted] a few times,” wrote one 9th/10th grade boy. “Just between my girlfriend and I. Just my girlfriend sending pictures of herself to me and me sending pictures of myself to her.”
- “Yeah, I’ve sent them to my boyfriend,” said a 9th/10th grade girl. “Everybody does it.”
An 11th/12th grade girl talked about sexting as part of an experimental phase for teens who are not yet sexually active:
- “I think it was more common in middle school, because kids are afraid to do face-to-face contact sexually. In high school, kids don’t need the pictures. They’ll just hang out with that person romantically.”
For other teens, sexting is one part of a sexual relationship.
- “Yes, I do. I only do it with my girlfriend b/c we have already been sexually active with each other,” wrote one older high school age boy. “It’s not really a big deal.”
However, these images sent between romantic partners can easily be forwarded (with or without the subject’s knowledge) to friends or classmates and beyond.
- “This girl sent pictures to her boyfriend,” wrote one older high school boy. “Then they broke up and he sent them to his friend, who sent them to like everyone in my school. Then she was supposed to come to my school because she got kicked out of her school because it was a Catholic school….it ruined high school for her.”
- A middle school boy wrote “Yeah, [I get sexts] once a year, [from] people who have girlfriends…usually the sender had it sent from his girlfriend and sent it to everyone…it’s no big deal and it doesn’t happen very often.”
- Another high school girl explained “I’ve heard of people getting these types of pictures and usually its someone’s girlfriend but the people that receive them aren’t even the person that they are dating – they are sent to like ten other guys, for example, like the guy’s friends with something saying ‘I can’t believe she did this.’”
- Another younger high school-aged girl wrote: “Yeah, it happens a lot, my friends do it all the time, it’s not a big deal. Sometimes people will get into fights with their exs, and so they will send the nudes as blackmail, but it’s usually when or after you’ve been dating someone.”
But other images are sent between friends, or between two people where at least one of the pair is hoping to become romantically involved.
- “If a guy wants to hookup with you, he’ll send a pictures of his private parts or a naked picture of him[self]. It happens about 10 times a month,” explained one older high school girl. “It’s mostly the guys I date or just a guy that…really wants to hook up with you. I’m not really that type of person [who sends sexts], but I have friends who have.”
- “Almost all the time it’s a single girl sending to a single guy,” wrote a younger high school boy. “Sometimes people trade pictures like ‘hey you send me a pic I’ll send you one.’”
- Another younger high school boy wrote, “Yes I have received some pics that include nudity. Girls will send them sometimes, not often. I don’t know why they think it’s a good idea but I’m not going to stop it. Sometimes a guy will get one and forward it to all his friends.”
- One middle school boy wrote, “I have not received or sent, but have asked. It’s mostly people I know – I’ve only asked once.”
- And another middle school boy wrote, “Well one time this crazy girl who had liked me sent me a nude picture of her for no reason. This was the only time. It was someone I knew for a while but we began to not be friends. [Sending the images was] over the line because they were graphic and completely uncalled for.”
Sexually suggestive images sent to the privacy of the phone have become a form of relationship currency. One senior girl reflected:
- “When I was about 14-15 years old, I received/sent these types of pictures. Boys usually ask for them or start that type of conversation. My boyfriend, or someone I really liked asked for them. And I felt like if I didn’t do it, they wouldn’t continue to talk to me. At the time, it was no big deal. But now looking back it was definitely inappropriate and over the line.”
Another older high school girl wrote about the pressure on girls to share such images:
- “I haven’t, but most of the girls who have are usually pressured by a guy that they like or want to like them, or their boyfriends. It’s probably more common than what it seems because most people who get involved in this were probably pressured by someone to do it.”
It is important to note that many teens have not sent or received or had sexually suggestive images forwarded to them.
- “Um, no…things like that [are] never sent to my phone. And no, I’ve never done it,” wrote one middle school girl.
- Another older high school girl wrote, “No, I haven’t ever sent or received a picture or video on my phone that involves nudity.”
- A younger high school boy explained his take on sexting: “I don’t do that and I don’t ask girls – [it’s] not right and they wont like [you] as much – they will think of you as a pervert. So I don’t.”