One of the keys to thriving on your own is to be willing to continually revisit and update your knowledge and skills. Just because you learned them once doesn’t mean you remember them now, or that there aren’t newer and better ways of thinking and doing. While we go back to some of the same themes over time here at OHO, I’m going to be more intentionally going back to old topics on occasion now, so that we can all rediscover them, like we did with wasp spray last month. And to help you always have the most recent information at your fingertips, I’ll also always have the most recent version up on my website (linked from my profile) so that you don’t need to update your bookmarks. This time, let’s jump into something completely different: sexting.
In a past age, lovers wrote romantic letters to each other or had steamy phone sex. In the 21st century, we send memes and sexts. Okay, maybe not all of us…but it’s certainly a feature of modern intimacy. In a world where the phrases “revenge porn” or “intimate image abuse” even exist, though, sexting is fraught with danger beyond the simple embarrassment or regret that can result from a failed relationship in general. The wider consequences can range from knowing that an intimate or revealing photograph or video is or could be floating around in the wild to having sexy texts and snapshots shared directly to friends, family, and employers. The very threat of releasing those materials can be used to extort money or favors and have, in some cases, led to suicide and similarly desperate results because of the fear of exposure. But lots of sexting takes place every day between people who are simply enjoying an additional way to connect with someone they love or are attracted to. Most of it stays between them, and you can take steps so that it’s the same for you.
Whether you’re staying connected with a committed partner, experimenting with and expanding your sexuality, or getting it cyber-on with an exciting new person, it’s only natural to use that smartphone attached to your hand as another part of your connection with yourself and with other human beings. Better, I think, to be smart about sexting, than reject the idea entirely. Knowing more about the risks and how to mitigate them will let you make smarter decisions about whether or not to engage in it at all, with a decision made in advance instead of when finding yourself in the middle of an exchange that has gotten steamier than you first intended. Some of the same principles that apply to these types of conversations also apply to other sensitive chats too. Just like you might not want a nude of yourself being passed around to strangers (or maybe you do, but not those strangers), you might not want details about your mental health, financial, or relationship struggles broadcast to the world.
Knowing who is on the other end of your communication is an important prerequisite before you start sharing personal information or images. There is an intimacy that is created by the intensity of long message exchanges over relatively short periods of time. You may feel like you’ve gotten to know somebody because your conversation has ranged from your mutual favorite movie to your childhood experiences to your travel dreams as you pass notes back and forth every few minutes for hours and days at a time. Without real-time video and audio interaction though, or a real-world meeting or three or ten, you can be fooled into believing in a person who doesn’t exist at all. Seeing someone face-to-face or spending extended time together isn’t fool-proof either, when it comes to trusting someone with your secrets, but they can give you better clues as to who they are and whether they will intentionally or inadvertently share what you want kept private.
Before you share, set explicit expectations around what you will and won’t allow to be done with your private media. It might feel silly to have to say that you are sending them only for the person who is receiving them, but it’s important to be clear so that there are no misunderstandings. You might also want to tell them that you don’t want them to save the pictures or videos outside of the app you are using, or that you might ask them one day to delete everything and you want their agreement now that they will. It’s true that they might change their minds or lie to you, but neither of you will be confused about what you intended. The way the conversation goes will also tell you quite a bit about whether your prospective partner is trustworthy. It’s like talking about contraception or STDs if you were having physical sexual contact, and learning about what your partner will do or disclose to you in those contexts. Sexting is opening yourself up and being vulnerable in similar ways, and deserves similar preparation in your relationship before you dive in.
No matter what technological safeguards we put into play, they can all be defeated by the human factor, so you have to put in the effort to figure out whether you can trust the person on the other end of your steaming hot messages.
You can, however, rely on technology to make it harder for someone to take your sexts and use them in ways you don’t want. Start by being picky about what platform you’re using. While sending regular text messages or using your standard social media messaging apps are easy, they may not provide the kind of security you should have for sexting. Apps change quickly, so look for features like being able to prevent your messages from being forwarded, saved, or screencapped, or at least being told if they are. Some apps will also allow you to limit how many times a picture is viewed or a video is played, or automatically delete all messages after a set period of time. It’s possible to defeat all of these, but you want to make it harder for someone who isn’t willing to use a lot of effort to harm you or break your trust.
The app and device you use need to be secured, and so does your partner’s. Consider who else has physical and virtual access to your phone (and it should go without saying, don’t use a mobile device your employer has access to). If you live alone and nobody else touches your phone ever, then you might be comfortable with less security. If you have other people around, or kids who occasionally use your phone, then you might want to lock everything down even more, including how descriptive your notifications get. In addition to fingerprint, facial recognition, lock code, or password protecting your entire phone, some apps can be individually protected as well with the same or a higher level of authentication required to access them. Make sure you protect not only your messaging apps, but also the apps you use to take and store those naughty pics. Know all of the places those pics might get stored on your end, too, especially if you normally use automated cloud backup for your camera, and either turn off the backups, find a way to ensure that your private media doesn’t go to the cloud, or secure your cloud storage too. And while it’s always good practice to not use the same password across multiple accounts, be especially careful with those that can access your nudes.
After all that, be thoughtful about exactly what you send. Obviously, this isn’t a moment for only messaging out what you’d be comfortable with a parent figure seeing, but you can do things like keep distinguishing features out so that if a sext gets shared, you have plausible deniability that it’s you at all. As part of that, pay attention to what’s in the background of your photos/video too, as well as any location data that might be embedded because of the apps you’re using. Other content considerations should include thinking about the exact poses or activities you’re putting on camera. There’s a vast range between mildly revealing lingerie shots and more explicit videos. Starting or sticking with the less spicy stuff can be a way of feeling out whether your partner is trustworthy, as well as a way to minimize fallout from disclosure, accidental or otherwise.
And finally, if it goes sour and your sexts make it out into the wild? First of all, remember that you should not be ashamed of having intimate moments and communications with another person. Sexting is not some abnormal, deviant behavior and though you may wish nobody aside from the person you were sharing with knew you were doing it, you will be okay if others find out. In fact, chances are pretty good that you’ll get sympathy for the betrayal of trust more than anything else. I know that’s really hard to believe, and you might need therapy to work through it. That’s okay. You’ll be okay. Second, know that you may have real-world rights to file criminal charges, sue for copyright infringement, and demand that the photos and videos be taken down from websites they may have ended up on. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and others can help.