The exchange of intimate images and videos, also known as sexting, is becoming increasingly common in sexual relationships, especially among teenagers and young adults. Studies have shown that about one in five teenagers in the United States have sent or received nudes online, and similar rates have been reported in Australia. However, there is limited data on sexting within the broader queer community, including trans and gender-diverse individuals.
Consent plays a crucial role in determining the harm associated with sexting. When all parties involved have given proper consent, including teenagers, research shows that there is little harm. However, when consent is not properly given or received, there are increased risks of abuse and sexual violence.
Harm from sexting occurs when there are breaches of consent. Navigating consent online is more complex than it may seem at first. People engage in sexting for various reasons, such as flirting or maintaining intimate relationships, but it can also be used as a weapon. Non-consensual forms of sexting include coerced sexting, receiving unwanted sexts (also known as “cyberflashing”), and non-consensual sharing of someone’s sexts with others. These forms of image-based abuse are highly problematic and harmful to victims, leading to stigma, shame, reduced employment prospects, and even suicidal thoughts or self-harm.
Surprisingly, studies have found that those who share intimate images are often unaware or dismissive of the potential concerns. They may view it as harmless or as a joke. However, a recent study revealed a significant difference between the proportion of people who claimed to have given consent to share their intimate images and those who said they had received consent to do so. Men were much more likely than women to have consented to sharing intimate images.
Women, on the other hand, were more likely to non-consensually disseminate unwanted sexts, suggesting that some forwarding of nudes may be a result of not wanting to receive them in the first place. Limited data is available for people outside the gender binary, but preliminary findings suggest their experiences may be similar to cisgender women.
These findings raise important questions about how consent is understood and navigated in digital spaces. The concept of consent online is more complicated than in face-to-face situations. For instance, what happens when a relationship sours after initially sharing intimate images? Should the sender be able to revoke consent and have the images deleted? How do we define “enthusiastic consent” in online interactions?
Currently, there is little research and legislative clarity on digital consent, both in Australia and globally. However, a federal parliamentary inquiry is underway to address consent laws. It is crucial to include online consent education in respectful relationship education for young people. They need to understand how to have clear conversations about the use of their intimate images, both in the present and in the future when a relationship ends.
In the meantime, if your intimate images have been shared without your consent, there are steps you can take. Contact the e-Safety Commissioner to have them removed from online platforms. Sharing someone’s intimate images without consent or threatening to do so has legal implications, and you should contact your local police for assistance.
Overall, ongoing research aims to find effective ways for people to communicate their expectations around consent in digital spaces. It is essential to address this issue and provide guidance for navigating relationships in the digital age.