Americans Are Sexting More Than Ever but Exploiting One Another Less

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Feb. 11 2014 1:32 PM

Americans Are Sexting More Than Ever but Exploiting One Another Less

woman_sexting
For her eyes only.

Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

America is getting sextier: According to a report released today by the Pew Research Center, 9 percent of Americans with cellphones have used them to send a “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude” photo or video, while 20 percent of cellphone owners have received a similar type of image. (Apparently some sexters are more prolific than others.) That’s a jump from 2012, when only 6 percent of cellphone owners had sexted and 15 percent had received. Although Americans are consuming more crotch shots than ever, we’ve seen no similar uptick in the number of people who are sexting nonconsensually. According to Pew, 6 percent of cellphone users have forwarded a sext to a third party, the same percentage that had done so in 2012. 

Could we be entering an era where using technology for titillation doesn’t mean opening ourselves up to exploitation? In 2003, New Jersey made it a felony to distribute sexual photos of another person without his or her permission, but it took a decade for the campaign against nonconsensual pornography to begin to gain traction around the world. Last year, California made forwarding a sext without consent a misdemeanor crime. Steubenville, Ohio, football player Trent Mays was convicted in juvenile court of raping a 16-year-old girl but also of distributing images of the assault after the fact; his text messaging doubled his sentence from one year to two. Just last month, American revenge-porn king Hunter Moore was busted by the feds for allegedly hacking into email accounts to steal sexual photos, and Israeli legislators passed a bill banning the dissemination of sexualized images without the subject’s explicit consent. There, distributors now face five years in prison.

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It used to be that revenge porn’s unwitting stars were reflexively blamed for being exposed against their will. In 2010, Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote: “If you are actually dumb enough to make a sex tape and think it won’t get leaked, you are too dumb to ever have sex again.” But in recent years, the law has stepped in to make the distribution of nonconsensual sexual material an even dumber move than the consensual production of it, which is just how it should be. And looking at Pew’s new numbers—which show that at least 44 percent of 18-to-24-year-old Americans participate in sexting—it’s increasingly clear that dialing up sexual experiences doesn’t come with the expectation that those experiences will migrate to a group text. Most people who receive sexts don’t share them with the class, and it’s not stupid to expect your sexting partners to keep your privates private. It’s simply humane.

According to the published script of Pew’s telephone questionnaire, interviewers were instructed to leave the awkward sext question for the end of the discussion. Before getting to that, Pew also asked online Americans whether the Internet has had a “major” or “minor” impact on their intimate relationships, and most responded that it hasn’t had an effect at all. That may seem like an understatement, but I’m hoping it means that most people agree that our online connections should be held to the same standard as our offline lives—where sex is fine, as long as all partners are willing.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

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