Only small percentage of teens actually “sext”

A new survey from the Pew Research Center shows that teens are not “sexting” as much as the moral panic media would like you to think. (Shocking, I know!)
In fact, only 4% of teens report to have sent “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images” in a text message. 15% reported having received “sexts.”
I agree with Tracy atBroadsheet, who notes that this study doesn’t take into account Facebook, email, chat rooms, etc – and I’m sure teens are getting their sexy on in all sorts of technologically-driven ways. While I am concerned about some pieces of this – say, having a nude picture being distributed by some asshole, or the permanence of pictures online – I just don’t have a problem with teens being sexual. Today’s “sext” is yesterday’s dirty note. We can teach teenagers to make safer decisions, but we can’t expect them not to be sexual.

Join the Conversation

  • Lilith Luffles

    I’m not sure you can really trust that statistic. I mean, if I had sexted and was asked that, I would tell anyone, even an anonymous sheet. Hell, I’ve sexted before (not as a teenager) and all that jazz and I still wouldn’t say I had.
    That being said, teens should be taught to not send a picture of someone else to anyone. Plain and simple. A teen who sends a naked pic of someone else to anyone should be sued for whatever you get sued for when you distribute something that doesn’t belong to you (not child pornography), and should be told they will be before anything happens.

  • Alexis

    I am vry close to this issue, having been a teen “sexter” as well as the victim of an internet pedophile. I promise you that that study is way underestimating the power of teen sexting today. I’m not saying it should be a great moral panic–it’s a generational thing, it will probably be a lot more normalized in a few years. I have very few friends that have not ent or received a sexual message or nude photograph. I have one friend who has a whole folder o their computer of nude pictures of their various boyfriends or hookups. I haven’t seen them, of course–except for a few exceptions, sexting, even when involving hookups, is pretty discreet. I agree–theren’s nothing wrong with teenagers being sexual as long as it doesn’t end up coming back to haunt them.
    Unfortunately my situation was also a bit different from typical sexting…when I was sixteen I was solicited by an older man who built up my trust and then started pressuring me for cybersex and nude photographs. THAT is, of course, not okay, but is also not as common as typical teen sex.
    The downside to sexting, of course, is one thing that my mother had a good point about. While hookups and partying and the kind of things that happened before phone cameras and digital cameras were destructive, they didn’t last forever because there wasn’t evidence. Now there is. That is the one scary thing. But it would seem that, at least from my experience, there is more normalization of this than people think and it’s pretty common, and really not that big of a deal except–as I said before–maybe in my extreme circumstances.

  • daveNYC

    “Today’s “sext” is yesterday’s dirty note.”
    In the same way that email is yesterday’s regular mail. The tech and capabilities of electronic communication (especially with multimedia attachments) makes such comparisons iffy at best. You’re basically talking about a dirty note that can include pictures and has virtually no bounds on how far it can travel.
    That’s really just a minor nit to pick though. You are correct that the key element is convincing teenagers to make good decisions, which, IMO, means taking into account the nature of the beast.

  • DeafBrownTrash

    There are such messy legal issues over this. I’ve read stories about young teenagers being arrested by cops for distributing “child porn” — taking photos of THEMSELVES!!! they shouldn’t be arrested, but once it’s out, it’s too late. but how can we prevent these pictures from floating on the Internet?
    Thankfully we didn’t have cell phones when I was a kid (or teenager). but this really opens up a huge can of worms.

  • Athenia

    If naked picture sharing has increased, in my optimistic ideal world, I hope that forces teenagers, parents and society to think critically about how we view sex.

  • cattrack2

    You raise an interesting issue which is that neither the law nor social mores have caught up to the technology. The right to privacy is very limited in the US. Forwarding ‘sexts’ generally isn’t covered by anything except child pornography laws. And using CP laws to prevent texts is not only controversial but punishes both originator and forwarder for typical teenaged behavior. My forwarded ‘sext’ has no more right to privacy than my forwarded ‘hey whats up email’.
    I don’t know how big a problem this is (I’ve seen estimates much higher than the 4%) but I do know that as long as parents buy their kids camera-phones, and as long as we don’t teach kids about the permanence & reach of ‘sexting’ this will continue to be headline news. The other problem is that this stuff eventually ends up in the hands of child predators. The easiest thing may be to just ban the possession of camera phones by kids.

  • Nicole

    “While I am concerned about some pieces of this – say, having a nude picture being distributed by some asshole, or the permanence of pictures online – I just don’t have a problem with teens being sexual.”
    Case and point. What is it with adults and simply forgetting how sex-filled adolescence was for many teens? Even the ones who weren’t doing it were quite aware that it was going on, and very few teens had moral qualms with it. I remember just this summer, waiting in line for the Harry Potter showing, I was talking with a friend (we’re both in our mid-20’s) and people were making all the obligatory jokes about Ron & Hermione’s sex life behind the scenes, etc etc, and my friend said “OK, this is soooo wrong, we’re talking about teenagers!” And I said, “Well, they’re 16 in this movie; that’s plenty old enough to be getting busy.” She was completely put off, but seriously, it *is* ok, and I don’t understand why all adults have adolescent amnesia that begins as soon as you become like 23 or so. Looking back at my 16-year-old days, most of my friends had been in sexual situations at some point in their lives and pretty much all of my friends with boyfriends/girlfriends engaged in some sort of sexual behaviour, whether it was dictionary-definition S-E-X or some sort of foreplay. And I know that her friends did too, and I highly doubt she was secretly judging them. Did she completely forget high school?
    Seriously, who the hell cares, so long as they’re being safe/respectful/all that jazz? Even among progressives, it’s so wrong to actually say “IT’S OK TO HAVE SEX WHEN YOU’RE A TEENAGER” and anything you say always has to have this “Well, it’s better to wait until you’re older/in love, but if you are going to do it, be safe” connotation. No, it’s not better (or worse) to wait; it doesn’t freaking matter. It’s sex. Get over it.

  • Thomas

    I’ve posted several pieces about sexting.
    Nicole, I agree with you that there’s too much fear in discussion of teen sexuality. “WAIT! WAIT!” leaves no room for a transition from child to adult. I think teens who want to be sexual with partners need to mature piece by piece in the areas of communication, risk mitigation, and preferences, and learn to negotiate their own sex lives. I’ve written a bunch of posts about that, too.

  • Kessei

    I think it’s because people DO remember being a teenager that it makes them uncomfortable.
    Yeah, lots of my friends were having sex (of some form or fashion) when I was a sophomore or junior in highschool. And it’s only in retrospect that I recognize that (1) most of us didn’t know much at all about the risks involved; (2) none of us had gotten to the point where our brains were CAPABLE of processing realistic risk evaluations; (3) many, if not most, were in relationships which I can now recognize as emotionally or physically abusive but which seemed normal or even “romantic” at the time; (4) everyone was taking in “new territory” in patterns which strongly suggest it was correlated to peer pressure more than an innate drive to specifically have oral/vaginal/anal/unprotected/public/group sex.
    If you want to say sex is “no big deal”, realize that it’s not healthy, consensual sex between adults we’re talking about here.

  • Comrade Kevin

    We seem to have forgotten that teens can be sexual and still make good decisions. Like always, our kneejerk response is overreaching.

  • daveNYC

    “If you want to say sex is “no big deal”, realize that it’s not healthy, consensual sex between adults we’re talking about here.”
    Please tell me this isn’t some blanket statement about the nature of sex between teenagers.

  • Fat Old Man

    I think that the technology is part of what freaks out my Ancient generation.
    When I was in high school, I could receive and pass on a photo. The internet wasn’t around, so the “life” of the photo basicly depended on how much wear and tear it got in its rounds. It rarely got out of the neighborhood.
    The internet hadn’t been invented. Fax hadn’t been invented. Copy machines hadn’t been invented.
    The only way you could make multiple copies of the photo (unless you had a photo lab in your basement, and some decent equipment) would involve drawing it freehand on a mimeograph (ah, mimeo fluid, the Boomers’ first inhalent) and literally cranking copies out one-by-one. If you had access, of course, and if the school secretary didn’t catch you.
    So, comparing sending one photo nowadays to a guy or girl who posts it on the internet, translated to “oldspeak” back in “oldtimes”, would be like giving the betrayer a hundred, or a thousand, or a million copies of the picture – with envelopes, addresses and postage.
    We Ancients still have to remember that “kids will be kids,” but warn our youngers that just because a pic can show up in the cozy confines of our own computer monitor or phone screen, that doesn’t mean that that’s the only places that it could live. Live long and prosper. (Sorry.)
    We also have to shake the victim-blaming habit, and ease up on the fear of s-e-x — not for us, no, heavens no, we’re all healthy and fine, it’s the other people who can’t handle that stuff… (ah, but that’s another rant)

  • rebekah

    If you want to say sex is “no big deal”, realize that it’s not healthy, consensual sex between adults we’re talking about here.
    okay first of all this site is sex positive remember that here. Second, when do you start being old enough to make those decisions then? When are you capable enough of consenting to sex? Because if you seriously think that a person goes to sleep the night before their eighteenth birthday and their brain goes through this magical change you are severely mistaken. I think that at any age a person chooses to willingly consent to sex (meaning that the pursuer is not older than the pursue-ee) they are able to take on the responsibilities, you don’t have to like what they are doing, but just because your experience wasn’t to be capable of handling being sexually active at that age doesn’t mean that no one is, please don’t be so quick to judge young women who are capable of handling their own lives. Saying that you are incompetent until you turn 18 to make these decisions is ageism and not okay

  • rebekah

    grrr this was meant to be a reply to kessei

  • nikki#2

    If you must critique someone elses comment, stick to what they said. Kessei was gender neutral in describing teen sex. YOU changed the genderless teen to young women. FAIL.

  • supremepizza

    There’s a reason there’s an age of consent, its because teenagers aren’t generally capable of making mature decisions. But that’s only to be expected. Its physical. The frontal lobe of the brain–the part responsible for judgement–doesn’t fully develop until teens are 18.
    Now not all teens act irresponsibly but enough of them do that it makes sense to have an age of consent. And, what with, I don’t know rape, STDs, unwanted pregnancies, etc it certainly makes sense to discourage teenaged sexual activity.

  • supremepizza

    “Because if you seriously think that a person goes to sleep the night before their eighteenth birthday and their brain goes through this magical change you are severely mistaken.”
    Really? You mean a magical change doesn’t happen when someone turns 18? I was for sure that a switch automatically flipped the precise minute you turned 18…Does this mean that age 18 is (just) a good approximation for the age of majority (maturity) in a nation of over 300M people? Perhaps we can set the state legislatures set up individually tailored policies for every teen specifying the age of majority for that specific person…And we could do the same with driving…Definitely driving…And drinking, yeah, that one too…

  • Honeybee

    I’m so with you on this.
    By the time I was 10 or 11 I was already masturbating almost every single day. By the time I was in high school I was completely sex crazed.
    Now… I didn’t neccessarily have too many sexual experiences, which is another story, but I certainly THOUGHT after sex alot and WANTED to have sex alot. And I’m in my 30s now and remember this perfectly clearly.
    While I acknowledge my sex drive is higher then most it doesn’t change the fact that adults should not be playing dumb and pretending that teenagers aren’t sex crazed. I KNOW that deep down they do know what it was like but they purposely choose to forget. That and they like to think that the next generation will somehow be “better” (as if there is something wrong with wanting sex as a teenager). It’s all bullshit.