Sharing ‘nudes’ or ‘pics’ is a common part of the modern romantic and sexual script for many young people.
Sexting is the digital extension of young people’s sexual relationships.
At the same time, sexting becomes a cause for concern when sexual double standards, disrespect towards women and coercive behaviour are facilitated or reinforced.
When working with young people, it’s important to be alert to how young people’s understanding and practices of sexting, as well as adults’ responses to sexting, can perpetuate and reinforce gender inequality.
Examples of when sexting can perpetuate each of the four gendered drivers of violence against women. are provided, below.
Condoning of violence against women
- Young women are regularly held responsible (or “victim-blamed”) if a private, sexual image of theirs is forwarded non-consensually. ¹
- Work and campaigns aiming to reduce harm associated with sexting tend to focus on young women. While this may be well intended, it implies that it’s young women’s responsibility to not take sexual images – rather than teaching all young people to respect privacy and not forward sexts without consent. ²
Rigid gender stereotypes and roles
- Young men who receive and acquire sexts are typically viewed as ‘studs’. It ‘proves their masculinity’ in that they are desirable and have access to women’s bodies. ³
- Young men are typically believed to have insatiable sexual desires, which is used to excuse coercing women for sexts or forwarding images non-consensually.
- Young women are typically held to a sexual double standard where they are ‘frigid’ for not sexting, but a ‘slut’ if they do.
- Sexting can feed into the pressure on young women to prioritise being desirable to young men. ⁴
Male peer relations that emphasise disrespect
- Collecting and sharing sexts can be a source of bonding among young men that reinforces disrespect of women. ⁵
- Young men who share sexts may gain status and popularity within the group. ⁶
- It can therefore be challenging for young men to not participate or hold a peer to account for image-based abuse. ⁷
- Many attempts to address image-based abuse do not encourage young men to show when they do not support the sharing of sexual images.
Men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence
- Young men can feel entitled to receive sexts due to living in a broader culture that suggests men are entitled to women’s bodies.
- Young men may feel they can send unsolicited sexually explicit material without concern for the impacts on recipients. ⁸
- Young men may not fear accountability due to a sense of entitlement and the wider social norms that excuse young men seeking sexual gratification.
- In work to prevent the harms associated with sexting, young women are often framed as being coerced into sexting, rather than doing it out of their own desire. This takes away young women’s agency and sends a signal that this activity is only done for the pleasure of young men and not for the pleasure of young women. ⁹
"13% of young women identified that their boyfriend or girlfriend pressured them to send a sexual photo or video of themselves compared to 4% of young men".¹⁰
Importantly, these beliefs and attitudes may be held and expressed by both young people and adults. They also inform and reinforce media reporting, legislative responses and organisational policies and protocols that respond to sexting and image-based abuse.
The challenge is to enable young people to navigate the practice of sexting safely and respectfully – and in ways that do not reinforce the gendered drivers of violence against women.
For guidance on what you can do, read: Sexting and image-based abuse: what can I do?
¹ Politoff, V., Crabbe, M., Honey, N., Mannix, S., Mickle, J., Morgan, J., Parkes, A., Powell, A., Stubbs, J., Ward, A., & Webster, K., (2019). Young Australians’ attitudes to violence against women and gender equality: Findings from the 2017 National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS) (ANROWS Insights, Issue 01/2019). Sydney: ANROWS. p. 27: Over a quarter of young Australians (28%) believe that if a woman sends a nude image to her partner, then she is partly responsible if he shares it without her permission.
² ⁹ Albury, K., Crawford, K., Byron, P., & Matthews, B. (2012). Sexting, consent and young people's ethics: Beyond Megan's Story. Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 26 (3), 471.
³ Timothy H Yeung, Danielle R Horyniak, Alyce M Vella, Margaret E Hellard and Megan Lim, ‘Prevalence, correlates and attitudes towards sexting among young people in Melbourne, Australia’ (2014) Sexual Health 11, 335.
⁴ ⁵ ⁶ ⁷ Jessica Ringrose, Laura Harvey, Rosalind Gill and Sonia Livingstone, ‘Teen girls, sexual double standards and ‘sexting’: Gendered value in digital image exchange’ (2013) Feminist Theory 14(3), 319-320.
⁸ Plan International Australia, Our Watch. 2016. “Don’t send me that pic.”: Australian young women and girls report online abuse and harassment are endemic.
¹⁰ Murray Lee, Thomas Crofts, Alyce McGovern and Sanja Milivojevic. 2015. Sexting and Young People. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave.