What Is Sexting?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 29, 2021
4 min read

The term sexting stands for a combination of sex and texting. Sexting is the act of sending sexual text messages. It often also involves sending nude or seminude photos and explicit videos of yourself.

Sexting can happen via messaging on cell phones or via other messaging services and direct messaging on social media sites.

People of any age group can sext. But tech savvy teens and young adults are most likely to use this method of sexual connection. Studies show that nearly 15% of teens have sent a sext, and about 27% of teens have received one. Three out of four young adults have participated in sexting.

Cybersex is any type of sexual activity that uses the internet. Sexting is a type of cybersex.

There are many reasons to try sexting in a relationship. It’s a way to stay connected with your partner even when you aren’t physically together. 

Some experts suggest that reasons for trying sexting in a relationship may depend on attachment style. There are three different attachments styles:

  • Securely attached people find it easy and comfortable to get close to people. They don't worry much about abandonment.
  • Anxiously attached people frequently worry about rejection and may have a desire to completely merge their life with someone else's.
  • Avoidantly attached people are uncomfortable getting close to people and have a hard time trusting intimate partners.

Research shows that people with avoidant or anxious attachment styles may be more likely to participate in sexting. Anxiously attached people may use sexting as a way to feel close to a partner when they aren’t around. Avoidant people may use sexting to receive gratification while keeping a sexual partner at an arm's length.

Studies show that young adults who aren’t in long-term relationships sext with partners and potential partners. More established couples do sext but at lower rates. According to one study, only 12% of established couples sext. 

When exploring sexting with a new partner, ask how they feel about it before you send a sext. Getting consent is important in all sexual encounters, including online ones. Discuss your likes and dislikes and what type of activities you enjoy sexting about.

You should also talk about whether or not you want to delete photos and videos. Some people don't mind if a partner keeps sexts on their devices. Others like to create a plan for deleting them.

Once you've laid out the ground rules, there are several ways to get started. You could:

  • Bring up something sexual you want to try
  • Mention that you’re thinking about the person
  • Talk about what you're going to do the next time you see your sexting partner
  • Mention your favorite body parts
  • Bring up a fun roleplay scenario

There are sexting safety considerations for people of all ages, but especially for tweens and teens who may not fully understand the potential problems sexting can cause. 

Sexting risks for adults

For adults, the main risk of sexting is sharing explicit images and videos with someone you don’t know or trust. They could show them to someone you don’t know who could share them. Or they might sell them to a website as revenge porn, an illegal activity in which a former partner makes intimate content publicly available without your permission.

There’s also the risk that someone could accidentally see your sexts. Or that a third party could hack your sexting partner's device or cloud storage service and leak your data into the wrong hands.

To avoid this, sext only with people you trust. Establish rules about deleting images before you start sexting. Even if you’re as careful as possible, there’s always the chance someone else will see your explicit media. Thoroughly delete any photos or media per your agreement with your sexting partner. Delete them from digital trash bins and cloud storage as well.

The discovery of nude photos by an unintended recipient can cause problems, especially if you can be identified. Facial recognition algorithms could automatically tag you. This could cost you a job, a romantic partner, or custody of your children.

Sexting Risks for Teens: Bullying

Teens face the same risks as adults but the problems it creates can be far worse. In some cases, a sexting media leak can lead to cyberbullying. This is when a peer uses the internet and technology to harass another child or teen. A cyberbully may use leaked explicit media to bully you by:

  • Impersonation
  • IM, DM, & text message harassment
  • Posting photos, videos, or personal information on social media or blog
  • Signing you up for porn sites or inappropriate email subscriptions

Sexting Risks for Teens: Legal Problems

Sexting involving minors, people under the age 18 in most places, could lead to legal charges, even if everyone who takes part is under 18. People who share images of minors may face child pornography charges. This can affect a teenager's future. They may have to register as a sex offender, have more trouble getting into the college of their choice, or have difficulty getting a job.

Sexting Risks for Teens: The Internet Is Forever

In general, sexting can come back to haunt anyone but especially teens. Sharing nude photos online may hurt their college admissions chances. Admissions officers often look at social media profiles and search potential students' names online to gauge maturity levels and see whether someone is a good candidate.