What Is Sexting?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on December 07, 2023
10 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, seminude, or suggestive photos. Sometimes, the messages also include sexual or explicit videos.

Sexting can happen via messaging on cell phones or other messaging services. It also can happen through apps or 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 gotten one. Three out of four young adults have sexted.

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. There's some evidence that sexting can make a romantic or sexual relationship stronger. It can make it easier to talk about and explore sexual topics.

Sexting can be a way to:

  • Flirt
  • Find intimacy
  • Show your interest and affection
  • Signal trust
  • Have fun
  • Find excitement or relieve boredom
  • Experiment sexually or play out fantasies
  • Keep a feeling of intimacy when you're in a long-distance relationship

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

  • Securely attached people find it easy and comfortable to get close to people. They don't worry much about being left or abandoned.
  • Anxiously attached people often worry about being rejected or left and may want to completely merge their life with someone else's.
  • Avoidantly attached people aren't comfortable 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 try 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. But many people sext for different reasons.

Studies show that young adults who aren't in long-term relationships sext with partners and potential partners. It can be a way to explore someone sexually without the risks of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections that come with physical sex.

More established couples do sext but not as much. According to one study, only 12% of established couples sext. But if you're in a long-term relationship that's committed, sexting may be a way for you to explore and feel more satisfied with your sex life.

When exploring sexting with a new partner, ask how they feel about it before you send a sext and make sure you have permission to try it. If they don't want to sext, then don't.

Getting consent is important in all sexual encounters, including virtual ones. Never send a sext to someone without making sure it's OK first. Discuss your likes and dislikes and what type of activities you enjoy sexting about.

If you've decided to explore sexting, talk about the ground rules. It's important to communicate openly before and after sexting to make sure you're on the same page. Talk specifically about what your sexting partner wants to do and what they don't want to do in sexting. For example, you could agree to:

  • Send text without any pictures or videos
  • Send still pictures but no videos
  • Delete images and video at a certain time

Some people don't mind if a partner keeps sexts on their phone or other devices. But you might want to make a plan for deleting them to protect each other. The important thing is to make sure you've talked it all through in detail. Remember to also check in with yourself after you've talked it through.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I comfortable sexting?
  • Does it feel right to me?
  • Does my partner seem like they are comfortable?

If you're feeling hesitant at all about what you and your partner have discussed and agreed to, it's OK to talk again and adjust the rules or change your mind. You don't have to hit "send" or reply to a sext if you don't want to or have concerns. Make sure to check in with your partner often to make sure you're both still comfortable and happy with the arrangement. If not, talk it through and make any changes to your rules.

Some general things to consider or be sure to follow as appropriate include:

  • Never show a consensual sext you've received from your partner to anyone else
  • Don't sext with someone you don't know or can't fully trust
  • Don't send a picture or video unless you feel sure you're partner wants to see it
  • Avoid pictures that include your face or anything else that identifies you easily, such as tattoos, birth marks, scars, or jewelry
  • Keep in mind that social media sites have facial recognition algorithms and may tag you in any images that show your face
  • Avoid images that include anything identifying in your room or other surroundings
  • Turn off location services on your device so your images won't get tagged with your personal data or location
  • Consider using apps that will let you send texts and images in the most secure way you can or that will delete images after a certain amount of time
  • Remember that sexting could get you into trouble if you keep or share images with other people or if your images get out in ways you didn't want for them to
  • Avoid sexting when you're intoxicated, upset, or uncomfortable

If you've laid out the ground rules and feel comfortable, there are several ways to get started.

  • 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 role play scenario

Some other sexting ideas you could try include:

  • Bring up an earlier sexual encounter you had to relive it with your partner
  • Tell your partner that you're excited to see them later or "can't wait for tonight"
  • Text them about what you enjoyed the last time you were together
  • Ask your partner what turns them on
  • Send a suggestive photo

Remember that it's OK to sext about activities or encounters even if you don't want to do those things in person. The key is making sure you've both agreed and are comfortable with the rules you've set.

Sexting can be healthy and fun when two people agree to it. But you should know there are risks. One of them is that you may get a sext you don't like or didn't ask for.

If you've gotten an unwanted sext or a nude photo, you have options. The first one if it's from someone you know well and are comfortable with is to just tell them you don't like it. Let them know that you didn't agree to sext and don't want to or that you don't like the nature of the sext. Your partner might have sent the message without thinking about it first. If that's the case, just letting them know you don't want those messages should be enough.

If you aren't comfortable or your attempts to fix it yourself don't work, you may want to reach out to others for help. Let someone else know if you need to. You may be able to report it if you're getting messages like this you don't want through an app. Some other steps you can take include:

Collect evidence. Screenshot the message with the name of the person who sent it. But make sure you aren't saving an explicit or nude image or video. Keep the message as evidence but don't download or share it.

Report it. In addition to reporting to a service or app, think about if you want to report it to the police or another person in authority, such as a parent, teacher, or guidance counselor.

Block them. There are lots of ways you can mute, hide from, or block contacts or messages you don't want through your phone, email, or social media.

Ask for help. If you're still not OK with what's going on or are still getting unwanted sexts, go to a helpline, counselor, or support service for advice and help.

You may also send a sext and decide later you regret it. If this happens, some steps you can take include:

  • Taking a moment to think first without being too hard on yourself
  • Apologize to the person you sent it to if your sext was unwanted or sent without permission
  • Ask that they delete it
  • Reach out to a friend or other safe person to talk it through

If someone shared your sext online or with others, you should:

  • Do something right away because it will get harder to control later
  • Don't try to get back at them
  • See if you are able to get your image removed if it's online
  • Go to a counselor or another safe person for support and advice
  • Protect yourself by cutting ties with or blocking a person who is being hurtful to you

You should know that sharing a sext someone sent to you without consent can get you into real trouble. There may be legal consequences. Never share a sext that was sent to you in confidence.

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 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 the custody of your children.

Sexting risks for teens: Bullying

Teens face the same risks as adults, but the problems 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:

  • Acting like they are you
  • Harassing you through IM, DM, or text message
  • Posting photos, videos, or personal information on social media or a 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 teen'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 your 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.

Sexting involves sending texts, images, or videos that are sexual in nature through your phone using texts or apps. It can be a healthy part of a relationship and sex life when two people agree. But be sure to get consent, set ground rules, and take care to protect yourself.

  • Is phone sexting healthy?

Sexting has risks. But if you do it with consent and set ground rules ahead of time with a trusted partner, sexting can be part of a healthy relationship. It can come with benefits for your intimacy and sex life.

  • What are the rules for sexting?

There are rules you need to follow when you sext, such as not sharing nude images of another person without consent. Other rules will be those you set yourself depending on your preferences and comfort level. It's important to know that unwanted sexting or sharing of sexts can get you into trouble. In some cases, it may even have legal consequences.

  • Is sexting normal for adults?

Sexting between consenting partners is normal. One study found that 8 in 10 adults have sent a sext, defined as sexually suggestive or explicit texts, images, or video. But it's important to set ground rules and take precautions if you and a partner decide together you want to engage in sexting.