Dangerous textual relations
Features Editor Alanna Fairey explores the phenomenon of sexting and often forgotten dangers that go along with it
Sending naked pictures to your significant other is all fun and games until someone sees something they are not supposed to. Guelph resident Dakota Sykes learned that the hard way when private photos she sent to a former boyfriend, which circulated among his group of friends.
“We went to different universities, so the relationship was long distance,” she said. “[Sexting] was a way we kept things interesting. But then his friends went on his phone and sent it around to some of his other friends. I was so embarrassed.”
Sexting, which is best described as sending sexually explicit messages or images via text message, has seemingly been used to add intimacy to relationships in today’s society with phone apps such as Snapchat. According to a 2013 survey of 4,200 Canadians 18 years and older by Canadian Living magazine, 52 per cent of those surveyed admitted to sexting.
However, a simple text message with sexually suggestive images can come with a series of negative consequences. In some extreme cases, careless sexting can emotionally and psychologically damage those involved.
“The embarrassment and violation of my relationship was the worst part of it all for me,” Sykes said. “You can say that you’ll be careful and your photos won’t get leaked, but it happens and I wish I had known.”
Blackmail and bullying
When intimate photos are sent to third parties with intention, it becomes a promotion of cyber bullying.
Cyber bullying, which is the act of harassing someone online by sending or posting mean messages, goes hand-in-hand with the dangers of sexting, as the exploitation of those naked photos can be used to shame and victimize the person in the photograph.
“Cyber bullying has a lot to do with malicious behaviour and doing mean things in order to demonstrate power over somebody,” said Danielle Law, an assistant professor of youth and children’s studies and psychology at the Wilfrid Laurier University Brantford campus.
“So often times when the sexting situation occurs and it’s between two people who are sharing an intimate exchange and then things go awry … sometimes people take that information and use it maliciously where they will post it in a public area.”
Law also explained that sexting can become a product of cyber bullying when others start making vicious and hurtful comments on the photos and messages that have been made public.
According to a 2009 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com, a reported 22 per cent of teenage girls and 18 per cent of teenage boys have electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude images, even though 75 per cent knew it could have serious negative consequences.
That same survey also said 17 per cent of those who had received a sext reported they had passed it along to one or more other people.
In 2011, Ashley Stewart had been dating her high school boyfriend for only three months when he began pressuring her to send him naked pictures.
Though she denied his request a number of times, she eventually sent him photos of her partially naked and a few of her topless.
“I was really paranoid about other people finding those pictures, but he said that he’d delete them,” Stewart said. “I believed him because I thought that he cared about me.”
Stewart and her boyfriend broke up about a month later. When he asked her to send him more naked photos, Stewart refused. That was when things turned ugly.
“I basically found out that he didn’t delete those other pictures and he said that if I didn’t send him more, he would send those pictures to our school,” Stewart shared. “I felt like there was no way out.”
Sykes had a similar situation. After she ended the relationship with her boyfriend and had the images deleted permanently, his friends who had seen the pictures began to harass her through social media accounts and text messages.
“They would send me messages calling me a slut, that I was stupid for sending the pictures and said mean things about the way I looked,” Sykes said. “Those pictures weren’t meant for them, it was meant for my boyfriend and I shouldn’t have felt bad about it.”
Both girls shared that they both developed anxiety as a result of their intimate photos being shared.
“There have been many cases where people have done harm to themselves or have committed suicide because they have been so embarrassed by what has happened,” Law said.
“There’s obviously the anxiety and shame that goes hand-in-hand with that and all of these impacts have an impact on social-emotional growth and self-esteem and of trust.”
Internet safety: a continual practice
In an age of social media, promoting safe Internet use has become a necessity.
“You can’t tell people what to do but at the same time it’s about educating people about the consequences,” Law explained.
“In this moment, it might seem awesome to send this photo to this person and you can have a good time about it but it’s about rethinking what will happen if things go wrong and people post it online. You have to ask yourself if you’re okay with that.”
Law encouraged young adults to do their research and to also recognize that items posted online are never completely deleted, meaning everything online is being monitored and stays there forever.
“It’s about being aware that whatever you post and whatever you send is in the hands of someone else,” Law reiterated. “You should really trust the person you are sending these things to first of all and recognizing that what we say in writing as well can be used against you as well.”
After speaking with a school guidance counsellor and then taking the matter to her principal, Stewart’s former boyfriend was given a two-day suspension. Her principal also called the police and they were able to delete the photos from his phone and were confident they had not been circulated elsewhere on the Internet.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Stewart said. “The emotional stress of the situation was the worst part, but I was glad that things turned out okay.”
Both Sykes and Stewart said they had deactivated their social media accounts after their incidents and reactivated them months later. They did not tread lightly when it came to protective settings.
“I made sure that I deleted the people that were involved from my Facebook and Twitter,” Sykes said. “I also don’t have Snapchat. I never want to go through what I went through again.”
“It’s all about being educated,” Stewart said. “I think if I had known that the police would have been involved, I would never have let my boyfriend talk me into sending him naked pictures.”