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25th November, 20218 min read

Sexting: What is it, why do people do it and what are the dangers?

Medical reviewer:Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:Amelia Glean
Last reviewed: 25/11/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

What is sexting?

Sexting is when you exchange sexual messages, including pictures or videos, with someone else, usually through your phone.

This could be with a boyfriend, a girlfriend or a friend, but you can also sext with strangers. Often, one or both of you sends fully or partly naked pictures and videos to the other (this is called sending nudes). You might also send sexy text messages about what you want to do to yourself sexually or the other person.

Sexting can be an exciting, safe way to flirt with someone and explore your sexuality, but it’s not for everyone. There are risks involved – for example, sexting in the UK is illegal if it’s done without consent or if you or the other person is under the age of 18. However, different laws apply in different countries.

Why do people sext?

People sext for lots of different reasons, whether they’re in a relationship or if they’re single.

If you’re in a long-distance relationship

Long-distance relationships can be tough when you’re not seeing each other very often. For some people, sexting allows them to feel closer to their partner.

Naomi, 36, who’s based in London, UK sexted her boyfriend of 2 years for the first time when they were living in different countries.

“I was trying to keep the flow of communication, connection and our spark going, so we had to come up with new ways of keeping our love and intimacy alive,” she says.

If you’re single

Sexting isn’t just for couples. Many single people enjoy sexting because it can boost self-confidence and help them feel closer to others.

Victoria, 27, who’s based in Bedford, UK has enjoyed sexting while single because she says it sparks intimacy and helps her feel better about herself.

“When I’m attracted to someone I know fairly well, sexting has been a great way to feel closer to that person and to release sexual tension, without actually having sex,” she says.

“Sexting makes me feel more confident in myself and my body, and it’s been a healthy way to find out what I like and what I want from sex.”

How do people sext?

There are many ways to sext – some people send nudes, while others prefer to stick to sexy chat.

Sending nudes

Naomi and her boyfriend tried sending sexy texts, but chose to share nude images instead.

“We started off with simple ‘dirty talk’, but the words on a screen didn’t really do much for us and just made us laugh more than anything else,” she says. “So I plucked up the courage to send him a few photos of my breasts, my tummy and my other curves… He loved them and would use them for masturbation.”

But Naomi was careful about what other images she shared: “I never ventured further down my body, as I felt too weird about taking photos of my vagina. I also didn’t want more explicit photos somehow making their way into the wrong hands or screens,” she says.

Talking dirty

While she feels comfortable sexting in general, Victoria chooses to send sexy messages instead of naked images because she feels it’s less of a risk.

“I prefer sexy chat, which involves talking about what I want to do to someone else or what I want them to do to me. I find it easier and there’s not as much pressure because you’re not making yourself vulnerable by sending nudes,” she says.

What are the dangers of sexting?

Sexting is considered a safe way to have sex because you can’t get pregnant or catch sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but things can still go wrong, especially if it’s done without consent.

The main risks associated with sexting include:

  • not being able to unsend a sext or a photo
  • giving out personal information about yourself to someone you don’t know – this could put you in danger
  • being blackmailed or threatened – someone could use the messages or photos you send to pressure you into doing things you may not want to do
  • being bullied if your sext is shared among others. This could affect your mental health
  • your messages or images being put online, which may be difficult to remove

How can I sext safely?

Sexting can be fun, exciting and liberating, but it’s important to consider exactly what you’re doing before you begin.

According to Amber Newman-Clark, education and wellbeing specialist at health charity Brook, there are 5 key things to think about before you start sexting.

Get consent

“This should be at the core whenever we’re talking about sex or anything to do with sex,” says Amber. “It might feel different with sexting because you can’t see the person’s facial expressions or body language like you can in real life, but even with sexy chat, consent still has to be there.”

Know the law

“You can’t take a naked image of someone under the age of 18,” says Amber. “Having that image on your phone or even receiving it from someone else, regardless of whether they gave permission, is illegal.”

But remember, it’s also illegal to share a naked image of someone who is over the age of 18 if they haven’t given their consent. This is known as ‘revenge porn’, which usually involves an ex-partner – or a person you know – sharing sexual images or videos of you as an act of revenge.

Think about the consequences

“It’s important to think about the lack of control you have when it comes to exchanging sexts online,” says Amber. “As soon as you press send on anything, whether that’s a naked image or a sexy text with your identity attached to it, you might not always be in control of what happens to it. It could be shared and you need to weigh up if you’re happy for other people to know it’s happened or not.”

Don’t sext when you’re drinking or taking drugs

“You tend to be more confident when you’re high or drunk, so if you want to try sexting, do this when you’re sober because you’re more likely to say things or do things that you would have done anyway,” says Amber.

Get support if you need it

Make sure you reach out for help if you’re worried about any sexts you’ve received or sent.

“You could try speaking to brothers, sisters, charities or organisations that can help you with your problem, or just give you more information,” says Amber.

Where to get help

The following organisations are among those that work to make using the internet, phones and web-based apps safer. They are mostly based in the UK, but similar organisations exist in other countries.

  • the UK-based Revenge Porn Helpline can help if you’re over 18 and have had intimate images shared online without your consent
  • you can also use Report Harmful Content to find out how to report certain forms of abuse online, from unconsented naked images to threats and bullying
  • Victim Support is a UK-based service offering advice for anyone affected by a crime, including revenge porn cases

Your health questions answered

Is sexting good for your relationship?

It’s common for people to sext, whether they’re in a relationship or not. Often, couples might decide to sext if they’re spending a lot of time apart, if they're in a long-distance relationship or even just to spice things up. If you’re in a loving and trusting relationship, sexting can be a great way to feel closer to your partner.

What if I don’t feel confident or comfortable sexting?

Sexting can be an exciting way to learn more about what you want from sex, but it’s quite normal to find it a bit awkward at first. If you’re in a relationship, try talking to your partner about what’s making you feel weird – it might make you both feel better. If you’re single, make sure the person you’re sexting is someone you feel you can trust. However, if you don’t want to sext at all, that’s perfectly normal, too.

Key takeaways

  • sexting is the sending or receiving of sexual messages to or from someone else, including pictures or videos, usually through your phone
  • sexting can be exciting, fun and a great way to explore your sexuality, whether you’re in a relationship or not
  • there are some risks associated with sexting, such as the images, videos or messages you send being leaked or shared with third parties
  • taking or having a naked image of someone under the age of 18 is illegal
  • it’s also illegal to share a naked image of someone who is over the age of 18 if they haven’t consented
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