The Complete Guide to Sexting Safely (and Legally)

For Newbies

What is sexting?

Simply put, sexting (a portmanteau of "sex" and "texting") refers to sending digital messages that contain sexual content.

Some people limit the definition to images only (photos and videos), while others consider explicit text messages to be sexting as well.

Why do people sext?

For all kinds of reasons!

Many people send sexts to their partners as a way of flirting, expressing love or sexuality, or experimenting with different ways of communicating about their wants and needs.

Especially for people in long-distance relationships, sexting can be a great way to keep love alive when daily in-person contact isn't feasible.

Other people will send photos of themselves as a way of playing with power imbalances. Sharing nude photos with partners or strangers can feel humiliating, and some people get off on that humiliation.

On the flip side, sometimes people will send nude photos of themselves to people who haven't consented to see them. The sender then gets a feeling of power and control by forcing others to look at their bodies, whether the recipient wants to or not.

Is sexting legal?

Generally, if you and your partner are both over 18 (in the US), and you both consent, there's nothing wrong with sexting.

Like with most things about sex, anything that happens between two consenting adults is no one else's business.

If you think it might be fun, try broaching the subject with your partner today. You might be surprised to learn that they've been thinking about it, too.

But, if you're under 18, there's more to consider. Read on to learn about the risks of sexting if you and/or your partner is underage.

For Teens

Here's the long and short of it: sexual photos of anyone under 18 are illegal, full stop.

It doesn't matter if the person in the photo is over the age of consent in their jurisdiction, or if you're a teen and you're sending a photo you took yourself.

While states can set the age of consent anywhere between 16 and 18, federal laws about child pornography make it illegal to produce or distribute photos of anyone under 18.

But sexting isn't the same as child porn!

If this seems unfair to you, you aren't alone. Many people have criticized the application of child porn laws to underage sexting. They say that laws designed to protect children from exploitation are too strict when it comes to teens sending each other naughty (but consensual) photos.

Some have proposed a split in terminology between aggravated and experimental youth-produced sexual images.

An aggravated case involves an adult (like if an adult receives or shares a photo), or if another minor uses the photo in a way that's malicious, non-consensual, or abusive.

This includes cases of revenge porn, where one person shares intimate photos of another without consent. Extortion is another form of aggravated sexting, where compromising photos are leveraged for money, goods, or favors (sexual or otherwise).

Experimental sexting is what most people think of when they think of teen sexting: an adolescent sends a nude photo to another, everyone consents, and no one is hurt.

This terminology is helpful when speaking about teen sexting from an ethical perspective, but they don't hold any legal weight. All cases of explicit photos of minors are judged under the same law.

So there's no way around the law?

If you're a teenager and thinking about sending an intimate photo to a partner, think twice. There are serious risks involved if you take or distribute a sexual photo of yourself while you're under 18. Even if those laws aren't fair, the consequences for breaking them are very real.

Also, you might have fewer options than an adult would if someone distributes your photos without your consent. Pressing charges against them could set you up for legal consequences yourself.

The only way to avoid the risk altogether is to avoid sexting until you and your partner are both 18.

What if I've decided it's worth the risk?

If you do decide to send sexy photos, take steps to protect yourself. There are tips below for making your photos more anonymous so that they can't be traced back to you if they get into the wrong hands.

Don't save photos on your phone, and insist that your partner doesn't save them, either. Even having the photos on your phone is technically possession of child porn.

Apps like Snapchat are safer, because the photos are deleted after they're viewed, but that doesn't mean they're safe. There are ways around Snapchat's security features, so don't assume that any picture you send, regardless of platform, is actually gone.

Remember, we're talking about risk reduction, not risk elimination. You've heard this before when it comes to sex: the only 100% risk-free choice is abstaining.

But that doesn't mean that protective measures are useless. If you want to engage in potentially risky behavior (no matter whether it's sex or sexting), do everything you can to minimize risk, every time.

For Parents

Why do teens sext?

It might seem to you like the risks of sexting far outweigh the benefits, especially for teens.

But remember, your teenager's brain is still developing. The frontal lobes of their brain, which helps with anticipating consequences and impulse control, won't be fully mature for years to come.

So your teenager may have more difficulty thinking about the future when making decisions than you would.

There's also something that researchers call "adolescent egocentrism." One of the effects of this experience, typical of many teens, is the feeling of invulnerability or being all-powerful.

This can make teens more likely to take risks because they don't believe that negative consequences will apply to them.

That attitude of omnipotence can be frustrating, but remember that your teen isn't making impulsive decisions to annoy you. It's part of how their brain matures, and it's critical to their development of critical thinking skills for later in life.

There's also research showing that most teens who sext do so to explore their sexuality or to build social status among their peers, "which are two key developmental tasks during adolescence" according to researcher Dora Bianchi and colleagues in a 2017 study.

So, rather than thinking of sexting as a silly fad, it may be helpful to think of it as part of the way your teen is learning to express themselves sexually and socially with the help of the technology in their lives.

Are some teens more likely to sext than others?

Maybe. Research is still ongoing, but it seems like some protective factors make it less likely that a given adolescent will engage in sexting, and some risk factors increase the likelihood.

Older adolescents are more likely to sext than younger ones, and teens who are sexually active IRL are more likely to send sexual content digitally as well.

It's not clear, though, whether sex causes sexting or whether sexting causes sex (if either). But if you know that your teen is sexually active, there's a better-than-average chance that they've given sexting a try.

Environmental factors also play a role. Teens who have strong connections with their families are less likely to sext than teens who have strained relationships with their families.

And teens who aren't straight (the research has mostly centered around gay and bisexual teens) also seem to sext more frequently than their heterosexual counterparts.

There hasn't been any research done on trans youth, but some of the factors that push LGB teens toward sexting might also affect trans youth (such as lack of social acceptance of sexuality and the struggle to define one's sexuality in a world that seems built for other people).

What can I do to keep my kids safe?

We're sure you'd like to find a solution that guarantees your children will never take, request, or send sexual photos. But that simply isn't realistic.

Lecturing your child about how they should never, ever sext isn't likely to have the result you want.

Other studies about teen sexual behavior show that simply telling teens not to do something (whether it's having sex or sending nude photos) results in more negative consequences than risk-reduction education, which teaches teens about the potential risks and how to mitigate (but not eliminate) them.

Think about it: if your child ends up in a rough situation because of a picture they sent to someone, do you want them to feel safe coming to you for help? Or do you want them to be so afraid of your anger that they try to solve the problem on their own (and maybe make it worse in the process)?

The goal of parenting should be that your child sees you as an ally and a resource, not a dictator to fear.

So rather than telling your kid to not sext and leaving it at that, open up a continuing dialogue with your child. Let them know about the risks of sexting, especially for people under 18, and emphasize that mistakes that they make now could affect the rest of their life.

Then, go over some risk-reduction strategies. Can you help them learn techniques to anonymize their photos? What about encouraging them to have a conversation with their partner about their (and your) concerns?

Brainstorm problem-solving strategies, and let them know that you're always there if your teen wants to bounce ideas off of you.

Talking about sex is rarely a fun conversation for parents or teens, but it's an important one. Remember: you're the adult here. Model good communication, critical thinking, and impulse control for your child, and you'll help them make the best decisions that they can make.

Plus, you'll show your child that they don't have to be afraid of your anger if they make a bad decision. They'll know that they can always count on you to love and support them, no matter what.

For Everyone


With anything sexual, there's one hard-and-fast rule: consent. Everyone involved has to willingly, continuously, and enthusiastically consent to everything that happens.

Texas recently passed a law making it illegal to send an explicit photo to anyone who hasn't requested or consented to it. Other jurisdictions are working on passing similar laws.

Sending nude photos can be a fun way to flirt, but make sure that the other person is cool with it.

Waiting for them to make the first move is the safest bet, but if the conversation has already turned sexual, it's okay to throw in a "Wanna see my dick?" Just make sure that you respect the response you get: asking for consent means nothing if you don't acknowledge a "no."

A consent-centered approach also means you shouldn't distribute a photo unless the person in the photo has said it's okay.

This ranges from showing your best friend the smoking-hot picture your girlfriend sent you to posting your ex's nudes on a porn site.

Not only is sharing intimate photos without consent incredibly rude, but it's also illegal in a growing number of jurisdictions. Laws against revenge porn and sexploitation are cracking down on people who share other people's nudes without consent.

The trick here? If you aren't sure whether you have consent, ask point-blank, "Is it okay if I [fill in the blank]?" Any concern you have about it being awkward or ruining the mood is not nearly as serious as the possibility that you might have to register as a sex offender for the rest of your life.


Now that we've established that you're not going to do anything awful with other people's photos, let's look at the other side of the coin: making sure your photos don't come back to bite you in the ass.

To protect your privacy (in case your photo were to end up in the wrong hands), avoid identifiable body parts in your nude photos.

This includes your face, of course, but also watch out for any distinctive scars, tattoos, or birthmarks.

That way, even if the photo ends up on the internet, it can fade into the background as another anonymous nude rather than being traceable back to you.

Check the background as well for identifiers--if your mail (or god forbid, your ID) is sitting on the floor in the background of your shot, it will identify you better than your face.

Another sexting behavior that probably isn't worth the risk: sexting at work.

Obviously taking and sending explicit photos on a work phone is a big risk. But even if you're on your personal device, if it's connected to the office WiFi, your boss may be monitoring activity.

Plus, if your partner is also at work, consider whether they'll have enough privacy to receive it.

If they're giving an important presentation on their laptop, and they forgot to turn off popup notifications on iMessage, you could ruin their presentation with an ill-timed adult message.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

If someone does share your nudes, the first step is to document everything. Take screenshots of anywhere you've found your photos.

Tell the person to take the photos down, and say (in no uncertain terms) that you did not consent to them being shared. Then, take a screenshot of that conversation (if you want to tell them in person, follow up with a text or email so that you have documentation).

Print out all your documentation so that it can't get lost to a computer virus. It's a good idea to make copies of it, too.

Also, print out any laws about revenge porn that are relevant to your jurisdiction. Since most of these laws are fairly new, police officers might not be entirely familiar with them.

If you can walk into the police station with physical evidence of the crime and the law, you stand a good chance that someone will pay you the attention you deserve.

If you can, find an advocate who can come with you to report it. This could be a professional or simply a close friend who will offer you emotional support through the difficult experience of reporting a sensitive crime.

Kylie is online and wants to sext.