Millennials have become cyborgs. They exist far beyond biology and through a variety of technological devices which don’t function as external entities but as a platform and backdrop to their daily lives. They were born between 1980 and 2000, and are regarded by researchers as an open-minded, responsive and liberal generation who believe that “useful is the new cool”. They’ve grown up in an “always-on” digital era: the online world is their platform for communication and expression
So it should be no wonder that, in addition to social and professional online existence, they also express their sexuality via technology. Social media applications like WhatsApp have created a new avenue for curious young people to explore, express and develop their sexuality. Sexting – exchanging texts, photos and videos of a sexual nature – has become so commonplace that many millennials consider it a normal and even healthy part of a relationship.
But some people are horrified by the idea of sexting. Are they right to panic?
The short answer is no. Firstly, sexting is often a safer alternative to physical sex, without the risks of STIs and pregnancy. And, importantly, my research has revealed that it is primarily a feminist space: when used correctly it offers both partners equal power to start, stop and direct the interaction. Young women felt comfortable with sexting because it diminished their risk of being overpowered or pressured into non-consensual sex.
Millennials’ own experiences
A recent study has started steering sexting research in a new direction that has millennials’ experiences and opinions as its base. This is important, as much of the literature currently circulating does not employ appropriate research methods or is biased towards finding the harm in this new moral panic that’s “corrupting our youth”.
My own research, too, has focused on millennials’ attitudes to and practice of sexting. I collected the data from 579 students aged between 18 and 30 in an online survey at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. I also conducted a number of focus groups. Here’s what I found:
- Millennials consider sexting fun and flirty.
- They use it to get positive feedback and boost their self-esteem.
- 55% of the respondents said they had friends who sext with nude or semi-nude pictures; 53% have done so themselves and 59% have received such content.
- It is not necessarily a private activity – 57% of male and 44% of female student respondents have seen someone else’s private naked or semi-naked picture(s). So much so, that 72% expressed the fear of someone else seeing their picture as a serious concern or hindrance to sexting.
- Importantly, millennials were highly aware of the risks posed by sexting. They also understood how it could be potentially harmful, but most said that the benefits outweighed the risks.
- Participants said that the most common risk associated with sexting, apart from leaked photos, is receiving an unsolicited and unexpected sext, especially one of a graphic, sexual nature. This is an especially common complaint among young women, and leaves the receiver feeling violated, but also with the expectation to respond.
- Some were also concerned about the turn-taking repertoire of sexting, which means that when one receives a sext it creates the expectation of returning a similar contribution. If you receive a photo of your partner’s naked torso, for instance, a text or photo of your face is not considered an appropriate response. For inexperienced sexters, this could create negative pressure.
Sexting to build intimacy
Part of my research focused on why millennials sext. I found that it is most prevalent among couples, people in long-distance relationships and, interestingly, virgin teens. These experiences were discussed in the focus groups, where students could elaborate on the answers they’d given in the survey.
Sexting is likely to happen before sex, as a way to get to know one’s partner sexually and to build intimacy. This explains why high school pupils who still identify as virgins would sext: to them, it’s a way to bridge the gap of distance between two interested, consenting partners who wish to be intimate, experiment or are just curious and wish to explore their sexuality. All of this can happen in the safety and comfort of their own rooms with the power to stop the interaction at any time.
It is exactly this power which, from a cyberfeminist theoretical point of view, makes sexting so appealing – especially to young women. Sexting is a turn-taking, co-authoring process. Both parties contribute equally and have equal stakes in the outcome. Both partners have the power to sway the story and to back out if they feel uncomfortable. It is a space that allows both parties to ask for what they want, explain what they dislike and get the satisfaction they desire by giving the other what they want.
Sexting has the potential to be liberating and empowering if used correctly. It can bring two partners together through an intimacy otherwise denied by distance. But sexters – and particularly young millennials – need to be taught how to navigate these sometimes murky waters.
Schools and the popular media need to start addressing issues around consent and non-consensual sharing. These sorts of interventions will teach young people to use potential sexting platforms appropriately. They’ll learn how to deal better with situations of unwanted pressure, abuse (such as receiving an unsolicited nude picture) and more broadly about their rights, how to protect themselves and when to ask for help.
Millennials also need to learn how technology can be used in an empowering way. This may be tougher in poorer countries or regions where economic access and exposure to technology is racialised, genderised and stratified by ethnicity. An inexperienced user, or one who doesn’t fit the typical Western, empowered millennial prototype – or match people’s ideas of a savvy, connected “digital native” – might fall back on traditional constraints. These constraints paint men as more dominating and women as submissive and unwilling to displease their lovers.
Such programmes and learning can only happen once the taboo of sexting is lifted. This will require a dialogue between millennials, parents and educators, and a space for millennials’ own views on the subject to be heard.
Note: The Victorian Parliament's Law Reform Committee conducted an Inquiry into 'Sexting' in 2012. See EFA's submission to this Inquiry [PDF] and the Final Report, which resulted in some well-considered legislation that ensures that consenting minors engaging in 'sexting' are no longer subject to child pornography offences.