As Erica* prepared to press send, a wave of anxiety set in. This wasn’t a controversial text, or a passive-agressive Instagram comment, but rather a picture of her naked body. She said she had never sent anything of the sort before but knew after a conversation with the receiver that they both felt comfortable experimenting.
“It was super casually brought up as something we wanted to try,” Erica said. “It was mutual and kind of just came up in conversation. I felt no pressure in doing so because I was so comfortable with this person, so I really didn’t care that he was going to see that.”
Erica was not in a romantic relationship with the receiver but said she felt close to him and trusted him completely, two key factors in what she defines as an acceptable time to send nude photos.
“Once I processed [how much I trusted] this person, I felt fine sending it, and I also felt kind of happy to have that experience,” Erica said. “It is kind of weird that it has become something so normal because I do agree that it is definitely risky. But I think that if it is done under the right circumstances, you are truly enjoying it and it is not because you feel pressured, then I don’t see any harm in doing it so as long as you are careful.”
Once a comfortable dynamic was established, the two continued to “sext,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “send[ing] someone a sexually explicit message or image by cell phone,” because it was a mutually enjoyable experience and neither party felt taken advantage of, Erica said.
Of 352 students surveyed in a Chronicle poll, 35 percent said they had sent a nude photo. Of these students, 57 percent said they felt comfortable with the exchange.
Unlike Erica, Drew* said she had a more negative experience. ‘Where are my nudes?’ and ‘We’re in a long distance relationship. You’re supposed to do this for me,’ are just a few of the demanding Snapchats she recalls receiving from her now ex-boyfriend.
She and her former boyfriend would fight for months about her willingness to sext him until she finally agreed to do so, Drew said.
“One day, I decided it wasn’t a big deal and did it because I trusted him, knowing he would never save them or send them to anyone,” Drew said. “Once I did though, [his pressuring me] continued to get worse and worse, and I didn’t really know how to deal with it.”
Her toxic relationship had lasting effects and caused her to be more apprehensive about sending sexts in the future, Drew said.
“My ex-boyfriend was very emotionally abusive, so that affected my feelings and sensitivity in my next relationship,” Drew said. “I would not feel comfortable sending [nudes] again.”
After sending sexts, adolescents could feel shame or low self-esteem, Upper School Psychologist Sophie Wasson said.
“If you feel uncomfortable or question it before sending it, why go ahead and do it?” Wasson said.
It is illegal to possess a sexually explicit image of a minor, according to California law. Exchanging a nude photo of a minor with another minor is a federal crime. In 2016, legislators proposed a bill that would make sexting under the age of 18 punishable by counseling and community service, as opposed to imposing child pornography charges of jail time. This bill would allow schools to expel or suspend a student who sent sexts that humiliated or harassed another student, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Feeling aware of the pressure girls feel to make themselves vulnerable, Harrison* said he never asks for nudes or sends them without explicit permission.
“If [a girl] likes me, then I feel like that puts me in a position of power, and I definitely don’t want anyone to feel like I’m taking advantage of them,” Harrison said.
Although Harrison has heard stories about people who have felt coerced or uncomfortable, he said it is up to the sender and receiver to establish communication and boundaries.
“I think that hopefully people who are sending nudes, especially people our age, are conscious in their actions,” Harrison said. “But, I think sometimes, especially with certain girls who I know, in times of their lives when they’re not feeling completely secure or comfortable with themselves, they definitely regret things they’ve said or sent.”
Gemma* also said she agrees that girls can feel shame or judgement for being comfortable with their own sexuality by sending naked pictures.
“I am against the culture that shames specifically girls for sending nudes to somebody that they trust,” Gemma said. “In general, I think that it’s such a stigma all throughout feminism and all throughout a woman’s life that she should be shamed for being a sexual being. Nudes are just the most modern vehicle for slut-shaming.”
Taking naked pictures just for oneself can be empowering and an opportunity to sexualize oneself in a healthy way, she said.
“I think it’s okay to be feeling cute or whatever and want to take a picture just to have,” Gemma said. “It’s not like you even need to send it to anybody,”
Identifying as gay, Ian* said that from his experience, gay culture is more open to sexting and sending nudes, and he therefore feels more comfortable partaking.
“For me it is not a big deal, you can do whatever you want with your body,” Ian said. “It is not okay if it is ever forced. That is why it is dangerous if you are under 18. Then again, teenagers do a lot of illegal and dangerous stuff, so it is just another thing you should be careful about if you are going to do it.”
Receivers getting, sharing or saving others’ nude photos is among the possibly detrimental aspects of sexting or sending naked pictures, Wasson said.
“If you receive a text that is upsetting or unwanted I would talk first to the person sending the text,” Wasson said. “I would set boundaries, and then let them know that it was upsetting and not to send them anymore. If the situation continues, I’d want that student to seek an adult who could help manage the situation.”
*Names have been changed.