Teen Girls ‘Bombarded and Confused’ By Sexting Requests

Teen Girls ‘Bombarded and Confused’ By Sexting Requests

Sarah ThomasSara Thomas

Adolescent women feel intense pressure to send sexual images to men when asked, but they lack tools to cope with their concerns and potential consequences, according to new Northwestern University research published in the journal of Sexuality Research and Social Policy.

Sexting, or sending sexually suggestive images or messages to others, is a reality for an estimated 15 to 25 percent of teens growing up in the digital age. Though some research points to sexting as a potentially low-risk way to explore sexuality, the practice also is associated with increased risk of ostracism, depression, and suicide.

"Teenage girls know the potential risks and are disinclined to do it, yet they continue to share the images anyway,” said study author Sara Thomas, a doctoral student in the Human Development and Social Policy program at the School of Education and Social Policy. “They struggle to say no.”

Thomas explored the challenges teenagers have while debating whether to send photographs and the problems that come up when they do. She also wanted to know how women handled unwanted requests for photographs.

After analyzing 462 self-reported stories posted to the anonymous online platform AThinLine.org, she found that women who were asked to send nude photographs felt “overwhelmed, confused, tired, bombarded” by requests and trapped between saying yes and no.

Young women were concerned about the repercussions of sending pictures, but those worries were overshadowed by more immediate day-to-day pressures, such as wanting the relationship, promises of love and trustworthiness, persistent requests, anger, harassment, and threats.

“Faced with these pressures, young women often acquiesced to young men’s terms for romantic and sexual engagement,” Thomas said. “While many young women took on the responsibility of negotiating these pressures, they were also confused and didn’t have the tools to cope.”

In fact, the most common reaction on the online forum was to ask “what should I do (WSID?)” Despite the frustrations and concerns, the stories indicated that the women were reluctant to seek help from adults because they were embarrassed and feared the adult’s response or legal consequences, the study found.

Policy efforts focusing on criminalizing digital sexting or warning young women about the dangers of sending photographs may be misplaced, Thomas said. Her research suggests that “young women are not ignorant of the potential consequences of sending sexual images, but for some, the fear of consequence is superseded by more proximal pressures to send them.”

The study focused on young women and didn’t consider how young men behave, nor did it consider same-sex romantic couples. But it did underscore that women need support negotiating these situations with greater agency and young men need help with relationships skills, including respect, consent, and boundary acceptance, Thomas said.


By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 12/6/17