08/08/2017 7:00 AM AEST | Updated 08/08/2017 7:00 AM AEST

Sexting: What You Need To Know Before You Do It

A bit of fun can now have serious consequences.

Axel Bueckert

Let's talk about sex[ting], baby.

What is normally a flirtatious, titillating experience shared between two people involved in a romantic relationship has increasingly become the centre of new image abuse laws. If you've ever sent or shared sexy pics (or you're thinking about it), here's what you need to know.

What is sexting?

"Sexting is the exchange of sexually explicit or nude pictures via electronic communications such as mobile phones or social media," Dr Megan Lim, Deputy Program Director of Behaviours and Health at the Burnet Institute told HuffPost Australia.

This means any messages sent including a photo that involves nudity, partial nudity, reveals genitalia or depicts someone performing a sexual act.

Paul Viant

Why do people sext?

According to Lim, we like to send racy, intimate photographs for three reasons.

"The main reason people talk about sexting is flirting -- a flirtatious way of interacting, and it's also something a bit different and enjoyable," Lim said.

"Second, we send pictures to get positive feedback, or to receive compliments and lastly we send some to get some in return."

While this all seems like a little bit of fun, an increase in the distribution of private sexts forwarded on by people other than the initial sender has become problematic.

Revenge porn and image-based abuse: When does sexting go too far?

Part of the risk is the release of our private images without our consent. It's something we tend not to think of until we ourselves become a victim. Yet according to an investigation conducted by RMIT, 'Not Just Revenge Pornography: Australians' Experience Of Image Based Abuse', a whopping one in five Australians between the ages of 16 and 49 have reported falling victim to their intimate images being shared without their consent.

While revenge porn refers to distributing or threatening to distribute sexual images as a form of revenge, often from an estranged lover, Dr Nicola Henry, Associate Professor and Vice Chancellor's Principle Research Fellow at RMIT and Lead Investigator of the above study told HuffPost Australia that image-based abuse legislation is now more important than ever in the world of sexting.

"Image-based abuse is the term to capture all non-consensual sexting and the reason revenge porn is very narrow is because it doesn't capture the range of motivations or experiences people can face," Henry said.

"Blackmail, control, sexual gratification, monetary gain -- they are all motivations for sexting that don't fall under the revenge porn framework, rather they fall into image-based abuse."

Thirty percent didn't want to, or felt pressured into sending a 'sexual selfie' which involves a nude or semi-nude selfie or a selfie of the individual engaging in a sexual act.

So under what situations can image-based abuse take place?

According to Henry, there are a variety of circumstances that can be classed as image-based abuse.

"We're talking about situations when a sexual assault has been recorded on a mobile phone and shared, domestic violence situations when an abusive partner, former or current, threatens to distribute sexual images in order to prevent one from leaving a relationship, computer hackers who get access to webcams and personal computer files, online dating sites, up skirting or down blousing -- what's called creep shots -- where people are taking images covertly in public spaces of others," Henry said.

While it may be that the sender gave initial consent for the intended receiver to view a sext, consent to share to one person does not mean consent to share to another person or group of people.

The legal implications surrounding a sext-gone-wrong depend on jurisdiction, but in some states such as Victoria, image-based abuse offences carry a maximum two year jail sentence for distributing images without consent and a maximum one year jail sentence for threatening to distribute images.

What are trends in sexting behaviour?

While we know that 20 percent of Australians reported being a victim of image-based abuse, of the 4,000 participants in the RMIT investigation, 30 percent indicated they felt pressured into sending a sext.

"Thirty percent didn't want to, or felt pressured into sending a 'sexual selfie' which involves a nude or semi-nude selfie or a selfie of the individual engaging in a sexual act," Henry said.

Henry also explained men were more likely to send a sexual image in a message (54 percent), compared to women (47 percent) and the largest proportion of participants to engage in sexting were 20 to 29-year-old's, followed by 16 to 19-year-old's.

According to Henry, people who consensually shared sexual images with another person were more likely to become victims of image exploitation than those who have never sent a sexual image.

While this sounds like an obvious answer, they key phrase here is more likely. Ten percent of image-based abuse victims have never sent a sext. How does this work?

"If you've never sexted, you can still become a victim if people have taken secret photos of you without your knowledge or consent, such as creep shots," Henry said.

The RMIT study also indicated that while women were more likely to report an image was distributed by a partner or former partner, men were more likely to report the images were distributed by a family member or a friend.

What are common attitudes towards sexting?

According to Lim, who co-authored 'Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll', a 2017 sexual knowledge survey, young people still consider sexting as a fun experience despite the idea sexting is now synonymous with abuse laws.

"Young people's perceptions of sexting are generally that it's usually quite a positive thing to experience when it's happening within a relationship, two people who are dating or within flirting," Lim said.

Martin Dimitrov

"However they did draw a strong line between that and non-consensual sharing of images as something that's quite negative."

Even more negative, explains Henry, is the victim blaming attitude associated with sexting behaviours.

"Victims of these behaviours are often blamed and there is this phenomenon developing around victim-blaming and image-based abuse which is creating a barrier for victims coming forward. Unfortunately, these attitudes are not surprising," Henry said.

How can we sext safely?

Despite the potential consequences, according to Lim, most sexting experiences are positive and most people will not take advantage if you trust them with personal content.

If you are considering sending a sexual image or video to someone, Lim suggests following these steps to practice safe sexting.

1. Stay unidentifiable: If you're going to send sexual selfies or images, keep your face hidden.

2. Show rather than sext: Showing the intended receiver the image keeps you in control of who sees what and where it is distributed.

3. Make it clear you don't want it passed on: Some people might not realise consent sent to them doesn't mean it's free for all.

4. Acknowledge the risk: Weigh up the level of risk over the level of enjoyment.

I've sent a sext, what do I do now?

You've sent a sext to a former flame, the fire fizzled and now you're panicking your private image will be passed on. Step one, don't panic.

Step two, contact the receiver and ask them to delete the image. If you posted the image or video online, remove it immediately and contact the social networking sites or dating sites themselves to ensure the post is removed.

Step three, if you're becoming a victim, seek legal advice.

I've shared a sext, what do I do now?

Whether the intention was malicious or not, if you've shared a sext without obtaining the original sender's consent, there are things you can do to rectify your actions.

"If you've shared of an adult, they key it to remove those images, ensure they're removed online and taken down immediately, or if you've sent it to a group of friends, make sure each individual removes images from personal devices," Henry said.

Speak to family members or friends, and if need be, seek legal advice, particularly if the image is of a minor.