Think sexting and a lot of things come to mind… Fun. Racy. Sexy. Even romantic. However, it may not take long for the mind to wander to words like ‘dangerous’ – especially with reports of blackmail and revenge porn becoming all too common.
But sexting and sharing nudes are not new. People have been creating and exchanging erotic imagery, photos and letters for centuries. What’s different now is that the internet and instant messaging apps have made it really easy and quick to do so.
Even teens and young adults do it, despite the risks involved. “It has become an integral part of courtship to a large extent,” points out Siddharth from Aarambh, an online portal which works on online safety and combats child sexual abuse material online.
So, is telling youngsters to not sext really the solution? And what are the risks associated with it?
Needless to say, the first thing to ensure is that you trust the person to whom you are sending this media. There have been several instances of people forwarding the nudes they receive to others, without the knowledge of the sender. This can lead to crimes like blackmail, cyber bullying and more. However, the risks don’t abate even if you believe the person receiving the photos and videos wouldn’t leak them.
“It depends on the apps we use as well. Take WhatsApp for instance. If you send someone a photo there, it’s on your WhatsApp. But a copy of it also gets stored on your phone’s hard drive. And if your phone’s media is automatically backed up, these photos will remain in the cloud storage even if you delete them from your phone,” Siddharth explains.
This is what happened with a woman in 2016. In a case TNM had reported on, the cloud storage of a US-based Indian woman was hacked. The hacker accessed some explicit photos and videos she had recorded and sent to her boyfriend at that time. And while this woman chose to shame the hacker on social media with screenshots of his blackmailing emails to her and also got support from her family, not everyone can afford to do this.
“If not the receiver, risks also come from other people who may be handling your phone – friends, family… even someone who might repair your phone at a shop,” Siddharth says.
In order to have more control over how these photos and our data is stored, Nayantara R, Program Manager at the Internet Democracy Project, says that we need to understand the differences among various technologies and apps that we use.
This document by Coding Rights, a Brazil-based organisation working to expose and redress the power imbalances built into technology, notes that a safe channel for sharing intimate photos should be “open-source and offer end-to-end encryption; screenshot blocking; self-destructing messages that will disappear from both devices and servers; require no email, phone number or real name to sign up”. However, it admits that this entire combination could not be found even in the apps they had mentioned.
For instance, the app Signal does not let one take a screenshot on the phone, however, one can easily take a photo using another phone. And while Telegram is safer than WhatsApp according to some experts, and also has self-destruct option for messages, it does require you to register with your mobile number.
Coding Rights advises that you could also try encrypting your phone with strong passwords, and keep explicit and intimate photos in an encrypted folder, the password of which is only known to you.
“Be careful when using WiFi in public spaces – the companies can use them to steal your data. When using such networks, prefer apps that offer encrypted connections (with https in the address bar) or download a VPN app […] every file sent through an app is also sent to a server that is owned by a company. We don’t have access to the data we send to such servers, but governments and the companies that own them do,” the advisory adds.
Another precaution you could take is to use applications that allow you to erase the metadata of the media you are sharing. “A marginally useful measure could be that you erase the metadata of a photo before sharing it. That means, erasing the details which attaches with photos when they are created - date, time, phone on which it was clicked, file size etc. This measure is useful if you foresee that it might give you some degree of plausible deniability if the media falls into the wrong hands,” Nayantara says.
Both Nayantara and Siddharth add that you can also reduce the risk by not having or blurring your face, identifying marks and belongings in the photos and videos.
The bigger picture
While you can take the above precautions, experts say that none of these methods is fool proof. And in an ideal world, one should not have to worry about these issues.
“All this cautionary messaging and the onus to understand every feature on every app also quickly devolves into putting far too much responsibility on the people being affected. It can look very similar to victim blaming,” Nayantara points out.
But the answer does not lie in scaring youngsters into not sexting at all. “While sexting might seem like this super risky thing, there are also other forms of expressions that are curtailed for many - like putting up a particular kind of display picture, or putting one up at all! These curtailments might be of different degrees, but emerge from the same spectrum,” Nayantara argues.
Sexting needs to become a part of a larger conversation on sexuality, consent and healthy relationships, experts say. They add that because sexting is so routine today there is pressure on youngsters to indulge in it.
“We need to talk to teens and young persons about determining informed and enthusiastic consent… that it is not universal and needs to be established each time,” Siddharth says.
This is especially important because the more taboo we make sexuality, the more likely it is that those who explore it will do so in secret and without proper understanding of a healthy relationship. Not only does this make them more vulnerable to dangerous situations - like being coerced into acts they don’t want to partake in - but also leaves them with feelings of guilt, loneliness, and inability to access help if they need it.
In the unfortunate scenario where one’s explicit or intimate photos are shared without their consent, here’s what families can do to help.