Sexting literally means being engaged in a text chat over digital devices in a sexual manner. We know well it often involves exchanging nude, semi-nude, or sexually explicit images. We also know that when sexting takes place between correlatives, meaning as long as both partners are adults or both are underage, it is just another way of enjoying sexuality and exploring our bodies. There remains the sticky question of safety.

I reached out to Social TIC, a Latin American organization that works to promote strategic and safe uses of digital technology among social change actors. Paola Aguilar and Haydée Quijano work as communication officers there and help generate free licensed content to educate people about security and data privacy. They take care to respond to common questions they get from high school and university students. "Our objective with this guide was to counter a moralist approach to this practice and messages telling you should be scared about it", explains Aguilar who says they discuss not just privacy but also agreements, confidence, and consent in the digital context. These considerations were not included in their first approach to safe sexting three years ago they recall. "Sexting is a practice where there can be risks in the same way as in any relationship. So, rather than dismiss the internet as a dark and dangerous place, we should focus on taking control over our information,” she adds.

As the organization gained gender perspective, they worked towards a wider integral guide that also stresses the importance of having supportive groups in case something goes wrong.  "We defend people's right to freely practice their sexuality, including if that is done through technology, but they should be armed with all the facts they need to protect themselves".

There prevails a certain reticence, fear or guilt while engaging in sexual play through technology and much of it is because we have all heard of cases where intimate photos have been leaked and the subject is blamed for being “irresponsible” and “too promiscuous.” This patriarchal stigmatization is disrespectful of women and sexual dissidents. Perpetrators act with even more freedom as responsibilities devolve and the culture of impunity extends to the digital sphere. However, just as we have learned to defend ourselves and fight against patriarchy in other spheres of our lives, we can also learn how to use technology to inhabit the internet with greater freedom. After all, we are well aware how power relations and gender inequality and discrimination are reproduced in cyberspace too.

Switching the focus from victims to perpetrators

To counter the moralist or prohibitive approach to this practice, organisations like Social TIC are compiling tips for safer sexting. They also take into account that once a picture gets stored into an external server or into someone else device, the owner can lose control over it. To provide solutions to victims to regain control, Social TIC has tied up with organizations such as Take Back the Tech and the Association for Progressive Communications. These attacks are the unauthorized distribution of private and intimate content and are categorised as cybercrimes in some legislations. Though a culture of impunity and gender insensitivity make it difficult to take legal action, warns APC.  Another supportive network called Cyber Civil Rights Initiative offers victims this online step-by-step removal guide on how to report to the major social media companies about the violation of their privacy.

As the COVID-19 pandemic deepened, economic and social stress coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, gender-based violence increased exponentially, according to a UN Women report.

There is a useful list that Women’s Media Centre have created of a “diversity of tactics and malicious behaviors ranging from sharing embarrassing or cruel content about a person to impersonation, doxing, stalking and electronic surveillance to the nonconsensual use of photography and violent threats”.

As harmful as in real life violence, this online abuse aims to control, humiliate and damage women and people of non-normative genders by targeting their dignity, reputation, or self-esteem and pushing them to self-blame and self-censorship.

By signaling this behaviour as a form of gender violence, Social TIC and its network advocate for specific technological and social practices. Moreover, they build collective ways of caring and switch the focus from the victims to the perpetrators. In this sense, Quijano told me about a collective response they led against Mexican TV Televisa campaign about nonconsensual distribution of images called Mucho ojo en la red (Very careful on the Internet), that reinforced victim blaming rather than question aggressors and their accomplices. "Those campaigns put the responsibility in the wrong place, and we must counter them with human rights perspective, education and awareness,” insists Quijano.

Safe sexting tips and some apps you can use

I have collated a short list of few basic precautions to take.

1. Before starting to sext, take care not to send any pictures if there is no explicit and clear consent from the receiving party or if you don’t have enough confidence in their commitment to safeguard your privacy. Consent is crucial, as it is in any sexual relationship. You shouldn't feel pressured at any point and, if you have doubts about it, you must pay attention to your gut feeling.

2. It is also very important to make explicit agreements on what you like and what you don’t, what your limits are, and how both sides are going to do deal with the shared data—what messaging apps you are going to use, whether you are  going to store the pictures or delete them, and what happens with this material when the relationship ends.

3. While sexting, consider your security first and erase anything that could clearly identify you in the picture. You can hide your face, tattoos, or scars by adding emojis or even a watermark with the name of the receiver. Remember that eroticism does not have to be explicit, so take time to play with light and to think about what do you choose to show or not.

Offer your sexting partner to explore some of these tech options with special features.

1. ObscuraCam allows blurring elements on a picture and prevents sending metadata when you shoot through the app. Metadata is information embedded in pictures regarding location, hour and date, and phone number.

As for the messaging app of your choice, consider one that provides encryption end to end so the pictures do not get stored in any server on the way. Open-software ones are the most secure as they do not associate your content with your social network or use private information from your device. They also offer handy options like auto-deleting messages or disabling screenshots.

2. Check out Confide and Wickr for safe messaging and Jitsi for video calls.

3. You can encrypt your files with applications such as Camera V or Coudfogger. CCleaner can eliminate files and any remains from your PC. Finally, bear in mind that storing files automatically produces remains on your device, so, eliminate pictures and the cache periodically. If you both agree on keeping the pictures, do so by encrypting them with strong passwords and deactivating automatic synchronization to the cloud.

Happy sexting, folx!