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The stigma around sexting needs to be diminished to improve the sexual health and self-empowerment of students. 

Any conversation about nudes has to start with asking yourself questions. When have you taken nudes in the past? Has it only ever been when prompted, or in your own time? Do you have a favourite nude of yourself? How do you imagine the circumstances in which you receive a nude: asking for one, awaiting one, or receiving one unexpectedly? If you haven’t taken a nude before, do you feel you are part of the majority, or an outsider? Questions like these confront how we assume our experiences with nudes are universal; shame and taboo has moulded our expectations of nude photos and the people who take them. For many of us, especially those of us who grew up with a smartphone in our back pocket, our relationship with nude photos is as complicated as our relationship with our bodies. 

The stigma around nudes is something that was drilled into many of us at school. I remember being 14 years old in assembly and watching a presentation on the dangers of the internet. On the white board were celebrity faces, all of whom had their nudes leaked. The message was this: “Never share nudes, lest you end up like these shameful women.” I remember rolling my eyes as thinking “duh, everyone knows that”. Looking back I’m upset by the lesson that was taught, but even more upset at my reaction. I was so used to the idea that people who took and sent nudes were always to blame if they were exposed that it never occurred to me that they were victims. Their consent was violated, their trust damaged, and they had to endure a barrage of slut-shaming from the media. 

"I was so used to the idea that people who took and sent nudes were always to blame if they were exposed that it never occurred to me that they were victims."

Even outside of leaked photos, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy that surrounds nudes. We often think of nudes as falling into one of two categories; photos of penises sent without the recipient's consent, and photos of breasts and vulvas sent under peer pressure. Because there is an expectation that those are the only options, many women assume that nudes are something that they would never send of their own accord, and many men feel entitled to send unsolicited pictures on the expectation that they would never be willingly asked for one. This is not to excuse the sending of unsolicited dick pics; no-one has the right to send a nude without asking permission first. Rather, it’s to recognise the sexist, heteronormative expectations that we have built into our online interactions, so that we can reject them.

Despite what Bo Burnham may say, sexting isn’t “the next best thing” to sex. Sex is not a pinnacle, foreplay does not exist solely in preparation for sex, and sexting is not a substitute for sex. All of these things are part of an ecology, an ecology of your sexual relationship to yourself. If sexting is something you enjoy, you should feel comfortable indulging in it with someone you trust. It can be so empowering to take a photo of yourself feeling sexy and desirable. Even if you don’t feel 100% sexy, there is something uniquely uplifting about knowing that someone, somewhere, is looking at the exact same photo and getting excited.

"If sexting is something you enjoy, you should feel comfortable indulging in it with someone you trust."

The first step to dispelling the shame of nudes starts with setting boundaries. It is best to do this in your own time, rather than waiting until you are actually sexting, since you are more easily persuadable and more likely to feel guilty about refusing. Instead, think about what you would want out of exchanging nudes, and the kind of language to use when you don’t want to do something. You could redirect (“how about I do this instead…”), or say something more upfront (“I’m not comfortable with that”). Think of it as keeping a promise to yourself, rather than letting someone down. It is also useful to recognise when you and your partner have differing expectations – for one of you this may be just a couple of teasing photos, for the other it may be the start of a more intimate and extended sexting session. Remember to communicate what you want, and be respectful if you are turned down. After the fact, it is useful (nay, necessary) to talk to your partner. The prospect may be uncomfortable, but all sexual activities are improved through communication, and if you are not ready to have that conversation than you are not ready to send nudes. 

Above all, remember that taking and consensually sending nudes is something that you are allowed to do. This is your body. These are your photos. This is your power.


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