My earliest sexual experiences with another person did not involve kissing, touching, nor even being in the same room. He was in Canada, I was in Australia; he was 13, I was 12. Our entire relationship was conducted online, where we'd exchange clumsy messages about things neither of us had done before but dreamed of doing together. It was the beginning of an awakening.
Growing up in a conservative household in the early 2000s, my burgeoning sexuality owed a lot to technology. Sexting has been a part of my adult life too, whether sending intimate photos to long-distance partners or exchanging racy texts with Tinder matches, eager to see if our desires aligned before meeting up.
But recently, there has been a moral panic around sexting, especially when it comes to young adults. With the advent of platforms like Kik and Snapchat, teenagers have many new avenues through which to interact sexually. "Revenge porn" - the sharing of intimate photos online without the consent of the person depicted - has become widespread in the last few years, and age of consent laws also stipulate that possession and distribution of explicit photographs of underage people constitutes objectional material. What this means is that an underage teenager sending sexual photos to another underage teenager puts both at risk of being convicted as sex offenders.
What's not talked about often enough, though, is just how instrumental sexting can be
in expressing sexuality, as well as establishing boundaries, fostering positive self-image and encouraging a culture of consent.
"The benefits can be huge in self-confidence and body positivity," says Eva Sless, author of A Teen Girl's Guide to Getting Off. "Feeling sexy and good on your own skin is a huge step in helping young people achieve personal confidence in so many areas of their lives. It's not only about sex."
Indeed, selfies and nude photographs can be a positive tool for young people struggling with self-esteem or trauma - such as eating disorders and sexual assault - to reconstitute their body image in a way that makes them feel desirable and comfortable. Jenny, 24, suffers from anxiety and says that sexting allows her to explore her sexuality safely, as well as shifting her difficult relationship with her body. "Being able to make sexual passes without having to look them in the eye and think 'I am not good enough and I'm embarrassing myself' is such a cathartic experience," she says.
Sex therapist Cyndi Darnell says that sexting, which she calls the modern equivalent of love letters, can be a great way for young people to discuss their desires before becoming physical. "Sometimes it's easier having these conversations via text rather than face to face, because we live in a culture that's deeply uncomfortable with talking about sex," she says.
"If you can do it through a text message, that's brilliant. It minimises awkwardness, it establishes boundaries and it errs towards a discussion that might look something like consent."
Having conversations with your kids about sex is not easy, but Darnell encourages parents to analyse where their discomfort stems from. "What about it makes you uncomfortable?" she asks. "Is it the worst-case scenario that your child is going to be unsafe, or is it that your baby is growing up? Identify what you're feeling, and spend some time considering that - it's not a kid's responsibility to process your awkward emotions."
Hilary, 26, says that sexting is important for her and her husband as they raise two children together. "It's nice that I can make time apart intimate and use it as the emotional foreplay we don't have much time for anymore," she says.
When it comes to her two young daughters, Hilary has already started thinking about how she'll talk to them about sexting when the time comes. "I'm going to try and just approach it head on, and let them know that I know it happens, but that I want them to use their best possible judgment and come to me if they ever feel like a boundary has been crossed or they've made a mistake," she says. "A large part of it is letting them know that sexual mistakes don't define you as a person."
It is the responsibility of both parents and schools to take a holistic approach to sext education. Just as telling teenagers not to have sex doesn't work, nor does telling them not to sext. More useful is to view sexting through a lens of harm minimisation, by taking shame out of the equation and encouraging healthy, respectful interactions, rather than advocating for abstinence.
We cannot blame young women when their trust is violated - this is the same logic that points the finger at them when they are physically assaulted and raped. We can teach teens that their sexual interactions, whether physical or digital, absolutely must be consensual.
"We need to put the focus of 'bad' not on the act, but on the idea of breaking trust," says Sless.
It is irresponsible to continue to peddle slut-shaming, conservative models when we know that teens will do it anyway. Instead, we should aim to move our conversations towards an inclusive methodology that encourages the exploration of sex in a safe environment, rather than a shame-based model that suggests that digital violence is deserved punishment for daring to be sexual at all.
TIPS FOR SAFE SEXTING
Leave identifying features out
If you're worried about your trust being violated and your photos getting out - and if that carries undesirable consequences for you - leave your face, and identifying features like tattoos, out of explicit photos when you take them.
Strip your data
Photos taken on most devices are logged with EXIF data, which includes information on where the photo was taken, and what camera it was taken with - so even if you've left your identifying features out, you could still be identified. A simple Google search will show you how to strip the images of this data and protect your anonymity.
What's my age again?
As unfortunate as it is that sending consensual nudes between underage teens can carry heavy legal consequences, the law is the law. If you are underage, see if you can find another way to explore your sexuality - with or without a partner - that does not put you at legal risk.
For your eyes only
If someone has sent you a nude photo, do not share it with other people unless you have permission. Doing otherwise is a huge breach of privacy and trust.
Consent, consent, consent
The most important part of all is consent. It is crucial to be respectful to others and make sure you aren't crossing any lines. If you don't want to send a nude photo, don't. If you ask someone to send you a nude photo and they say no, respect that. If you do not have someone's consent to send them a nude photo, don't. Violating someone's trust is an active choice. Just as it's important to respect people's boundaries and attain consent in real-life sexual interactions, it's equally important to do so when sexting.
* If you have concerns around teenagers sexting, contact netsafe.org.nz