Why Would Anyone Share a Nude Photo?
Jefts never thought of herself as the kind of person who would send nude photos. She is circumspect and professional–-and acutely aware of the power of images. But then she met a man who lived an ocean away, and quickly fell in love. Skype was critical to keeping the relationship alive, and the pair often sent each other photos and videochatted in ways that sometimes became sexual. “If it’s World War II and your husband leaves, you send letters and pictures, you have this correspondence that helps maintain that emotional connection,” she explains. “It’s more instantaneous [today] because of the technology, but the origin of it is the same.”
While some nonconsensual porn comes from pictures that are hacked or taken surreptitiously, in many cases the images were flirtatiously traded between partners as sexts. According to a 2016 study of nearly 6,000 adults by researchers at Indiana University, 16% of had sent a sexual photo, and more than one in five had received one. Of those who received nude photos, 23% reported sharing them with others, and men were twice as likely as women to do so.
Boomers might be baffled by this practice, but for many under 30 sexting isn’t seen as particularly transgressive. “It’s embedded in modern relationships in a way that makes us feel safe,” says Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT. “This is a question that doesn’t need an answer if you grew up with a phone in your hand.”
According to Turkle, many digital natives are so comfortable on the internet that they imagine that there are rules about what can and can’t happen to the content they share. “If you feel the internet is safe, you want to share everything, because it’ll make you feel closer and it’s a new tool,” she says. “People made up a contract in their minds about the online spaces they’re in.”
Women sometimes circulate male nudes, but studies show the vast majority of nonconsensual images are photos of women spread by men. When accused, some men say they were hacked and the photos must be coming from another source. Others admit that they posted the photos out of anger, lashing out over a perceived slight. One Louisiana tattoo artist told police he posted a sex tape of his ex on a porn site as retribution after she damaged his car. A Minnesota man reportedly admitted he posted explicit images of his ex-wife on Facebook because he was jealous of her new boyfriend.
The dissemination of images can be as much about impressing other men as it is about humiliating the victim. Boys once presented stolen underwear as trophies from conquests — now, a nude selfie can signal the same thing. As a result, schools around the nation have dealt with what are often referred to as sexting rings. In 2014, more than 100 teens in a rural Virginia county were investigated for circulating more than 1,000 nude photos of mostly underage girls on Instagram. A Colorado District Attorney chose not to bring charges against teens who were circulating photos of high school and middle schoolers in 2015. Similar incidents have popped up recently in schools in Ohio, New York and Connecticut. The practice has become common enough that the American Academy of Pediatrics developed a guide for parents on talking to children about sexting.
“Lots of this isn’t intentional,” says Erica Johnstone, a San Francisco attorney with a practice dedicated to sexual privacy. “It’s just part of the hypermasculine culture: sex pictures become like currency.”