So what motivates children and teens to engage in sexting? There are a number of possible answers to this question, and any one (or all) of the following factors might play a role:
- They are seeking body affirmation
- They do it as a means of self-expression
- To flirt or to try and win over the affections of someone they’re interested in
- Peer pressure (from boyfriends and girlfriends or same-sex peers)
- For the thrill or excitement that – brings
The Search for affirmation
Let’s start off with the motivation I think plays the biggest role: Kids are looking for sexual affirmation. They want others to view them as something sexy and desirable, and sexting can be a means of seeking this validation.
All kids are born with an innate desire to be desirable. We crave to be viewed as appealing to others, just as we crave to feel loved and cherished. Even small children who don’t yet fully understand what sexy means crave positive feedback about their body. They love to display themselves and care very deeply about how they look.
This natural yearning has been further reinforced through media exposure. Kids can flip through any television channel or pick up any magazine and see that being sexy and attractive is an extremely important thing to be. Unfortunately, body insecurities are rampant, while positive affirmation is extremely hard to come by. Very early on in life, adults start scolding children for displaying themselves sending the message that their sexual attributes are repulsive and obscene. There is certainly no one telling them how sexy or appealing they are. This means that most kids lack any sense of security or self-esteem in this important area of need. Sexting can be a way of seeking such validation and building self-esteem.
Let me give you a couple of examples from personal experience that highlight this principle in action. The first example comes from a period when I was working on a series of abuse prevention books. Some of these books dealt with normal vs. abnormal circumstances, so as to help kids distinguish between legitimate requests (take off your clothes for a bath) vs. illegitimate ones (take off your clothes so that I can take pictures).They were also designed to promote body positivity, encouraging kids to be proud and open about their bodies.
As part of this series I needed pictures of children taking a bath. So I borrowed a couple of kids from a friend of mine to serve as models: “Georgina,” (a prepubescent 9-year-0ld), and “Tim,” her 4-year-old brother (Not their actual names). On the day of the shoot I had the kids get into their bathing suits, then the 3 of us headed upstairs to the bathroom and filled the tub with water and lots of bubble bath formula. The plan was to fill the tub with sudsy water, have Georgina take off her bikini top, then cover her chest with suds to bet PG-rated pictures that looked realistic but weren’t’ too revealing.
Georgina wasn’t too happy with this plan. Not about the nude chest, mind you; that bothered her not in the least. She eagerly removed her top in front of me well before I prompted her to do so. She was upset when I told her she should keep the rest of her bikini on. Apparently, her mother had told her ahead of time that I was coming by to take these pictures, and somehow Georgina had gotten the impression that this was to be photography au natural. She presumed that I was coming to take nude pictures of her in the tub, and was genuinely disappointed that this wasn’t the case.
She asked me why she had to stay partially clothed, and at one point even clasped her hands together in a pleading gesture while giving me the pouty face, begging that I let her take off all her clothes. The scene was surreal. Here I was working on sexual abuse prevention materials and I have a 9-year-old girl who is literally begging to take off all her clothes so that I (an adult male in my twenties at the time) can take nude pictures of her.
As I was trying to explain to Georgina why I didn’t want her completely nude, especially without her mom in the room, her little brother took this opportunity to take off his bathing suit and hop into the tub. Feeling emboldened by her brother, Georgina followed suit, removing her briefs and climbing into the tub.
I eventually got the pictures I needed, but it took some work. Both kids kept standing up in the tub or climbing onto the side, wanting me to take their picture while fully exposed. Georgina would give the camera “kissy lips,” or they’d want me to take their photo in provocative poses or while locked in an affectionate embrace. Had I actually followed the kids’ directive and snapped all the pictures they asked me to take, an outsider would probably have considered it child pornography.
Such behavior might seem shocking to many adults, but it’s not as strange or unusual as one might think. These were perfectly normal children acting in perfectly natural childlike ways. Aside from my suspicions that Georgina may have had a tiny little crush on me, there was nothing odd about these kids or their circumstances. They were acting this way because I had inadvertently tapped into a yearning that had long been suppressed: The desire for others to see and accept their body as something attractive. The truth is they were simply expressing a subconscious desire for the type of body validation that was denied to them as toddlers, when adults scolded them for such displays and treated their body as something repulsive.
The second example I’ll give coms from one of the many online interactions I’ve had over the years. My work with sexual abuse prevention eventually led to me interacting with pedophiles in online forums. At first this began as a way to infiltrate such groups to gather intel that could be used to better protect children. But after a while I also grew more interested in learning about the nature of the attraction, especially since many of the people I encountered were young people in their late teens or early twenties who were struggling to reconcile with a sexual orientation they hadn’t asked for and didn’t want.
In one of these group I met a girl named Bri. Bri was a collection of contradictions. She was still a child, yet she hadn’t joined the group to parade herself as a prize for the men and women who might be attracted to her. Just shy of 12-years-old yet already more than a year into puberty, Bri had found the site because she herself was a pedophile. for whatever reason, since puberty Bri had found herself sexually attracted to little girls.
Sometimes people in these groups invent children that don’t exist or engage in “catfishing” behavior. But Bri was exactly who she said she was. I Skyped and video chatted with her on multiple occasions, so I know she wasn’t some figment of someone else’s imagination. She also shared with me details of her attraction (which at one point included showing me the pictures of random little girls she had photographed because she thought they were attractive), so I’m fairly certain she was being straightforward in everything she said, and wasn’t merely adopting this persona in a ploy to seek attention.
At one point word got around that Bri had been se*ting pictures to others in the group. This would be confirmed when out of the blue one day during one of our private chats, Bri asked if I wanted to see her na*ed. I said that wasn’t a good idea and told her not to send any nu*e pictures. She sent them anyway. Then she kept bugging me to try and get me to look at them and tell her what I thought. She wanted feedback on what I thought about her body–whether her butt was too big or her breasts too small, whether her vulva had the proper shape, and in particular, whether I thought her nipples were misshapen (an insecurity she had somehow picked up). In a sentence, she was seeking sexual affirmation. She wanted me to view her body through an erotic lens and confirm that she was something desirable.
Here’s the thing: Bri wasn’t the least bit interested in me as a sexual partner, nor anyone else in the group, for that matter. Though I’m sure she reveled in the feeling of having others lust for her, none of us were a girl between the ages of 4 and 8, so we weren’t her cup of tea. And though it’s certainly possible, (perhaps even likely), that Bri was more conflicted in her sexuality than she let on about, and was still trying to figure things out, her primary goal in such behavior was validation, not flirting or s*x.
Put aside Bri’s rather unusual orientation, and she was just like every other girl her age. She desperately wanted validation about her body. She wanted to feel cherished, adored, and desired as a sexual person, so she could feel more secure in her sexual identity.
If you want to understand why preteen girls would send naked pictures of themselves to total strangers, this is it in a nutshell. They desperately want the experience of having others appreciate their body in a se*ual way, thus assuring them that they are someone worthy of sexual desire. They’re not really picky about where this affirmation comes from. In fact, being desired by a sexually experienced 20- or 30-something can be every bit as thrilling and rewarding as se*ting a picture to peers (most of whom tend to be far more judgmental and less supportive.
Sexting is a way of reaching out to say, “This is me and this is my body. Am I okay? Can you confirm that I am attractive? Will these pictures fill you with desire and make you want to eat me up” When youth receive a favorable reaction, it boosts their self-esteem. Any type of critical comment, meanwhile, can also (ironically) lead to more of the same behavior, since the need for validation then becomes that much stronger. This search for affirmation, in my opinion, is the primary reason children and teens se*t.
Sexting as a means of self-expression
In addition to the affirmation they receive, se*ting can be a way for kids to express the exotic side of their nature. As New York sex educator Logan Levkoff says, kids are looking for ways to express their sexuality, “especially when they’re told, ‘Don’t go out and do it.’ It’s not a real surprise that teens use technology to express their sexuality.” (Jayson, 10-14-2011) Se*ting can seem like a safe way for kids to explore their sexuality at a distance. It’s a type of fantasy play that lets them experiment through the filter of a screen.
Sexting as a means of flirting
Sometimes kids se*t as a means of flirting. A n*de or provocative picture can be the digital equivalent of asking a boy (or girl), “are you interested in me? Would you like to hook up?” especially if a youth is shy or socially awkward, or has a difficult time approaching or talking to the opposite gender, sending a provocative ph*to might seem like an effective way of winning over the attention and affection of someone they like. Or if a youth has struggled to get a romantic interest to notice them, a n*de photo is sure to get their attention.
Back when digital photography first came out, Hall-of-Fame quarterback Brett Favre faced a public humiliation after sending a picture of his pe*is to a female sports reporter he was interested in. This reporter apparently thought the rest of the world needed to see, and leaked it to the public. It struck me as rather funny at the time; not because the se*ting was surprising, but because this famous, popular, multi-million dollar athlete–someone who could have his choice of attractive women in any city–apparently thought that if fame, money and fancy cars didn’t elicit interest, a picture of his penis was sure to seal the deal.
If someone of Brett Favre’s caliber can view sexting as a viable means of eliciting se*ual interest, or resort to this method when trying to get a female’s attention, it’s safe to say that your insecure and inexperienced teen might assume the same.
Sexting for thrill or excitement
Sexting can be exciting. Stripping nude and posing for the camera, and then exposing yourself by sending this picture to others, is a potential thrill ride from start to finish. Since thrill and excitement enhance sexual pleasure, sexting can be a highly er*tic experience in and of itself, and some teens may get hooked on this sense of excitement.
Adolescents are naturally prone to thrill-seeking behavior to begin with, and youth who have voyeuristic tendencies are especially likely to se*t for the thrill and excitement it provides. Just as there are women who fantasize about being a stripper or having others watch them undress, or men who are excited by expos*ng themselves, some youth possess a sexual psychology that is aro*sed by this type of behavior.
Sexting & peer pressure
Youth can face a significant amount of peer pressure to engage in se*ting. Usually this comes from their boyfriends or girlfriends (or people they hope might become boyfriends and girlfriends), who encourage them to se*t a picture of themselves for private viewing. Peer pressure can also come from friends or same-s*x peers who encourage the habit for various reasons. Of course, not all se*ting between boyfriends and girlfriends is the result of peer pressure. Youth routinely do so of their own free volition as well.
Some kids, unfortunately, get caught up in catfishing schemes. Bullies might contact them online pretending to be an attractive boy or girl, then pressure them into sending a nude picture. Once obtained, that picture is then posted online or spread around the school as a means to humiliate the target.