Altered reputation

When Elizabeth Benzi began stripping in front of her webcam, she thought she was in control. She thought the only person that could see the video of her getting completely naked was her boyfriend—but she was wrong. When Elizabeth sat in her family’s computer room, stripping live for her boyfriend, she never expected that the video would be permanently recorded.

In 2007, Elizabeth logged in to Yahoo Instant Messenger, a service that allows the user to instant message with contacts they add to their buddy list. At that time, contacts could join chats without permission: something that Elizabeth wasn’t aware of. She thought that she was in a private chat with her boyfriend, but her friend had joined the chat group without Elizabeth’s knowledge.

Over the years, sexting, or sharing electronic sexual content, has become a part of dating. Whether it’s sharing videos, texts, or pictures there is always the possibility of that content being shared with an unintended audience. When sexts are shared, there can be real consequences that hurt real people.

Michelle Drouin is an online relationship and sexting expert and professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. When she asks young people why they send sexy photos or videos to a romantic interest, they say that they sext to have fun or to be flirtatious. Sometimes, Drouin said, it serves as a prelude to sex and other times it’s to express affection for their partner.

According to Pew Research Center, 10 percent of teens ages 13-17 have sent “sexy videos” of themselves to a romantic interest. At the time, Elizabeth was 14 years old and her boyfriend was 17. She stripped completely naked, thinking that she could trust her boyfriend. She never thought that someone else might see it, and definitely didn’t know that it would be recorded.

She never imagined that her entire school might see an action that was meant to be intimate. But that’s exactly what ended up happening.

The halls were buzzing with comments and jokes when Elizabeth got to school the next morning. As soon as she walked into the building, people were approaching her and talking to her about the video. She realized that it had not only been recorded, but had been shared with all of her friends. As she made her way to class, she heard multiple jokes being made about her pubic hair such as people joking about her having a “bush.” It got worse when Elizabeth was called to the high school counselor’s office. The counselor had even seen the video herself. It seemed like everyone had seen it.

This kind of content can spread very quickly, especially when attitudes about sharing sexts are rather lenient. A study published in Sexual Health found that when people are sent sexual content, one out of four people will share it with their peers. In the same study, 73 percent of people would be upset if their sexts were shared; however, 23 percent of them said they themselves had shared sexts they received with at least three other people. If someone at Elizabeth’s school saw the video, shared it with three people, then that person shared it with three people, and so on, it would spread very fast.

Elizabeth experienced this firsthand. Within twenty-four hours, nearly everyone at school had seen her naked.

Approximately 20 percent of all adolescents report having sexted a nude or semi-nude photo of themselves and the majority of teens have sent raunchy photos to be perceived as exciting and desirable, according to a recent study published in New Directions for Child & Adolescent Development.

Sexting is easy. 92 percent of teens use mobile devices to go online. The ability to snap a picture or send a video is accessible to the wide majority of teens, and takes only seconds to send. Drouin said that most young adults know in the back of their mind that the sexts they send might get shared and are worried about that possibility. For most people, it comes down to trust. Young adults that are in committed relationships worry less about their partner sharing their sexts, and young adults in casual relationships are more nervous about their content being leaked.

Although young adults want to be seen as flirty for sending the sexts, Drouin says there’s still judgement surrounding sexting. Sometimes it hints that the person sending photos or videos is not relationship material. According to Drouin, sexting can absolutely hurt one’s reputation, especially if they are a woman; the stereotypes and gender norms surrounding women create a bigger stigma around them sexting.

However, Drouin does emphasize that there is pressure on both sides to send sexts. Men in society are generally viewed as having to be sexual and desirable, she says. Because of this, men may often send and receive sexts even if they don’t particularly want to. Instead, obtaining sexual photos and videos is a way to have proof that they are sexual and, therefore, are meeting society’s standards of being a man.

Elizabeth’s friend did not face any consequences for sharing the video because no adults at the time were told it was him, and Elizabeth didn’t tell on him. Elizabeth chose to stay friends with him, calling him a “douche” and laughing it off.

Although Elizabeth’s situation ended amicably, the consequences for her friend could have been much more dire if Elizabeth had pressed charges, which she had every right to do. In an analysis of two instances where teenagers who shared sexts faced child pornography charges, the Little Rock University Law Review reports that legal consequences for sexting can vary. The laws are different in each state, but can be as severe as felony charges for child pornography- a charge that would result in registering as a sex offender. This kind of record would affect things like college acceptance and day to day life for years. Having this happen as a teen would be life-altering.

Some states have recognized this and submitted legislation to be less damaging for teens, however Arkansas, where Elizabeth lived at the time, is not one of those states. If Elizabeth had pursued legal action, her friend could have be prosecuted for a class-B felony and been made to register as a sex offender, a reputation that would follow him for the rest of his life. When the incident occurred, Elizabeth said they everyone involved was underage, so she didn’t view it as child pornography, even though by law it was. However, she does not condone the sharing of pictures of people that are underage.

Although there are legal consequences that can happen from sexting, there are also psychological implications. Women, Drouin says, often feel pressured by society to be sexually appealing. At the same time they are also expected to be “pure.” Drouin says it’s a conflicting message and one that factors into the reputation that can be conceived from sexting. Elizabeth says that the video gave her a “bad girl” reputation. In high school, she felt that she was already known for being promiscuous, so the video just reinforced that.

Instead of breaking down, Elizabeth gathered herself up and put on a brave face during this time. She was surprised and upset, but she knew that the bigger deal she made out of it, the longer people would keep talking about it. Although it changed the way people saw her, she decided she would not be viewed as a victim. Instead, she used the situation to help her “bad girl” reputation.

Later that year, Elizabeth moved back to Arizona with her family. She took this as an opportunity to start again with a clean slate. She ended up joining theater and science club and made new friends. She was dubbed with a new reputation she actually liked: nerd.

Elizabeth says she has not let the incident change how she lives her life or uses social media. She is unashamed of nudity and if a sext of her was leaked today, she says she would be confident about it. Even though her situation was manageable, she does not recommend that teens share sexually explicit content, especially if they are underage.

Elizabeth is now twenty-four, and she says that she looks back at the whole experience with humor. For anyone who’s going through a similar situation, she says only this: laugh it off. She says to treat the people making fun of you as if they are the immature ones, because they are. Sitting in her room surrounded by books, her eyes bright behind winged glasses, she shrugs. Some things, she says, you just gotta let slide.