By Arielle Tschinkel, INSIDER
Sexting is extremely common these days. Recent studies say 74% of American adults and 67% of international adults admit to sending or receiving explicit texts, photos, or videos, and most of them say they are in committed relationships.
But it's not just coupled-up adults that are sexting — sexting among teens has increased, with a 2018 study published in JAMA Pediatrics revealing that 14.8% and 27.4% of teens admitting to sending and receiving sexts, a number that has steadily increased since 2009, when smartphones and tablets began to gain prevalence for many people.
Even though it's common doesn't mean it's safe. Between nude celebrity photo hacks and an increasing number of victims of revenge porn, there are no foolproof ways to ensure your privacy, especially after you send an explicit photo or message to someone else's device.
INSIDER spoke with two sex therapists and several cybersecurity experts, and they told us the best ways to help practice extreme caution with sensitive images and texts.
Make sure it's consensual well before hitting 'send'
No matter how well or how long you've known your partner, you should never send an unsolicited sext — full stop. Always receive your partner's expressed consent before snapping those sexy photos or videos, as our experts explained to INSIDER.
"Sexting can be a great way to connect intimately with a partner when you are not together in the same location, when you are wanting to spice up your sex life, or when you are exploring your own sexuality or your sexuality with a new partner," said Melissa Coats, psychotherapist and owner at Coats Counseling, LLC. "Unfortunately, there are times when people take advantage of an experience that should be safe and fun. Just like it is always preferable to enact safe sex and consent practices, it is just as important to practice safe and consensual sexting."
Jessa Zimmerman, a relationship therapist and author of Sex Without Stress, agreed, adding that sexting without prior consent can cause distress or be viewed as harassment.
"Make sure the person you are contacting is a willing participant in the exchange," Zimmerman told INSIDER. "Sexting without prior consent or agreement is a form of harassment and can cause distress. It's best to be very clear in advance what each of you wants to send and receive. Share your expectations (in detail) and come to an agreement about what will be sent, how it will be sent, and how often you'd like to engage in sexting."
Practice clear communication with your partner during and after sending sexts as well
You'll both want to clearly discuss what you feel comfortable sending (i.e. text but no images, or still images but no videos) as well as what happens after you sext, like if the photos and messages should be deleted and who is allowed to view them. Your consent and communication with your partner should be as specific as possible.
"With any sexual engagement, we always want to make sure that consent is apparent at every stage of the encounter," Coats told INSIDER, just like you would with a physical relationship. "Any part of a sexual relationship, however long or short the relationship may be, requires consent."
It might seem like you don't need to enforce such strict sexting parameters, especially if you're in a long-term relationship, but experts say it's crucial in every stage of the sexual relationship you're in.
Check in with yourself before sending anything, too
It's important to adhere to your partner's comfort level, but it shouldn't be at the expense of your own.
"Although sexting can feel spontaneous and exhilarating, it is important to leave a space between feeling spontaneous and actually hitting the send button," said Coats. "There is power in taking a mindful moment. That space can help you check in with your own feelings as well as keep you safe and feeling confident in your decisions."
Zimmerman agreed. "Pressure or coercion is a red flag. Neither of you should be sexting out of a sense of obligation or if you have any hesitation," Zimmerman told INSIDER. "Sexting is safe and fun when both people choose to participate and are completely comfortable with it."
Coats added, "If you or your partner is hesitant to sext, you haven't set up clear boundaries and guidelines, or you or your partner have not been informed on how the technology you are using can work for or against you, take a pause and really think it over."
Acknowledge the risks
The harsh reality is that there is no such thing as truly safe sexting, as our cybersecurity experts told us. Rob Black, CISSP, the founder and managing principal of Fractional CISO, reminded us of the release of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' private photos and messages, which dominated headlines in early 2019.
According to Black, "There are no amount of security controls to protect a high profile person like him. For the rest of us, [there are some] ways to minimize risk. Note that to really minimize risk, you should never send anything electronically that you wouldn't want published."
Use WhatsApp for sexting instead of taking photos or videos and texts directly from your phone
All of our experts recommended using an app when sending sexts as a more secure way to create those steamy shots. And while there are lots of apps to choose from, one expert told us WhatsApp is one of the best.
"If you want to write, send pictures, videos, or voice messages to your partner, I recommend WhatsApp," said Gabe Turner, the editor of Security Baron. "It's an end-to-end encrypted messaging app that makes your messages unavailable to third parties. WhatsApp is known as one of the most trusted encrypted messaging apps, with over 1.5 billion monthly users. They won't store your messages on their servers, and your messages cannot be decrypted by anyone but the person you're speaking with. You can send up to 30 pictures or videos at a time with a size limit of 16 MB per item."
He noted one downside with WhatsApp is any photos sent will automatically save to your iPhone or Android, though you can turn this feature off in your phone's settings.
Be wary of certain public-facing apps like Snapchat and Instagram
Though Snapchat and Instagram are known for their self-destructing messages and Snapchat notifies a user when their content is being screenshotted, they aren't the best ones to use for sending explicit materials. As Cambell told INSIDER, "With apps that link you to your identity, like Instagram or Snapchat, security is often overlooked."
According to Turner, "Snapchat is the only app around that alerts a user if their message is being screen recorded or screenshot, but you can't prevent anyone from screenshotting or recording your photos, messages, or videos."
There are lots of other great apps out there, too
Several experts mentioned Telegram as a solid tool for intimate photos, texts, and videos due to its "secure, private chat feature that has several benefits," according to Jamie Cambell, a cybersecurity expert and the founder of gobestvpn.com.
He told us the benefits of Telegram include that it's end-to-end encrypted, you can set message expiration times, and anyone in the chat can delete messages for both parties. Plus, because you don't need a profile picture or real name, you can keep everything super anonymous.
Additionally, the cybersecurity and consumer privacy experts at VPNpro.com recommended Signal and Line for their "specific, secure messaging" features, which can help prevent your sexts from being leaked, hacked, or stolen.
When it comes to video sexting, try the Wire app. Skype and FaceTime might be among the most popular of the video apps, but Turner recommended sexters use Wire instead: "Like WhatsApp, Wire features end-to-end encryption, making your video calls and even file sharing completely secure."
"Unfortunately, popular messaging app Skype doesn't offer end-to-end encryption for all messages by default," added the cybersecurity and consumer privacy experts at VPNpro.com.
Meanwhile, one expert said phone sex is best done using an app called Viber.
"If you want to talk on the phone with your partner, you can use Viber, another free app with end-to-end encryption," said Turner.
Finally, the cybersecurity and consumer privacy experts at VPNpro.com also suggested the app Confide, telling us that because "Snapchat doesn't offer screenshot protection, Confide is a brilliant app that offers both self-destructing messages and screenshot protection."
Turn off services that automatically backup your photos to a cloud
Now that you've found the best apps to use, our experts point out the dangers of cloud-based sharing.
"Before you begin sexting, make sure any cloud service is turned off ... you don't want to back up these photos or videos in your regular cloud, as that makes them more vulnerable to cyberattacks," suggested Turner. "If you ever take a photo using your phone's camera, make sure to get rid of its EXIF data, which shows the approximate location you took the photo as well as other metadata. You can do this with apps like ViewExif, an iOS extension."
Make sure your phone is as secure as possible
"Now that you've got your apps downloaded, it's time to pick out a password manager," advised Turner. "Password managers remember all of your passwords for you so you can immediately login, plus, they offer two and multi-factor authentication for added security. I would add biometric authentication, like fingerprint or facial recognition, to make sure that the right person is accessing your accounts."
Turner also recommended using password managers because you can keep photos and videos in a "secure vault" that is encrypted to everyone but you. He recommended Sticky Password or Enpass because they are "headquartered in companies that aren't members of any international surveillance alliances."\
Look into using a VPN, which will hide your traffic and with it, your intimate photos, videos, and texts
"Another step you should take to secure your sexting is to use a virtual private network, or VPN," said Turner. "VPNs hide all of your web traffic and activity in an encrypted tunnel, and if the VPN fails, all of your browsers or web applications will automatically shut down."
Confirm your intended recipient before hitting 'send' … and then double and triple check
"One of the most embarrassing and scary moments my clients talk about is when they have sent a very vulnerable and intimate picture to the wrong person," said Coats. "We all make mistakes! It is part of being human. So in the heat of the moment, make sure you take a second to be mindful and double check where you are sending your picture."
"There are some helpful ways to do this," she told us. "If the name of the person you are sexting is closely related to other names in your phone, make that person's name a nickname or something clear to you that it is the correct person. Or put an emoji by that person's name so you know you are sending to the person you intended."
Minimize or eliminate identifying features in the sexts
Try to leave out your face, as well as any distinct body markings, like tattoos, which can help protect you if your sexts are ever lost, stolen, or hacked.
"Safe sexting involves protecting your identity and personal information," said Coats. "When sexting, consider what images you want to use and how much you want to reveal about your identity. Minimizing pictures with your face, or identifying marks like tattoos or body marks can help you feel safer and more confident when sexting."
Make sure the background of your sexts is equally nondescript
Before hitting 'send,' check that there is no identifying information about your location or identity, including paperwork with your name or address.
"Again, sexting can feel spontaneous and exciting. But when you feel the desire to engage with another in this way, check what is around you first," advised Coats, adding that if there's "anything you would not want everyone on the internet to know, keep it out of the picture. Leave out information such as your location, name, address, social media information, and phone number. Taking a quick pause to make sure your surroundings are nondescript can go a long way when we are talking technology and how easy it is to share information."
Zimmerman added, "For your own safety, avoid having anything in the photo that could disclose your location. If your photos are ever discovered, you'll want the peace of mind knowing you can't be located or contacted."
If something is visible that could disclose your location or identity, blur it out of the frame. Though as Turner pointed out, "you can blur certain features with a photo-editing app," but this isn't a foolproof solution, because you're then uploading your intimate content to another third-party app, which might not be secure.
Be mindful of your surroundings when sending sexual messages
"Remember to be mindful of not only your surroundings, but where you or your partner are located as well," said Coats. "Sexting from work or in public comes with a lot of risk, not only because there are other people around, but because of the vulnerability of wireless networks. If you are connected to wifi networks at work, or public wifi networks while you are out and about, you risk the potential of others being able to access your sexts."
And it's not just your location, but your partner's as well.
"Also be mindful of where your partner is when you are sending a sext, especially if they work different hours than you," said Coats. "I recommend using a code word or emoji that you can send to each other to check if they are in an appropriate place to receive a sext. If they don't reply, wait to send until they give the OK."
Add a watermark with the recipient's name, so it can help track them should your sexts ever go public
"You can customize your image for the recipient using software to add a watermark to your photos," said Zimmerman. "This allows you to identify the source of the image if it later ends up discovered or shared inappropriately."
Properly delete your sexts and prevent them from being replicated by your device
"If you want to save any content, simply move them from your phone to an encrypted hard drive and permanently delete them from your phone," said the cybersecurity and consumer privacy experts at VPNpro.com. "Apps like Secure Eraser can help ensure that deleted files will never be recovered from your phone."
You'll also want to "turn off all replication for your photos," said Black. He explained, "On the iPhone this includes automatically uploading them, using "My Photo Stream" and "Transfer to Mac or PC" features. These can be found in Settings > Passwords & Accounts > iCloud > Photos. On an Android phone, you need to turn off the analogous services." He advised having your sexting partner do the same.
Consider purchasing a separate device solely for sending sexts
It might sound a bit extreme, but it's a safer bet, according to Black.
"If you are serious about safe sexting, consider purchasing a set of phones exclusively for this purpose. That may not be practical but could increase the safety of the exchange."