Study Finds Girls Under Pressure to Sext

Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS

An alarming new study from Northwestern University has found that teen girls are under increasing pressure to send nude photos with two-thirds of the girls surveyed saying the request was made in exchange for affection.

The Daily Mail is reporting on the study, conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, which found that sexting or sending nude or semi-nude sexually suggestive images or messages is experienced by an estimated 15 to 25 percent of teens today.

The research, led by Sara Thomas, who is pursuing a doctorate in human development and social policy, explored the challenges teens face while debating whether or not to send image and the problems that ensue when they decide to do so.

What she found was that even though teenage girls know the potential risks and are disinclined to do it, they continue to share the images anyway.

“They struggle to say no,” Thomas said.

Only eight percent of the respondents had a desire to send the images, but said they felt compelled to do so either to please or to prevent negative consequences from the boy demanding the photo.

After analyzing 462 self-reported stories posted to the anonymous online platform,, a site dedicated to stopping the spread of sexual abuse in the form of sexting and cyberbullying, Thomas found that teens who were asked to send the photos felt “overwhelmed, confused, tired, bombarded” and trapped between the conflicting pressure of saying both yes and no, Northwestern reports.

“Young women were concerned about the repercussions of sending pictures, but those worries were overshadowed by more immediate day-to-day pressures, such as wanting the relationship, promises of love and trustworthiness, persistent requests, anger, harassment and threats.”

None of the young women reported feeling any benefit from sending the photos and said doing so brought on feelings of negative self-esteem and made them afraid of how the photos would be distributed.

However, refusal is not an attractive option for most girls. The report found only 12 accounts where girls received no backlash after refusing a boy’s request for the photos with many reporting harassment and threats after refusing to send the pictures.

This is why, for most girls, the biggest question in their mind when faced with such a request is “what should I do?” They are reluctant to seek help from adults because they are embarrassed or fear how the adult will respond, or worry about legal consequences.

For example, in some states, distributing nude photos of underage girls is considered child pornography and is a felony punishable with up to 10 years in jail depending on the situation.


The consequences of sending the photos are equally dire. Almost half of the stories from teens (40%) told of the consequences they endured after sending the photos, such as mass distribution to others, rumor spreading, parental reaction and emotional distress.

“A guy sent a naked picture of me to the whole school including the principal and my parents then everyone who got it sent it their phonebooks which resulted in about 300 plus people having my naked body on their phones,” one girl wrote.

“I sent my boyfriend a naked pic after he insisted and was going to break up with me,” wrote another. “Now he is threatening to send it to everyone if I don’t have sex with him, I’m only 15.”

Sadly, researchers found that the girls tended to believe the situation was their problem and not a problem with the boy.

“Young women’s language suggested that they did not problematize boys’ coercive and threatening behavior. Young men were not criticized or denounced for sharing young women’s (presumably) consensually shared bodies without their consent,” Thomas said in the study.

This cultural trend is very problematic for young girls because research has found that sexting is associated with increased risk of ostracism, depression, and even suicide.

Because of the prevalence of this problem, our Young Women of Grace study includes discussion starters that encourage girls to speak up about how they might be pressured by boys to engage in behavior they find offensive.

In my classes, we play a game called Stay-Talk-Walk in which girls pick dating scenarios out of a hat, such as “my boyfriend criticizes the way I look,” or “my boyfriend sometimes plays rough and hurts me,” or “my boyfriend always respects my opinion.” The girls must then explain how they would handle the situation either by staying with the boy, talking it over with him, or walking away from the relationship. The game is a lot of fun, but it’s also a good way to teach girls how to recognize abusive behavior when they see it.

The groups, which are usually held after school or in parish youth groups, provide something even more valuable – peer support from other God-fearing teens – which is invaluable to girls of that age.

The researchers involved in the Northwestern study are suggesting stronger legal action for boys who coerce girls into sending pictures and finding ways to teach our daughters how to negotiate these situations in a way that will not result in them feeling forced to compromise their dignity.

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