When Stanford University student Reggie Brown told his classmate in 2011 that he wanted photos he’d sent to a girl to disappear, he uttered aloud a thought that had crossed the minds of countless others. But this time, his assertion would lead to the creation of an app that would change the nature of photo messaging and — crucially — sexting, forever. That app became Snapchat.
Snapchat’s launch has taken sexting — the consensual act of sharing intimate photos — from a stigmatised and seedy activity, to a mainstream and widely-accepted practice. The company has grown significantly since those early dorm-room days — and will soon be a massive public company — thanks in part to its legacy in the world of sexting.
The sexting game
Before Snapchat launched in September 2011, sexting was very different.
The exchange of erotic imagery isn’t a phenomenon that’s unique to the 21st century. Paleolithic cave paintings depicting human sex acts are some of the first known examples of erotic imagery, but only when the mass adoption of smartphones happened in the late 2000s did the sexting game really heat up.
Using cameraphones, sexters could send explicit images via MMS. But the age-old problem persisted. Photos, once sent, were permanently outside the sender’s control and impossible to delete.
At the time of Snapchat’s launch, the app’s ephemeral nature presented a much-desired solution for people wanting to get their kicks by sending sexually explicit photos that would disappear in a matter of seconds.
Gone — it seemed — were the worries about what would happen to your naked selfie once your relationship ended. Your Snapchat sext would evaporate into the ether, and if your relationships met the same fate, your trail of naked selfies would be of little concern to you.
Despite its reputation, Snapchat was not — and never set out to be — a sexting app. And, it was by no means devoid of consequences or safety issues. This honeymoon period of consequence-free sexting ended when third-party apps like Snapchat Hack came onto the scene, circumventing Snapchat’s protection and allowing users to share images sent via the app.
Sexting goes mainstream
Blaise Grimes-Viort, a social media expert at the agency The Social Element says that Snapchat has had a colossal impact on the normalisation of sexting; a direct result of the sense of security afforded by the auto-deletion of images. Sex and relationships YouTuber Hannah Witton believes Snapchat’s perceived “low risk factor” gives people the courage to experiment with sexting on the condition you have “a mutual agreement not to screenshot.”
“Sexting on Snapchat is so normalised that if you tell your mate that you were sending some cheeky nudes back and forth the other night on Snapchat, it’s unlikely they’re going to judge you,” says Witton.
The stats show that sexting has become commonplace. In the UK, 42 percent of 18-24 year olds have sexted, and 13 percent have sent intimate photos to total strangers, according to Intel Security.
A risk for teens
The normalisation of sexting is a double-edged sword. For consenting adults, removing the stigma and judgement around sexual expression is a positive thing. But for younger people, it poses a risk. That risk is augmented by the fact that almost a quarter of Snapchat users are still in high school.
Sexting is “dangerous” for young people, particularly when it comes to the possibility of revenge porn, according to the NSPCC.
“Snapchat deletes images once they have been viewed but users of the app can screenshot images to keep for later,” a spokesperson said.
“The risk is always there that the no-saving, no-sharing rules will not be respected, that a loving partner may not remain that way, and that a friendly stranger may not be what they seem,” says social media expert Grimes-Viort.
The state of sexting today
For millennials, Snapchat is almost entirely synonymous with sexting. According to Match.com data, millennials are 290 percent more likely than Gen Xers to use Snapchat for sexual reasons.
This normalisation of sexting on Snapchat has led to a whole host of not-so-great consequences. On Reddit, there are myriad threads by users who’ve found out their partners are sending sexy snaps to former lovers. Others joining these threads post that they’re overcome with worry that their partners might be engaged in Snapchat sexting.
While infidelity and the fear thereof are unpleasant side-effects of the Snapchat sexting phenomenon, there are also some more sinister consequences. There are sites dedicated to the non-consensual sharing of screenshotted images and — according to Grimes-Viort — there is an “underbelly” on the internet dedicated to sharing the usernames of Snapchat users who are active on the app and “willing to sext with strangers”.
The use of third-party apps to retrieve Snaps that have disappeared also carries a massive risk. In 2014, 98,000 hacked Snapchat photos and videos were reportedly posted online. At the time, Snapchat was keen to point out that its servers hadn’t been hacked, but the prevalence of third-party apps means that intimate photos and videos can easily fall into the wrong hands if these apps are hacked.
Snapchatters were victimized by their use of third-party apps to send and receive Snaps, a practice that we expressly prohibit in our ToU.
— Snapchat (@Snapchat) October 10, 2014
Snapchat’s sexting culture has also created a pressure for young people to participate in sexting. Six out of 10 teens say they’ve been asked for sexual images or videos, according to an NSPCC survey. And, a 2015 study by the University of Indiana found that one fifth of university undergraduates had engaged in sexting when they didn’t want to.
The question remains: Should we be thanking Snapchat, or blaming it?