Lifestyle

How to have safe sex online, according to the experts

Before you sext, consider these tips.

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Social distancing has shifted many of the things we used to do in-person—working, doctor’s appointments, even celebrating holidays—to virtual settings, and it’s had the same impact on dating. Since the pandemic began, dating apps have exploded in popularity, with companies like Match Group—which owns 60% of the market, including Tinder, Hinge, and OKCupid—reporting major surges in subscriptions and user engagement. As more folks turn to Zoom, FaceTime, and other video platforms to get to know would-be partners, online sex—which can include sexting, swapping nude photos, and mutual masturbation over video—has become an increasingly common way for people to get close, even when they’re staying apart.

While technology has opened up our options like never before, apps and online tools can pose a number of risks. Revenge porn (when a partner publicly shares intimate photos or videos meant for their eyes only) and doxing (when private details like your address or workplace are publicly shared online, typically as a form of harrassment) are the biggest threats, say leading sex educators and cybersecurity specialists. And the consequences can be dire, potentially resulting in job loss, divorce, identity theft, and long-term reputational damage, all of which is worse if you’re using platforms to engage in any kind of online infidelity (which this guide is not intended to help you do, FYI).

It’s all scary to think about, because nothing shared virtually is risk-free, no matter how careful you are. But experts believe that by assembling an online sexual health toolkit—as in, a series of best practices designed to safeguard your privacy and mitigate potential data breaches—you can keep your most sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands and still have a great time. Here are the most important steps to help you practice safer sex online.

1. Choose partners you trust

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A 2017 study found that 65% of Americans are most likely to send steamy messages over text.

People like to sext, a lot. According to a 2017 study, 74% of Americans have engaged in some kind of erotic communication and photo exchange before, with 65% most likely to do it via SMS, or basic text messaging.

While the lion's share of cyber sexual activity is all in good fun, the potential risks are real. A 2019 survey found that one in 12 (8%) women in the U.S. have been victims of nonconsensual image and video sharing (i.e., revenge porn), while a 2016 study determined that one in 25 Americans (4%) have been threatened with revenge porn. Both underscore the most potentially damaging hazards involved in exchanging intimate material with another person: that it’ll end up being seen by someone it shouldn’t be.

“The most common source for a data leak is the person you sent it to puts it on the internet,” said Adam Jackson, founder and CEO of 360 Privacy, which provides management solutions for online security and data protection. “So the most important thing is to truly know and trust the person you’re exchanging things with.”

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Another smart first step is to do a Google search of your prospective partner’s name, especially if you’ve never met in real life (a measure of trust to begin with, as you’ll have to ask for their full name and likely share your own in kind). It might seem basic, but according to Jackson, confirming little things like whether or not someone’s photos sync up to their name can be a straightforward yet reassuring way to feel confident about what you’re doing with the other person. Bottom line? If you don’t fully trust someone, don’t send them anything that you’re not okay with the world seeing, says Jackson, because otherwise, there’s “a pretty decent chance the world is going to see it.”

2. Don’t trust “disappearing” messages or so-called screenshot blockers

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Experts say so-called "screenshot blockers" give users a false sense of security.

When you don’t want to leave a trace of your activity behind, messaging apps like Whatsapp, Snapchat, Telegram, and even Instagram all offer self-destructing texts and images, which can seem ideal for retaining a level of privacy. With this functionality, the content disappears once it’s been seen and read, and some of the apps (excluding Instagram) also offer built-in alerts, so you’re supposed to know immediately if someone on the other side is taking screenshots.

On the surface, these extra features may help you feel safer and more inconspicuous. But not so fast, say experts. While features like these can certainly provide some users with peace of mind, the fact is, there’s no foolproof way to block screenshots or recordings entirely. The reason? “It’s always possible to use a second device to take a picture or video of the screen,” says Sarah Melancon, Ph.D, a sociologist and clinical sexologist. Rob Shavell, co-founder and CEO of Abine, a subscription service that removes personal information from public online databases and search websites, agrees: “There are platforms that enable these kinds of notifications for the average user, but the problem always is, if you’re exchanging digital content, someone can always record it on the other end with a separate device, and these platforms can’t solve that.” Not to mention, getting a notification that a screenshot was taken doesn’t allow you to do anything to delete it.

In Shavell’s opinion, that’s precisely the danger of so-called “screenshot blockers,” as it gives average users a “false sense of total security.” But in reality, there aren’t any one-stop solutions. Although there are measures like scrubbing EXIF data and not showing your face in photos that can help conceal your identity, there’s no guaranteed way to know for sure that everything you’ve sent hasn’t been captured somehow on the other side. It’s part of the risk you’re taking, and another reason why it’s crucial to trust your partner.

3. Stick to Signal or other secure apps

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Secure messaging apps offering end-to-end encryption can prevent hackers from intercepting texts.

Using a messaging app that has end-to-end encryption is a way to keep your sexts and nude images safe because whatever content you’re sending is encoded, so hackers are less likely to be able to intercept it. And while it might seem really complicated to the average person, there are several free messaging apps out now that’ll take all the guesswork out of things.

Signal is the go-to app that most experts swear by for secure communication, including text, image exchange, and video (in fact, it’s so secure that even Edward Snowden uses it). “Signal is used at very high levels and has been validated by the U.S. government for certain applications,” said Jackson. “It’s a known good.”

Shavell also points out that because it’s independent (meaning it isn’t owned by Facebook), Signal circumvents one of the major dangers inherent to any kind of online activity, which is the ease with which sensitive personal data may be shared across networks. “We get lazy about the technologies we use from a single provider,” Shavell noted. “The data sharing that happens between these large networks that we don’t see is potentially a big problem.”

Beyond Signal, other apps offering end-to-end encryption on texts, images, and videos include Threema, Telegram, and WhatsApp. You can configure WhatsApp and other messaging platforms to send messages via web data or cellular networks, says Shavell, and then use a VPN for an additional layer of security. But keep in mind that like Instagram (which does not offer end-to-end encryption on images or texts), WhatsApp is owned by Facebook and even though messages are encrypted, the company will hand over all kinds of data if subpoenaed, whereas Signal keeps minimal user logs, which is another reason why it's lauded by cybersecurity experts, whistleblowers, and journalists alike.

4. Use a VPN

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VPNs safeguard your personal information by concealing your IP address and creating a secure tunnel for browsing.

No one wants their name, banking information, or other sensitive data to end up on the Dark Web, but some people might feel that safeguarding personally identifiable information online requires too many steps or tech savvy to bother with. “There’s always going to be a tension between ‘easy to use’ and ‘super safe,’” says Shavell. “People want the most security, but they also want a service that’s quick and easy to use.”

Security experts agree that a virtual private network (VPN) can be a great line of defense. Designed to conceal IP addresses and act as a secure tunnel for browsing, email, and other basic online activity, VPNs can be terrific for everything from shopping online to having a virtual throwdown with a partner. But some may be better suited to the latter task than others, as some platforms may hold onto personal data but others won’t, which is why it’s important to read through terms of service before using any platform. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that VPNs protect activity over data and WiFi, not over cellular networks, so things like text messages or images sent to a phone number via SMS/MMS are not covered by a VPN.

Once properly configured, any of the best VPNs—like our top pick, ExpressVPN—could work well for the average person, says Shavell. You just have to make sure the VPN will work on your devices. Another effective option that’s easy to navigate, according to Jackson, is Private Internet Access (PIA). “It’s an app that you can download to a phone or your computer and all you have to do is pick where you want to share your connection from and that’s it. There’s no other configuration.”

5. Protect your passwords—and skip Incognito mode

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Tools like LastPass can help you keep track of passwords and stay more secure.

Even with a VPN in place, your internet history and passwords may still be accessible to would-be snoops who have access to your physical devices. Browsing through Incognito mode may seem like it offers more privacy, but experts say it isn’t enough. “All Incognito mode really does is stop anyone who has access to your computer from looking at your search history,” said Jackson, and while it provides some tracking protection, he claims that it’s overall helpfulness is negligible. According to Shavell, you may want to use a separate internet browser altogether and try an ad blocker—that way you’re not leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs behind for some enterprising hacker to observe all your surfing and search activity.

When it comes to secure online browsing, having a complex password that isn’t easily guessable can make a world of difference. “Saving passwords or credit card numbers in your browser is a terrible practice,” Jackson noted, but password manager tools like LastPass can help you keep track of all your passwords across multiple devices and avoid falling into the trap of having to change your password every time you forget. It may not seem like much, but it could serve as a huge deterrent for anyone who may be trying to snoop into your private life without consent.

6. Cover your tattoos—and any other identifying features

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Tattoos and other clearly identifying features can be used to trace images back to you.

Your IP address isn’t the only thing that can give you away—taking steamy snapshots that show your face or distinct body markings clearly visible can make those images easy to trace back to you. “If you have super-identifiable tattoos, piercings, birthmarks, rainbow colored-hair, anything like that, be creative with your angles or use blurring tools on the images,” says Melancon.

Another thing to be mindful of is your environment. Most experts recommend that you avoid posing in front of home decorations, personal items, and other unique objects, as these can be used to link photos to your real identity. Instead, consider using a nondescript or virtual background when you’re taking nude selfies. “We take our environments for granted without really thinking about it,” added Melancon, which is why it’s so important to be careful. “It’d almost be worse to think you’re being safe and then have something leaked and wonder how that happened.”

7. Scrub metadata from photos

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EXIF data can reveal the date, time, and geographic location of the original picture, so it's a good idea to scrub it.

Before hitting “send” on a sexy photo, you may want to consider how much information that image is actually divulging to your receiver. Exchangeable Image File Format (EXIF) data is additional data that’s stored within the photo itself, including the date, time, and geographic location of the original snapshot.

This metadata is ever-present in your images unless you take steps to remove it, and according to experts, there are a couple ways to do so. One of the easiest, Jackson noted, is to adjust the settings in your phone. “You can turn off certain metadata on iPhones and Androids and keep it from being attached to a picture,” he said. To start, head to your phone’s settings and turn off location tracking. Depending on your phone, this process may involve a few different steps, but it can be an effective way to eliminate some revealing details.

However, this method doesn’t entirely get rid of all EXIF data. For that, Shavell recommends apps like NoEXIF for iOS and Photo EXIF Editor for Android, as they’re designed to remove all identifying EXIF data and also may help blur or distort parts of an image. “There’s an insane amount of information that people can correlate from that longitudinal and latitudinal data,” said Shavell, and in the wrong hands, it could be very harmful. For that reason, he considers EXIF scrubbers a best practice for any online sexual health toolkit.

8. Pick the right video platform

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Zoom isn't the only video platform in town—Signal and FaceTime can be great alternatives.

We rely on Zoom for so much these days—conferences with coworkers, hangouts with friends, and so forth—but is it safe for video sex? According to experts, it depends, especially if you account for Zoombombing, wherein uninvited attendees are able to hop into and potentially disrupt an intimate meeting. Melancon recommends avoiding it, while Jackson’s feelings are mixed. “I think the security risks associated with Zoom were real,” he said. “But they were amplified by some heavy marketing tactics by competitors.”

Technically speaking, Zoom prohibits obscene activities, which can include virtual sex (and notably, virtual orgies). But other video services, like FaceTime, could be a worthwhile conduit if you’re eager to take things to the next level with a partner whom you already feel comfortable sharing your phone number with. Melancon noted that FaceTime offers end-to-end encryption (iMessages, however, does not and retains metadata, so be careful). Aside from FaceTime, Jackson and Melancon recommend using Signal for video sex, as the app offers a secure video-chat functionality that is every bit as protected as its messaging counterpart.

9. Stay private—but beware of catfishing

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Catfishing might have been popularized thanks to a 2010 documentary, but there's nothing glam about it.

For some people, online dating is alluring because it offers a degree of anonymity, and tools like VPNs, Signal, and ad blockers can help maintain that. But experts agree that total online invisibility is unlikely—the best you can expect is to create separation between your real life and your internet activity.

But what do you do if you’re on the receiving end of it and a prospective partner seems cagey about their own private lives or background? Catfishing—wherein someone creates a fake identity online and uses it to lure others into romantic relationships—is a widespread phenomenon that can be extremely dangerous, especially if you’re looking to meet up at some point face-to-face. “If you're talking to someone online regularly and they're unwilling to video chat, that's a huge sign [that you may be getting catfished],” says Melancon.

Other big red flags might relate to the person themselves. Do they have an otherworldly, model-level degree of attractiveness? Are they claiming that they’re extremely wealthy or even famous, yet have asked for money or access to any of your direct accounts? Are they trying to push the relationship very quickly yet are hesitant to jump on the phone or engage in any type of direct communication? If the answer is yes, it could be a sign that the person you’re connecting with isn’t exactly who they seem. “Trust your gut if you're feeling uncomfortable or that something is off,” adds Melancon.

Worried you might be getting catfished? A reverse-image search can help you determine if a person’s photos have been used elsewhere online. In addition to using Google, Melancon recommends TinEye.com, but as always, be sure to look into terms and conditions before using any service.

10. Save everything securely—and avoid the cloud

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An external hard drive or USB stick that’s not directly connected to the internet is a safe way to save steamy content.

So what if you’re the person on the receiving end of all this sultry content? While most folks may opt to delete everything ASAP, experts say that wanting to hold onto erotic correspondence even long after the fact is pretty common, too. “In some ways, they’re our modern-day love letters, so of course you might want to save everything to remember it all and enjoy it again,” said Melancon.

But given their provocative nature, sexts and nude images should be handled with care. Even if you’re in an established relationship, you should never just assume that you have permission to hold onto someone else’s nudes or other explicit material, says Melancon. This is especially true if you’ve broken up and are no longer involved with that person—unless expressly given consent, don’t keep dick pics of your ex.

If you are trying to save content, experts caution against relying on DropBox or the cloud. “There’s no such thing as a totally secure cloud,” said Jackson. “It’s the single most common way that we have seen stuff like this move outside of the intended receiver.”

Instead, educators agree that an external hard drive or USB stick that’s not directly connected to the internet are the safest ways to go. Both Shavell and Jackson recommend using encrypted, password-based storage, with a password longer than 12 characters. That’s not fool-proof, Jackson adds, but “it’s going to take a real hacker to get to that versus a person who can just guess your password.” According to Shavell, apps like Keepsafe Photo Vault, SecureSafe, and Vaulty may also come in handy if you’re looking for a safe way to stash things on your phone.

11. Set boundaries and expectations

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A 2019 study found that people have online sex for all kinds of reasons, like relieving anxiety.

A 2019 study concluded that people exchange steamy content with one another for all kinds of reasons that aren’t overtly sexual, from gaining personal affirmation to relieving anxiety to feeling a greater sense of closeness with a partner.

It all comes down to what you’re looking for and most of all, where your boundaries lie. “The safe sex talk isn’t the most fun, but you gotta have it,” says Melancon. “It’s the same thing with online sex—it’s all about risk management.”

Before you start sexting or doing anything intimate online, get consent, then try to figure out what it is you really want. According to Melancon, this will help you build better communication and set the appropriate expectations with a partner about what’s okay and what isn’t. “It’s important to think about what the risks are before you do anything and what you’re willing to put on the line.”

That said, it’s not all doom and gloom—in some ways, getting sensual in ways that don’t involve direct touch can be an opportunity to tap into a whole new sexual persona, even if it only exists in erotica. “[Good online sex] can start by having a goal in mind for what you want to accomplish together,” says Davia Frost, a certified sex coach and sex educator. “You can still soul-gaze through the phone and feel the energy of the other person. The number-one key for everybody is to stay safe.”

12. Know your rights

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If you think you've been the victim of revenge porn, it's important to understand that you have rights.

If you can talk to someone about what you’d like them to do to your body, you should be able to talk to them about consent, especially as it relates to what happens to your nudes and chats after you’ve both enjoyed yourselves.

Porn consumption has proliferated during quarantine—a 2020 study showed more Americans now search for porn online than than prior to the pandemic, and sites like OnlyFans, a pay-per-view subscription platform frequently used to distribute amateur adult content, have seen record growth. Yet, the danger of nonconsensual image and video sharing is always present and important to keep in mind. “Revenge porn is obviously illegal these days, but it doesn’t matter if it’s illegal, because if someone wants to do it, they will, and you’re still going to deal with the embarrassment and shame and other potentially negative consequences,” said Melancon.

Given how widespread the problem is, educating yourself about revenge porn laws in your state can help you feel more empowered. It’s also never a bad idea to take online security seriously, so whether it’s downloading a VPN or keeping your face and other distinguishing features out of the photo frame, taking a few extra precautions up front could save you a lifetime of grief and frustration. That said, unless you skip virtual sex altogether, there’s no way to completely safeguard against all the potential hazards online. “You’re still always taking a risk,” said Jackson. “There are ways to mitigate that risk, but you can’t eliminate it entirely, so you have to decide for yourself if the risk is worth the reward.”

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