Photo: Mickes fotosida/Mostphotos

Dick pics and nudes part of young people’s lives


Both girls and boys are subjected to digital sexual harassment from schoolmates in the form of unwanted nude images and sexual videos. A new thesis shows that young people often lack strategies to protect themselves, and that this can lead to shame, bullying and mental health problems. However, some young people find ways to resist.

Porträtt på Kristina Hunehäll Berndtsson.
Kristina Hunehäll Berndtsson.

“Schoolchildren describe receiving unwanted nude images as a relatively common phenomenon that affects their everyday social relationships at school,” says Kristina Hunehäll Berndtsson. “Previous research has mainly focused on the vulnerability of girls. But this thesis shows that boys are also vulnerable.”

Kristina investigated students’ experiences of digital sexual harassment by interviewing around 80 year 9 students at three schools located in different geographic and socio-economic areas. Students described examples such as photos and videos that were shared with consent being passed on to others, being tricked or threatened into sending photos that are then circulated, and receiving unsolicited ‘dick pics’ and ‘nudes’.

“Young people tend to lack strategies for dealing with digital sexual harassment. It’s a sensitive subject that’s hard to talk about. Some don’t even talk to their closest friends about it. There’s a risk of rumours spreading if it gets out. And they don’t talk to adults about it, either. They don’t think that adults know about the phenomenon.

“What’s more, many young people don’t understand that this is sexual harassment. They think that sexual harassment is a physical thing.”

Boys find it harder to talk about it

Girls were more likely to be victims than boys. But boys also received unwanted dick pics and unwanted nude images from girls, and were tricked into sending private photos or videos that were then circulated.

“They described being shocked, uncomfortable and not knowing how to deal with it. But at the same time, they also found it difficult to see themselves as victims. This meant that they found it harder to put their experiences into words than girls did. Girls were generally able to talk about their vulnerability in a very different way to boys, and to describe these experiences in terms of patriarchal structures.

“This reflects the public debate about sexual harassment. We talk about the vulnerability of girls, but not about the vulnerability of boys.”

The study found that vulnerable students were affected in different ways. They became angry, sad and offended, and in one case it marked the beginning of bullying. A newly arrived boy was tricked by a girl and her friends into sending a private video clip which was then shared among his classmates, resulting in him being ostracised and bullied. This example shows how boys can be seen as the perpetrators of sexual harassment while girls are seen as victims, even when the situation is reversed.

Differences between different schools

The study was conducted at schools in different parts of the country, and in socio-economically homogeneous locations. There turned out to be relatively large differences in the way students at the different schools talked about and dealt with digital sexual harassment.

At a rural school in central Sweden with pupils who were mainly from working-class families, there was a culture among some boys of sending dick pics to girls, often with the aim of getting nude photos in return. They could also nag or threaten girls to send nude photos, which they then showed to other boys to gain higher status. In addition, there were examples of vulnerable girls being humiliated and subjected to so-called slut shaming. Generally speaking, girls felt that they could not speak out.

At a school on the outskirts of a town in northern Sweden with mainly middle-class pupils, the boys – at least publicly – distanced themselves from unwanted nude images and were afraid of being labelled as perpetrators, despite the practice occurring at the school. At a school in southern Sweden with students from upper-middle-class homes, the girls banded together when a case of digital sexual harassment came to light.

“They agreed not to talk to the perpetrator. It was a kind of collective resistance. But it was done quietly. This can be understood in relation to how class and gender norms influence students’ acts of resistance, and which such acts are possible within their local school culture.”

Local school culture is crucial

However, Kristina is unwilling to draw any general conclusions based on these differences.

“It’s impossible to say how significant class or geographic area are after so few studies. But it’s clear that there are differences within different school cultures. The local school culture influences how young people’s sexting practices are expressed and the extent to which young people dare to distance themselves from and protest against sexual victimisation at school.”

Text: Carl-Magnus Höglund


Kristina Hunehäll Berndtsson will defend her doctoral thesis on Friday 18 March, titled Digital sexual harassment at school: Student perspective on sexting, vulnerability and gender equality.
The thesis is part of – and written within the framework of – the Forte-funded research project Youth, vulnerability and school. Students’ perspectives on violence, harassment and violations.