Why ‘Sexting’ Is Appealing to People
In the digital age we live in, exchanging sexually loaded messages — from flirty texts to racy images to sexually explicit videos — has become entrenched in our cultural zeitgeist. With sexting finding its place in varying relationship dynamics, the desire to translate intimacy virtually feels intuitive. A 2013 study found that 80% of the participants had received sexually suggestive texts, while 67% reported sending them. In terms of racy pictures, 64% reported sending them while 46% reported receiving them.
What’s interesting is how a seemingly new concept captured our fantasies and came to be embedded in the sex lives of many people — almost overnight. The psychological dynamics of what makes one desire intimacy virtually are fluid and layered.
What makes sexting appealing is the fact that unlike porn — which for many serves as a substitute for the “real deal” — basically, the act of physically engaging in intercourse — it is more personal. It’s almost as if one was consuming erotic content tailored to their wildest fantasies. Sexting is “crafted for you by someone you know. I think the draw is [the] customization of sexual communication,” Michelle Drouin, a behavioral scientist, explained.
Drouin also adds that sexting has assumed a position akin to the “first base” in relationships. “…people who are in uncommitted sexual relationships — who are just discovering each other — might use sexting as a way to express their passion, express lust, to spur sexual interaction.” Sexting then acquires a vulnerability unfound in other sexual relationships.
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According to experts, the neurochemical ripples sexting creates in the human brain may also have something to do with its unwavering popularity. Sexting ignites dopamine, the “happy hormone,” and oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” in the human brain — essentially inducing feelings we love, and perhaps, even crave. The body can feel all these emotions without a change in geography or setting.
Joseph Currin, a psychologist and assistant professor of counseling psychology at Texas Tech University (TTU), with co-author Kassidy Cox, who is pursuing a Ph.D. at TTU, was involved in research that explored the different motivations behind texting. Sending flirty messages as foreplay; using the text as a means to reassure themselves of their partner’s interest in them; doing it as a favor to their partners expecting it to be returned in non-sexual ways like date nights — people sext for an assortment of reasons. Having gathered data on sexting behaviors from individuals aged 18 to 69, they concluded that almost the same number of people were motivated by each of the different factors.
“It was intriguing that two-thirds of the individuals who engaged in sexting did so for non-sexual purposes,” Cox noted, explaining that people may use sexting as a “means to either gain affirmation about their relationship, relieve anxiety or get something tangible — non-sexual — in return.”
While sexting evidently isn’t just about sex, it can, nonetheless, allow people to feel comfortable and intimate with each other without exposing themselves. It is almost as if people were within a safety bubble with nothing, not even their body image issues, coming in the way of their desires.
In fact, experts note that those with an avoidant attachment style may actually use sexting to fulfill their sexual needs while also maintaining distance from their partners. Interestingly, people with an anxious attachment style — often characterized by insecurity — may “compulsively [seek] proximity and protection” through sexting.
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Sexting, as such, appears to not just be an activity driven by a tangible motivation. If anything, it becomes yet another gift of modern technology in terms of revolutionizing communication — even the sexual kind.
While sexting, per se, might be a modern phenomenon, the concept behind it could be rooted in practices that have existed for centuries. “…sexting among adults is an evolution of how we have communicated our sexual desires to our partners in the past. People used to write love poems and steamy letters, then when photography became more commonplace, couples used to take boudoir photos for each other,” explained Joseph Currin.
Despite its merits, sexting must be consensual. Without it, the activity can, in fact, be rather damaging for the unwilling individual. Drouin warns: “what’s going through your brain could differ greatly, based on what kind of relationship, whether or not you’re doing it willingly, or if someone kept asking you and you’re just giving in… There’s a lot more discomfort and even trauma involved when [someone who was forced to participate, or found themselves at the receiving end of sexts] look back on that episode.”
Currin concurs with this. “As with any sexual behavior, it is important and necessary to have consent to engage in sexting. Individuals who send unsolicited sext messages — such as images of their genitalia — are not actually engaging in sexting; they are sexually harassing the recipient.”