Most Sexting Is About Emotional Reassurance, Not Sex, Research Says
Most sexting — that is, the sending of sexually explicit texts, photos, and videos via digital messaging — is not about sex, concludes a recent study from the department of psychological sciences at Texas Tech University, in the U.S.
Two-thirds of the 160 study participants, aged 18 to 69, said they sext for non-sexual reasons, which study co-author and doctoral student at Texas Tech, Kassidy Cox said is “demonstrating some individuals engage in sexting, but would prefer not to, but do so as a means to either gain affirmation about their relationship, relieve anxiety, or get something tangible — non-sexual — in return.”
Cox, along with assistant professor Joseph M. Currin, PhD, established three main motivations for why people are inclined to sext: While “some people use sexting as foreplay for sexual behaviors later on,” others “sext for the relationship assurance they receive from their partner,” and still others “sext their partner as a favor, with the expectation the favor will be returned later in a non-sexual way, such as a dinner date.”
While Currin and Cox included participants of various genders in their study, research has found women experience sexting differently than men. A 2017 study published in the journal Computers of Human Behavior, found women had more negative experiences with sexting than men. This experience worsened when they were sexting casual partners, than committed ones, researchers found. A similar conclusion was drawn by another study from the University of Arizona, published earlier this year, which attempted to understand the motivations to sext among young women in the U.S. It found women were four times more likely than men to send nudes to retain the recipient’s attention and to prevent the recipient from seeking out other women, The Swaddle reported in August.
Calling it a sexual double standard, the author of the University of Arizona study, Morgan Johnstonbaugh, said her findings highlight “this idea that’s perpetuated in society that men and women have different types of sexuality — that men have uncontrollable, voracious desires, whereas women are capable of making moral decisions and acting as the gatekeepers to sexual activity.” She added, “With this idea in mind, women may feel pressured to share images with their boyfriends in order to keep them interested or to please their appetite.”
At the end of the day, what’s most interesting about the works of Currin and Cox, and Johnstonbaugh, is the implications. If most of sexting isn’t about sex, but an exchange of emotional reassurance, then that motivation can easily be manipulated. And while emotional manipulation in relationships is not new, when it occurs in a digital environment — in which setting boundaries and maintaining privacy is increasingly difficult — the simple practice of sexting becomes fraught with risks to physical and mental well-being.
“Many people experience regret or worry about the pictures they have sent to recent partners, and some even report discomfort and trauma at the time they sent the pictures,” author of the 2017 study, Michelle Drouin, told PsyPost. With sexting, the danger of having one’s nudes shared with parties to whom one has not given consent increases, an experience disproportionately suffered by women. When emotional vulnerability becomes a driver to send sexually explicit photos and texts in a digitally risky space, the harm to mental health is tied to the ease with which one’s privacy and consent can be violated online. In volatile, new, or casual relationships, sexting can become a necessary evil of sorts.
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While Curry and Cox did not include forced or non-consenual sexting in their study — something they termed harassment, not sexting — being coerced into sexting, or receiving unwanted nudes, can lead to increased risk of depression, anxiety and stress, and lower self-esteem, found a 2019 study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. “With more of our lives playing out online, sexting and other seemingly private communications may be contributing to an indelible digital footprint. Digital sex is a much-needed topic in today’s sexual education programs to ensure responsible use of technologies,” Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Brenda K. Wiederhold, said in a statement.
Researchers such as Drouin are calling for more research into consensual, adult sexting and what privacy and consent concerns people need to learn to navigate in order not to be vulnerable online. “We are just starting to ask questions about whether navigating sexual (and social) relationships online is having an effect on the way we develop and function in later stages of our lives,” she told PsyPost.