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The Benefits of Sexting

A new study offers some good news.

Key points

  • About half of participants reported having sent an explicit text and two-thirds of participants reported having received one.
  • A boost to one's self esteem, sexual gratification, and improved intimacy and trust with a romantic partner were commonly reported benefits.
  • Women (vs. men) and LGBQ (vs. straight) individuals were more than twice as likely to report unwanted sexts.
  • Negative feelings from unwanted sexts ranged from awkwardness to feeling violated and unsafe.
Mohamad Hassan
Emoji's in the time of sexting
Source: Mohamad Hassan

Good news for people who prefer communicating via the eggplant, peach and raindrop emojis: A new study published last week shows that sexting may have positive benefits for our relationships and mental health.

The study surveyed 1265 students at the University of Utah and defined sexting as the transfer of explicit nude photos via cell phone. About half (50.1%) of participants reported having sent an explicit text and two-thirds of participants (65.5%) reported having received one. Women (versus men) and LGBTQ individuals (versus those who identify as straight) were more likely to report sending sexts.

Overall, romantic partners were the most common recipients of sexts. But whereas women were more likely to send a sext to someone with whom they were romantically involved, men were more likely than women to sext a person with whom they were involved sexually, but not romantically.

Good News About Sexting

Given the popularity of sexting, the authors decided to drill down into its potential benefits. Just what is the allure? According to senders, it was the positive feedback and attention they got as a result of their sexts. What’s better for your self-esteem than knowing that you’ve successfully turned your partner on? However, a substantial minority of senders described this self-esteem boost as shallow, trivial, and/or transient.

Sexual gratification was another commonly described positive benefit: 16.8% of participants reported sexual arousal, masturbation, orgasm, or enhanced physical sexual encounters as a result of sexting. Some described sending a sext as “foreplay before seeing each other” or as a sexual encounter in and of itself. About 7.4% of participants believed that sending an explicit sext would increase the chances of a live sexual encounter with the recipient.

For 17.6% of participants, sexting was beneficial for their existing romantic and sexual relationships. Some explained that sending nude photos, and presumably their partner’s grateful response, built a sense of security and trust in their relationship. Participants also used sexting as a tool for maintaining emotional intimacy and sexual interest (“keeping it spicy”) in long-term or long-distance relationships — the perfect recipe for keeping things hot during a pandemic.

It's Not Always Rosy

This wasn’t to say that there weren’t negative outcomes associated with texting. Women in this study were four times as likely as men to report receiving nonconsensual sexts; LGBQ participants were three times as likely as heterosexuals to report the same. Regardless of gender and identity, all recipients of nonconsensual sexts felt a range of negative emotional experiences, from awkwardness to feeling violated and unsafe.

While men and women were equally likely to describe sending an explicit sext as arousing or sexually gratifying, women were less likely to report receiving one as such. The fact that men seem to enjoy receiving sexts more than women likely boils down to various sociobiological factors. Compared to women, men respond more to visual sexual stimuli. For men, seeing a nude photo can set off a cognitive process that directly leads to neural activation, physiological response, and the subjective experience of sexual arousal.

For women, the pathway from visual stimulation to arousal is far less direct. Feelings of sexual desire for women tend to be more rooted in sociological and cultural factors (Leavitt, Leonhardt & Busby, 2019). These range from societal norms that tell a woman whether she is or isn’t allowed to enjoy sex to the feelings of pleasure experienced the last time she had sex with a given partner. We also live in a culture that frequently sexually objectifies women. Combine these factors and one can see how an unsolicited sext could trigger less than positive feelings.

Speaking From Experience

Input I’ve received from my students and via my own Instagram account largely reflect the findings from this study. People enjoy sexting for a multitude of reasons. In an age when the bulk of our communication occurs digitally, many say it can feel easier to write something than to say it out loud. It can afford feelings of sexual empowerment and confidence from a relatively controlled and safe space. It can be fun, but in a way that feels less vulnerable. You can even get creative by employing role play. It’s easier to pretend with your partner that you’re someone else when everything is taking place digitally.

This isn’t to say that sexting doesn’t come with inherent risks. My students and followers certainly report this. Once a message or image is sent digitally, it’s out there forever. This could spell disaster should the sext land in the wrong person’s phone or is forwarded. There is also always the danger that the person on the other side is not who they say they are or that they are underage. Sexting can be great, but it makes sense to start slowly and make certain you know and trust the person you’re sexting with.

References

Graham Holmes, Laura, Nilssen, A Renee, Cann, Deanna, & Strassberg, Donald S. (2021). A sex-positive mixed methods approach to sexting experiences among college students. Computers in Human Behavior., 115, 106619.

Rupp HA, Wallen K. Sex differences in viewing sexual stimuli: an eye-tracking study in men and women. Horm Behav. 2007 Apr;51(4):524-33. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2007.01.008. Epub 2007 Feb 12. PMID: 17362952.

Emoji's in the time of sexting
Source: Mohamad Hassan
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