Sexting has been defined as sending ‘‘sexually suggestive, nude or nearly nude photos or videos of yourself’’ (Lenhart, 2009). The definition includes the sending of sexually explicit, text-based messages as well.
Initially considered a deviant behavior, sexting has now become more accepted, perhaps as a form of fun (Drouin, Vogel, Surbey, & Stills, 2013). However, the question remains as to how it affects romantic relationships—and whether sexting may even have relationship benefits. This is the question addressed by Michelle Drouin and colleagues, who looked at the emotional and sexual consequences of sexting in different types of romantic relationships (Drouin, Coupe & Temple, 2017).
Drouin and colleagues recruited 352 participants (106 males and 246 females) to complete an online survey about their sexting experiences, such as the number of people to whom they had sent or received a sexually explicit picture or video, and the age at which this had occurred. They were also asked to recall the last person to whom they had sent a sexually explicit picture or video and state the nature of that relationship (casual or committed). The researchers also measured:
1. Positive and negative consequences of sexting by asking participants to agree or disagree with the statements:
- The sexting experience positively affected my sexual relationship with my partner.
- The sexting experience positively affected my emotional relationship with that partner.
- The sexting experience negatively affected my sexual relationship with my partner.
- The sexting experience negatively affected my emotional relationship with that partner.
2. Sexting worry or regret, measured by asking the extent to which participants agreed with the following:
- The sexting experience made me feel regretful.
- I still worry that my sexual pictures will be seen by someone other than my partner.
3. Sexting comfort and sexting trauma, defined as the level of comfort and trauma at the time of sending a sexting picture, and also the level of comfort and trauma when looking back from now.
Possible responses ranged from "not at all comfortable" or "most traumatic thing possible" to "totally comfortable" or "not at all traumatic."
4. Attachment avoidance recorded by responses to statements such as:
- I want to get close to my partner, but I keep pulling back.
How widespread is sexting?
Drouin and colleagues found that around 58 percent of males and females had participated in picture or video sexting with a partner. However, when they examined this in terms of gender and relationship status, they found that males were twice as likely to have sexted with a casual partner than with a committed partner, yet females were twice as likely to have sexted with a committed partner than with a casual partner. What accounts for the differences? The researchers speculate on several possible reasons.
Gender differences may firstly be explained in terms of costs to reputation. Evolutionary psychology suggests that the sex which invests more in children will be more careful in selecting a partner, as they potentially have more to risk. Sexting messages convey a level of sexual promiscuity, and therefore availability, which is more risky for females compared to males. Therefore, females need a higher level of emotional commitment from males in order to feel at ease sending sexting messages.
Overall, males derive fewer emotional costs and more emotional benefits from casual sex compared to females, and therefore the gender difference may be accounted for by the fact that males are motivated to send sexting messages for the purposes of casual sex, accounting for the gender differences in sexting in casual relationships.
Sexting messages may allow people to maintain a level of sexual closeness while being at a physical distance from a partner. Therefore, the gender differences in sexting in casual relationships may be accounted for by males using a strategy of sending sexting messages to gratify sexual needs while maintaining a degree of physical distance. Females, however, send sexting messages to achieve a degree of emotional closeness, and therefore are more likely to do this only in committed relationships.
The positive and negative outcomes
The next thing that Drouin and colleagues looked at were the positive and negative consequences of sexting, which revealed that about 50 percent of those who engaged in sexting experienced positive outcomes in terms of their relationships—that is, it positively influenced their sexual and emotional relationships with a partner.
When the researchers examined this in terms of relationship status, they found that those who sent sexually explicit pictures to partners to whom they were committed reported more positive consequences (sexual and emotional) and fewer negative consequences (worry and regret) than those who engaged in sending sexually explicit photos to more casual partners. Further, those who described themselves as being in a committed relationship also reported more positive attitudes toward sexting behaviors than those who described themselves as not being in a committed relationship. This finding gives some support to the notion that there are greater emotional costs and fewer emotional advantages to casual relationships, and also that this effect crosses over into online interaction.
In terms of the positive consequences of sexting, both males and females reported that these were greater in committed relationships than in casual relationships, although scores were higher overall for males. Similarly, both males and females reported more negative consequences for casual relationships compared to committed relationships.
However, the amount of regret, worry, and trauma experienced by males as a result of sexting did not vary regardless of whether people described themselves as being in a committed or casual relationship. However, for females, it was those who described themselves as being in casual relationships who reported more worry, regret, and trauma compared to those who described themselves as being in committed relationships. Finally, both males and females reported more comfort at sexting when in committed relationships.
These results are consistent with Samimi and Alerson (2014), who found that males had more positive attitudes towards sexting than females, although the gender differences disappeared when they looked only at those who were involved in close relationships who reported more favorable attitudes towards sexting than those who were not in a close relationship.
Attachment style and sexting benefits
Finally, Drouin and colleagues looked at sexting behavior in relation to attachment avoidance, or seeking a lower level of contact with a partner. Participants who scored lower in terms of this style of attachment reported higher levels of emotional and sexual experiences with their partner, greater degrees of sexting comfort, and less worry, regret, and trauma as a consequence of sexting compared to those reporting a higher degree of attachment avoidance.
Sending sexting messages is becoming more common, and it is therefore important to properly understand the meaning and nature of such messages within both committed and casual relationships. The significance of sexting as a form of romantic communication is evidenced by the fact that around 75 percent of young adults claim to have engaged in it. However, the evidence from the study reported here suggests the benefits of sexting to be very much dependent upon gender and relationship status. Finally, it would also be useful to examine if these same effects hold true for text-based sexting messages, in addition to sending nude or suggestive pictures.
Drouin, M., Vogel, K. N., Surbey, A., & Stills, J. R. (2013). ‘Let's talk about sexting, baby: Computer-mediated sexual behaviours among young adults.’ Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 25-30.
Drouin, M., Coupe, M, & Temple, J. R. (2017). ‘Is sexting good for your relationship? It depends ...’ Computers in Human Behaviour, 75, 749-756
Samimi, P., & Alderson, K. G. (2014). ‘Sexting among undergraduate students.’ Computers in Human Behavior, 31, 230-241.