Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Sexting motivation
What motivates sexting behaviour?
Perhaps you have noticed the recent growth use of the term "sexting"? From mummy blogs to national news sites and even the government, everyone seems to talking about sexting and the dangers it presents to our children. But what is sexting? Is it really as bad as everyone thinks it is? Is there any way to participate in a safe way? This chapter explores the academic literature surrounding sexting behaviour, to present the relevant information in an unbiased way and to answer the above questions to help people fully understand sexting behaviour.
What is sexting?
Sexting is the sending, receiving and forwarding of sexually explicit text or images, which are also referred to as 'nudes', through digital devices and the internet (Salter, 2013). There are several applications that have been especially developed to help felicitate sexting behaviour such as Kaboom, Confide, Snapchat, Tinder, Match and Zoosk (Mashable, 2018). These websites and apps are ideal for sending explicit content because the images and text sent through them 'self-destruct' (disappear) after a set amount of time, giving the user an illusion of control.
While there are many apps made specifically for the sending of explicit content, sexting can be done via any text or image-based platform including: e-mail and text message (MMS and SMS).
Due to the abundant technology that allows for such behaviour, sexting is becoming an ever more present activity.
Who participates in sexting?
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies approximately 10% of adolescents aged between 10-19 and 53% of young adults aged between 18 and 30 have engaged in sexting behaviours. These numbers vary extraordinarily with some sources finding that as many as one in seven teenagers have reported sending sexually suggestive material (Madigan, Ly, Rash, Van Ouytsel & Temple, 2018).
While there seems to be ample research into the sexting behaviours of teenagers and young adults, there is a limited amount in to that of older adults. The few studies that have been conducted on the prevalence of sexting behaviours of older adults quote that between 10 (Holloway, 2015) and 24% (Mulshine, 2013) of 50-to-75-year-olds admit to having sent or received sexually explicit content.
These fairly low numbers may be linked to the fact that sexting is a relative modern venture, while the recent rise in participation by older generations may be due to the rise in digital device availability and digital literacy.
Why do people sext?
Sexting is a relatively new phenomenon, with the term first appearing in an article by the Sunday Telegraph in 2005. Since then the participation in the activity has skyrocketed but the research has remained fairly limited, exploring mainly sexting behaviour in adolescents and how to prevent it. As such, there is fairly limited research on what are the actual motivating elements behind engagement in the activity are. Two key theories that can be used to explain why people choose to participate in sexting behaviour are social exchange theory and the theory of planned behaviour, both of which have a heavy focus on the social aspects of the activity.
Social exchange theory
Social exchange theory suggests that human relationships are formed through the use of a subjective cost-benefit analysis. According to the theory, individuals aim to maximise their 'wins' while minimising their 'losses' in their day-to-day experiences by engaging in behaviours that are likely to elicit a reward or avoiding those that are likely to have negative consequences (Laursen & Jensen-Campbell, 1999).
The social validation and reward of engaging in sexting behaviour (e.g. increases intimacy with partner and sexual desire etc.) outweighs the risks of the behaviours (e.g. social rejection and ridicule).
In reference to sexting behaviour, the interpersonal model of sexual satisfaction can be used to help explain why some individuals participate in the behaviour. The model focuses on the exchange between sexual partners and the consequences related to sexual satisfaction (Lawrence & Byers, 1995). It explores sexual relationships in terms of what each partner puts into and gets out of the relationship.
The model explains sexual satisfaction as a function of:
- Perceived rewards minus perceived costs
- Comparison level of rewards minus the comparison level of costs
- Equality of rewards minus equality of costs
Perceiving any of these components in a negative fashion (i.e., costs outweigh the rewards) can result in decreased sexual satisfaction (Lawrence & Byers, 1995).
In terms of sexting behaviour, the act of receiving a sext can be seen as a reward by the receiver while it can be seen as a cost by the sender, skewing the balance of the relationship. However, pressure from the receiver and the receivers appreciation may work to change the act of sending a sext from a cost to a reward (Gibson, 2016). This persuasion could take the form of comments such as 'I do so much for you, this is the least you can do for me' and 'everyone else's girlfriends do it' and may encourage the sender to the view the relationship as one sided in favour of their partner, thus encouraging them to try and re-balance the scales.
Theory of Planned Behaviour
According to the theory of planned behaviour (TPB), an individual's behaviour is determined by their intention to perform that behaviour. Intentions indicate how much effort an individual is willing to exert on a particular behaviour and are made up of an individual's attitude toward the behaviour, subjective social norms and their perceived behavioural control (Ajzen, 1991).
Attitudes toward the behaviour is the extent to which a person has a favourable or unfavourable appraisal of a given behaviour while subjective social norms refer to a social pressure to perform or not perform a given behaviour. Perceived behavioural control refers to the perceived difficulty of the task. An individual's attitude, the perceived social norms and the individual's perceived control work together to shape the individual's behavioural intentions and thus their future behaviour (Asare, 2015).
A study by Walrave, Heirman and Hallam (2014) investigated the relationship between an individual's personal attitudes, the subjective social norms and the individuals perceived control of the situation. The study consisted of 498 Belgian students aged between 15 and 18 being surveyed on their attitudes toward sexting (whether they thought it was funny, clever and enjoyable), their perception of the social norms regarding sexting (what they thought others would think of them for sending sexts), their perception of control (whether they thought they were able to and had the tools to send a sext as well as their perceived difficulty of the task), their intention (whether they thought they would send a sext in the following 2 months) and their previous sexting behaviour (have they sent a sext before) (Walrave, Heirman, & Hallam, 2014).
The results of the study found that subjective social norms were the strongest predictor of participation in sexting behaviour. This suggests that the importance of the perceived social pressure to engage in the behaviour (e.g. peer pressure form friends or partners, 'everyone else does it') outweighs the relative importance of the individual's attitude to the behaviour (whether or not they actually valued the behaviour). The study found that perceived control was the least important predictor, suggesting that this may be because 87.9% of participants claimed to have access to the tools necessary (e.g. mobile phone with a built in camera and internet access) to participate in the behaviour.
The study also highlighted the importance of trust in a romantic relationship as a predictor for sexting behaviour as individual's who indicated being in a relationship indicated as having more positive feelings about engaging in sexting behaviour and were found to have more positive assumptions about social norms regarding sexting behaviour (Walrave, Heirman, & Hallam, 2014).
The study by Walrave, Heriman and Hallam, as well as other literature, suggests that the most important aspects on an individual's intention to engage in sexting behaviour are their perceived social norms and perceived social pressure as well as their own personal feelings about the behaviour itself.
What are the consequences of sexting?
Sexting behaviour is most well known for the consequences it may result in for both participants. Most of the consequences which have been investigated are negative for the sender, however there can be unpleasant consequences for the receiver of the content.
Engagement in sexting behaviour can have serious negative consequences in various aspects of an individual's life and can have extremely serious social, personal, health, privacy and even legal ramifications. Sexting behaviour can permanently damage an individual's reputation with peers and their personal self-esteem. As sexual content of children under the age of 18 is considered child pornography, even if it is self produced, sexting behaviour by underage participants can have serious legal repercussions such as jail time and having to register as a sex offender (Sacco, Argudin, Maguire & Tallon, 2010).
By engaging in sexting behaviour, sexters run the risk of their private images being shared to people other than the intended receiver (Ankel, 2018). This can occur because the revceiveer purposefully chooses to forward the image on to others, or posts it to an erotic site, without the content of the sender (i.e., 'revenge porn') or because the private images have been stripped from a hacked device (i.e., 'the Fappening').
These negative consequences of engaging in sexting behaviour can lead to severe negative mental health related outcomes for those involved, with the number of individuals committing suicide increasing because of the ridicule, judgement and even sexual harassment they received after their nudes were shared without their permission.
The Fappening (a combination of the words 'fap' (slang for masturbation) and 'happening') was a mass image leak targeting well-known female celebrities along with other non-famous individuals. Approximately 500 images were stolen from online storage offered by Apple (iCloud), which was later reprimanded for its lax security features. The images were circulated privately before being released to the public in three separate waves. Affected celebrities included: Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Kaley Cuoco, Kirsten Dunst, Ariana Grande, Victoria Justice, Vanessa Hudgens, Rihanna, Anna Kendrick and McKayla Maroney (some unconfirmed). Further reading:[The Fappening: After the third wave of leaked celebrity photos, why can't we stop it?]
While there are many serious negative consequences of sexting behaviour,especially for underage participants, research suggests that it is not all bad news. Sexting behaviour can have positive benefits for participants in certain situations, such as long-term relationships. These relationships are characterised by a deep trust between partners, an alignment of core values, and open communication (Zlatus, 2018).
A study by Drouin, Coupe and Temple, 2017, found that people who send sexts to long-term, committed partners reported experiencing more positive consequences, such as comfort and sexual desire, and fewer negative consequences, such as worry, anxiety and regret, than those who sent sexual images to causal partners.
Social sexuality literature
As sexting is a social endeavour, there is a large amount of literature on the social aspects of sexting behaviour. Most of the current research aims to investigate the gender differences in participation and social pressures to participate, as well as the desire for individuals to send unwanted sexual content to unwilling participants. The literature also examines the use of sexting as a form of social conversation and flirting.
Sexual double standards
As with many sex related activities there is a gendered double standard where boys are encouraged, by peers and wider society, to participate in sexting behaviour while girls are often harshly and negatively judged for engaging in the same behaviour.
Both boys and girls tend to have negative views about girls who send sexually explicit messages. A study by Lippman and Campbell found that boys think that girls who engage in sexting behaviour are 'crazy, insecure, attention-seeking sluts with poor judgement' while other girls think they 'lack self-esteem' (Lippman & Campbell, 2014).
The girls in the study expressed feelings of external pressures from male peers, such as boyfriends and potential partners, to send sexually explicit images of themselves. They also expressed feeling as though sexting is the key to having a desirable relationship, even if they didn't view sexting as a personally favourable behaviour.
Even though the girls in the study were negatively judged by both male and female peers for engaging in sexting behaviour and sending sexually explicit content to others, they were also judged negatively for not engaging in such activities (e.g. being called a 'prude' or a 'goodie-goodie'), almost exclusively by their male peers (Lippman & Campbell, 2014).
While sexting behaviour is common between consenting partners, in both committed and causal relationships, there are many encounters where the exchange occurs between a sender and an unwilling receiver. An unsolicited sext is one that the receiver has not requested and is often unappreciated by the receiver. While an unsolicited sext message can be from both a male or female sender, there appears to be a gender divide in who sends them and how they are accepted.
A study by Mathews, Giuliano, Thomas, Straup and Martinez (2018) examined the the extent to which gender played a role in the reception of an unsolicited or solicited sext message. The study consisted of 122 American students aged between 18 and 26 in a 2x2 between subjects experimental design (participants responded to only one scenario), who were asked to report their perception of a situation in which an individual receives either a solicited or unsolicited sext from either a man or female sender.
The study found that women who sent unsolicited messages were judged as more appropriate than men who sent such messages, while solicited messages were judged as equally appropriate when sent from either a male or female sender. The men in the study claimed that receiving an unsolicited sext from a woman made them feel flattered and aroused, while the woman said that unsolicited messages made them feel uncomfortable and in some cases they even felt threatened by the message (Mathews, et al., 2018). They viewed the content as sexual harassment and expressed feeling extreme pressure to present themselves as sexually desirable and 'return the favour' when they received unsolicited sexual messages from non-partners (Matthews, et al., 2018).
Matthews and colleagues suggested that men are subject to several stereotypically masculine ideals, such that they, men, are inherently sexually attractive while women are inherently sexual such that they would appreciate any sexual content, even unsolicited. Men feel the need to send sexually explicit content to express their sexual desire and desirability as well as their sexual attractiveness - despite the fact that women in general do not find this like of unexpected content appealing, finding it, in fact, disturbing and threatening (Matthews, Giuliano, Thomas, Straup & Martinez, 2018). It is suggested that men often try to use the sending of unsolicited sexual content as a way to gain sexual favour with the women they are pursuing.
Sexting as new-age flirting
Modern public literature, such as Cosmo and Mashable, two popular online magazines, have begun discussing sexting behaviour as a new form of flirting. In an interview with Cosmo Magazine, comedian Emma Markezic suggests that sexy messages, images and other social media interactions are a kind of digital foreplay and can add a "certain snap, crackle and pop" to a couples sex life (Cosmopolitan Magazine, 2011). Markezic suggests that sexting, particularly in the form of an erotic text or a sensual photo, is mentally stimulating as well as sexually arousing and remarks “get jiggy with my frontal lobes and its way more likely I’ll let you get jiggy with my lady globes”. Such literature suggests that while both men and women enjoy sexting, the content of their preferred sexts are different - it is suggested that men react more to photographic images of a sender baring significant skin while women are more likely to enjoy more sensual and thought provoking content.
Markezic's remarks on the use of various media formats and platforms as well as the mix of erotic and intellectually arousing content suggests that more and more people are using sexting to engage romantically and intimately with a partner in a fun and flirty way, using the current technology.
What are the practical applications?
The most practical application of the theories discussed above is to find ways of preventing young people from engaging in sexting behaviours, particularly for the well-being of their mental health and social reputation.
Most government literature and parental guides look at ways of preventing sexting behaviour in adolescents, mostly due to the often devastating legal and social implications. Boswell and Boswell (2013) highlight several ways of discouraging sexting behaviour:
- Encourage two-way communication between parents and teenagers
- Educate teenagers and young people on the dangers of sending sexually explicit messages
- Encourage a positive view of sex, sexuality and consent
- Teach teenagers that they do not have to engage in any behaviour they do not want to
- Encourage open discussion between parents and teenagers in the case sexually explicit content does get out, to minimise the effect on mental health
Preventing sexting through the theory
According to both the theory of planned behaviour and social exchange theory, individuals engage in sexting behaviours because they believe that the behaviour is socially acceptable (or at least acceptable enough to participate in) and that they benefits of the behaviour outweigh the costs.
Based on the concepts presenting in both theories, there are several steps that could be taken to reduce the likelihood of individuals engaging in sexting behaviour, including:
- Reducing the social value of engaging in the behaviour
- Raising the perceived costs or increasing knowledge about the costs related to the behaviour
- Reduce the perceived reward of engaging in the behaviour
Each of these can be done by providing information about sexting behaviour and highlighting the negative consequences of engaging in such behaviour, including both the legal and social consequences. Informational services should highlight that the costs of engaging in sexting behaviour (e.g. bullying, legal issues, reduced privacy etc.) will always outweigh the rewards (e.g. sexual satisfaction, increased intimacy with a partner etc.) for both the sender and the receiver.
Using sexting in a positive way
Considering the various aforementioned positive outcomes that sexting can have is outright preventing it the best course of action? Sexting behaviour has been found to lead to higher sexual satisfaction, increased intimacy with a partner, increased comfort in the relationship and increased sexual desire for a partner in individuals who send sexually explicit content to a long-term, committed relationship partner (Drouin, Coupe, & Temple, 2017). If this is the case, then perhaps all sexting behaviour, outside of underage participants, should not be condemned so quickly. Future research should be undertaken to further explore the benefits of sexting behaviour and how to incorporate it into a health relationship.
Tips for engaging in safe and healthy sexting behaviour:
- Engage in healthy and free communication between sexual partners
- Have a healthy understanding of content, trust and privacy
- Set ground rules for the sending and receiving of sexually explicit content between partners
- Use safe storage methods for all self-produced sexual content to prevent theft (i.e., do not use cloud storage)
Sexting is the sending and receiving of sexually explicit content in the form of text or image through digital platforms and is a common behaviour among adolescents and young adults, while it is has a rising prevalence in older adults. Sexting is most well-know for its various negative consequences, such as social rejections and bullying among peers, damaged self-esteem and reputation, and even severe legal consequences such as jail time if the participants are underage. However, sexting behaviour can have some positive consequences in certain situations, such as increased intimacy and sexual desire among long-term partners.
The motivations behind sexting behaviour are mostly social in origin and can be explained through the the theory of planned behaviour and social exchange theory. TPB suggests that an individual's attitude towards that behaviour, social norms and behavioural control work together to shape behavioural intentions and thus influence future behaviour. Social exchange theory explains behaviour as a result of an internal cost-benefit analysis, where behaviour is completed when the benefits outweigh the costs.
In regards to sexting, the theories suggest that individuals engage in sexting behaviour because they believe that it is a worthwhile behaviour, it is socially acceptable behaviour and they have control of the situation (TPB) and that the rewards related to sending and receiving explicit messages outweigh the possible costs (social exchange theory).
Social sexuality literature highlights a sexual double standard in sexting behaviour. Girls are judged negatively by their peers, both male and female, for sending sexts and are also judged negatively by male peers for not sending sexts. Boys report feeling neither of these judgements. Public literature highlights sexting as a form of new-age flirting and suggests that sexting adds a new layer to personal relationships in a digital world. While the sending of sexually explicit content is common between consenting partners it is also common for individuals, particularly men, to send unsolicited messages to unsuspecting others in an attempt to express their sexual desirability.
There are several ways of discouraging participation in sexting behaviour, including reducing the social value and perceived rewards associated with the behaviour and increasing the perceived costs of engaging in the behaviour. While it is important to discourage sexting behaviour in underage adolescents, it may be beneficial to encourage safe and consensual sexting behaviour in long term partners.
Sexting can have many dangerous and negative side effects when completed incorrectly, such as by underage individuals or when trust is violated. However, this is not a reason to completely dismiss sexting as a behaviour. When consent and trust are taken into account sexting can have numerous positive outcomes for all participants.
- Sexting (Wikipedia)
- Online dating motivation and gender (Book chapter, 2017)
- How to get more sex (Book chapter, 2013)
- Sexual motivation and hormones (Book chapter, 2016)
- Emoticons, emoji and the electronic communication of emotion (Book chapter, 2018)
- Online disinhibition effect (Book chapter, 2018)
Asare, M. (2015). Using the theory of planned behaviour to determine the condom use behaviour among college students. American Journal of Health Studies, 30(1), 43–50.
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Gibson, K. (2016). Sexting and the application of social learning theory. University of Saskatchewan Saskatoon.
Holloway, K. (2015). Boomers are sexing and ‘sexting’ – a lot – and we shouldn’t be surprised. Alternet. Retrieved from https://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/boomers-are-sexing-and-sexting-lot-and-we-shouldnt-be-surprised
Laursen, B., & Jensen-Campbell, L. A. (1999). The nature and functions of social exchange in adolescent romantic relationships. In W. Furman, B. B. Brown, & C. Feiring (Eds.), The development of romantic relationships in adolescence (pp. 50-74). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lawrance, K., & Byers, E. S. (1995). Sexual satisfaction in long-term heterosexual relationships: The interpersonal exchange model of sexual satisfaction. Personal Relationships, 2, 267- 285. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.1995.tb00092.x
Lippman, J. R., & Campbell, S. W. (2014). Damned if you do, damned if you don’t… if you’re a girl: Relational and normative contexts of adolescent sexting in the United States. Journal of Children and Media, 8, pp. 371-386, https://doi.org/10.1080/17482798.2014.923009
Madigan, S., Ly, A., Rash, C, L., Van Ouytsel, J., Temple, J,R. Prevalence of multiple forms of sexting behavior among youth: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr, 172, 327–335. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.5314
Matthews, S. J., Giuliano, T. A., Thomas, K. H., Straup, M. L., & Martinez, M. A. (2018). Not Cool, Dude: Perceptions of Solicited vs. Unsolicited Sext Messages from Men and Women. Computers in Human Behavior, 88, 1-4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.06.014
Mulshine, M. (2013). Old people are sexting now because what, do you think they were born yesterday? Observer. Retrieved from https://observer.com/2013/10/old-people-are-sexting-now-because-what-do-you-think-they-were-born-yesterday/.
Pitti, D. (2018). Is it possible to spice up your sex life without actually having sex? It is if you use these apps. Retrieved from Mashable Australia Best Sexting Apps
Sacco, D., Argudin, R., Maguire, J., & Tallon, K. (2010). Sexting: Youth practices and legal implications. Berkman Centre Research PublicationNo. 2010-8. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1661343
Salter, M. (2013). Beyond criminalisation and responsibilitisation: Sexting, gender and young people. Sydney Law School, 24, pp 310-315.
Sexting successfully: The art of digital flirting. (2011). Cosmopolitan Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.cosmopolitan.com.au/love/sexting-successfully-the-art-of-digital-flirting-1985.
Walrave, M., Heirman, W., & Hallam, L. (2014). Under pressure to sext? Applying the theory of planned behaviour to adolescent sexting. Behaviour & Information Technology, 33, 86-98. https://doi.org/10.1080/0144929X.2013.837099
Zlatus, J. (2018). 11 characteristics of a happy and healthy relationship. Retrieved from https://www.lifehack.org/738080/characteristics-of-healthy-relationships.
- Best sexting apps for getting it on via text (Mashable)
- How to practice safe sexting (ABC Life, 2018)
- The psychology of sexting (Scientific America)
- The quick and dirty history of sexting (Mashable)
- Why do men send unsolicited dick pics? (ABC News)
- How to practice safe sexting (TED Talk [14.25 min.])
- Sexting dictionary (Unicode proposals)
- Sexting, Mobile Porn Use, and Peer Group Dynamics: Boys' and Girls' Self-Perceived Popularity, Need for Popularity, and Perceived Peer Pressure (Taylor & Francis Online - Article on the effects of peer pressure on sexting behaviour not discussed in this chapter)