Sexting: A New Cultural Norm

John and Jane, both pursuing a PhD, met eighteen months ago at a party thrown by a mutual friend. They exchanged names and numbers, friended one another on social media, flirted a bit online and via text, and eventually decided to go on a date. Rather quickly, they found they were a terrific match. And the sex was great for them both! Then, six months ago, Jane applied for and was accepted into a prestigious program in Morocco. It was an offer she couldn't turn down, even though it meant a year (or maybe more) abroad, physically separated from John. Today, their relationship is as strong as ever, primarily because they talk via webcam almost every night. Even their sex life continues to thrive, thanks to the sexts they send one another prior to their webcam chats. Both say they've learned to enjoy tech-sex almost as much as the real thing.

Can Say I Love You ... With a Sext?

Generally speaking, scientists define sexting as the sending, receiving, or forwarding of sexually explicit messages, images, or photos through electronic means, particularly between electronic devices. For the most part, research on sexting has focused on the possible downside, viewing it as a risky activity possibly correlated with high-risk sexual behaviors, substance abuse, and other potentially problematic activities. However, scientists have also looked at the potential upside of sexting behaviors, finding that sexting is generally unrelated to psychological wellbeing and that health professionals may want to start thinking about it as a normal part of human sexual development and exploration rather than the devil's handiwork.

And let's face it, regardless of how you feel about it, sexting as a phenomenon is not exactly fading into the woodwork. Younger adults in particular seem to be doing it, often regularly, as part of their new (and still developing) digital-age meeting, dating, and mating paradigm - particularly in conjunction with "adult friend finder" hookup apps like Tinder, Skout, Coffee Meets Bagel, OKCupid, and the like. They swipe a profile, send a sext or two, and then hop into bed. Or maybe they've started dating someone and they want to take it to another level (i.e., sex). Instead of having a serious and potentially uncomfortable conversation over coffee and a scone, they can just send a sexy selfie with a question mark attached, essentially asking if their new paramour also wants to up the ante. Better yet, if they're in a serious relationship and want to spice things up, they can send their lover a sext in the middle of his or her workday to get the engines revving (as John and Jane do, in the example above).

The simple reality in today's world is that A LOT of people are taking advantage of the fact that sexting behaviors are rapidly becoming normalized from a cultural standpoint. In fact, the results of a new study on sexting were released just a few weeks ago, indicating that 87.7% of all American adults have sexted at some point in their lifetime, with 82.2% sexting within the last year. These numbers are almost certainly skewed because of the sampling process used in this particular study; participants were recruited and surveyed through Amazon's Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing website that appeals primarily to heavy users of digital technology - a group that seems much more likely to sext than the population in general. And in truth most other research does provide lower numbers: 44% of young adults in one study, 43% of young adults in another study, etc. Nevertheless, it is clear that large and growing numbers of people, especially younger adults, are both sending and receiving sexts.

One sexting phenomenon I find extremely interesting involves men and women who, prior to recent advances in digital technology (i.e., HD cameras as standard issue in smartphones), would never have even thought about taking a sexy photo and passing it along to a potential sex partner (or even a regular sex partner). Now, however, thanks to digital temptation, they are suddenly and often impulsively hopping on the sexting bandwagon - snapping pics of their parts and passing them along like a plate of tapas at a cocktail party. And most of these folks are digging this behavior, too. In the Mechanical Turk study cited above, for instance, people in casual relationships reported a positive correlation between sexting and sexual satisfaction, while people in serious relationships felt that sexting neither improved nor diminished their sexual satisfaction. It was only the single people who reported a negative connection.

So what do we actually know about sexting, as of now? Not much, to be honest, beyond the fact that more and more people are doing it. Yes, there are studies that suggest sexting does come with potential risks, in particular high-risk sexual behaviors leading to STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and the like. But plenty of newer studies suggest there may be possible benefits, especially for couples who are dating casually or seriously and want to introduce or heighten the sexual element of their relationship. So, needless to say, further research is needed - especially studies that look at variances by gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, and cultural background - before any sweeping conclusions can be drawn. For now, I will simply say that sexting is here to stay, for better or worse, and we'd better get used to it.

Of note: This article does not address the issue of minors and sexting. For information on that, click here.