Sexting is a universal language: Jeff Bezos does it (albeit awkwardly; remember that “I love you, alive girl” text?), Rihanna does it, teens do it (though it’s a smaller percentage than you’d think, given the worried headlines).
The question of why we send dirty images and texts doesn’t have an easy answer: Can it all be chalked up to sheer horniness, or is there some deeper ulterior motive that drives us to tap “send” on that nude?
In a new study, University of Arizona researcher Morgan Johnstonbaugh asked that very question: What motivates young people to send an explicit text in the first place ― and does the motivation differ for men and women?
To conduct the study, Johnstonbaugh, a sociology doctoral student, had more than 1,000 college students from seven universities fill out an online survey asking them about their rationale for sexting. She looked at two primary motivators: outside pressure to share and a desire for empowerment via sext ― in other words, sending a nude to boost their confidence.
The most common reason for sending a nude or semi-nude pic ― to turn the receiver on ― was roughly the same for women (73%) and men (67%). Similarly, 40% of women and men responded that they sent a photo to satisfy the request of the recipient. The latter point ― that men were just as gung-ho to give into a request as women ― surprised Johnstonbaugh. “It appears as though men are also feeling external pressures to share,” she told HuffPost.
But the odds were four times higher for women than men to say that they sent a nude in order to prevent the recipient from losing interest or to prevent the person from looking at images of others.
This points to a long-standing sexual double standard, Johnstonbaugh said.
“Based on the existing literature on intimate relationships and sexting, I did expect women to experience more pressures to share images of themselves than men on average,” she said. “It’s the same sexual double standard that’s often perpetuated in society.”
“In my last relationship, sometimes the only way I could get my boyfriend to talk to me or reply to a previous text was by bribing him with dirty texts, which is one of the reasons he’s my ex now.”
But as with most things involving sex, women’s relationship with sexting is a lot more complicated than “He asked for a nude. I sent one.” Johnstonbaugh found that the odds also were four times higher for women than men to say that they sent a sext as a means to feel empowered. Women were twice as likely as men to say they sent a sexy pic to boost their confidence. (Let’s call this the “I’m feeling myself” rationale.)
“Women might find sexting to be really empowering because you can create a space where you feel safe expressing your sexuality and exploring your body,” Johnstonbaugh suggested in an earlier press release.
So sometimes, sending nudes is a way to assert sexual agency. This finding is worth dwelling on, given all the news stories highlighting the potentially negative consequences of sexting in recent years (“sextortion” cases involving celebrities like Bella Thorne or the the long, drawn-out “Fappening” saga of 2014).
“Because women are often seen as the victim in viral sexting stories, it’s important to highlight that women are using technology to explore their bodies and their sexualities,” Johnstonbaugh said.
What’s more, for many women, desire is what sex therapists call “responsive,” meaning, the feeling of being desired is what turns them on the most. Desire emerges in response to, rather than in anticipation of, sex. Looking at the study through this lens, the “I’m feeling myself” rationale tracks especially well.
Having it both ways ― feeling empowered by sending a nude and other times feeling obligated to send one as a sort of bartering tool ― makes sense to Scout, a straight 23-year-old comedian from Jacksonville, Florida.
“In my last relationship, sometimes the only way I could get my boyfriend to talk to me or reply to a previous text was by bribing him with dirty texts, which is one of the reasons he’s my ex now,” she told HuffPost. “But it feels empowering to send them if it’s someone who’s enthusiastic about you as a person, and if they respond with the right amount of gusto.”
If a man feels entitled to a nude pic, the act of sending one understandably feels transactional and a bit cheap. “It feels discouraging and demeaning when men start demanding nudes and don’t understand the level of trust that goes into something like that,” Scout said.
Queer Women And Straight Men Think About Sexts Quite Differently Than Straight Women Do
Interestingly the findings of the study were a bit different for queer women. The odds for sharing images “to satisfy requests” and “prevent them from losing interest” are higher for women who identify as heterosexual while the odds of selecting “to feel empowered” and “gain confidence” are higher for women who identify as bisexual, gay/lesbian, or other.
“One explanation may be the sexual double standard with straight men and women,” Johnstonbaugh said. “Another explanation may be that women who do not identify as heterosexual experience more constraints and they may regain power over their bodies and sexualities through sexting.”
“Women’s bodies are commodified in the dating market in a way that men’s bodies aren’t. We don’t feel the same pressure.”
In future work, Johnstonbaugh wants to dig a little deeper into queer sexting habits and also more into straight men’s reasoning.
Keenen, a 22-year-old straight man from New Jersey, said he’s actually never sent a nude and generally doesn’t feel obligated to send them because men’s bodies don’t have the same currency as women’s.
“Women’s bodies are commodified in the dating market in a way that men’s bodies aren’t. We don’t feel the same pressure,” he told HuffPost. “Like, a guy may flaunt his wealth or act overly masculine or something over text because those are things that men are told that are more valuable than other qualities, but it’s rarely that way for women. It shows that, unfortunately, we still have a long way to go.”
Feeling less pressured to send a nude you might feel iffy about is a clear net positive for men. But it also sounds like they’re missing out on the simple joys of sexting. Why aren’t men who send dick pics feeling as good and sexually empowered about it as women who sext? It’a a potent question that Johnstonbaugh is currently exploring in a new paper.
“This difference may be explained by the fact that men already feel empowered or because there are some ideas related to masculinity and intimacy that prevent them from sharing in this way,” she said.
The next time you send that nude, pause to think about why you’re doing it. Who knows, your reason might end up in a social science paper.