Is It Time for Researchers to Rethink Sexting?

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Photo: JGI/Tom Grill/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Sexting gets a bad rap from a public-health perspective. As Emily Stasko, a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at Drexel University who has previously worked in public health, notes in a summary (PDF) of research she presented over the weekend at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in Toronto, sexting has “received growing attention as a risky activity, associated with numerous other risk taking behaviors (e.g., unprotected sex, drug use) and negative health sequelae (e.g., sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancy).”

Stasko, who co-authored the research with Dr. Pamela Geller of Drexel (this Pamela Geller, not that one), wanted to know if maybe researchers were taking slightly too prudish an approach: Open sexual communication, after all, is an important part of fulfilling romantic relationships, and that’s what sexting is — even if it takes a raunchy (and misspelling-laden) form. To learn more about sexting practices and how they correlate with relationship and sexual satisfaction, Stasko and Geller conducted an Amazon Mechanical Turk survey.

As with any single survey, it’s important not to overextrapolate from the results. But Stasko’s survey has a decent sample size of 870 Americans — albeit a disproportionately white one (about 80 percent) — and solid age diversity, with respondents ranged from ages 18 to 82. Three-quarters were in a relationship at the time they took the survey.

It would appear that basically everyone is sexting at this point: “Results show that sexting behavior is common among American adults, with the majority (87.80%) of the sample reported having sexted in their lifetime and 82.20% reported sexting within the last year,” Stasko notes. Here’s a rundown of some of the other topline results:

Lifetime sexting partners ranged from 0 to 100 (M = 3.52; SD = 6.83). The majority of participants endorsed having sexted from a cell or smart phone (95.9%) and in the context of a committed relationship (73.9%), but casual relationships were frequently selected as the setting for sexting (43.0%). Only 12.1% of participants reported having sexted in a cheating relationship. Home was the most frequently reported setting for sexting (76.1%), but almost 30% of participants reported work or “out and about” as locations from which they sext.

As for connections between sexting and relationship well-being, overall, the authors found that “for individuals who are not in a ‘very committed’ relationship, sexting is positively associated with satisfaction; however, for individuals who describe their relationship as being ‘very committed,’ sexting is unrelated to satisfaction.” More broadly, they observed a “robust relationship between sexting and sexual satisfaction.” They finish with a call for more research: “This rethinking of sexting within a sexual health framework that includes not only risk, but also pleasure has exciting potential implications for novel clinical interventions.”

It probably makes the most sense to put sexting panic in the context of other youth panics. Behaviors that are human and normal and healthy — having and talking about sex (when done in a safe and consensual way, of course) — tend to take on dark hues when it’s — gasp! — teenagers engaging in them. Throw in the ability that new and (up until recently, in the case of texting) unfamiliar technology has to amplify these concerns, and it’s easy to understand why most of the scrutiny sexting has received has been of the negative variety. But Stasko’s research suggests, in a common-sense way, that things are more complicated than some of the hysterical headlines of the last few years might have you think.