If you’ve ever felt compelled to snap a photo of yourself in varying states of undress and then shoot your steamy highlights over to a person you’re into, you’re not alone. These days, sexting—sharing sexually explicit messages and photos—is a totally normal part of adult sexuality and sexual expression. Research has found some 87 percent of adults have sexted in their lifetime, as have about one in seven teens.
When practiced consensually, sexting can be a healthy way to express your sexuality and a lot of fun for everyone involved; past studies have shown sexting can make both casual and committed relationships more satisfying, and some sex therapists even recommend the activity to couples as a way of creating more playful sexual energy in their relationship.
But why exactly do people choose to sext? Is it for pleasure and connection, or does it stem from social pressures? New research suggests the answer is pretty complex.
Some people sext to keep up with other people’s expectations.
Morgan Johnstonbaugh, a sociological researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona, recently surveyed more than 1,000 college students from seven U.S. universities about the last time they’d sent a nude photo and why they did it. Nearly half mentioned at least one disempowering reason for sending the nude, including doing it to just satisfy the recipient’s request (40 percent), doing it to prevent the person from losing interest in them (16 percent), or doing it to stop the person from looking at pictures of other people (7 percent).
Women were four times more likely than men to say they sent a naked photo to someone for one of these reasons. (The research did not address the sexting habits of people of any other genders). Johnstonbaugh suggests that this major gender difference is because people still believe in what sociologists call the sexual double standard — the idea that men have an uncontrollable, voracious sex drive, and women are the gatekeepers of sexual activity.
"With this idea in mind, women may feel pressured to share images with their boyfriends in order to keep them interested or to please their appetite,"Johnstonbaugh said in a news release on the research.
For some, sexting is a way to claim agency.
There’s an upside here: Nearly 36 percent of people mentioned at least one empowering reason they sent their naked photo out — including 29 percent who did it to boost their confidence and 23 percent who did it literally because it felt empowering. There was a pretty big gender difference here too: Women were four times more likely to say they sent a sext to feel empowered and twice as likely to say they did it to feel confident.
“Looking at behaviorally and operationally, sexting starts out as a form of exhibitionistic auto-eroticism, it’s a form of solo-sex in itself, and could act as foreplay to masturbation,” psychologist and sex researcher Dulcinea Pitagora, Ph.D., LCSW, CST, recently told Mic regarding this study’s findings. “Control and power are often arousing for women. Sexting might be a means of taking ownership over and controlling the composition of self-objectification, and taking control over and literally reframing the male gaze.”
For people of any gender, sexting can be a way to celebrate your body and take pleasure in your sexuality.
“Doing anything that makes you feel sexy and in charge of your own desires can be empowering,” certified sex coach Myisha Battle tells O.school. “ [...]What is sexually empowering for one person may not be for others. What's important is that everyone learns what feels sexually empowering to them as an individual.”
It can also just be a good way to communicate sexual interest.
Aside from the strictly negative or positive reasons, Battle points out that many people also have much simpler motivations for sexting.
“People sext for a variety of reasons ranging from wanting to share a sexual experience to sheer boredom,” she says. “We live in a time when sexual gratification is only a swipe away and more and more people feel comfortable sharing their desires online with existing and potential partners as well as straight-up strangers. Whatever the reason, people use sexting as a way to satisfy their need for sexual connection.”
Development psychologist and sex researcher Michelle Drouin, Ph.D., says the pressure to be sexy for a partner can at times be a main motivator for people to send nudes, but she also notes that sexting can often be blended in with the usual process of courtship and intimacy-building. “Most people say they usually send nudes for fun, flirtation, as a way to build intimacy, or as an initiator for sexual activity,” she tells O.school. “In our technology-focused world, people are able to reach each other despite geographic and time constraints. Therefore, sexting is increasingly perceived as a means of communicating sexual feelings and motivations at a distance.”
If you’re wondering about whether you should sext or whether your own sexting habits are healthy, Battle recommends just taking a moment to consider how doing it makes you feel.
“If sexting makes you feel sexy or helps you fulfill your sexual needs, keep on going!” she says. “If you hate sexting, let your potential sexting partner know that. It's okay to not be into sexting! There are plenty of other ways you can express your turn-ons with them.”
Whether you love sexting, are just getting into it, or want to try it, know that as with any sexual activity, there are individual risks when it comes to sending someone naked photos of yourself—from privacy issues to legal ones when children and teens are involved.