Sexting is apparently here to stay. According to a recent study, 1 in 4 American teens have received a sext, and 1 in 7 teens have sent one. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the most frequent sexters are between the ages of 18 and 20, as Generation Z-ers (between the ages of 16-20) have taken the technological use of millennials (ages 21-34) to a whole new level.
But even if sexting is increasing in popularity and becoming “the new normal,” does that mean that it is “harmless fun” and free of consequences? Recent research conducted by Sarah Matthews, Traci Giuliano, Kayleigh Thomas, Maddie Straup, and Martin Martinez (from Southwestern University in Texas) suggests that the answer is a resounding “no,” especially for men who send unsolicited sexts to women.
In their study, college students were randomly assigned to read one of four hypothetical sext exchanges between students and to rate the appropriateness of the exchange; specifically, participants read about either a man or a woman who sent either a solicited or an unsolicited nude photo of themselves to an opposite-sex acquaintance.
As predicted, the results showed that when sext messages were solicited or asked for by the recipient, there was no difference in the perceived appropriateness of men’s and women’s actions. However, when the sext messages were unsolicited, or not asked for, people found men’s actions to be less appropriate than women’s.
The bottom line is that unsolicited sexts from men specifically are not well received — by either the recipients or by others who are aware of the sexts — because they are perceived as harassing and threatening to women.
A double standard?
The double standard in reactions to unsolicited sexts mirrors a larger sexual double standard in society: Our culture teaches men to be the sexual initiators and aggressors (to satisfy the masculine “ideal” of hypersexuality), whereas women are encouraged to present themselves as sexual objects (in real life and in the digital world). Just like in real life, unwanted advances through texting are not welcomed by women because they feel uncomfortable.
By contrast, because men are traditionally rewarded for sexual behavior (and for being desired by women), reactions to men receiving unsolicited sexts from women are much more positive (or at least neutral) and non-threatening.
The importance of consent
When sexts sent by men are solicited or asked for by women, it’s a completely different story. Indeed, research shows that up to 75% of Americans exchange nude photos by text with their romantic partners, and that this increasingly common relationship milestone is seen as a way to increase intimacy and make a relationship more exciting. Research also confirms that this strategy can be effective, as married couples who sext each other report increased relationship and sexual satisfaction.
Education is key
Both men and women need to be educated that sexts are not just “harmless pictures” or “harmless fun” when they are not solicited. As the #MeToo movement has shown, such behaviors have real consequences not only for women who suffer from harassment but for men as well, who can also feel uncomfortable when faced with unwanted advances.
Although some might advocate that we try to ban sexting or dissuade teens from engaging in it entirely, experts suggest that — the same way comprehensive sex education has far better outcomes than abstinence-only alternatives — we acknowledge that sexting is here to stay and instead discuss consensual sexting in the context of relationships; specifically, we should teach teens the importance of treating others with respect, appropriate responses to feeling pressured, and how to make healthy decisions (for themselves and their relationships) overall.
These findings are described in the article entitled Not cool, dude: Perceptions of solicited vs. unsolicited sext messages from men and women, recently published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. This work was conducted by Sarah J. Matthews, Traci A. Giuliano, Kayleigh H. Thomas, Maddie L. Straup, and Martin A. Martinez from Southwestern University.