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The Psychology of Sexting

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Photo by Jonas Seaman | CC, Click on image for license and information.

For those of us old enough to remember the deluge of “A/S/L?” messages that predominated the chatroom landscape of the nineties, sexting hardly seems that scandalous. Considering the murky exchanges that often ensued once A/S/L had been satisfied and body measurements had been exchanged, it’s a wonder that we stopped touching ourselves long enough do anything else online. But we did—and we wound up with the Wikipedia while more scintillating content moved behind paywalls.

Though we tend to vilify sending sexually explicit material via images or text through electronic means, and hold it as the height of foolishness to create such a record of intimacy, recognition by popular media suggests a normative element to this type of behavior as long as it’s private. The latter is a common theme to online articles and tools. For example Cosmo Latina, Ask Men and Gizmodo have guides on how to do it, and Mashable has assembled a list of apps that may help your endeavors. They all treat the act as a naughty interlude and suggest ways to keep these messages from public distribution (pro tip: minimize exposing anything that might identify you—like your face), which is actually interesting considering how much intimate information we share through social media in other ways.

While examples from the world of celebrities and politicians demonstrate that there are social risks to this type of behavior—the images/text can be leaked to a larger public resulting in social humiliation and/or rejection (unless it can be sold to the adult entertainment industry) or the material can be construed as harassment if unsolicited or uninvited creating an avenue for legal intervention—clearly people are sexting. A study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking by Dir and colleagues reveals that 80% of undergraduates report having received sext messages, while 67% report having sent messages. Furthermore, 46% percent of undergraduates have received picture sexts, while 64% report having sent sexually suggestive images. So, what’s the appeal?

The researchers suggest that positive expectations about the outcome of sexting may drive the behavior, prompting the individual to overlook possible consequences in favor of the potential rush of exhilaration that may accompany doing something with a bit of social danger attached to it. This hypothesis is based on the idea that then individual’s expectations about the outcome of an act can influence the likelihood of engaging in certain behaviors. Positive expectations can lead individuals to participate in risky behavior (including drinking, gambling, and substance abuse). In the case of sexting, expectancy theory can be applied to both the sender and the recipient, helping to understand both the motivations for sending this kind of material and the responses they elicit. For example, the 611 undergraduates sampled by Dir and colleagues recorded the following responses:

Sending – Positive Sending – Negative Receiving – Positive Receiving – Negative
Sexting makes me feel …
Sexy, Horny, Exciting, Attractive Foolish, Inappropriate, Ashamed, Embarrassed Sexy, Admired, Attractive, Excited Ashamed, Guilty, Disgusting, Dirty


While the sample for this study is admittedly WEIRD, and possibly inclined to risky behavior, the data is reflective of the public perceptions of sexting. In the positive domain, sexting can make a sender feel excited and sexy. It can also make a recipient feel confident, admired, and wanted. These are all powerful feelings that can serve as dis-inhibitory agents and minimize stigma surrounding the act. The most commonly identified negative expectation reported was that sexting may cause you to feel embarrassed. Additionally, shame, awkwardness, and disgust were also listed as negative expectations for both senders and recipients. However, given the culture of sharing that is gaining ground, our threshold for embarrassment may be increasing, which could account for why the positive expectations remains fairly consistent when compared to the negative expectations in guiding behavior.

In this sample, men reported receiving texts more frequently than sending them and reported having multiple sexting partners. Men were also more likely than females to have positive expectancies about sexting. This seems largely reflective of current societal expectations about gender roles and sexual-related behaviors. Additionally, single individuals were less likely to report sexting than people in a serious relationship, which suggests that there is an awareness about privacy and risk. You don’t want to sext someone who won’t be receptive—that would enhance the negative expectancies for both parties, which would not be empowering. But perhaps the most interesting data point is that cohabiting couples reported a greater frequency of sexting than married couples. One would expect that with concerns about privacy and risk, a marriage would be a safe place in which to engage in sexting, however it may be that this type of union is subject to greater societal pressures and more bound to degrees of “appropriateness.”

While the sample in this study is not without limitations, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reveals that adults in their twenties and thirties are quite active in this space: In 2012, 15% of adult cell owners received a sext message, while 6% reported having sent a sext message. The act of sending sexually explicit material via images or text through a mobile phone or web program isn’t a new phenomenon. While it may have been more limited in the past due to technological constraints, people have been creative about hooking up or hinting at hooking up online. Smartphones have certainly helped in this regard. Pew reports that the type of phone people have is also an indicator beyond age and gender as to whether people will engage in sexting: 21% of smartphone owners have received a sext while 9% have received a sext. These numbers have been fairly consistent since 2010, which is the first time Pew investigated how Americans use their phones. It will be interesting to see how they change as our awareness and understanding of privacy merges with technological landscape that facilitates intimate escapades.

Related posts:
The Meaning of Goodbye
The Diminishing Digital Divide
How Do We Wait?

Allyson L. Dir, MS, Ayca Coskunpinar, MS, Jennifer L. Steiner, PhD, and Melissa A. Cyders, PhD (2013). Understanding Differences in Sexting Behaviors Across
Gender, Relationship Status, and Sexual Identity,
and the Role of Expectancies in Sexting CYBERPSYCHOLOGY, BEHAVIOR, AND SOCIAL NETWORKING DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2012.0545

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. The Psychology of Sexting - Scientific American (blog) - What is Infidelity 11:20 am 08/27/2013

    [...] Scientific American (blog) [...]

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  2. 2. ‘Syrian Electronic Army’ claims to have attacked NYT, Twitter, Huffington Post… Facebook reports of government requests… Cyberculture roundup… | Erkan's Field Diary 6:23 pm 08/27/2013

    [...] The Psychology of Sexting [...]

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  3. 3. What Drives Us to Sext? | /Slantist 6:38 pm 08/27/2013

    [...] doing something with a bit of social danger attached to it,” writes Krystal D’Costa on a piece on Scientific American blogs. “In the positive domain, sexting can make a sender feel excited [...]

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  4. 4. QuantumQudosi 9:55 pm 08/27/2013

    Great article. I would have to disagree with the following note on marriage, a point I think was glossed over here and might merit additional research.

    “[Married people are] subject to greater societal pressures and more bound to degrees of ‘appropriateness.’”

    I don’t think it’s about appropriateness. Were the the case, then marriage is the one safe realm where activity can be engaged in freely and without risk. I think in marriage we will likely see a higher risk of negative responses, which defeat the stated purpose here. Marriage for most people (if we cross over into another social studies) is a realm void of sexual excitement because it involves two people for whom a “hook-up” has already occurred. That said, sexting lacks any excitement or hints of future prospects, which essentially is the whole purpose of sexting.

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  5. 5. smcnerne 1:33 pm 08/28/2013

    There are too many articles in the world that start with “Why” “How” and “The Psychology of.” I get nauseous every time I stumble across one.

    Are you suggesting there is a body of research big enough to warrant such an audacious title? I can assure you this is not a trivial criticism. As soon as readers see “Psychology” or “Neuro” they digest what they read uncritically, assuming that a simple prefix implies rigorous empiricism.

    Link to this
  6. 6. The Psychology of Sexting | Anthropology in Practice, Scientific American Blog Network | Society for Media Psychology and Technology (APA Division 46) 7:37 pm 08/28/2013

    [...] – Ken [...]

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  7. 7. The Psychology of Sexting - Scientific American - What is Infidelity 8:21 pm 08/28/2013

    [...] Scientific American [...]

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  8. 8. Weekly Science Picks - Australian Science 3:40 am 09/1/2013

    [...] The Psychology of Sexting [...]

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  9. 9. The Psychology of Sexting | Restore Purity / Purity 101 Blog 11:27 am 10/18/2013

    [...] THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SEXTING (Secular)                                                                            For those of us old enough to remember the deluge of “A/S/L?” messages that predominated the chatroom landscape of the nineties, sexting hardly seems that scandalous. This entry was posted in Smartphones & Sexting. Bookmark the permalink. ← Personalized Pornography [...]

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  10. 10. The Psychology of Sexting | Anthropology in Pra... 8:06 pm 03/18/2014

    [...] For those of us old enough to remember the deluge of (@Maura_Lynch6 Purpose of sexting is risky behavior people get out of it…  [...]

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