Unsolicited, explicit photos arrive in your inbox when you pick up your phone from the morning. It takes you a while to identify the return address as someone that you have just met through an online dating site. They shamelessly sent the photo under their own name. It makes you wonder what you might say or do to show that you are open to receiving this explicit communication. How do you respond?
This behavior has been studied in research.
Brenda K. Wiederhold observes that, in today’s world, sexting has “gone mainstream.” As many parents would be quick to caution, however, the popularity of a behavior does not make it sensible, smart, or safe. In a world where images go viral instantaneously, forever accessible “in the cloud,” everyone is familiar with this advice: if you do not want a future relationship, job, or opportunity to be jeopardized by salacious selfies—don’t take any. But people do. We are asking the question: Why?
Wiederhold notes that studies suggest that among other motivations, people sext when they perceive it as low risk, or an activity that is “fun and carefree.” She notes that other research found sexting to be associated with people “who score high in a search for sensation, impulsiveness, and who are prone to risky activities.”
Others have also looked into the relationship between sexting, personality traits, and sexting. Evita March and Danielle L. Wagstaff examined predictors of sending unsolicited sexually explicit images in a piece entitled “Sending Nudes” (2017). They looked at the relationship between dark and light. Personality traits like narcissism and Machiavellianism as well as psychopathy and self-rated value of mate in determining mindset, behavior, and sending unwelcome, sexually explicit images can be attributed to personality traits.
March and Wagstaff explored sexting in connection with online dating behavior, defining sexting as sending photos of one’s own genitals, which they refer to in their study as explicit images. They adopted a research-based definition of sexting in general as “sending sexually suggestive messages, either using explicit language or nude/nearly nude photos and videos.”
Sexting, Sexual Deviance
March and Wagstaff mention that prior research has labelled sexing as sexually deviant behaviour, beyond the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. They also note that sexing has been associated with other risky behavior, such as drinking and unprotected sex.
Regarding potentially relevant personality traits, they examined the link between sexting and the Dark Tetrad, consisting of Machiavellianism, psychopathy, narcissism, and sadism—all traits that are considered to be socially aversive and linked with antisocial behavior, including sexual coercion. They also note that trait psychopathy (sadism) and trait psychopathy have been strongly linked with sexual deviance.
March and Wagstaff raised the question of whether dark personality traits could motivate sexually exploitive behavior, including sending unsolicited sexually explicit images—which could constitute a form of online sexual harassment.
Sexting as a Marital Strategy
Wagstaff and March note that sexting may be motivated by more than just deviant personality traits. They note that research has described risky sexual behavior as a sexual strategy, finding that both men and women “prefer short-term mates who are risk-takers over risk avoiders.” Consequently, due to the risks which include damage to one’s reputation, they note that sending sexually explicit photos, particularly when they are unsolicited, “may act as a signal of one’s willingness to engage in risky behaviors, therefore acting as a signal of their mate value.”
In their study, which contained 240 participants (72% female), March and Wagstaff summarize their findings by noting that “behavior and attitudes toward the sending of unsolicited explicit images are associated with being male, higher self-rated mate-value, and Machiavellianism, all of which suggest the sending of explicit images could be an extreme form of short-term mating strategy.”
Although their speculation is speculative, they acknowledge that their research was the first to examine potential motivations for engaging this behavior online. This suggests future directions.
Short Term Mating Versus Marriage
Many people don’t go online to find short-term partners, but are looking for marriage material. People don’t expect that they will find explicit images or sexually explicit photos when they use the internet. In an online dating context, it is important to establish boundaries and share your expectations in relation to the potential partner.
With 16 years in the adult industry, including many years at LELO, it’s fair to say Stu has been around the sex toy block a few times. As LELO’s resident sex geek, he’s been featured in the Independent, the Guardian, HuffPost, Vice, Cosmopolitan, and anywhere people talk about sex. In a regular op ed, he shines his light on the key events that are affecting sex today. These views are his.