We heard about the dangers of teen "sexting" for years, then in December 2011 a study published in the journal Pediatrics found that teen sexting was not as prevalent as had been previously reported. The study found that 1 percent of children aged 10 to 17 were engaging in "adult" communication, and seemed to discredit the often-circulated estimate that as many as one in five teenage girls were sexting. Parents expressed relief and many people seemed to move on.
However, new data indicates that the conversation about sexting is far from over -- because a whole lot of adults are doing it. Mashable reported that a U.K.-based mobile news site, Recombu, found that 47 percent of adults in England send texts to their significant others. And of that 47 percent, about one in 10 have sent a "not suitable for work" message to the wrong person. (Yikes!)
WHAT IS SEXTING AND WHO DOES IT?
Some studies have defined sexting specifically as the sending of nude or partially nude photographs over text message. However, anecdotally, people extend the definition to include sexually explicit and suggestive words as well.
Although most of the research done on sexting has focused on teenagers, a 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, as part of its Internet & American Life Project, also studied adults. The survey looked specifically at "sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images" sent via text message. The resulting statistics -- although limited since they only refer to sexts containing photos -- give us a good jumping off point with which to understand how many adults are taking part in this sort of behavior.
The survey, which interviewed 2,252 adults by phone in May 2010, found that 6 percent of adults admitted to sending these type of explicit messages, but 15 percent said they had received them. The numbers go up when looking at adults in the 30-49 and 18-29 ranges (many of the younger adults grew up in the internet/texting/AIM age). Thirteen percent of adults 18-29 admitted to sending sexts, while 31 percent said that they had been on the receiving end. So young adults are the most likely to sext, and while there are a substantial number of adults who engage in sexting with images, the study shows that it's not something "everyone is doing."
THE DARK SIDE OF SEXTING
The negative aspects of adult sexting may seem obvious. The ease with which one can communicate through a smartphone means that some missteps will likely occur. "It can be extremely negative," says relationship coach Carol Allen. "If you had a few too many [drinks] out with friends, you didn't used to have a way to totally embarrass yourself and ruin your life." Now it seems that for some people the Millennial equivalent of "don't drink and drive" has become "don't drink and text."
This ease of smartphones can also create a false sense of intimacy for the parties involved, regardless of whether alcohol enters the picture. “Phones specifically feel more intimate than computers,” Allen says. “It’s your phone! It’s small, it’s in your pocket. It feels like it’s just you and your phone.” And although a sext may seem private, it’s just as easy to forward a sext as it is to send. It’s this false security that can get people into trouble when they sext -- especially if they are involved in a separate, committed relationship.
Being on the receiving end of an unsolicited sext can also be a dangerous situation, especially when it crosses the line into harassment. "When it's used as [a tool for] flirtation among adults ... it's very very risky, both for the sender and receiver," says Lois Braverman, president of the Ackerman Institute for the Family, an organization focused on family therapy services, training and research.
A 22-year-old writer, Emily*, told The Huffington Post via email that she engaged in a casual texting relationship with an acquaintance two years ago that took a turn toward the inappropriate:
One day, my phone buzzed and there it was. Bam. His penis. I tossed my phone on my bed and gasped. Then realized I'd have to pick it back up eventually -- and so I did. I told him that his package was not something I wanted to see, and asked him to never do something like that again. He laughed it off and told me to relax. Relax? I felt violated.
And beyond public scandal and harassment, missteps during sexting can result in your basic, run-of-the-mill shame and embarrassment -- even for people who feel generally safe and comfortable doing sexting. Ashley*, 24, who describes herself as someone who “sexts all the time” with her long-term boyfriend, spoke about a time that she accidentally sent an explicit message (words only) to a platonic male friend from college instead of her boyfriend. “I will never, ever live that down,” she told HuffPost. “He thought it was hilarious and didn’t really care … but he makes sure to bring it up anytime I ever see him.”
WHEN SEXTING BUILDS INTIMACY
Many experts say that sexting isn’t all bad. In fact, they say it can actually be positive for adult intimacy, depending on the situation. “Generally the hysteria over ‘sexting’ is [because] it’s seen as ilicit or transgressive; as an expression of cheating,” says Esther Perel, a therapist and author of “Mating in Captivity.” “But it can be many other things.”
Both Perel and Braverman told The Huffington Post that in their clinical experience, most people sending explicit, flirtatious text messages are doing so sans nude photos. And using words (and images) can be a very powerful medium for building intimacy. "We've always sent photographs, drawings, written to each other," Perel says. "Sex and love online gives you [the ability] to express yourself in ways that you [normally] do not."
This sentiment can apply to people who are single as well as those in long-term, committed relationships. Author Penelope Trunk, 40, blogged for The Daily Beast about the joys of sexting in a casual, long-distance relationship in June 2011:
We texted all the time. This created many moral dilemmas, such as, can I text about a blow job while I'm eating McFlurries with my kids. (Answer: Yes)
Do not tell me that sending naked photos of myself is dangerous. Because sure, he could show it to his friends, but so what? I look great.
And for couples having difficulties in the bedroom, sexting can serve as foreplay. "[Couples] can reconnect with the erotic dimension of their sexual relations," Perel says. "I have found sexting to be a very creative intervention for couples trying to rekindle their relationships."
The American Association of Retired Persons even published an article, titled "Sexting Not Just for Kids," on how sexting can spice up boomer relationships.
Experts differ on their feelings concerning the role sexting plays in infidelity, but say that sexting -- like any other form of illicit activity that doesn't involve one's long-term partner -- can be experienced as a betrayal.
A GENDER DIVIDE?
According to Allen, there are gender differences that exist when it comes to technology and intimacy in general. "Men aren't as verbal as [women] are," she says. "[Most] women wish men would pick up the phone ... [but] men feel more in control texting."
This might be true in general, but a survey conducted by Diane Kholos Wysocki, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and Cheryl D. Childers, a professor of sociology at Washburn University, found that the opposite dynamics exist. Released in July 2011, the survey focused on 5,187 users of AshleyMadison.com, a social networking and dating website built around matching up married men and women. Within this population, two-thirds of the women had sexted, while only half of the men had. Recombu's survey also found that women had sexted more than men -- although only slightly more (48 percent compared to 45 percent). However, when men did sext, they were more likely to sext the wrong person, and were also more likely than women to initiate the sexting exchanges.
Experts say the bottom line is that many adults are sexting to express themselves sexually -- but must be careful in the ways they use it. "The act itself is neutral, what matters is how it's used," Allen says. "So readers, if you do choose to sext ... sext wisely."
*The names of certain people have been changed to protect their identities.