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Complexities of Sexting

The Complexities of Sexting: Motivations, Outcomes, and Relationships

Written by: Marcus Cormier

Photo by Klaus Nielsen from Pexels

              Along with the boom in popularity of smartphones (see our recent blog post on Mobile Sensing), over the years teenagers and young adults have had greater access to technology that allows them to send each other pictures, GIFs, videos, memes, voice memos, and of course sexts. Sexting has become pretty common, with recent research estimating that around 40% of 18-29 year-olds have sent or received a sext [1]. This has led to researchers being interested in the possible negative consequences of sexting in this emerging adult age group.

              Research has found that sexting is linked with poorer mental health, and an increased risk of online sexual violence & cyberbullying, such as sexts being forwarded without consent [2]–[4]. Contrary to popular belief, sexting is not all bad! Research has also uncovered that sexting allows for sexual intimacy when in person contact is limited, like during the pandemic [5]. So, sexting can have positive outcomes and negative outcomes, but how? Currently, researchers think that the reason why people are sexting makes all the difference.

Motivations for Sexting

              In research on motivation there is thought to be two general types of motivations: externally controlled motivations and autonomous motivations. Externally controlled motivations would be motivations that are caused by people or things other than yourself, so in the context of sexting this could be peer pressure to engage in sexting, to sexting to meet your partner’s needs. Autonomous motivations are your own internal motivations, so for sexting this could be sexting to meet your own needs, or because you find it enjoyable.

              Research has found that when emerging adults sext because of externally controlled reasons, negative consequences like depressive symptoms, self-harm, and worse body esteem were more likely to occur [6]–[8]. However, when emerging adults sext because of autonomous reasons positive consequences like better body esteem, pleasant feelings, and a stronger relationship with the sexting partner were more likely to occur [7], [9]. These findings suggest that motivations for sexting directly (for example, sexting with your partner because you enjoy it, and in turn gaining more body esteem from their validation) or indirectly (for example, feeling pressured to sext by a partner then having your sexts shared online, leading to cyberbullying and depressive feelings) affect the links between sexting behaviours and sexting outcomes.


Additional Factors to Consider

              Besides motivations, there are some other factors to consider when examining sexting outcomes. Attachment styles relate to how people tend to respond emotionally in their relationships. Avoidant attachment (where people text to be emotionally avoidant with their partner) has been associated with more often sexting [10], [11]. This could be to keep their partner at a distance, and to keep conversations less emotion based. However, results are mixed, as attachment avoidance has also been associated with less sexting [12].

              When looking at committed (or long-term) versus casual relationships, it seems that the amount couples sext is associated with longer relationships, meaning sexting can be a new way for couples to maintain intimacy and satisfaction in the long term [13]. However, it seems that couples who have been together for a long time seem to sext less, possibly due to a loss of intimacy [14].

              Lastly, looking at gender and sexuality, research shows that cisgender men are more likely to send and receive sexts [1]. However, cisgender women are more likely to experience negative outcomes of sexting [15]. Gender minority groups more often experience pressure to sext [17]. Meanwhile, LGBQ+ adults are more likely to send sexts compared to heterosexual adults [16].

              The factors, attachment style, relationship status, gender, and sexual orientation, are obviously all important to consider when examining sexting behaviours on top of all of the considerations about motivations. This is beginning to become a lot to keep track of…


Our Study

              Because of this, the PROSIT lab is conducting a study on sexting behaviours motivations and outcomes! We will recruit 500 18-29 year-olds who are in a committed or causal relationship and who have sexted with their partner in the past 3 months. Participants will complete a demographic questionnaire and surveys on their sexting behaviours, motivations for sexting, negative and positive sexting outcomes, mental health symptoms, attachment, and many relationship factors. Then 6 weeks later, participants will complete these same surveys again to assess changes over time. If you are interesting is signing up for this study, please check out our screening and consent forms:

              Please stay tuned in the next year to hear updates and results from our sexting study! Results from this study will inform future research, interventions, and hopefully future sex education on the complex potential outcomes of sexting, and how adolescents and emerging adults can more successfully and healthily approach sexting in their relationships. If you want to learn more, come stop by my poster at Psychiatry Research Day 2023, on October 27th!




 [1]        C. Mori et al., “The Prevalence of Sexting Behaviors Among Emerging Adults: A Meta-Analysis,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 49, no. 4, pp. 1103–1119, May 2020, doi: 10.1007/s10508-020-01656-4.

[2]         E. G. Benotsch, D. J. Snipes, A. M. Martin, and S. S. Bull, “Sexting, Substance Use, and Sexual Risk Behavior in Young Adults,” Journal of Adolescent Health, vol. 52, no. 3, pp. 307–313, Mar. 2013, doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.06.011.

[3]         C. Mori, J. R. Temple, D. Browne, and S. Madigan, “Association of Sexting With Sexual Behaviors and Mental Health Among Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” JAMA Pediatrics, vol. 173, no. 8, pp. 770–779, Aug. 2019, doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.1658.

[4]         A. M. Gassó, K. Mueller-Johnson, and I. Montiel, “Sexting, Online Sexual Victimization, and Psychopathology Correlates by Sex: Depression, Anxiety, and Global Psychopathology,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 17, no. 3, Art. no. 3, Jan. 2020, doi: 10.3390/ijerph17031018.

[5]         K. M. Hertlein, C. Shadid, and S. M. Steelman, “Exploring Perceptions of Acceptability of Sexting in Same-Sex, Bisexual, Heterosexual Relationships and Communities,” Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 342–357, Oct. 2015, doi: 10.1080/15332691.2014.960547.

[6]         M. Drouin and E. Tobin, “Unwanted but consensual sexting among young adults: Relations with attachment and sexual motivations,” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 31, pp. 412–418, Feb. 2014, doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2013.11.001.

[7]         E. Bragard and C. B. Fisher, “Associations between sexting motivations and consequences among adolescent girls,” Journal of Adolescence, vol. 94, no. 1, pp. 5–18, 2022, doi: 10.1002/jad.12000.

[8]         S. Wachs, M. F. Wright, M. Gamez-Gaudix, and N. Doring, “How Are Consensual, Non-Consensual, and Pressured Sexting Linked to Depression and Self-Harm? The Moderating Effects of Demographic Variables,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 18, no. 5, p. 2597, 2021, doi: 10.3390/ijerph18052597.

[9]         L. Le, L. D. Goegan, and L. M. Daniels, “The Impact of Autonomous and Controlled Sexting Motivations on Subjective Well-being and Relationship Quality,” Arch Sex Behav, vol. 52, no. 1, pp. 243–254, Jan. 2023, doi: 10.1007/s10508-022-02361-0.

[10]M. Drouin and C. Landgraff, “Texting, sexting, and attachment in college students’ romantic relationships,” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 444–449, Mar. 2012, doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2011.10.015.

[11]L. Trub and T. J. Starks, “Insecure attachments: Attachment, emotional regulation, sexting and condomless sex among women in relationships,” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 71, pp. 140–147, Jun. 2017, doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2017.01.052.

[12]R. S. Weisskirch, M. Drouin, and R. Delevi, “Relational Anxiety and Sexting,” Journal of Sex Research, vol. 54, no. 6, pp. 685–693, Aug. 2017, doi: 10.1080/00224499.2016.1181147.

[13]J. J. Beckmeyer,  this link will open in a new window Link to external site, H. Debby, and H. Eastman-Mueller, “Sexting with Romantic Partners During College: Who Does It, Who Doesn’t and Who Wants To,” Sexuality & Culture, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 48–66, Feb. 2022, doi: 10.1007/s12119-021-09878-x.

[14]TrentS. Parker, KristynM. Blackburn, MarthaS. Perry, and JillianM. Hawks, “Sexting as an Intervention: Relationship Satisfaction and Motivation Considerations,” American Journal of Family Therapy, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 1–12, Feb. 2013, doi: 10.1080/01926187.2011.635134.

[15]M. Drouin, M. Coupe, and J. R. Temple, “Is sexting good for your relationship? It depends …,” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 75, pp. 749–756, Oct. 2017, doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2017.06.018.

[16]M. Morelli, D. Bianchi, R. Baiocco, L. Pezzuti, and A. Chirumbolo, “Sexting, Psychological Distress and Dating Violence Among Adolescents and Young Adults,” Psicothema, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 137–142, 2016, doi: 10.7334/psicothema2015.193.

[17]J. Van Ouytsel, M. Walrave, L. De Marez, B. Vanhaelewyn, and K. Ponnet, “A first investigation into gender minority adolescents’ sexting experiences,” Journal of Adolescence, vol. 84, no. 1, pp. 213–218, 2020, doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2020.09.007.


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