News coverage of sexting tends to focus on the negative. When teens and politicians get caught exchanging nude pictures and lascivious messages on their phones, they’re publicly shamed. And their relationships can suffer profoundly, as when Anthony Weiner’s wife left him after The New York Post published the disgraced politician’s extramarital sexts.
But is there a positive side to sexting? Could it contribute to healthier and more satisfying relationships for adults? The research to date says yes—but only in certain conditions. It also says that sexting has become extremely common.
“Sending someone a sext message is not much different than writing an 1800’s erotic love note,” says Joe Currin, research coordinator for the Sexual Health Research Lab at Oklahoma State University. “Behaviors are adapting to the use of newer technologies. We just now have the ability to express our sexuality in real time.”
So what factors make the difference between good sexting and bad sexting? Here’s a list.
1. Enthusiastic consent
This should go without saying, but common sense plus research says that sexting needs to be mutual, enthusiastic, and consensual. Sexting gets a bad name partially because too many people receive unsolicited and unwanted nude pictures. Properly speaking, this is sexual harassment, not sexting, and it can be scary.
People can also be compelled to sext against their will, which may be linked to other kinds of abuse. A study published last month in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that 21 percent of the 885 undergraduates surveyed—most of them women—had been coerced at some point into providing sexual messages. The study also linked coerced sexting to “mental health symptoms, sexual problems, and attachment dysfunction,” which leads the researchers to describe it as a form of intimate partner abuse. In fact, this and several studies published last year suggest that coerced sexting may be a danger sign that the relationship could involve physical coercion or even violence.
This leads to the next condition for successful sexting.
2. Emotional safety, respect, and communication
Sexting is not the same as sex, in the sense that bodies are not directly interacting. It is, rather, minds interacting through phones. Just as sex flourishes in conditions of physical safety and respect, so sexting requires a certain degree of emotional safety if it is to work for both parties. When that condition is absent, sexting hurts the relationship.
This may sound simple, but the research reveals some tricky nuances. A study published earlier this year found that people who feared looking bad in the eyes of their partners were more likely to engage in sexting, suggesting that while the sexts weren’t necessarily coerced, they were being exchanged only to please a partner, not themselves. It suggests, further, that they didn’t feel confident enough in the relationship to simply say “no” to unwanted sexual activity.
Currin’s research with colleagues actually finds that heterosexual women feel a lot of anxiety when they don’t want to reply to a sext—but lesbians and men do not. Why? It may have a lot to do with the degree to which a woman wants to conform to a traditionally feminine ideal—what Currin calls a “controlling image”—which pits pressure to comply against seeing sexts as simply lewd.
“For non-heterosexual individuals, they’re already going against what society says they should be doing—so doing this other behavior doesn’t bother me if it doesn’t bother the other person,” says Currin.
This line of research suggests sexting needs to occur within the wider context of honest, back-and-forth conversation. How does your partner really feel about sexting? What kinds of sexts are acceptable and what are not? In what circumstances, if any, could pictures or text be shared? Is there a type of communication that feels threatening or just uncomfortable? While it may seem not-fun to have such conversations, their absence can destroy a relationship.
This is especially the case when a partner has past bad experiences—or an insecure attachment style.
3. Pay attention to attachment
The most interesting dimension of sexting research involves attachment theory, which refers to how childhood relationships with our parents can shape our adult ones. People who grow up to have a secure attachment style find intimacy easy; those with anxious or even avoidant styles might struggle with closeness and cooperation.
Sexting can help a couple become more attuned to each other, says Rob Weisskirch, a researcher at California State University, Monterey Bay. But many studies find that it can also hint at anxiety. According to this research, insecurely attached people are more likely to engage in sexting—and this, for them, is actually associated with greater relationship satisfaction. Why, and what this means, is still a matter of debate among researchers and therapists.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that sexting is unhealthy, says Indiana University psychologist Michelle Drouin. “Instead, it is more likely that those who want to keep a bit more distance in their relationship (and women who want to keep partners closer) use sexting to fill sexual needs. For these individuals, sexting may actually help them by increasing their sexual or relationship satisfaction.”
The bottom line is that in this dimension of a relationship, as in others, it pays to know your attachment style—and that of your partner. “Recognize the attachment pattern and look for ways of providing the feedback needed,” suggests Weisskirch. (Incidentally, one Hungarian study published last year found that attachment style can even extend to our relationship with our phones.)
4. (Creative) honesty
Like other items on this list, honesty falls into the category of obvious-but-tricky. Several studies suggest that deception-while-sexting is commonplace—and this is especially true for women who try to avoid emotional connection and intimacy, often as a result of childhood experiences.
A 2014 study by Michelle Drouin and colleagues found that almost half of the people in their sample of 155 heterosexual college students had sent deceptive sexts. These were often benign or even playful lies about what they were wearing or their state of arousal that were intended to entertain or titillate their partners. Women lied far more often than men, but mainly if they were anxiously attached—implying that they worried their significant other might go away if he didn’t get what he wanted.
“Lying during sexting, just like pretending orgasm in a face-to-face context, is more likely to occur among those with insecure attachments to relationship partners,” write the authors.
So, should you never lie when sexting? Instead of making up sexy details or responses, is it better just to say, “I’m bored” or “I’m grocery shopping” or “I’m wearing that pair of underwear that sags around my butt”? To Drouin, it really depends.
“In a follow-up paper I’ve done, but not yet published, I found that many people consider sexting just fantasy,” says Drouin. “They use sexting to spice things up, and few are honest about what they are doing, wearing, or intending to do with a partner. Additionally, most people know and expect that others aren’t being honest during sexting.”
So is it better build up a fantasy or keep it real? “Depends on your personal boundaries, both sexually and in terms of how authentic you want your interaction to be,” says Drouin.
Which gets us back to consent, safety, communication, and emotional security. “Sure, sexting might be used to spice up a sexual relationship, but if one partner or another doesn’t feel like the communication is appropriate or authentic, it could also cause issues in the relationship,” says Drouin. At its best, sexting is playful and imaginative. If everyone is knowingly and voluntarily participating in the fantasy, it’s fun. If they’re not, it can hurt the relationship.
“Sext with caution would be my suggestion,” she adds. “Better yet—have sex instead. Real intimacy is much more fulfilling than the computer-mediated type.”