You pick up your phone in the morning, only to be surprised by an unsolicited, sexually explicit photo in your inbox. Unprepared for the visual, it takes you a minute to recognize the return address as someone you recently met on an online dating site, who has shamelessly sent you the photo using their own name. You wonder what you might have said or done to indicate you would be receptive to this type of explicit communication. And how do you respond?
Research has explored the motivation behind this type of behavior.
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. The question is, 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.”
Other researchers have explored the link between sexting and specific personality characteristics. Evita March and Danielle L. Wagstaff examined predictors of sending unsolicited sexually explicit images in a piece entitled “Sending Nudes” (2017). They examined the link between dark personality traits such as narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism, and self-rated mate value in determining mindset and behavior in connection with sending unsolicited, sexually explicit images.
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 and Sexual Deviance
March and Wagstaff note that prior research has labeled sexting as sexually deviant behavior, outside the bounds of what is socially acceptable. They note sexting has been linked with other risky behavior such as drug and alcohol consumption, as well as 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 note that sadism and trait psychopathy, in particular, have been strongly associated 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 Mating Strategy
March and Wagstaff also note, however, that sexting might be motivated by factors other than 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.”
While speculative, they recognize their research as the first study to explore potential motivations for engaging in this behavior in an online context, which suggests directions for future research.
Short Term Mating Versus Marriage
Many people are not online looking for short-term mates, but marriage material. Consequently, they do not expect to find sexually explicit images when they pick up their phone. Sharing relational expectations and establishing boundaries sooner rather than later in an online dating context may set the scene for what (and how much) you expect to see in a prospective partner in the future.