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Why do we sext? It's about more than just lust, says new research

New research shows that sexting may be a complex form of communication rather than just a contemporary thirst telegram. Morgan Johnstonbaugh, a researcher at the University of Arizona, has been exploring what sexts can tell us about gender, relationships, pleasure, and performance — and she's come some telling conclusions.

"My goal was to disentangle the pressures young people are experiencing, and to get a better understanding of why they are sending these images and what potential benefits they might be hoping for," Johnstonbaugh told Eurekalert about her research. Her team looked into the “why” behind our sexting habits and behaviors. What are we trying to gain from that spread-eagle selfie? Spoiler alert: It’s not all about pleasing the receiver.

Johnstonbaugh sent a survey a diverse body of around 1,000 students at seven universities across the US and conducted 101 in-depth interviews (it was a smallish study, but still important because we have so little data that examines the intersections of technology, sex, and psychology.) She asked the students 23 questions about the motivations behind their sexting behavior that aimed to understand the complexity of sext communication.

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Respondents and interviewees were able to include multiple motivations for sending texts, and what Johnstonbaugh found was that the impetus to send sexts is complex and nuanced, particularly for women. In her interpretation of the results, Johnstonbaugh found that women were four times more likely than men to send texts in order to feel personally empowered.

“Looked at behaviorally and operationally, sexting starts out as a form of exhibitionistic auto-eroticism, is a form of solo-sex in itself, and could act as foreplay to masturbation,” says Dulcinea Pitagora, an New York City-based psychologist and sex researcher, who is unaffiliated with the aforementioned research. Johnstonbaugh's findings resonated with Pitagora: Sexting is not just about the recipient; it’s an activity that people take personal pleasure in, even before they hit send.

I can see this impulse in my own behavior. Sometimes I take lusty selfies and send them to absolutely no one. While I dig getting a flattering face-fanning gif reply, most of the pleasure is in the process itself.

Addressing Johnstonbaugh's theories about women sexting for empowerment, Pitagora says, “Control and power are often arousing for women. Sexting might be a means of taking ownership over and controlling the composition of self-objectification, and taking control over and literally reframing the male gaze.” There seem to be layers to the study participants’ answers though, since Johnstonbaugh told Eureka that it was not uncommon for female respondents to select both empowering and disempowering reasons for sexting.

This makes sense, since Pitagora says that sexting can sometimes be display of nihilism or rebellion. She adds that it’s not always necessarily a safe or good choice – especially if the sext is an image with their face in it — “but it is a choice they are making about what to do with their own bodies.” So while young people’s motivations to sext are complicated, Johnstonbaugh’s research and Pitagora’s comments seem to indicate that young people (women, especially) are using technology to take control over how they are viewed to craft their own ideas about sexuality.