With the rise of digital technologies, young people have discovered new ways to explore their sexualities through the production of sexual media content, for instance, through sexting (Hasinoff, 2013). Sexting has been defined as “the sending, receiving, or forwarding of sexually explicit messages, images, or photos to others through electronic means, primarily between cellular phones” (Klettke, Hallford, & Mellor, 2014, p. 45). Sexting often occurs between two people in a romantic relationship and has become an increasingly common aspect of young people’s sexual exploration (Bianchi, Morelli, Baiocco, & Chirumbolo, 2016; Levine, 2013). At the same time, these developments have given rise to societal concerns about the non-consensual distribution of such sexual content. Sexting is considered a sexual risk behavior precisely because of the potential of the material being dispersed among many people (e.g., Döring, 2014; Lippman & Campbell, 2014; Ringrose, Harvey, Gill, & Livingstone, 2013; Walker, Sanci, & Temple-Smith, 2013; Yeung, Horyniak, Vella, Hellard, & Lim, 2014).
About 1.1–6.3% of young adults have experienced sexually explicit content of themselves being forwarded without their consent (e.g., Gámez-Guadix, Almendros, Borrajo, & Calvete, 2015; Marganski & Melander, 2018), and higher levels of depression and anxiety and lower levels of self-esteem have been found among victims of such antisocial online sexual behaviors (Priebe & Svedin, 2012). Engaging in the non-consensual forwarding of sexts (NCFS) is considered a form of online harassment (Walker & Sleath, 2017) that seems to be related to other sexual harassment indicators. One study found that sharing of someone else’s sexts without his/her consent was weakly, but significantly, related to both dating violence perpetration and benevolent and hostile sexism (Morelli, Bianchi, Baiocco, Pezzuti, & Chirumbolo, 2016).
Given the associations between NCFS and sexual harassment and lower well-being, it is striking that research has hardly focused on the predictors of this anti-social online sexual behavior. One survey (AP-MTV, 2009) did look at the most common reasons for forwarding sexts, which included the assumption that others wanted to see it, to show off to one’s friends, as a joke, or out of boredom. Such peer-related motives for NCFS have also been found in qualitative research (Van Ouytsel, Van Gool, Walrave, Ponnet, & Peeters, 2017). Moreover, it has been argued that an increasingly sexualized media culture could influence young people’s antisocial online sexual behaviors (Chalfen 2009, 2010; Ringrose et al. 2013). Although scholars have started to investigate media influences on (antisocial) online sexual behaviors in general (Bianchi, Morelli, Baiocco, & Chirumbolo, 2017; Morelli, Bianchi, Baiocco, Pezzuti, & Chirumbolo, 2017; Van Ouytsel, Ponnet, & Walrave 2014), research has not yet considered the potential influence of highly sexualized and sexual stereotypical mass media on NCFS in particular.
Accordingly, the present longitudinal study aimed to investigate whether the exposure to online pornography would predict adolescents’ and emerging adults’ willingness to engage in NCFS. Moreover, in line with previous research and theoretical models attesting to the importance of taking individual differences into account when studying the effects of sexually explicit media use (e.g., 3AM, Wright, 2011; the Confluence Model, Malamuth, Addison, & Koss, 2000; Malamuth & Huppin, 2005; Vega & Malamuth, 2007), we investigated whether the relationship between pornography use and the willingness to engage in NCFS would be most pronounced for youth who hold stronger pre-existing instrumental notions about sex, and whether this would further depend on gender and age (i.e., adolescents versus young adults).
The Willingness to Engage in Non-Consensual Forwarding of Sexts
Studies have shown that between 3 and 24% of adolescents (e.g., Fleschler Peskin et al., 2013; Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, & Wolak, 2012; Strassberg, Rullo, & Mackaronis, 2014; Wood, Barter, Stanley, Aghtaie, & Larkins, 2015), and about 23% of adults (Garcia et al., 2016) have ever engaged in NCFS. This suggests that the large majority of young people still refrain from engaging in such behavior, although social desirability bias may affect these numbers. As NCFS can be considered a form of sexual harassment (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2016; Reed, Tolman, & Ward, 2016; Walker & Sleath, 2017) or antisocial online sexual behavior, it may not be a behavior that most youth deliberately intend to engage in, or admit to have engaged in.
A substantial body of literature has studied sexual behavior, and in particular relatively rare sexual risk or taboo behavior, from a perspective of behavioral willingness (e.g., Gerrard, Gibbons, Houlihan, Stock, & Pomery, 2008; Gibbons, Gerrard, Blanton, & Russell, 1998; Gibbons, Gerrard, & McCoy, 1995). This perspective grew out of the observation that people do not always intend to engage in certain (sexual) risky or taboo behavior, but may be willing to engage in such behavior when the situation lends itself for it. This behavioral willingness, in turn, makes future engagement in the behavior more likely (Gerrard et al., 2008; Gibbons & Gerrard, 1995; Gibbons et al., 1995, 1998).
Behavioral willingness may thus be a particularly relevant construct to investigate in relation to online sexual harassment, and NCFS in particular. It is important to know to what extent adolescents and emerging adults are willing to engage in NCFS, and what predicts such willingness, as it is a likely indication for future engagement in NCFS. For these reasons, the present study focuses on the willingness to engage in NCFS as an outcome variable. Furthermore, research on NCFS has hardly distinguished between different contexts in which such behavior can occur. Previous research did show that the sharing of sexual content is more likely to occur in the context of strangers (Baumgartner, Valkenburg, & Peter, 2010) and that the relationship between sexting and online victimization, and the anticipated consequences of such victimization, depend on the context in which it occurs (e.g., strangers, friends or dating partners, Bennett, Guran, Ramos, & Margolin, 2011; Gámez-Guadix et al., 2015). In the present study, we therefore distinguish between the willingness to engage in NCFS in different contexts, notably the context in which the victim is close to the perpetrator (i.e., friends, romantic relationship partners and dating partners) or not or no longer close to the perpetrator (i.e., strangers and ex-partners).
Predicting the Willingness to Engage in Non-Consensual Forwarding of Sexts: The Role of Pornography Use
The lack of research on mass media content as a predictor of NCFS specifically is surprising given our knowledge on how mass media messages can predict harmful sexual behavior (Wright, 2011). More specifically, sexual harassment, both online and offline, has been associated with exposure to content that is said to promote such behavior, such as online pornography (e.g., Owens, Behun, Manning, & Reid, 2012; Stanley et al., 2016; Thompson & Morrison, 2013; see also Flood, 2009 for a review). However, these studies have not focused on (sexually explicit) media use in relation to (the willingness to engage in) non-consensual forwarding of sexts specifically.
Several theories have been used to explain the associations between sexual media use and sexual behavior (e.g., the 3A-Model; Wright, 2011; the Media Practice Model; Steele, 1999; Steele & Brown, 1995). According to these theories and models, pornography users take over behavioral scripts and attitudes from pornography and subsequently apply them to their daily life and own sexual behavior. Content analyses have shown that the sexual scripts typically portrayed in pornography reflect sexual harassment, such as women submitting to the desires of men, sexual coercion and/or violence, and objectifying or dehumanizing others (Cowan & Campbell, 1994; Cowan, Lee, Levy, & Snyder, 1988; Klaassen & Peter, 2015; Monk-Turner & Purcell, 1999; Seto, Maric, & Barbaree, 2001). Thus, pornography use may activate sexual harassment scripts that in turn increase one’s willingness to engage in (online) sexual harassment, such as the non-consensual forwarding of sexts. In fact, qualitative findings show that young people are aware that “the exchange of sexual messages and images could be informed by some of the abusive values and attitudes that underpin pornography” (Stanley et al., 2016, p. 21).
Moreover, sexual scripts from sexual media are more likely to be applied when it resonates with pre-existing experiences and beliefs (e.g., Leonhardt, Spencer, Butler, & Theobald, 2019; Wright, 2011). Research on antisocial attitudes and sexually aggressive behavior has repeatedly found that such attitudes and behaviors are more likely when there is a combination of pornography use and certain dispositions such as a noncommittal, impersonal orientation toward sex (e.g., Kingston, Malamuth, Fedoroff, & Marshall, 2009; Malamuth & Huppin, 2005; Malamuth et al., 2000; Vega & Malamuth, 2007). It has even been argued that “based on the importance of individual and cultural differences in moderating the relation between pornography and aggression, it is crucial that causal model theorists consider these moderating factors […]” (Kingston et al., 2009, p. 221). The relationship between pornography use and the willingness to engage in NCFS is thus expected to occur in interaction with pre-existing differential susceptibility variables.
Individual Susceptibility: The Role of Instrumental Sexual Attitudes, Gender, and Age
One individual susceptibility characteristic that may be particularly relevant when studying the link between pornography use and the willingness to engage in NCFS is the endorsement of instrumental attitudes toward sex. Mass media, including pornography, have been promoting the idea that sex is “just a game,” and that the sole purpose of sex is to have pleasure and excitement without the need for love or intimacy (Brosius, Weaver, & Staab, 1993; Klaassen & Peter, 2015; Monk-Turner & Purcell, 1999; Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999; Wright, 2009). In contrast to sexting, which often occurs within an intimate relationship (Bianchi et al., 2016; Levine, 2013), non-consensual forwarding of sexts, which consists of forwarding sexual images for one’s own fun and pleasure without considering the person in the picture, is a particularly instrumental type of sexual behavior. It can thus be expected that the portrayal of sex as purely physical and non-intimate in pornography resonates with pre-existing attitudes toward sex as purely physical, fun and exciting, which in turn increases individual’s willingness to engage in NCFS.
As described in the literature on the activation of sexual scripts by sexual media (Leonhardt et al., 2019; Wright, 2011), a double dose effect may follow where individual’s willingness to engage in instrumental sexual behaviors, such as forwarding a sexually explicit picture of someone without that person’s consent, may be reinforced more intensively among frequent pornography users with high levels of instrumental attitudes toward sex. Conversely, when pornography use conflicts with pre-existing sexual experience and beliefs obtained from other sources (such as parents and peers) its influence may be diminished (Leonhardt et al., 2019). We therefore hypothesized an interaction effect between pornography use and pre-existing instrumental attitudes toward sex, such that the relationship between pornography use and the willingness to engage in NCFS would occur mostly for youth with high levels of instrumental attitudes toward sex.
The manner in which pornography use resonates with pre-existing sexual attitudes and its relationship with NCFS may further depend on individual susceptibility based on gender and age. According to sexual socialization literature, males are generally taught a different type of sexuality than females. That is, males are taught to adopt a more recreational and non-committed view of sex, whereas females are taught to prefer relational sex and emotional intimacy (e.g., Masters, Casey, Wells, & Morrison, 2013). As a result, the content in pornography, as well as instrumental sexual attitudes and behaviors, is more likely to be congruent with the sexual socialization of males, thus leading to stronger effects among males. Relatedly, males have been shown to engage in more NCFS than females (e.g., Strassberg et al., 2014), to be more frequent pornography users, and, in some instance, seem to be more susceptible to the influence of pornography on sexual attitudes and behavior (Peter & Valkenburg, 2016). At the same time, mixed findings on gender differences have also been found, both for the engagement in NCFS (see Walker & Sleath, 2017 for a review) and the effects of pornography (Peter & Valkenburg, 2016). Moreover, within-gender differences in sexual scripts (Masters et al., 2013) suggest that gender, and gendered sexual socialization, may interact with people’s idiosyncratic notions about sex. In a similar vein, pornography use may interact with both instrumental attitudes toward sex and gender in its prediction of the willingness to engage in NCFS.
Furthermore, age may play an additional role in the relationship between the variables under study. In a previous study, the influence of pornography use on attitudes related to sexual harassment (i.e., the notion that when a woman says “no” to a sexual initiation she really means “yes”) has been shown to be stronger for adults compared to adolescents (Peter & Valkenburg, 2011). The authors explained this age difference as the result of the particular outcome variable in this study resonating more with the higher sexual experience among adults (Peter & Valkenburg, 2011). Although equal prevalence rates of NFCS have been found among adolescents (e.g., 24%, Wood et al., 2015) and adults (e.g., 23%, Garcia et al., 2016), a negative correlation between age and NCFS has been found among a sample of adolescents and emerging adults (Morelli et al., 2016), which suggests adolescents engage in NCFS more frequently than emerging adults.
Moreover, peer pressure is a main motivator for NCFS (AP-MTV, 2009; Van Ouytsel et al., 2017), and adolescents are known to be the most susceptible developmental group for peer influences (Steinberg & Monahan, 2007). Accordingly, NCFS may be particularly present in adolescence. Willingness to engage in NCFS may therefore resonate more with the lived experience of adolescents, resulting in a stronger influence of pornography use and sexual attitudes on such willingness among adolescents. Moreover, during adolescence, there is a co-occurring increase in pornography use, the endorsement of permissive or instrumental sexual attitudes and sexual behavior, particularly among adolescent boys (Doornwaard, Bickham, Rich, ter Bogt, & van den Eijnden, 2015). Given this simultaneous development, there may be a stronger resonance effect of pornography and instrumental attitudes toward sex among adolescents compared to young adults. Against this backdrop, it can thus be expected that the confluence of pornography and instrumental attitudes toward sex may differently affect the willingness to engage in NCFS for adolescent boys and girls and emerging adult males and females. We therefore also investigated whether the interaction effect of pornography use and instrumental attitudes on the willingness to engage in NCFS would further depend on gender and age.