Sexting and Social Concerns
Sexting is a modern-day phenomenon that involves using digital technology to send or receive sexually suggestive images or text. Sexting behaviors can have legal, sociological, and/or psychological implications for the sender, receiver, and forwarder. The range of possible repercussions depends heavily on the parties involved, their ages, and whether or not they consented to the sexts. Though most research has focused on the negative impact that sexting has on those involved, some research also points to the potential benefits that consensual sexting may have on certain types of relationships. This may be the case among some committed adult couples. However, when nude or seminude images are shared by other segments of society, such as teenagers or members of the armed forces, the adverse consequences can be life and/or career altering. Moreover, the nonconsensual sharing of images constitutes socially deviant behavior and violates the law. This is also the case when adults sext with minors.
KeywordsSexting Adolescent psychology Cybersex Cyber infidelity Cybervictimization College Attachment Romantic relationships Military
In 2009, Tiger Woods’ seemingly picture-perfect marriage to Elin Nordegren came to an abrupt end after he was caught sexting and cheating with nearly a dozen women, including porn stars Holly Sampson and Joslyn James (Seaman 2017). In 2011, Congressman Anthony Weiner’s (aka “Carlos Danger”) string of sexting scandals began, which resulted in his 21-month federal prison sentence for sending explicit sexual images and messages to a 15-year-old girl (Seaman 2017; Zapotosky 2017). In 2013, while being interviewed on “The Ellen Show,” Keith Urban talked about keeping romance alive in his celebrity marriage to Nicole Kidman, stating that they engage in “nice sex texting” with each other (Cooper 2016). In 2018, investigators seized five middle school students’ phones in Falls Church, Virginia, after learning that naked pictures of two classmates were being circulated by students at two different schools (Fitzgerald 2018; Jouvenal 2018). These are just a few examples of how modern-day digital technology has influenced the social and sexual behaviors of both teens and adults (Silva et al. 2016).
The term sexting is defined as “the practice of sending or posting sexually suggestive text messages and images, including nude or semi-nude photographs, via cellular telephones or over the Internet” (Sweeny 2011, p. 952). With the advent and accessibility of the smartphone, coupled with the prominence of the “selfie” culture, sexting behaviors have increased in prevalence among both teens and adults in the last decades. A recent literature review from JAMA Pediatrics (2018) found that approximately 15% of teenagers report that they have sent sexts, and 27% report that they have received them (Madigan et al. 2018). However, other studies report markedly different prevalence rates for sending and receiving sexually explicit photos among teens, ranging from 2.5% and 7.1%, respectively (Mitchell et al. 2012), to 28% and 31%, respectively (Temple et al. 2012). Such statistical differences may be due to different methodologies used in different studies (i.e., definitions of nudity, adolescent age ranges, sample sizes and demographics of participants, and method of data collection) (Klettke et al. 2014; Strassberg et al. 2014). Regardless, most researchers agree that as teenagers age into adulthood, their sexting participation increases, with some studies indicating that as many as eight out of ten adults have engaged in sexting behaviors (Reyns et al. 2014; Sifferlin 2018; Stasko and Geller 2015; Wood 2015). Accordingly, the social and legal response to sexting behaviors depends heavily on who was involved, their ages, whether they consented to the sext(s), and the effect sexting behaviors have on the parties involved.
Minors: Legal, Social, and Psychological Concerns
To date, a considerable amount of sexting research has focused on the negative and lasting impact of sexting behaviors, as well as the risks associated with it, particularly when it comes to teenage/young adult sexting (Strassberg et al. 2014). The impact on this demographic can range from legal to social to psychological. For example, there is evidence that there is an increased risk of sexual bullying and/or cyberbullying associated with teenage sexting, particularly when images are shared with unintended third parties (see section “Cyberbullying”; Ploharz 2017; Webb 2018). In addition, teen-to-teen sexting is an illegal act, which, depending on the jurisdiction, violates either recently enacted sexting statues or decades-old child pornography laws. Teens who are caught violating the law can also suffer long-term educational and professional consequences stemming from criminal investigations and/or convictions (O’Connor et al. 2017). Moreover, the psychological impact on teens can be tremendous, with some studies linking sexting to an increased likelihood of sexual intercourse, substance abuse, and other mental and emotional problems (Ševčíková 2016; Temple and Choi 2014).
The law is very clear that teenage sexting constitutes a crime in all 50 states. Currently, there are 23 states with sexting laws in place to address teenage sexting cases. The remaining states utilize their child pornography statutes when prosecuting teenage sexting cases. Penalties for convicted teenagers vary tremendously by state. They can range anywhere from community service to minor misdemeanors (in states that have sexting statutes) to felony convictions (in states that use their child pornography statutes in sexting cases), which are punishable with jail time and include the possibility of required sex offender registry (O’Connor et al. 2017). Many question whether states that use their child pornography laws to prosecute teen sexting cases are punishing youthful, impulsive behavior too harshly (Temple et al. 2012). This query is likely because child pornography laws were originally enacted to prevent adults from sexually exploiting minors, not to address teenage sexting behaviors (O’Connor et al. 2017). Often, prosecutors in states where child pornography laws are used in teenage sexting cases choose not to prosecute teen-to-teen occurrences (Eckholm 2015; Jouvenal 2018). The question therefore remains as to whether sexting laws are actually beneficial to society, as there are arguably more prosecutions of teenage sexting cases in states that have sexting statutes (Kulze 2012; O’Connor et al. 2017).
Many teens assert that sexting is part of the rising generation’s culture and even that the behavior is considered “normal” among their peers (“Fight The New Drug” 2018; Thomas 2018). It has even been dubbed as their generation’s equivalent of “first base” (Choi 2015). As such, sexting can (and does) occur in a variety of relationship constructs among teenagers. For some teens, sexting is a means for otherwise sexually inexperienced youth to initiate intimate contact or to begin a romantic relationship (Lenhart 2009). For others, sexts are exchanged within the confines of a committed romantic relationship, long-distance or otherwise (Drouin et al. 2013; The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy 2008; Weisskirch and Delevi 2011).
One such case occurred in 2015 when North Carolina teens, Cormega Copening and Brianna Denson, were in a dating relationship and consensually exchanged naked selfies of one another. Both were 16 years old when the images were taken, and the images were shared only with one another (McGlaughlin 2015). However, their pictures were discovered when they allowed their school to search their phones for an unrelated matter (Miller 2015). Both Copening and Denson were arrested and charged as adults with the crime of sexual exploitation, which is permitted under North Carolina law if an individual is over age 16 (Miller 2015; Woolverton 2015). Notably, they were listed as both the perpetrator and the victim on their respective warrants (McGlaughlin 2015; Miller 2015).
Under North Carolina’s child pornography law, it is illegal for anyone under 18 to send or receive nude or seminude pictures with a cell phone (NC Stat. Ann. § 14-190.14 – § 14-190.17A). A conviction can result in a 4- to 10-year prison sentence, with sex offender registry required. In this particular case, both parties were able to plea bargain to receive a lesser punishment – 1-year probation (Miller 2015). Again, this is because prosecutors often choose to charge teens with less severe offenses in consensual sexting cases (Eckholm 2015). Nonetheless, this case illustrates the potential seriousness of the penalties for minors who sext. It also illustrates why many states have enacted specific teenage sexting laws in an attempt to more suitably align the punishment to the crime (O’Connor et al. 2017).
Another interesting aspect of this case is that the age of consent laws in North Carolina permit teenagers who are 16 and older to legally engage in consensual sexual conduct, even though they cannot send and receive sexually explicit consensual images until age 18 (McGlaughlin 2015). North Carolina is not alone in this inconsistency. Romeo and Juliet laws (also called “Age of Consent” laws), which are aptly named for William Shakespeare’s tragic love story between two teenagers, pertain to situations where teenagers under the age of consent engage in sexual relationships with others who are close in age (“Age of Consent” n.d.; “Romeo and Juliet Laws” n.d.). The age difference typically permitted under age of consent laws varies by state, though it is usually not more than 5 years, as long as both parties are over a certain age (most commonly age 16) (O’Connor et al. 2017; “Romeo and Juliet Laws” n.d.). Not all states have Romeo and Juliet laws; however, in states that do, there are typically less harsh penalties (or no penalties at all) associated with teenage sexual behaviors that are consensual in nature. The result is that many states’ age of consent laws do not align with their sexting/child pornography laws, which legalize sexual acts between teenagers but criminalize the teen-to-teen sharing of sexual images (Evett 2016; Sweeny 2011).
This legal landscape can be difficult to navigate; thus, minors may be unaware of or confused by the legal penalties for sexting. Interestingly, relatively few states mandate educational programming in middle and high schools, which many argue may be an early means of preventing and/or deterring sexting behaviors (O’Connor et al. 2017). The goal of such programming is to educate middle school and high school students about the legal, educational, and professional impact of teen-to-teen sexting, since teenagers often lack the forward-thinking abilities to anticipate the consequences on their own (Comartin et al. 2012; Perkins et al. 2014). Sext education might also help students understand that sexting is a crime, which some in this age demographic likely fail to recognize (Gewirtz-Meydan et al. 2018; O’Connor et al. 2017).
Mandatory educational programming might also help to circumvent some of the negative psychological impacts of sexting on teenagers. Some research has linked teenage sexting to an increased risk of anxiety, depression, and even suicide, often due to bullying surrounding the sexually explicit image(s) (Dake et al. 2012). The case of Hope Witsell, a 13-year-old middle school student from Florida, is such a case. As a seventh grader, she sent a topless picture of herself to a boy that she liked. Another girl found the picture on the boy’s phone and forwarded it to other students at their school and also a school nearby (Inbar 2009). Hope was suspended from school for a week because of the photo. She endured relentless insults from her peers who called her “whore” and “slut,” among other names. After several months of this mistreatment, Hope ultimately hanged herself in her bedroom in 2009 (“Pure Sight” n.d.).
Studies have found that teenage girls, especially, report feeling pressured to sext and that the pressure to sext is so strong that it can outweigh the potential negative consequences/negative labels associated with sexting (Gewirtz-Meydan et al. 2018; Henderson 2011). One recent study found that girls often feel the pressure in the context of a dating relationship and that they may send nude images in order to avoid reproach or conflict or to prove their level of affection (Thomas 2018). The same study found that none of its female subjects reported feeling good about their sexts. Instead, most reported feeling confused, bombarded, trapped, or coerced when a boy asks for a nude image. They also reported feeling reluctant to seek out adults for guidance due to fear of repercussions or embarrassment (Thomas 2018; Tsai 2017). Of serious concern is the fact that 40% of the female subjects in the study reported that their image(s) were shared or shown to unintended third parties (Thomas 2018), a percentage much higher than reported in previous studies (Lenhart 2009; Strassberg et al. 2014). The nonconsensual forwarding might be attributable to the fact that sexting is often viewed by boys as a way to increase their social status; thus, boys may feel pressure to share the sexual images that they receive (Gewirtz-Meydan et al. 2018; Lippman and Campbell 2014).
Of course, there certainly have been teenage sexting cases where females initiated the forwarding of other teens’ images. For example, the aforementioned Falls Church, Virginia, middle school sexting case began when a female student shared a picture of her ex-boyfriend’s penis with another male student. The male student forwarded the image to another student, who posted it on Snapchat. The picture quickly circulated among students at two different schools, eventually accompanied by a second image – a screen shot of a female classmate exposing her breasts during a live Instagram session (Fitzgerald 2018; Jouvenal 2018). In all, investigators found that nearly a dozen students were involved in the sharing of these images. Unlike consensual sexting, which is often considered normative and is legal among adults, nonconsensual sexting is considered a form of deviant sexual behavior (Scholes-Balog et al. 2016) and is always illegal, regardless of age. However, because sexting legislation has never been enacted in Virginia (despite several attempts by their state legislators), their child pornography statute would have been the only available law under which prosecutors could press charges in this case. With this, convicted persons in Virginia receive a mandatory minimum 5-year prison sentence. Due to this harsh penalty, prosecutors in this case chose not to press charges against the teens (Jouvenal 2018).
Legal issues aside, there might also be correlates of sexting that have public health implications. As an example, some studies have found a likely correlation between teenage sexting and sexual behaviors (Ševčíková et al. 2018; Temple and Choi 2014). Temple and Choi (2014) found that sexting among adolescents predicted sexual behavior a year later. This has led some researchers to suggest that sexting might serve as a precursor to sex and anticipation of sexual activity is one of the positive “sexpectancies” that some people hold (Dir et al. 2013). With regard to risky sexual behavior, an early study (Temple et al. 2012) found that among girls, sexting was correlated with a greater likelihood of multiple partners and use of drugs or alcohol before sex. However, more recently, this same group of researchers examined sexting and risky sexual behavior in a longitudinal study and found that sexting of images did not necessarily increase the likelihood of risky sexual behaviors 1 year later (Temple and Choi 2014). Interestingly, in a study that examined the sending of sexually explicit text (not image) messages, Brinkley et al. (2017) found that adolescents in 10th grade who sent sexual texts were more likely to report having engaged in risky sexual behavior (e.g., sex with multiple partners and the use of drugs during sex) 2 years later. Combined, these studies suggest that the sending of sexual images, which is the focus of existing sexting legislation and nonconsensual pornography laws, may not be related to risky sexual activity; however, sending sexual texts (which is largely ignored by current legislation) may be a better indicator of other public health risks. More longitudinal research is necessary to disentangle these different forms of sexting and their relationships with risky sexual activity.
Likewise, more research is needed regarding the psychological well-being of teenagers who sext. As previously mentioned, Dake et al. (2012) found a significant, positive correlation between the self-production and sending of sext messages and depression and thoughts/attempts of suicide among adolescence. Meanwhile, Sorbring et al. (2014) found that girls who sexted reported lower body self-esteem and poorer relationships with their parents and peers than girls who did not engage in sexting. However, other studies have found that teenage sexting is not related to negative psychological well-being or poor interpersonal relationships (Gordon-Messer et al. 2013; Temple and Choi 2014). Again, consent between parties seems to be important here, and some researchers have suggested that in order to understand the psychological repercussions of teenage sexting, it is critical to first determine whether that sexting was consensual (Hasinoff 2013; Powell and Henry 2014).
College Students and Sexting
Among college-aged young adults, sexting behaviors are legal if both parties consent and are over age 18. Without aggravating circumstances, such as revenge pornography, (the distribution of a pornographic image without the consent of one or more of the participants, usually with malicious and vindictive intent, such as following a breakup; see section “Revenge Pornography”; Bates 2017), sextortion (blackmail in which sexual information or images are used to extort sexual favors and/or money from the victim; “Interpol” 2017), or cyberstalking (use of the Internet or other electronic means to stalk or harass an individual, group, or organization; see section “Cyberstalking”; Cyberstalking n.d.), consensual sexting among adults is generally protected as free speech (e.g., nonobscene, non-solicitous speech between adults that is sexual in nature is usually protected by the First Amendment) (Nanos 2017). Perhaps because of the legality of sexting in this age group, the prevalence rates of sexting among college students are high when compared to sexting among teens (Klettke et al. 2014). As an example, Drouin and Landgraff (2012) found that 54% of their college sample reported sending sexually explicit images, and Henderson (2011) found that 60% of their college sample had sent nude photos.
Although sexting appears to be commonplace among young adults, there are nonetheless concerns over college-aged sexters’ social and psychological well-being. Some studies have confirmed the link between college students’ sexting behaviors and an increased prevalence of cybervictimization, especially when the images are shared with unintended third parties (Steinberg 2011; Reyns et al. 2013; Dake 2012). Examples of cybervictimization include being the target of harassing messages, embarrassing photos, threats via electronic messaging or social media, or other types of intentional interpersonal aggression perpetrated via technology (Sargent et al. 2016). Unfortunately, cybervictimization appears to be somewhat common; research by Sargent et al. (2016) found that between 9% and 22% of students have been cybervictimized at some point during college. Moreover, cybervictims appear to suffer negative emotional consequences, such as depression, drug use, and intimate partner abuse (see section “Intimate Partner Violence and the Internet: Perspectives”; Sargent et al. 2016), as well as emotional pain, shame, and humiliation, which might be at least partly due to the prospect of a lasting digital record (Perkins et al. 2014).
With regard to the characteristics of college students who engage in sexting behaviors, some general trends have emerged in the literature. For example, research indicates that college students are more likely to sext than their nonstudent peers (Crimmins and Sigfried-Spellar 2014). Female college students are also more likely to feel increased social pressure to sext as compared to male college students (Drouin et al. 2017; Englander 2012). College students (male or female) who have permissive sexual attitudes are more likely to sext than those who do not (Samimi and Alderson 2014). College students with lower self-control (specifically as it relates to the ignoring of consequences) are more likely to engage in sexting behaviors as compared to those with high self-control (Drouin et al. 2017; Reyns et al. 2014).
With regard to college students, sexting, and sexual activity, some research has found that sexually active young adults are more likely to be “two-way sexters” (both sender and receiver), rather than only senders or receivers (Gordon-Messer et al. 2013). Other studies have found that young adults who sext are also more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including unprotected sex, connecting with strangers online, and pornography use, and also have ambivalent peer attachments (Crimmins and Sigfried-Spellar 2014; Gordon-Messer et al. 2013). Notably, however, other studies have found no significant relationship between sexting and risky sexual behaviors among college students, including Gordon-Messer et al. (2013) who found that sexting was unrelated to unprotected sex and having sex with multiple partners.
Within the relationship context, college students involved in a dating relationship have an increased likelihood of engaging in sexting behaviors (Drouin et al. 2013; Reyns et al. 2014). Though college-aged women are almost twice as likely to report having last sexted with a committed partner, Drouin et al. (2017) found that college-aged men are more likely to report engaging in sexting with casual partners. Among women who do sext with casual partners, they are significantly more likely than men who sext with casual partners to report discomfort and trauma from sending sexually explicit images (Drouin et al. 2017). Also, those with high levels of insecure attachment and/or avoidant attachment (i.e., behaviors displayed by those who feel unsafe in their relationships and/or those that avoid becoming emotionally attached in their relationships) are more likely to sext than those in secure relationships (Drouin and Landgraff 2012; Firestone n.d.). However, at least one study also linked low levels of avoidance to sexting behaviors, contrary to prior research, possibly indicating that sexting has become more socially acceptable among college students in recent years (Drouin et al. 2017; Weisskirch et al. 2017).
Because of the prevalence of sexting behaviors on college campuses, some researchers have suggested that more universities should implement policies and procedures that deal with the negative consequences that stem from sexting and other cyberbullying behaviors that occur among their student populations (Burke et al. 2014; O’Connor et al. 2018). However, it is likely that many universities are reluctant to do so because of First Amendment concerns (O’Connor et al. 2018). In lieu of or in addition to specific policies, universities may want to consider instituting programming that promotes healthy relationships among students (Burke et al. 2014). This might be especially beneficial, as Drouin and Tobin (2014) found that one-half of undergraduates sampled had engaged in unwanted but consensual sexting with a relationship partner, and Drouin et al. (2015) found that one-fifth of college students had been coerced into sexting (usually via conversational tactics like repeated asking). Thus, comprehensive sext education at the university level may help to prevent these behaviors, support impacted students, and provide information about available resources and reporting channels.
Adult Casual and Committed Couple Sexting and Consent
Though Keith Urban’s public revelation that he sexts with wife Nicole Kidman might seem to suggest that older adults in romantic relationships are sexting frequently, the empirical research on the prevalence of sexting among adults suggests a decline in sexting as adults age. In 2015, Stasko and Geller’s study found that 88% of adults, ages 18–82, have sexted. McDaniel and Drouin (2015), however, suggested that married couples typically do not sext often. In fact, only about one-third of the married adults in their study reported ever sending sexy messages to their partners, and only one-tenth reported sending nude or seminude pictures. Meanwhile, a recent study by Galovan et al. (2018) that used a national cohort of Americans and Canadians found that among those in committed relationships, there is a steady decline in all types of sexting behavior (i.e., sexting with images or sexting with only words) as adults age.
With regard to the potential relational benefits of adult sexting, Parker et al. (2013) suggested that sexting among married couples might be a way to increase intimacy in the relationship. The same study found that married couples who had engaged sexting reported greater consensus (a marker for relationship satisfaction) and also concluded that sexting could possibly be used as a therapeutic mechanism to enhance intimacy and connectedness and/or bring novelty into an existing sex life (Parker et al. 2013; Galovan et al. 2018). Additional research involving committed couples further indicates that those who sext tend to report higher levels of sexual satisfaction (Galovan et al. 2018; Shelton 2015; Stasko and Geller 2015) and send more messages proposing sexual activity to their partner as compared to their noncommitted couple counterparts (Weisskirch and Delevi 2011).
However, Galovan et al. (2018) also found that among adult committed couples, sexting is related to a number of negative relationship correlates, including ambivalence and couple conflict. In terms of relationship satisfaction, sexting does not appear to contribute to greater relationship satisfaction for committed couples, except in certain situations. Specifically, McDaniel and Drouin (2015) found that among husbands, sending nude or nearly nude images is related to higher relationship satisfaction. Likewise, for couples with insecure attachment, either anxious (those fearing rejection or abandonment by their partners) or avoidant (those wanting to maintain emotional distance from their partners), sending sexy images or text messages was also related to higher levels of relationship satisfaction (Campbell and Marshall 2011; McDaniel and Drouin 2015). For those with insecure attachments, however, sexting may not be a manifestation of a healthy relationship dynamic. Instead, researchers suggest that those with anxious attachment typically sext as a hyperactivating strategy (trying to draw partners near so they will not be abandoned), while those with avoidant attachment are sexting as a deactivating strategy (to satisfy sexual needs while keeping their partners at an emotional distance) (McDaniel and Drouin 2015; Weisskirch and Delevi 2011).
Sexting might also suffer from the “too much of a good thing” conundrum (Metella 2018). Galovan et al. (2018) found those who sexted frequently with their partners (several times per week) and those that are hyper-sexters (daily or more often) had higher levels of relationship conflict and ambivalence and lower levels of commitment. Frequent and hyper-sexters also reported more technoference (i.e., intrusions or interruptions in couple or time spent together due to technology) and social media infidelity (see section “Committed Couples and Cyber Infidelity”). Additionally, these groups are more likely to view pornography (Galovan et al. 2018; Metella 2018). Overall, these findings suggest that this group of sexters may focus too much on technology-related sexual satisfaction and too little on the other areas of their relationships, such as on meaningful face-to-face interaction with a committed partner (Metella 2018). Moreover, it might also be the case that individuals who are in unstable or unhealthy relationships are more frequently using technology to appease their individual social and sexual desires (Galovan et al. 2018).
When comparing casual and committed couples, some interesting differences have also emerged. For example, Drouin et al. (2017) found that committed couples have a more positive attitude toward sexting as compared to casual couples. In addition, both men and women in committed relationships feel more comfortable sexting their partners than do men and women in casual relationships (Drouin et al. 2017). Weisskirch et al. (2017) found that men in committed relationships were more likely than women in committed relationships to have sent a text to a partner propositioning sexual activity. Meanwhile, within casual sexual relationships, consensual sexting yields fewer positive emotional and sexual consequences for adults, regardless of gender (Drouin et al. 2017). Adult women who sext within a casual relationship, however, report feeling more regret and other negative emotions as compared to women who sext within a committed relationship (Drouin et al. 2017). This may be due to the fact that women view sexting in the context of a casual relationship as riskier than women do who are in a committed relationship (Crimmins and Sigfried-Spellar 2014). Interestingly, the amount of worry, regret, or trauma did not vary for men who sext within a casual relationship versus a committed relationship (Drouin et al. 2017). Overall, the literature that compares sexting among casual and committed couples suggests that committed relationships may serve as a platform for consensual adult sexting that is viewed positively (with fewer negative consequences) and may also spur offline sexual activity.
It is imperative to note that consensual sexting between adults is very different from nonconsensual sexting between adults. Thus, like teen-to-teen sexting, the factual determination of consent is key, as it leads to a better understanding of the legalities and the psychological impact on the adult victim. Nonconsensual sexting has been defined in the literature as “sexual images taken or shared (physically shown, forwarded, or posted online) without consent” (Krieger 2017, p. 595) and has been linked to anxiety, depression, and suicidality in adults (Crimmins and Sigfried-Spellar 2014). Further, nonconsensual sexting constitutes a criminal act and characteristically occurs either because the victim is coerced into sharing images against their will or their images are shared by another beyond the original intended recipient (O’Connor et al. 2017). These acts may be associated with sexual harassment, relationship aggression, or sexual violence (see section “Intimate Partner Violence and the Internet: Perspectives”; Krieger 2017). Or, they may be classified as revenge porn and/or sextortion, among other deviant criminal acts (see section “Revenge Pornography”; Reyns et al. 2014). Unfortunately, victim blaming may come into play in such circumstances, especially when an image or video was originally taken with consent, but the scope of that consent was exceeded (Krieger 2017). However, more research in the area of nonconsensual adult sexting is necessary, as most of the nonconsensual sexting literature has focused on teen-to-teen occurrences.
Committed Couples and Cyber Infidelity
Though nearly nine out of every ten adults believe that cyber infidelity is a form of real-life infidelity that could warrant a divorce or breakup, courts of law in the United States disagree (“Daniel” n.d.; “Divorce Writer” n.d.). All 50 states have no fault divorce provisions, meaning that parties can obtain a divorce simply by citing “irreconcilable differences”; however, 32 states still have adultery listed in their statutes as possible grounds for divorce (“Divorce Writer” n.d.). Adultery is defined by law as “consensual sexual intercourse where one of the participants is legally married to another” (“Adultery” n.d.). Thus, the legal requirement of physical intercourse means that cyber infidelity does not amount to adultery in American courts of law (MacRae 2014). However, some jurisdictions may use evidence of cyber infidelity when distributing marital property or deciding matters of child custody (“Divorce Writer” n.d.; MacRae 2014).
Divorce was certainly the outcome for Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren. Though sexting was not the only contributing factor, it was allegedly a text from Tiger to Rachel Uchitel, a New York City nightclub hostess, which led to the couple’s demise. Tiger messaged, “You are the only one I’ve ever loved.” An infuriated Nordegren threw the cell phone at Tiger and chipped his tooth. She then grabbed a golf club and swung at him as he attempted to drive away in their Cadillac Escalade. She knocked out both back windows of the car and caused Tiger to crash into a tree. He was unconscious for 6 min while neighbors called 911 (Callahan 2013). The couple’s divorce was finalized in 2010, with Nordegren reportedly receiving a $100 million settlement (Badenhausen 2010; Howard 2010).
Within the academic literature, cyber infidelity has been rather broadly defined as “one partner in a committed relationship using the computer or Internet to violate promises, vows, or agreements concerning sexual activity” (Maheu and Subotnik 2001, p. 10). As a result, the rate of cyber infidelity among couples in some studies is as high as 63.6% (Ferron et al. 2017; Wysocki and Childers 2011). Ferron et al. (2017) examined the role of cyber infidelity and Internet pornography use and attachment. Not surprisingly, this study found that intimacy avoidant individuals often engage in cyber infidelity behaviors, likely in an effort to shield themselves against committing to their real-life partners while simultaneously satisfying their own sexual needs (Ferron et al. 2017). Notably, though avoidant attachment may predict cyber infidelity, it does not necessarily predict real-life infidelity (Russell et al. 2013). Anxious attachment, on the other hand, appears to be related to engagement in both offline and online infidelity-related behaviors (McDaniel et al. 2017). Hence, those with insecure attachment styles may be more likely to engage in cyber infidelity-related behaviors, and for some, this online infidelity is associated with cheating in the offline world.
Wysocki and Childers’ (2011) study of 5187 subjects examined the behaviors of individuals who had answered an Internet ad looking for married people who wanted to find extramarital sexual partners. Most of the survey respondents in this study were either currently married or in a committed relationship. Approximately two-thirds of the respondents had already cheated online, and over three-fourths had cheated in real life. Interestingly, among respondents, these behaviors occurred even among those who held strong religious beliefs (which typically adhere to tenets that oppose infidelity). This study further found that their male and female respondents were equally likely to cheat online while in a serious, real-life relationship. Notably, about 40% of respondents reported feeling anxious about being caught in real life while viewing sexually explicit materials online. Approximately 50% had taken action to remove their cybertrails, with men reportedly more likely to cover their digital tracks than women. Although most reported that they did so because they did not want their spouses/partners to find out, some were trying to avoid being disciplined or fired at work because they were using their employer-provided devices to engage in these behaviors (Wysocki and Childers 2011).
The last decade’s surge in technology-mediated communicative technologies and social media applications has opened doors to clandestine communication with everyone, including attractive others. Although this communication typically leaves a cybertrail, many adults who engage in infidelity-related behaviors online (e.g., engaging in cybersex, “friending” romantic interests or attractive alternative partners, seeking extramarital affairs in chat rooms) appear to be vigilant in assuring that their trails are erased or hidden (McDaniel et al. 2017). Additionally, applications are being developed with features to hide digital tracks, like end-to-end encryption (e.g., WhatsApp) and messages that disappear after a certain amount of time (e.g., Snapchat). These features are so desirable that even commonly used online applications are enabling features that help to hide digital tracks (e.g., secret conversations in Facebook Messenger). As technology continues to evolve to accommodate this type of secret correspondence, it is possible that there may be a parallel increase in cyber infidelity, as even those in committed relationships are likely to monitor alternative relationship partners (Rusbult 1980) and communicate with them via online channels (Dibble et al. 2015).
Adults: Sexting with Minors
For adults, sexting with a minor is a deviant sexual behavior and constitutes the crime of child pornography (Renfrow and Rollo 2013; “Sexting Laws” n.d.). Adults can be prosecuted for sending and/or receiving sexually explicit material of a minor, leading to felony charges and a lengthy jail sentence (between 15 and 30 years for first-time offenders) (“Sexting Laws” n.d.; Findlaw 2018). Prosecutions can occur under federal or state law or both. Perpetrators are also typically required to register as sex offenders (Findlaw 2018). In addition to the criminal aspects, sexting with minors can ruin reputations, careers, and marriages – just as it did for Anthony Weiner, Democratic US Representative from New York.
The term “Weinergate” refers to the 2011 sexting scandal involving Anthony Weiner (Jenkins 2013; “Weinergate” 2011). Weiner, while married to Huma Abedin, (Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign political advisor), was caught sending a sexually explicit image of himself to a 21-year-old college student he knew only on Twitter (Zapotosky 2017). To hide his identity, he used the alias “Carlos Danger.” However, the image that was intended for her was briefly and mistakenly posted on his public Twitter account (Finn 2017). When the news of this image first broke, Weiner strongly denied any connection to it or to the woman. He claimed that his Twitter account had been hacked (Seaman 2017). But, with mounting pressure as well as evidence, Weiner eventually confessed that he did post/send the sexually explicit photo, plus multiple sext messages, emails, and additional photos to a total of six women (Finn 2017). Facing public scrutiny and shame, Weiner resigned from Congress (Jenkins 2013; Zapotosky 2017).
In 2013, Weiner attempted to restart his political career by entering the New York City mayoral race. By this time, he had received forgiveness from his wife and his constituents (Finn 2017). However, it soon became evident that the 2011 sexting scandal did not result in the much-needed wake-up call for Weiner. Again, he was caught sexting; but this time, it was with three more young adult women. Though Weiner continued his mayoral campaign, he finished fifth in the race (Jenkins 2013).
Then, in 2016, the FBI seized Weiner’s laptop in order to investigate a report that he had sexted with a 15-year-old girl (Seaman 2017). This is also the FBI investigation that led to the discovery that Hillary Clinton used her private email server, instead of the state department’s server, to send confidential communications while she was Secretary of State (many believe that this violation of protocol may have cost her the 2016 Presidential election) (USA Today 2016). As a result of the investigation, Weiner pled guilty to one count of transferring obscene material to a minor. Weiner was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison, and Huma Abedin filed for divorce (Zapotosky 2017).
Research has shown that there is a reciprocal relationship between sexting and online sexual victimization, which is defined as an adult’s online request for a minor to participate in sexual activities and conversations or to provide sexual information of a personal nature. In other words, sexting participation predicts a significant increase in sexual solicitations from adults, and receiving sexual solicitations from adults predicts increased participation in sexting (see section “Child Sexual Exploitation: Introduction to a Global Problem”; Gámez-Guadix and Mateos-Pérez 2019). One potential explanation for this finding is that sexting increases exposure to adult perpetrators, who may in turn “normalize” certain sexual behaviors (such as sexting) for minor victims (Gámez-Guadix and Mateos-Pérez 2019; Reyns et al. 2013). Regarding prevalence, one recent study found that the prevalence of sexual solicitation of minors ranges between 7% and 15% (Gámez-Guadix and Mateos-Pérez 2019). Additionally, research has shown that the likelihood of sexual victimization of a minor is stronger when sexual content is sent between an adult and a minor who have met only online, as compared to those who sext with a known acquaintance (Gámez-Guadix et al. 2015).
Research has also shown that there is a relationship between sexting, being the victim of online child sexual victimization, and other types of online victimization, such as cyberbullying (Gámez-Guadix and Mateos-Pérez 2019; Montiel et al. 2015). For example, minors who have been cyberbullied show an increased likelihood of experiencing sexual solicitations by adults (De Santisteban and Gámez-Guadix 2018). In addition, being the victim of cyberbullying also predicts participation in sexting (Gámez-Guadix and Mateos-Pérez 2019). This is especially true for boys, possibly due to their attempts to gain social status by sexting after having been cyberbullied (Gámez-Guadix and Mateos-Pérez 2019; Kowalski et al. 2014). It is also imperative to note the increased likelihood of depression and low self-esteem in both boys and girls who have been cyberbullied (Kowalski et al. 2014), both of which have also been associated with greater participation in sexting (Temple et al. 2014). At minimum, parents and educators must be aware of these correlates, so as to comprehensively educate young adults about potential dangers related to sexting.
Military: Legal Issues and Career Implications
Though consensual sexting among adults is legal in the civilian world, it can violate the military’s strict policies against sexual fraternization. It can also negatively affect a service member’s reputation and career (“Sexting” 2011). This is especially true when sexual images are taken using a government-issued cell phone or sexually explicit images or texts are exchanged with a subordinate (Beahm 2010; Morales 2017). One such case led to the demotion and forced early retirement of the former commander of the US Army Africa, Major General Joseph Harrington. Harrington exchanged over 1000 texts with a woman, whom he called a “hottie.” She was actually a subordinate’s wife (Clark 2017). The two first met at the gym, and over a 4-month period, their text messages ranged from “friendly to flirtatious” (Clark 2017; Montgomery 2018). Though the military investigation did not find any criminal conduct, Harrington was demoted because the military said the texts were not examples of “good virtue and honor” (Clark 2017). This case is somewhat similar to the General David Petraeus case. General Petraeus was forced into early retirement after exchanging “flirtatious emails,” which ultimately led to an extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, author of his biography, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. Petraeus, however, eventually pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling the classified information that he allegedly provided to Broadwell (Thomas et al. 2015).
In another case, Air Force Command Chief William Gurney was investigated in 2009 after a female senior airman turned over text messages that the two had exchanged, which included nude selfies that she had sent to him. In military court, the senior airman testified that she texted the nude images to Gurney in the hopes that he would help her obtain a humanitarian transfer. Other witnesses with similar stories came forward and testified against him. In all, approximately 28,000 texts over an 8-month period and with 10 different women were found on his government-issued Blackberry (reportedly four times as many texts as the other 55 command staff members combined) (“Military” 2014). Due to the content of these texts, Gurney was convicted on 15 separate charges. These charges included indecent conduct, maltreatment (inappropriately treating somebody who is subject to your orders), and misuse of a military computer and cell phone, among others (“Military” 2014; Morales 2017).
Posting nude photos on social media and/or distributing them without consent is a violation of military law (Lockhart 2017). Recent regulations to the Uniform Code of Military Justice were added in response to a 2017 military scandal involving a private Facebook group that Marines and Navy sailors were using to exchange nude images of female service members, veterans, and civilians, without their consent (Larter 2017; Lockhart 2017). Some of the images were posted by their former partners as revenge porn or were hacked from their personal devices and then posted. Many women also had their names, locations, and military ranks exposed (Lockhart 2017). Incidents such as these underscore how important it is for the military to make sure that service members have a safe mechanism for reporting sexting and other sex crimes. This is especially important given the power dynamic and organizational structure of the military. Moreover, it is imperative that these cases are prosecuted properly under these new regulations as well as previously enacted military laws.
To date, relatively little empirical research has focused on military personnel and their sexting behaviors. However, one recent study surveyed post-deployment veterans and their sexual practices, including whether they sent sexually suggestive text messages, photos, or videos (Shirk et al. 2018). This study found that sexting prevalence rates among veterans who were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan were 68.9% and were primarily associated with male veterans (75.6%). Moreover, this study found that, among veterans who texted sexual images or videos, there were higher symptoms of hypersexuality (defined as a dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual fantasy, often in combination with the obsessive pursuit of casual or non-intimate sex, pornography, compulsive masturbation, romantic intensity, and objectified partner sex for a period of at least 6 months) and more lifetime sexual partners, as compared to those who did not sext (Shirk et al. 2018; Weiss 2018). Additionally, those who had sexted were more likely to report increased impulsivity and psychopathology (a mental or behavioral disorder) (Shirk et al. 2018). More data in this area of military and sexting is certainly necessary, given the initial research establishing the prevalence of the behavior and its correlates, which in turn signals a need for targeted interventions.
The increased use of digital technology has resulted in new forms of technology-related sexual behavior, with sexting being a prevalent practice for many in today’s society. For teenagers, sexting has negative legal, social, and psychological consequences. It may also have a lasting detrimental impact on their reputation, education, and job prospects. The same is true for members of the armed forces, especially considering recent changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the recent media attention devoted to sexting scandals among military members. Among consenting adults, sexting may be part of an active sexual relationship for both committed and casual couples. However, consensual sexting may also have negative relationship correlates (such as conflict and ambivalence), lead to cyber infidelity, or even become deviant/criminal conduct when consent is lacking.
Because of the high prevalence of sexting behaviors among different age groups, coupled with potentially severe legal, social, and psychological consequences, it is essential for society to better understand the issues that sexting presents. Moreover, the gaps in the literature and the inconsistencies in the law must also be addressed. For example, with regard to teenage sexting, more longitudinal research is needed, especially examining the issues of consent, psychological well-being, and risky sexual behavior. For committed and casual couples, future research could focus on the positive and negative roles that sexting plays in romantic and sexual relationships and the long-term effects of such interactions in both types of relationship contexts. For nonconsensual adult sexting, additional research on the prevalence and psychological impact on the victim is of vital importance. With regard to the military, establishing the prevalence of sexting behaviors for active duty members, as well as studying associated risks of sexting for all military, is a vital next step.
As we consider the law, the inconsistent application of sexting laws in teenage sexting cases must be addressed. Uniform adoption of lesser penalties for consensual teen-to-teen sexting, including educational programming, is one way to promote awareness and better align punishments with the context of the crime. However, where there are aggravating circumstances, such as cyberbullying, sextortion, or revenge porn, or where consent is lacking, either between teens or among adults, the law should send a clear message with strict prohibitions designed to deter sexting behaviors in these circumstances. Moreover, support for the victim should be a necessary component of all legislative considerations.
One area of promise is sexting educational programming, which may be particularly helpful in middle and high schools, universities, and the military. Sext education should educate populations about their rights and responsibilities when utilizing digital technologies, accounting for cultural shifts and technological innovations that may affect the way individuals use technology to socialize both platonically and sexually. As different populations face different sexting issues, this programming should be narrowly tailored to fit the targeted demographic and its unique legal, social, and psychological challenges related to sexting. This type of proactive effort might help curb negative social consequences and public health issues related to sexting.
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