In 2009, the Pew Center for Internet and American Life published survey findings that 4 percent of adolescents 12 to 17 years old had sent "sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images or videos" of themselves to someone else via text message.
That sparked a "sexting" panic over the unsettling implications of young people engaging in this type of illicit interaction, as well as legal issues involving the cell phone-transmitted photos that could be deemed child pornography.
Consequently, much of the media attention to sexting has focused solely on adolescent behavior, yet the act of sexting isn't limited to teens.
Plenty of adults send racy text messages and cell phone pictures, too.
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Psychology professor Michelle Drouin has studied sexting behavior among the college-aged population and found that around half of people in committed relationships had sent a sext photo to their partners, and two-thirds had engaged in sext messaging.
"It's a part of our dating culture to be doing this," said Drouin, who teaches at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne.
Though Drouin doesn't see sexting as inherently "dangerous" as it's often portrayed in the context of adolescent relationships, her research indicates the sexting behavior does relate to certain types of "red flag" relationship styles among adults.
"Those who are anxiously attached and those who are avoidantly attached were more likely to use texting," Drouin said. "But when you broke it down, it was actually women who were anxiously attached were more likely to use sexting and were more likely be sending messages. The men who were avoidantly attached – those who dismiss the importance of interactions and relationships – were more likely to be receiving those sexual text messages."
Conversely, people with healthier relationship styles don't tend to sext as much.
The low level of commitment involved with sending sexual text messages, as opposed to verbal and face-to-face contact, may also impact relationship dynamics.
"People are exposing these things about themselves because it seems so easy and it's so removed from the actual person, it's easy to send and I think people are entering these types of sexual conversations and exchanging sexual pictures much earlier in a relationship, especially young kids," Drouin said.
In that light, sexting isn't the problem. Rather, adults should pay more attention to the underlying motivations for sending, say, topless photos that could be circulated beyond the intended recipient.
While the permanence and relative novelty of sexting has attracted mostly criticism, it's merely another form of sexual communication people have adopted.
"I see sexting as part of the human tradition of erotically inspired, creative communication, and may simply include words or images with flirtatious innuendo," said Kari Lerum, sociology professor at the University of Washington, Bothell, who specializes in human sexuality. "Sexualized communication is part of what it means to be fully human and is in my opinion it is condition that should be honored, celebrated and protected."
And like Drouin, Lerum evaluates the "good" or "bad" of sexting on a case-by-case basis.
"From a sexual health perspective, as long as the exchange is consensual and both parties are enjoying the receiving and sending of sexy messages, there is nothing inherently problematic about sexting," Lerum said.
But what about the risk involved with adults sending scandalous sexts that could have negative consequences if shown to or discovered by other people?
Lerum says it's up to sexters to simply avoid inserting themselves into those types of situations.
"The level of risk depends on who the audience is," Lerum told Discovery News. "If there's a chance that a text or email can be used as an act of sabotage against your career or social standing, then it's probably best to find other ways of communication that leave less of a digital trace, like a phone call or just plain old face-to-face communication."
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