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November 01, 2016

Women once sent love letters on scented stationery, hoping the fragrance would arouse the object of their affection. Those days are largely gone, but the wish to arouse a loved one still remains. Only the vehicles of communication have changed.

Take sexting. While it’s gotten bad press for its role in political and celebrity scandals, research is pointing to something called healthy sexting — a vehicle for enhancing the amorous dimensions of loving relationships. It might be the texting of a few spicy and seductive words, or selfies capturing just enough to whet the imagination and invite amorous or erotic thoughts. While there’s no limit to the creative ways texting can be used to suggest, entice or arouse, some important parameters can help to distinguish healthy from unhealthy sexting.

Healthy sexting is consensual. Sender and receiver ought to agree, prior to a first message, that sex-oriented texting is acceptable and welcome. This is especially important when sexts take on an X-rated aspect, where people’s sense of propriety may widely differ. Receiving sexts without prior agreement can be unwelcome and unsettling. Studies have found significant percentages of people — particularly women — sexting as a result of pressure from their partners, and finding themselves afterwards feeling regretful and remorseful for what they’ve done. Some psychologists have come to view the pressure to participate in sexting as a form of intimate partner violence, which undermines the well-being of both the individuals and their relationship.i

Healthy sexting occurs within a context of physical and emotional safety. Just as a healthy sexual relationship flourishes when partners feel physically safe and emotionally understood and respected, the same is true with sexting. One study found that people afraid of looking bad in a partner’s eyes sexted more than people emotionally secure in their relationship.ii Sexting just to win approval may not be coercive per se, but it may not be freely chosen either — and so it’s apt to stir feelings of guilt or regret afterwards.

Healthy sexting shouldn’t substitute for true intimacy. People uncomfortable with direct, face-to-face sexuality may rely on sexting as a means of making sexual connection. When it becomes a substitute for the real thing, rather than a fun and pleasurable enhancement, it can turn into an unhealthy habit promoting the illusion of true connection. That’s when consultation with a therapist might be of help.

(Stories abound of kids getting their hands on their parents’ smartphones, and former significant others using old sexts in ways not originally intended. Prudent sexting should weigh such risks.)

References & Citations

i Drouin, M., J. Ross, and E. Tobin. “Sexting: a new, digital vehicle for intimate partner aggression?” Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 50, September 2015, 197-204.

ii Weisskirch, R., M. Drouin, and R. Delevi. “Relational anxiety and sexting.” Journal of Sex Research, published online 31 May 2016.