In the wake of horrific rape cases revolving around the dissemination of graphic photos of the victim — or even political sex scandals involving entirely consensual encounters — the media typically seizes upon the opportunity to warn about the dangers of sexting in an Internet age. The conventional wisdom is that sexting is a major public health concern, and young people need to be protected from it.
At least according to one recent survey of college students, however, many of those concerns are overblown. After polling nearly 300 college students at a large Midwestern public college about their sexting habits and attitudes toward sexting, the new study found that many students reported having positive experiences.
And rampant sexting wasn’t necessarily linked to the so-called “college hook up culture,” either — most respondents said they sent fewer than three explicit images each month, and some of them were in the context of a monogamous relationship. The participants in relationships reported having better experiences with sexting than the single college students did.
“Sexting doesn’t seem to be as risky as the media makes it out to be,” Allyson Dir, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the lead researcher on the study, noted.
Dir did find that the female undergrads were more likely to have negative reactions to sexting compared to their male peers. She pointed out that’s probably because it’s more socially acceptable for men to be seen as sexually promiscuous, and sexting has been characterized as somewhat of a risque behavior.
Although Dir’s sample size was small, her research adds to an increasing body of work that has found that sexting isn’t necessarily correlated to other types of more “deviant” behavior, and doesn’t represent any kind of widespread epidemic. Rather, concerns over sexting are typically an example of the discomfort that older Americans often feel when it comes to younger generations’ expressions of sexuality.
Of course, there is a point at which sexting can become a real issue: When someone’s consent is violated, and it becomes an avenue for cyberbullying. In a situation where both parties are comfortable with the exchange, snapping an explicit photo for the intended recipient is one thing. But if that photo is forwarded on to other people without permission, it becomes something else altogether — it’s a violation of consent. In discussions about sexting, the emphasis is often specifically placed on dissuading young women from taking sexy pictures of themselves. But studies have found that young men are nearly twice as likely as young women to distribute a sexually explicit photo among their peers.