There’s more to sexting than meets the eye. A growing body of research reveals that men and women exchange sexual text messages and tasteful nudes for complex reasons, often rooted in individual attachment styles. And, increasingly, scientists are finding that those in committed relationships get more out of sexting than teenagers sending dirty texts.
“One of the motivations for sexting may be connected to an individual’s attachment style, the way in which we become attached to or interact with our relationship partners,” says Martin Graff, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of South Wales. “The benefits of sexting are very much dependent upon gender and relationship status.”
More than 80% of people admit to sexting in some form, according to the American Psychological Association. And yet, until recently, researchers only understood this through the lens of unmarried teens and young adults in loosely committed relationships (or no relationship at all). The few studies that considered adults over 30 and married couples disproportionately focused on addiction, cyber-cheating, and other fidelity issues, but do little to consider any upside.
However there is some evidence that indicates people are more likely to sext in long-term relationships, and more likely to send explicit words than pictures.
One 2015 study analyzed the sexting behaviors of 180 wives and 175 husbands, and found that married couples send plenty of text-based sexts, with 29% of couples reported engaging in sexting but less than half copping to sending nude or nearly nude photos. Interestingly, people who sent words had higher levels of avoidance (an attachment style associated with inability to commit), and people who sent naked pictures had higher levels of anxiety.
Studies also suggest that men and women sext differently, based on their attachment styles. Although men tend to exchange more sexual messages and pictures in casual relationships, women tend to do the same in committed relationships. This suggests that men may be using sexting as a tool of avoidance, whereas women may use it to soothe anxieties in relationships.
Still, as sexting becomes increasingly normalized, it’s possible that research may shift and sexting could come to be a feature expected of secure relationships. It may also help couples who are too tired or busy for sex — we’re looking at you, new parents — maintain intimacy.
“Texting was initially considered a slightly deviant behavior, although it has now become more accepted, perhaps even a fun type behavior,” Graff says. “Overall though, both males and females reported more comfort with sexting when in committed relationships.”
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