Researchers say it is mistaken to see sexting as “simply harmful”

GettyImages-520860983.jpgBy Emma Young

Is sexting a good thing, because it’s sexually liberating, or a bad thing, because it’s objectifying? Separate research groups have put forward both arguments. But according to a new study of college students in Hong Kong, it’s both. 

It’s estimated that roughly half of US college students (on which most research in this area has been done) send nude or sexually provocative images by phone or the internet. In the new study, reported in the Journal of Sex Research, the proportion was lower (13.6 per cent), perhaps because Chinese culture has a lower level of sexual permissiveness, but sexting was still relatively common, with almost one in five men and one in ten women saying they do it. 

As the authors Mario Liong at Ritsumeikan University in Japan and Grand H.L. Cheng at the Duke-National University of Singapore, point out, some researchers have argued that sexting promotes objectification – the presentation of the body as an object to be judged, generally by prevailing cultural standards. But others have argued that it empowers people sexually, as they can be in more control of their own sexuality than they might be during a physical encounter.

To investigate who might be right, Liong and Cheng recruited 361 students, aged between 17 and 24, who filled in questionnaires that asked first whether they had ever sexted, and then assessed their views on so-called “body surveillance” (how often during the day they think about how they look, for example); feelings of body shame (they had to report the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with statements like “I feel ashamed of myself when I haven’t made the effort to look my best”); body control beliefs (“I can weigh what I’m supposed to when I try hard enough”, for instance); and, finally, comfort with nudity (for example, participants rated their comfort with situations such as “Being totally nude while sitting with a nude significant other”).

The results showed that among both men and women sexters had higher levels of body surveillance, which seemed to mediate their higher levels of body shame. But they were also more comfortable with nudity than non-sexters. There was no relationship between sexting and body control beliefs.

Increased body shame clearly isn’t desirable. But a greater comfort with nudity likely is, and this finding relates to experiences reported by erotic performers on live video cameras, the researchers argue: “When sexters pose erotically to take sexual pictures, they develop a liberated sexual subjectivity and become more comfortable with their bodies.”

The researchers point out that sexting is generally seen by authority figures – educators, parents and policymakers – as being unequivocally bad, whereas they believe their new results show it’s important to “break with [this] idea that sexting is simply harmful”. 

The researchers did only capture a snapshot in time, however, so it’s possible that the influences go the other way: people who are more comfortable with being nude are more likely to sext, and to experience self-objectification in the process. Longitudinal studies will be needed to investigate further. Also, this study did not look at whether the frequency of sexting had any impact, or whether there might be different effects for homosexual vs. heterosexual men and women.  

As the researchers readily point out, “More research is needed to understand the ways in which digital media have transformed sexuality and how individuals make use of this new tool to assert their sexual agency, despite being simultaneously constrained by it.” 

Objectifying or Liberating? Investigation of the Effects of Sexting on Body Image

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest


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