Sexting: It’s extremely common these days, but it’s still a pretty new subject for relationship and sex researchers. There’s a lot we don’t know about how exactly the behavior fits into established relationships, new ones, and casual-sex situations.
From the point of view of researchers concerned with helping people have better, more fulfilling relationships and sex lives, one important question is under what circumstances people engage in sexting even though they don’t really want to, when they’re they’re pressured or otherwise coerced by a partner.
When this happens, researchers think it partly has to do with what researchers call “attachment style.” This is a basic measure of how you form relationships with romantic partners; researchers believe it can be traced, at least partly, to childhood relationships with parents. Weisskirch and his colleagues focused on “attachment anxiety” and “attachment avoidance.” Attachment anxiety is the the tendency to be scared your partner will leave you, and to defer to them in various ways to try to keep them happy — the authors note that “anxiously attached individuals may choose relationship strategies and behaviors that are detrimental to healthy, long-term romantic relationships, if that is their goal.” Attachment avoidance, on the other hand, is the tendency to resist getting close to a partner or potential partner. It could be that attachment style goes a long way toward explaining people’s willingness to engage in sexting they aren’t into, or enthusiasm for engaging in sexting they are into.
That’s the subject of a recent paper in The Journal of Sex Research by Robert S. Weisskirch of Cal State–Monterey Bay, and Michelle Drouin of Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, and Rakel Delevi of Cal State–Los Angeles, in which the researchers surveyed a bunch of college kids on their sexting and relationship habits and attitudes. Combining a bunch of prior research into sexting and attachment style, Weisskirch and his colleagues came up with two hypotheses: that “greater relational anxiety (i.e., fear of being single, dating anxiety, and attachment anxiety) would predict engagement in sexting behaviors … [and] would predict less commitment needed in a romantic relationship in sexting.”
To to test these hypotheses, the researchers had 459 “unmarried, heterosexual undergraduate students” from three different schools, 328 of those students women, complete an online questionnaire (the age range was 18–25 — the researchers excluded anyone who was older). In addition to basic demographic information, the students filled out items about the frequency with which they sexted, how committed they would have to be in a relationship before they sexted with their partner, and items about how much anxiety they felt about dating, the possibility of being single, and relationships in general.
The researchers’ hypotheses were partially supported. “In general,” they write, “sexting behaviors were predicted by low levels of attachment avoidance and high levels of fear of negative evaluation, a component of dating anxiety.” As predicted, people who were insecure about dating, to oversimplify it, were more likely to sext, perhaps in an effort to make or keep the other person interested.
One of their findings was wasn’t what they predicted, though:
Meanwhile, in terms of attachment avoidance, we found that low levels of attachment avoidance related to engagement in sexting, which was contrary to both the hypothesis and past research. Low levels of avoidance are typically associated with greater relationship security and greater attunement between partners. The disparate findings between our study and past research could be a result of a cultural shift. More specifically, it could be that sexting has become more acceptable or that previous experience with sexting has resulted in few personal consequences, making sexting seem less risky. Or past experience with sexting might have yielded positive relational outcomes (e.g., intimacy or desired sexual activity). [citations deleted]
This is just one study of college students, of course, and shouldn’t be over-extrapolated. But it adds some useful data to the question of why people get pressured into doing stuff they don’t want to do out of a sense, misguided or otherwise, that their partner will be displeased if they don’t. As with anything else sex- or relationship-related, it’s bad news if only one person is excited about what’s going on.