The only thing more complicated than relationships, or technology, is when you combine the two. As in, according to a paper in the Journal of Sex Research, sexting indicates conflicting things about the way you date: It could be that you’re super at ease and want to throw a little tease your partner’s way — or it could be that you’re using sexuality to win affection. Like so much of life, it comes down to timing.
“Sexting early in relationships (or before a real relationship has formed) may be a sign of relational anxiety or someone who is not interested in a long-term relationship,” lead author and California State University, Monterey Bay, researcher Rob Weisskirch told PsyBlog, noting that — as Tinder users are quick to discover — getting a sext from someone you’re attracted to but don’t yet know well could signal a forthcoming hookup. As things mature, sexting could serve a greater good: “Sexting may now just be a form of digital foreplay,” he added.
Weisskirch and his co-authors recruited 459 unmarried, heterosexual undergraduates aged 18 to 25 to fill out an online questionnaire about dating and sexting. The participants self-reported how often they sent partial or fully nude photos, a sexually suggestive text, or straight-up propositioned sex via cell phone. They also filled out quizzes regarding how great of a sense of relationship commitment they needed to send a sext; how afraid they felt of being single; their anxiety about being judged by who they’re dating; and a quiz asking how anxious (e.g., agreeing with the statement “My desire to be very close sometimes scares people away”) and avoidant (e.g., “I try to avoid getting too close to my partner”) they were about attaching to people.
The researchers found that sexting was predicted by two different emotional patterns: A higher likelihood of sexting came with a low level of attachment avoidance — meaning that you don’t fear getting too close, which itself is an indicator of a strong, secure relationship. Less happily, scoring high on “fear of negative evaluation,” or worrying that your partner doesn’t like you also predicted sexting. There’s a dual nature here: Sexting could be a playful indicator of being open to intimacy, or it could be an anxious signal that you’re thirsty for greater intimacy — depending on where it’s coming from emotionally.
Studies from 2011 and 2012 both found that sexting was mostly indicative of attachment anxiety, so the sexting-as-foreplay finding here may be the sign of a cultural shift. It could be that sexting has become more socially acceptable, or that today’s youth have had positive experiences sexting — like with getting the intimacy or sex they seek — thereby reinforcing the behavior.
“These findings may indicate that individuals believe that sexting, once a stable level of relationship commitment is established, is part of a modern, supportive romantic relationship,” they write, since it’s a way of being attuned to what your partner might want — which is so much, as other research indicates, part of being good at sex or relationships. But of course, more research will need to be done — would be nice to see what people over 25 are like sext-ually. We can think of one possible study subject.