Sexting Among Adults May Be More Common Than You Think, Survey Suggests

A middle-aged woman I know recently confessed that she's been doing quite a bit of provocative, R-rated texting with a man she's involved with.

When I referred to it as "sexting" she was shocked. "It's not like we're sending naked pictures back and forth," she said. "Just a little suggestive 'What are you wearing?' kind of thing. It's fun."

Welcome to the new world of sexting.

It turns out grownups in committed relationships are, increasingly, doing it for pleasure and "fun," as one survey found. Also, according to researchers, the whole concept of "sexting" has evolved, or at least is evolving: from a risky, sordid and sometimes-dangerous activity among teens, to, as one therapist (more below) says, a way to add some sexual "simmering" to a relationship that may need spicing up. Even the AARP acknowledges the trend: "...the reality is that more and more of the 50-plus set, both single and married, routinely use text messaging to send tantalizing pictures and provocative words to their partner..."

Reframing Sexting

Indeed, sexting may be more popular among adults than you think.

A new survey on sexting found that 88 percent of respondents, ages 18-82, said they'd done it, and 82 percent said they'd done it in the past year (including the 82-year-old). Also, nearly 75 percent said they sexted in the context of a committed relationship, while 43 percent said they sexted as part of a casual relationship. (On the darker side, 12 percent reported sexting someone “in a cheating relationship.”) The findings were presented at the American Psychological Association annual convention in Toronto earlier this month in a paper called: “Reframing Sexting as a Positive Relationship Behavior."

(Photo illustration by Mike Licht/Flickr, taking inspiration from the artist Edward Armitage)
(Photo illustration by Mike Licht/Flickr, taking inspiration from the artist Edward Armitage)

The survey of 870 heterosexual individuals in the U.S. also found that in general, more sexting was associated with a higher level of sexual satisfaction. More than half of the responses came from women; the average age of participants was 35, according to the study authors.

On one level, it's not surprising that sexting is becoming more mainstream.

"If we look at how technology has been integrated into our society — it's so much part of our daily lives — it makes sense that it would become part of our dating and sexual lives as well," said Emily Stasko, MPH, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia and the survey's co-author, along with Pamela Geller, PhD, associate professor of psychology, ob/gyn and public health at Drexel.

Attitudes about sexting seem to be changing too. The survey found that people who sexted more rated it as more "carefree and fun" and had higher beliefs that sexting was expected in their relationships.

(Sexting, for the purposes of the survey, was defined broadly as sending or receiving sexually suggestive or explicit content via text message, mainly using a mobile device, Stasko said.)


Of course, this doesn't mean that every grownup out there is under the covers with their phone at night shooting off racy texts. These survey findings are preliminary, and come with big caveats, Stasko says. The findings may not be representative: Participants were recruited online and responded to a posting asking them to take a survey about sexting, so the sample could be skewed toward more seasoned sexters.

Don't Forget Pleasure

The main goal of the study was to look at sexting through a new filter, Stasko said. The practice has historically been viewed as a risky activity among teens, associated with other sexual risk-taking (like having unprotected sex) and negative health outcomes, like sexually transmitted infections. She said she and her colleagues wanted to reevaluate sexting in a new light -- as a potential positive force in a relationship and a way to potentially enhance open sexual communication. "There seems to be a missing discourse about pleasure," Stasko said. "We wanted to talk not just about risk, but also introduce the idea that pleasure is a part of it."

The takeaway, she said, is that when sexting is wanted by both parties, is can be a good thing. “The findings show a robust relationship between sexting and sexual and relationship satisfaction," the study concludes.

Sexual 'Simmering'

Aline P. Zoldbrod, Ph.D., a certified sex therapist in Lexington, Massachusetts, agrees that sexting can play an important role in adult relationships.

I asked her for her thoughts on the survey, and here’s what she wrote:

Sexting is not just for hookups, as a follow up to an interlude on sex chat roulette or for trolling on Craigslist. Sexting actually has some amazing benefits for people in ongoing relationships. 

If you haven’t made use of it, and you’re in an ongoing relationship with all the strains of how to fit in sex once the thrill of newness has fled,  you might want to consider it.

One of the things committed couples struggle with is how to fit sex in to their busy lives. It’s hard to get into a sexual mindset when one’s head is full of work commitments, the perennial to do list or parenting responsibilities.  It’s hard to make sex a “go” when it has been at a dead stop for a week, or weeks.  Sex therapists like to talk about the concept of sexual “simmering” — the little, quiet, things that a couple can do that keep romantic and sexual thoughts alive in the cacophony of daily demands.  Well, texting can be a form of simmering.  Assuming that both people are interested in being sexual (that the sexting won’t be seen as a demand or a guilt trip), a sexy text or a romantic text, is a way to keep sexual thoughts alive.  (For instance: “You looked so handsome in that suit when you walked out the door...Want to have some fun around 9pm after the kids are in bed?”)

I try to encourage my couples to use this strategy, particularly when they are trying to re-connect sexually when the rest of the relationship is good.   Many people are cautious, and  I don’t blame them.  Since many of us have been taught that thinkingabout sex is wrong, let alone talking about it, you can imagine everyone’s terror of actually manifesting sexual thoughts in cyberspace. But part of my role is to be what I have called my patients “disinhabition coach.”

My patients Sandra and Bill (not their real names)  are a classic example.  They are both high functioning, solid, wonderful people.    Sandra is an accountant and Bill is in I.T.. They have two kids, aged 8 and 11.  Sandra came from a religiously conservative home where her dad drank too much.  His message to her growing up was that girls who were interested in boys were “sluts.”

It is  critically important to her that she be emotionally attuned to her children, that they have a better experience growing up than she did.  She can get very caught up in thinking about what the kids need.  She feels a little guilty for working, so she goes to the Nth degree to pay attention to the kids’ daily lives and to what they will need in the future.  It does not leave Sandra much time to be in her own head or her own body.  Sandra and Bill have enough money,  but what they don’t have is enough time to connect as a couple.

To be honest, Sandra didn’t have that many sexual thoughts. Sex, usually, just wasn’t at the top of her list. But she did love Bill.

I encouraged her to sext Bill during the day when she was feeling warmly toward him and had some sexual thoughts — especially thoughts about ways she would like to be touched.  (She found that she did more sexual daydreaming when she was in her work role than she did in her mommy role.)

I had to coach Bill not to pounce on these sexts and act like Sandra was contract-bound to be sexual that day or evening.   It was just a way to get them both to be curious and more aware of who she really was sexually. Over time, the sexting really did work like simmering. For Sandy, there was something incredibly liberating and sexy about discovering that she had some sexual wishes of her own.

Sexting can really be fun, but context — and trust — is everything. Young people are less likely to think through some of the scarier possibilities. If you sext to someone who is not committed to you, you are risking your privacy and making yourself vulnerable. In a casual relationship, that person can stop seeing you and forward the text to miscellaneous strangers.

Readers, are you sexting, and if so, has it improved your relationship in any way? Please share.

Headshot of Rachel Zimmerman

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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