Sexting involves sending sexually suggestive or explicit text messages to partners, and is increasingly prevalent among adolescents and young adults. It has become, for many youth, an integral part of their journey to sexual maturity and a key facet of social sexuality. Research, however, is nascent and conflicted, and it is not well understood how sexting relates to personality traits.
Of particular concern is the relationship between antisocial sexting practices (like sharing others’ sexts, shaming, coercive sexting, and sexting with strangers) and maladaptive personality traits. Importantly, three traits in particular stand out in predicting aggressive and antisocial sexual behavior in general. Collectively, they are known as the Dark Triad: Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. Their relation to sexting, however, has not been thoroughly researched.
This was the goal of a large team of international researchers, whose survey of more than 6,000 adolescents and young adults has helped shed light on the role of the Dark Triad in different sexting practices. Their results are published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
The authors start by defining three distinct types of sexting.
The first, experimental sexting, refers to the “consensual exchange of sexual content for addressing young peoples’ developmental tasks and needs, such as exploring their sexual identity.” This is seen in a mostly positive light, as a natural extension of healthy sexual exploration.
The second and third types, however, are more sinister in nature. They are referred to by the authors as aggravated sexting and risky sexting. The former includes unwanted or unsolicited sexting, unauthorized sharing of sexts (including for purposes of shaming), and coercion. Risky sexting is so-called by the authors because it represents a dimension of sexting accompanied by other risky behaviors, like sexting under the influence and sexting with strangers or people only known online.
The results of the survey highlight the importance of certain personality traits as predictors of sexting as “a vehicle to abuse or harm others.” Indeed, both psychopathy (characterized by callousness and lack of empathy) and Machiavellianism (excessive willingness to use and manipulate others for personal gain) were predictive of non-consensual sharing of sexts and coercive sexting. Narcissism, conversely, did not significantly relate to either negative form of sexting.
“The relationship between psychopathy and both forms of aggravated sexting (i.e., non-consensual sexting and sexting under pressure) was stronger for boys than girls. Moreover, it is worthy to note that narcissism showed no main effect on non-consensual sexting. However, it appeared that this relationship was conditioned by age: specifically, the relationship between narcissism and non-consensual sexting was negative for younger participants,” the researchers explained in their study.
“Finally, the relationship between Machiavellianism and sexting under pressure was stronger for younger participants. Overall, our findings suggest that not all [Dark Triad] traits are equally related to all kinds of sexting behaviors. Indeed, the present study is the first attempt to provide empirical evidence that different maladaptive personality traits predicts different kinds of sexting behaviors.”
Sexting is a growing trend and may play an important role in sexual exploration and interaction, which can be healthy. However, like other types of sexual interactions, there is risk for abuse. Understanding what personality types are most likely to engage in riskier and antisocial forms of sexting will help practitioners and caregivers develop appropriate intervention strategies, both for potential victims and abusers.
The study, “The Relationship between Dark Triad Personality Traits and Sexting Behaviors among Adolescents and Young Adults across 11 Countries“, was published January 31, 2021.