Sexting is perceived to be more appropriate in the later stages of a romantic relationship, according to new research published in Computers in Human Behavior.
Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit texts or images via electronic devices. The practice has become increasingly common, particularly among emerging adults, and the authors of the new study sought to better understand the relational context in which sexting takes place.
“This project was developed from a proposal in a graduate course about sexual communication,” said lead researcher Chelsea Guest, a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Communication. “I have an academic interest in the process of romantic relationship development, and I was curious about how people engage in sexting in different stages of relationships. Oftentimes, sexting is perceived to be a dangerous deviant behavior, but I was interested in its role in the process of relationship development and how it is perceived as a relational practice.”
The study was based on Knapp’s relational development model, a framework for understanding the formation of romantic relationships. The model suggests that relationships progress through five distinct stages: initiating, experimenting, intensifying, integrating, and bonding. Each stage is characterized by different behaviors and expectations.
The initiation stage represents when individuals first encounter one another and form first impressions. The experimenting stage is characterized by positive small talk, such as discussing similarities and differences. The integration stage is characterized by merging social networks and frequent self-disclosures, while the bonding stage is characterized by a formal acknowledgement of the relationship.
The researchers asked 133 undergraduate students to consider their most recent sexting experience and the person with whom they sexted in this most recent experience. The participants were shown five paragraphs depicting the five stages of relationship development and asked to indicate what stage they were in when they had sexted their partner. They also evaluated the appropriateness of their most recent sexting experience and reported their typical sexting behaviors.
Guest and her colleagues found that individuals sent and received more sexts as relationships reached higher stages of development. Participants sent more sexts in the integrating and bonding stages than in the initiating and experimenting stages. The researchers also observed a negative relationship between attachment avoidance and sexting frequency.
“Sexting happens less frequently in new relationships and happens more frequently in established relationships,” Guest told PsyPost. “Sexting is also perceived to be the most appropriate in established relationships compared to newer relationships. Finally, people who fear being close to others sext less than those who are comfortable in close relationships.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“This study was conducted with a sample of emerging adults (age 18-24), and data was collected in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Guest noted. “The behaviors of emerging adults are not necessarily representative of older adults or teenagers. Additionally, sexting behaviors were almost certainly different during the pandemic when social distancing mandates were in effect. It would be interesting to see how sexting frequency changed after social distance mandates were lifted.”
The study, “Too much too soon?: Perceived appropriateness of sexting across stages of relationship development and attachment tendencies among emerging adults“, was authored by Chelsea Guest and Amanda Denes.