Women may engage in cyberflashing more often than men, according to new research published in Computers in Human Behavior. Although such images are often unwanted, the new study indicates that cyberflashers tend to send unsolicited sexual images in an attempt to flirt or receive similar image in return.
Cyberflashing is a type of online behavior where someone sends sexually explicit content, like nude photos, to someone else without their consent through digital technologies such as text messages or social media apps. Cyberflashing is quite common, with studies showing that many women have received unsolicited photos of male genitals. It’s even more prevalent among younger people, with estimates suggesting that up to 75% of emerging adults have experienced this.
Previous research indicates that most women have a negative experience when they receive unsolicited genital pictures from men. However, nearly all prior research has examined this particular dynamic: males cyberflashing females.
“There is a lot of discourse around cyberflashing and the reasons why people choose to send nude or sexual images of themselves without asking,” said study author Vasileia Karasavva, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia.
“At the same time, most of the conversation is limited on ‘dick pics.’ Only centering the experiences of cis-gender men who send pictures of their genitals without asking means that we are only focusing on one part of the issue. The idea that we could expand current definitions of cyberflashing while also exploring such a current topic was very exciting to me.”
The study involved 816 undergraduate students from a Canadian university who completed surveys online between October 2019 and February 2020 in exchange for partial course credit. The participants’ age ranged from 16 to 60, with most of them being under 25 years old. The majority of participants (72.0%) were women, and most identified as heterosexual. In terms of ethnic background, the largest groups were White and Middle Eastern, followed by Asian, Black, East Indian, Native, and Other, with some participants choosing not to disclose their ethnicity or race.
Participants were asked if they had ever sent an unsolicited nude or sexual image of themselves since they were 16, even if the recipient did not ask for it or the sender didn’t know they wanted one. If they answered yes, they were considered cyberflashers and were then asked to estimate the number of unsolicited nude or sexual images they had sent since they were 16.
The researchers used a modified version of a survey called the Motivations Behind Genital Pictures scale to better understand why people engage in cyberflashing. They changed the language to be gender-neutral and replaced the term “dick pic” with “nude or sexual picture.” The survey included categories such as wanting something in return for sending a picture (transactional
mindset), using it as a way to flirt (partner hunting), feeling sexually aroused by sending unsolicited pictures (personal gratification), and using it to gain power and control over the recipient.
The researchers also asked the participants about the response they expected from the recipient, such as whether they expected to receive a compliment or expected to make the recipient angry. The participants also completed an assessment of Dark Triad personality traits (narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.)
Of the entire sample, 41.8% (334 participants) reported that they had sent at least one unsolicited nude or sexual image to someone else. This included 30.4% of men and 46.4% of women, as well as 43.3% of heterosexual participants and 35.2% of non-heterosexual participants.
“It was surprising to see that almost 42% of young adults in our study had sent an unsolicited nude or sexual image of themselves. This only speaks to how common cyberflashing is and the need for the conversation surrounding consent to expand to include digitally-mediated sexual encounters.”
Among those who sent unsolicited sexual images, the most common reason for doing so was to find a partner. The researchers also looked at what factors predicted each reason for cyberflashing, and found that expecting a positive response and not expecting a negative response were significant predictors for all reasons among cyberflashers. The findings are in line with previous research.
“The reasons why people send unsolicited nude or sexual images of themselves are not always nefarious,” Karasavva told PsyPost. “In fact, most of the cyberflashers in our study said their main motivation was partner hunting. In other words, they engaged in the behavior as a form of flirting and that they expected the receiver would enjoy getting their picture, even though they didn’t ask for one.”
“At the same time, it is imperative to understand that regardless of one’s motivations or expectations, cyberflashing remains a non-consensual sexual act. It is crucial to establish consent before you move forward with sexting to ensure everyone feels safe.”
Interestingly, gender did not have a significant effect on cyberflashing behavior once the reasons for cyberflashing were considered. It is possible that cyberflashing by women or individuals outside the gender binary may be underreported because studies have specifically focused on the sending and receiving of “dick pics,” the researchers said.
Additionally, those who scored higher on measures of sadism were more likely to endorse the idea of sending such images in the hopes of receiving something in return, while those who scored higher on measures of psychopathy were more likely to do so to feel a sense of power and control. Finally, women were more likely to send such images for personal or sexual gratification and to find a partner.
But the findings come with an important caveat, Karasavva explained.
“In our work we did not control for the relationship status between cyberflasher and the person they cyberflash,” she noted. “It is likely that motivations behind and reactions to unsolicited nude or sexual images differ based on prior interactions of those involved. At the same time, regardless of if you have never sexted with a person before or if you have been together in a long-term relationship and you often sext together, consent remains a non-negotiable! Check-in with all your partners before you send a nude!”
The study, “Putting the Y in cyberflashing: Exploring the prevalence and predictors of the reasons for sending unsolicited nude or sexual images“, was authored by V. Karasavva, L. Brunet, A. Smodis, J. Swanek, and A. Forth.