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Sexting is widespread. So why is it still taboo?


I have a tradition with a friend who’s several decades older than I am. Every month she and I meet for a couple of drinks and share racy stories: office gossip, family secrets, tales from our love lives. Recently, the topic turned to sexting — but she didn’t want to accept that’s what it was.

“I’ve taken a lover,” she blurted out, beaming as she confessed it was the first significant sexual relationship she’s had in nearly four years.

I asked her how this physical connection felt. She described it as “reinvigorating,” “intimate” and then paused as she said “playful,” pulling out her phone to show me their R-rated text exchanges.

“Don’t tell me this is the first time you’ve sexted,” I quipped.

She blushed. “This isn’t sexting, is it?” She explained that she and her partner don’t share nudes; rather they would send suggestive phrases and the occasional erotic emoji.

“Well, according to the dictionary, you’re a full-blown sexter,” I told her, Googling the definition to prove it: sending someone explicit photographs or messages.

She was shocked at the suggestion that she, a middle-aged professional, might engage in the same behavior as a misguided teenager. I suspected her surprise stemmed from the negative connotations the term has earned in the media. But despite the bad PR around sexting, she does it, and she’s not alone in sending those provocative messages.

Recent research indicates that sexting among adults is pretty common. A study presented at last year’s American Psychological Association (APA) conference found that 88 percent of respondents, ages 18 to 82, reported sexting in the past 12 months. Researchers Emily Stasko and Pamela Geller of Drexel University concluded not only that it’s prevalent among adults, but that higher levels of sexting correlated with higher levels of sexual satisfaction.

This made me wonder why so many consenting adults — who sext and apparently derive satisfaction from it — still talk about it like it’s taboo. Given the fact that we use mobile devices to share almost every other aspect of our lives, the results of the study might not seem unexpected. Yet when APA sent out a press release with the findings, dozens of news outlets published stories hailing the results as surprising. How unthinkable: Sexting might not just be normal among adults, but a part of a satisfying sex life.

The study countered what the media often says about sexting: that it’s dangerous and illicit. And among underage individuals, it can be. This colors how mature, consenting adults view sexting as well — as something negative. “The only times it really is talked about, it’s scandalous — when there’s a sexting scandal or someone has an affair,” Stasko tells me. She’s a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology who presented the research. “Those are the times that there’s a lot of publicity and widespread conversation around sexuality among adults.”

In my experience, many of my 20-something peers have revealed that they regularly sext, but they also seem to view it as promiscuous or even slutty. I’ve seen this through my interactions with other gay guys on dating apps. Many men appear willing to sext when they’re meeting on apps like Grindr, but then shy away from it once they’re on a more serious dating platform, like OkCupid.

A number of my gay friends talk about sexting as if it’s a switch they turn off when looking for a more serious relationship, avoiding suggestive texts so the other guy doesn’t misjudge their intentions. I’m familiar with that instinct. I can count at least a half-dozen budding relationships where I’ve refrained from talking about what I prefer sexually for fear the other guy might judge me or question my character.

Why isn’t sexting viewed as a normal part of a healthy, committed relationship? For starters, Americans are still pretty puritanical about sexuality. “In general, sex and sexuality are still fairly taboo — even though we assume that they are things that happen within the context of committed relationships,” Stasko says, adding that there have been surprisingly few studies on the role of sexting in adult relationships. “We hardly talk about what it is that goes on inside sexuality in adults. We don’t really talk about what that looks like.”

It’s no surprise that we still view sexting among consenting adults as taboo — it is, at its base level, communication about erotic desire. But if the past is any indication, it’s only a matter of time before public perception sways in sexting’s favor.

Sex columnist Dan Savage recently advised a concerned 20-year-old student that the time is quickly coming when no one will care about what today passes as controversial. He implored, “So send those pictures … and you’ll help create the world we all want to live in, i.e., a world where one or two nude photos or videos isn’t a big deal.”

It appears plenty of adults already follow his advice — even if my drinking buddy doesn’t want to admit it.


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