On the biology of sexting, a monograph

Short version: Flashing is dangerous; sexting is idiotic. We vote that everyone let Weinergate play out and focus on Mr. Straus-Kahn (“DSK”).

In our ongoing attempt to systematize sex scandals, we recently pondered sex and power.   We turn now  to sexting.

We made a graphic. (Click to enlarge, outline below).

In general, the top-line category is consensual and non-consensual. Where one shows one’s private area to others it may be consensual (sexting, celebrity sex tape) or non-consensual (exhibition).

We so we distinguish sexting from plain vanilla exhibitionism. Exhibitionism, that is, flashing one’s private areas to an unsuspecting other, is non-consensual; it is all about power, not intimacy. Some studies point to a slippery slope, so to speak, from flashing to rape. (See our remarks, What’s up with Exhibitionists? Update, inclusive of several posts). Greeting a hotel maid in one’s altogether we view as flashing, and we don’t find it improbable that one would then attempt a rape, given the reports. (As tempted as we are to buy into some of the DSK/IMF conspiracy theories, we’re taking the reports  at face value. We do find it rather pathetic that the most powerful would selectively prey on the most vulnerable, and we do find this emblematic of geo-politico-financial systems, but that is a bigger issue than this post is meant to address.)

We also distinguish sexting from the more general celebrity sex tape genre. The audience is presumably shocked, but shocked with consent (as opposed to unconsenting shock in viewing a flasher).  Nor do sex-tape celebrities seek a relationship with the audience, in contrast to sexting participants (discussed below).   Be that as it may, we all have celebrity sex tape fatigue, and so the utility is nullified.  Sadly, we think the celebrity rehabs have replaced celebrity sex tapes as holding audience attention.

And now we have Weinerschaden fatigue.

Sexting is categorically dissimilar to exhibitionism. With flashers, the presumed response is shock, the flasher is seeking power (according to the research). For sexting, at least according to these scant reports, the presumed response has an implicit consent. Sexting  is affiliative behavior, not aggression. (We have no reports of continued sexting in the face of a request to stop.)

Not surprisingly there is scant behavioral research on sexting, and most of that relates to teens. According to a Pew report on teen sexting, focus group findings show that teen sexting occurs most often in three situations:

1. Exchanges of images solely between two romantic partners
2. Exchanges between partners that are then shared outside the relationship
3. Exchanges between people who are not yet in a relationship, but where often one person hopes to be.

“Teens explained to us how sexually suggestive images have become a form of relationship currency,” said Amanda Lenhart, Senior Research Specialist and author of the report. “These images are shared as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship with a significant other. And they are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as a joke or for fun.”

In another report, for subject hispanic females between 16-25, sexting behaviors were not associated with most other high-risk sexual behaviors, but were slightly more common in women who found sex to be highly pleasurable or who displayed histrionic personality traits. (Italicized because our bias-o-meter is up on this one.)

What computer mediated communication is used is incidental. Sexting equivalents were some of the first art forms, and we’re sure there must be sexts in morse code. Pew reports that 25% of adults use twitter (interestingly, there non-white use surged past white use). We see this as mere convenience, or perhaps confusion, as Mr. Weiner first alleged.  Ex-rep Christopher Lee used Craig’s list and e mail.

Computer mediated communication in hyperpersonal style is known to involve selective self presentation to induce intimacy. (Review here). Moreover, in the absence of visual cues from face to face communication, people tend to over compensate in computer mediated communication. (This is interesting in itself, as video chats one would think would be sufficient. Perhaps there are chemosensory cues that just don’t translate in a video chat, and that’s why we all have to get on airplanes for meetings.) Plus, people who are looking for a relationship, as opposed to those who are not, disclose more intimate details on social networking sites, here, and people who aren’t deep thinkers spend more time on social network sites, here. And so, where one is an insecure, superficial political gadfly seeking constant affirmation of one’s greatness, one may well flirt and entertain at one’s political fundraiser; but on line, one would be prone to overcompensate and blast out pixels of one’s private areas.

As to the sextee, each sexting participant gets something out of the transaction that they do not have in off-line relationships, presumably. (Research here). Being the object of special attention by someone in power satisfies the objectives of the sextee. The sextee  feels specially chosen, and thus should enhance relational intimacy. (Here, “. . .Disclosing to another communicates that we (a) trust that person to respond appropriately, (b) value his or her opinions and responses, and (c) are interested in knowing them, and having them know us, and so on. . .”) We suspect that sextees would be equally as satisfied with pictures of  celebrity desk chairs if that brought the faux specialness they so desire. With congressional representatives being far more interested in their own private areas, however, sextees must make do with sexts. And so, in a way, sexting is the opposite of flashing, because sexting empowers the sextee with attention from a powerful person.

Middle aged congressional male sexting involves a number of neural systems. Is the area of the brain relating to self-awareness is insufficiently developed? Physiologically, oxytocin encourages them (Here, report that oxytocin up the nose encouraged more on line social game playing). If sexting is a sudden and new behavior, perhaps there is some kind of brain damage. (Review here; sudden hypersexuality blogged here).

As far as a depravatity scale for sex scandals, we take the point of view of the victim to determine the degree of harm. We view DSK as the worst, by far (if allegations are true). DSK’s behavior allegedly involve flashing that degenerated to rape. Weinerschaden, on the other hand, involved empowering the beholder, as vapid and superficial as that is.  That doesn’t mean the American people aren’t scarred for life after seeing these pixels blasted over the media, though.

Image: http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2011/06/12/2011-06-12_
rep_anthony_weiner_finally_considering_he_may_have_to_resign_amid_sexting_scanda.html; credit: Andrew Burton/Getty; biggovernment.com


  • Sex Scandal Systematics
    • Consensual
      • Sex for hire
        • Group
          • Munich re
        • Singular
          • Spitzer
      • Place where likely to get caught
        • Home
          • Schwarzenegger
        • Work
          • Clinton
          • Capitol steps
          • Too numerous
      • Affair while married
        • Serial
          • Too numerous
        • One off
          • Sanford
          • Wilbur Mills
      • Showing privates to others
        • Sexting
          • Weiner
        • Celebrity Sex Tape
    • Nonconsensual
      • Exhibitionism
        • DSK (alleged)
      • Rape
        • DSK (alleged)
        • Assange (alleged)