U of A research exploring reasons behind sexting

Doctoral student Lily Le is hoping to better understand sexting and how to prevent sexual violence

A University of Alberta study hopes to understand the reasons behind why people sext and contribute to a healthy dialogue about the sometimes taboo subject.

The study, led by doctoral candidate Lily Le, aims to understand the motivations behind sexting, as well as how it affects the overall well being of the participants. Le explains sexting as “the exchange of sexually suggestive or explicit content whether that is written or visual, (shared by) some sort of electronic means.” Her research focuses primarily on visual content.

Le’s research is focusing on “emerging adults,” or 18 to 25-year-olds. She hopes her research leads to a better understanding of sexting and contributes to an open dialogue about it. 

“I think if we understand why people are sexting and what that impact is having, whether it’s negative or positive, more often than not it’s positive, if we understand the positive piece then we can actually promote wellness,” she said. 

Le’s goal is to use theory-driven research to understand why people sext.

“I feel like what the field needs is to actually come at it with theory, to make sense of why people engage in sexting with their partner and what that says about their wellbeing,” she said.

Le said that sexting doesn’t always have to be negative, as is often portrayed in the media. For her, there is space for it to be a positive and healthy part of a relationship. Le added that opening up a dialogue could help with destigmatizing sexting. 

“If people are more likely to talk about (sexting) they’re realizing it’s more normal,” she said. “It’s a bit of a taboo subject, people don’t openly talk about it as much.”

Despite the frequent negative images the media portrays about the act, Le said most sexting cases aren’t coerced and that the majority of it is consensual. She added that “there is room to shift the dialogue” that could acknowledge both sides of sexting — not just the negative aspects but also the positive ones.

The prior research done around sexting does not provide a set theory behind the reasons for sexting. Le felt that this was an important piece that was missing within the area of study and she is now in the recruitment processes of her research.

Le says that she is fundamentally interested in preventing sexual violence. The findings of Le’s research aims to understand the motivation behind sexting in order to predict future behaviour and prevent harmful behaviour. She hopes that the findings of her research can be applied to sexual health awareness campaigns, to mental health professionals, and to the counselling space. 

Within the dialogue of sexting, Le suggests to look at the positive aspects and use it as a healthy tool for relationships.

“Promote the positive aspects that are part of it — because there are positive aspects — and then let’s mitigate the risks and harms that are involved.”

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