Sexting and Risky Sexual Behaviors Linked in New Study

A new study led by the Yale School of Public Health finds a link between “sexting” and an increase in risky sexual behaviors among young people.

The practice of sexting—the sending or receiving of sexually suggestive text messages, photos or videos via cell phone—has not been studied extensively. Yale’s research, examines sexting among young people in low-income and minority communities, shedding light on the practice and its impact on the community. The study aimed to determine if sexting increased sexual risk behaviors, such as unprotected sex, increased number of partners and substance use during sex.

School of Public Health researchers Mikaela Jessica Davis, M.P.H. ’14, Adeya Powell, Ph.D., YSPH Professor Trace Kershaw, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor Derrick Gordon, Ph.D., of the Yale Department of Psychiatry, examined the sexting practices of 119 adult heterosexual males, with an average age of 20, in New Haven. The research is published in AIDS Education and Prevention.

“We often hear about sexting in popular media, but few studies have explored the interpersonal context of the practice, and whether it is associated with sexual risk behaviors,” said Kershaw, the study’s senior author. “Our findings suggest that sexting is a standard form of communicating with romantic partners in the current social technological landscape, and the degree it is associated with risk is associated with several factors including who initiated the sext and whether the partner is casual or steady.”

The study found that sexting is a common behavior among young adults: 54 percent of participants had sent a sext, and 70 percent received one. Men were overall more likely to receive sexts than send them, rarely sent sexts without receiving them and were more likely to send them to steady, rather than casual, sexual partners.

The research also revealed differences in texting patterns between casual and steady partners, with risky behaviors attached to each group. Those who texted steady partners had significantly more unprotected vaginal intercourse and oral sex, while participants who sent sexts to casual partners had significantly more partners. Substance abuse was also a factor: those who received sexts from casual partners had significantly more unprotected oral sex, and more sex while on substances.

A challenge of studying this new and increasingly common practice is the definition of sexting itself, which, in recent research, varies widely. This study defined the practice broadly, and included sexually suggestive or explicit messages, photos and videos found on both cell phones and computers. According to the authors, future research should aim to create uniform definitions of the practice of sexting in order to facilitate comparisons between studies, giving researchers the capacity to better impact related risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex.

The study also makes clear a distinction between those who send and those who receive texts as factors that have an impact on risky sexual behavior, and that future studies should also, based on their findings, distinguish between casual and steady sexual partners.

See the full study at

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