Sexts From Women Are "Flattering," But From Men, They're Harassment, Study Says

Sexting rates soared in 2018: one in four teens have received a sexual message, while 15 percent reported sending one. While increasingly considered standard youth behavior, researchers claim sexting reinforces gender stereotypes that affect how men and women respond to such messages.

In a study released Friday titled "Not Cool Dudes," lead author Sarah Matthews found while unsolicited sexts from women were welcomed and deemed appropriate, those from men were considered sexual harassment.

A group of students, 61 men and 61 women, at a Texas university read one of four hypothetical messages containing a nude image, either solicited or unsolicited, from both a male and female sender. When asked to report the appropriateness of the text, students found it more appropriate for women to send unconsented nude images than men, whose messages likely made the women who received them uncomfortable. When the subjects in the hypothetical study specifically asked for a nude picture, students deemed both male and female responses appropriate.

Social codes differ for men and women, Matthews said in the study, and sex is viewed as a "crucial component of masculinity" and something men should remain open to even if they don't actively seek it, while women present themselves sexually to gain male approval.

Sexting reinforces those values of traditional masculinity and femininity, she wrote: while men considered unsolicited nude images "flattering" and increased their confidence, women reported feeling "threatened" or "dirty" after opening the text.

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Students walk across campus at UCLA on April 23, 2012, in Los Angeles, California. A new report found that unsolicited sexts sent by college-aged women are considered more appropriate than those from men in a reflection of gender norms. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Matthews said the difference in perception raises issues of consent brought on by "hegemonic masculinity" that dictates men should react positively to women's sexual advances even if they're unwarranted.

"The stereotypically masculine idea that men should always be happy about women's sexual interest may blur the inappropriateness of unsolicited text messages sent from women, despite the fact that men can still be negatively affected," she wrote.

Though more teens are sending and receiving texts than ever before, parents shouldn't worry completely, according to researchers from a February study that called underage sexting "potentially normal component of sexual behavior and development."

Despite a surge in sex messaging, only 40 percent of high school students have had sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Sexting is a way to explore nudity "for kids who are sort of interested in sexuality but might not be ready for actual sex," psychology professor Elizabeth Englander of Bridgewater State University told the New York Times.

Despite its "normalcy", sending and possessing underage nude images is still a felony. Teens who take nude photos of themselves could be charged with child pornography and registered as sex offenders or face federal charges if the photo is viewed in other states. Age isn't limiting, either. Two Louisiana elementary school students were arrested in April for sending a nude photo on Snapchat and sharing it with other classmates.

More than 10 million people were victims of "revenge porn," or nude images shared without the subject's consent, often to harass or embarrass them, in 2016.

"Lots of this isn't intentional," sexual privacy attorney Erica Johnstone told TIME. "It's just part of the hypermasculine culture: sex pictures become like currency."

Sexts From Women Are "Flattering," But From Men, They're Harassment, Study Says | Health