July 19, 2011 -- Weinergate has popularized the trope of powerful men who feel the need to text women pictures of their junk, but in the world of everyday Joes, sexting might be more of a woman's game, at least according to preliminary research published in the journal Sexuality & Culture.
In a survey of married and single people looking for noncommittal flirtation and hookups online, researchers found that two-thirds of women reported sending sexually explicit texts or photos of themselves via phone or email, while only half of the men did.
"Of course, this is a self-selected population, but I've also observed that women are more likely to show pictures of themselves than guys are. I think that may be changing though -- evening out," says Diane Kholos Wysocki, co-author of the study and a professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Anecdotally, several men voiced similar gender-biased experiences to ABCnews.com. One journalism student from Savannah, Ga., noted that all his sexting, which occurs frequently, takes the form of pictures that women send to him. He says he never sends photos of himself: "How this works is a mystery to me," he says.
This possible imbalance in the photographic world of sexting may have to do with the target audience, sex experts say: That is, men may be more receptive to close-up body shots than women are.
In another upcoming publication on cybersexual activity, Wysocki analyzed a website where people go to seek out sexual partners, and he found a similar gender divide: "It was striking to us that women didn't go for the crotch shots as much as many men who were posting them would like: 'Here it is, this is what you want.'"
It's not that sexting can't be enjoyed equally by both sexes, but men and women, as with many other sexual activities, may take a different approach.
Christine Laplante, a sex educator in New Hampton, N.Y., who encourages sexting as a form of sexual communication among her clients, notices that women tend to be more descriptive in their sexts, drawing things out in a kind of virtual foreplay, whereas men will dive right to the hardcore stuff.
"By nature, men are known to be visually stimulated, and women are definitely visually stimulated but are known to be turned on in a creative fantasy sense. So, I would say stereotypically, men are more interested in receiving the photos," says Amy Levine, a certified sexuality educator in New York and founder of Sex Ed Solutions.
Sexting and Infidelity -- E-Cheating
Wysocki's study surveyed more than 5,000 men and women using the "swingers" site AshleyMadison.com -- granted, a sample skewed toward those inclined to cheat -- and found that more than two-thirds of respondents had cheated online while in a serious relationship.
Thanks to former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner's recent sexting debacle, the practice has entered the spotlight as a controversial form of infidelity. If two people never meet, never touch -- is it still cheating, or is it just e-cheating? Is there a difference?
Between recent controversies over rampant high school sexting and e-cheating of the Weiner variety, sexting has gotten a bad wrap, says Laplante, but it doesn't have to.
While inherently explicit, sexting doesn't have to be illicit, she says.
"I sext with my husband and encourage my clients to sext with their partners," says Laplante. "Sometimes people have a hard time communicating what they need sexually, but they can do it in a text."
Also, for sex lives that have gone stale, sexting can create sexual tension throughout the day that builds anticipation for seeing your partner later that evening, she says.
"I think sexting can do amazing things for stagnant relationships. It can create a spark. We live in this instant gratification world where sex can become this quick, perfunctory thing, and sexting creates this energy over time. It can help reconnect people," Laplante says.
Oftentimes, however, people are afraid to initiate illicit cyberexchanges for fear that their partner will reject the idea (and by extension, them). Instead, they seek out these exchanges with strangers, she says. This is why many people will feel comfortable e-cheating with strangers, rather than engaging in e-foreplay with their partners.
This disconnect between what we need from our partner and what we get is at the heart of illicit sexting behavior, Wysocki says:
"Sexting is more than just sex. It's about feeling appreciated and good about yourself. I don't think we take care of our relationships. We have all these good feelings at the start, but then real life steps in, bills, babies -- and we don't put in the work to keep those good feelings going," she says.
Instead, people find themselves in a chat room where someone is giving them that initial spark and attention -- a quick fix, rather than investing in their relationships, she says.