We gave 459 unmarried, heterosexual, undergraduate students an online questionnaire to learn more about how relational anxiety influences sexting behavior. It covered questions measuring their sexting behaviors, relationship commitment needed to engage in sexting, their fear of being single, their dating anxiety, and their attachment style (secure or insecure). Half of the people who took the survey were single, and about 71% were female.
We found that people in romantic relationships -- whether of long or short duration -- were more likely to have sexted than those who did not have romantic partners. There were no gender differences for engaging in sexting, except that males were more likely than females to have sent a text propositioning sexual activity.
We also found that, generally, dating anxiety from fear of negative evaluation from the romantic partner (basically, worrying about what your partner thinks of you) and having a more secure attachment style (i.e., comfort with intimacy and close relationships) predicted if someone had sent a sexually suggestive photo or video, a picture in underwear or lingerie, a nude photo, or a sexually suggestive text.
We expected to find that anxiety would prompt people to sext but were surprised that comfort with intimacy related to sexting behaviors. We also expected to find that sexting would occur in relationships without a lot of commitment, meaning that we thought that sexting would be part of the wooing.
But it turns out that people who are comfortable with close relationships (a secure attachment style) and also worry about what their partner might think of them are more likely to engage in sexting, but only if there is some level of commitment in the relationship.
So our hypothesis was only partially confirmed.
What's dating anxiety got to do with it?
What this tells us is that people may be concerned with pleasing their partner's desire -- or perceived desire -- to engage in sexting and that it is the comfort with intimacy in relationships that may allow sexting to occur. And, when there is greater relationship commitment, this continues to be the case.
It appears that there is less stigma and greater comfort with sexting, provided that one perceives that his or her partner wants to sext and if there is a degree of relationship commitment.
So, a little sexting within a relationship might not be too bad.