Whether you're hitting "send" on 3 a.m. virtual booty calls or boldly getting it poppin' during daylight hours, that new sext message notification will shoot fire through your veins and release butterflies in your stomach. Unlock your phone, soak it all in, and feel your heartbeat quicken: There's nothing like the thrill of consensually sexting someone you want to smash — except, maybe, sexual intercourse itself. And a peek into the psychology behind sexting affirms why it can be so delicious to engage in cyber-hoeing. According to a 2017 study by The Kinsey Institute, 74 percent of American adults sext, with 65 percent of sexts sent over text and 38 percent via Snapchat.
No matter the medium, digital thot activities will take a number of forms. You have your garden-variety flirty hints and promises: "Here's what I want to do to you when we get home..." or "Here's what I want to do to you right now." You've got coy questions like "What do you think about when you masturbate?" or "Wanna guess what I'm fantasizing about right now?" There's sizzling nostalgia about particularly hot past hookup sessions. And of course, there are photos — both suggestive and explicit — for days. But just what possesses us to send these messages? And how does sexting affect us in the long run?
Dr. Michelle Drouin, a professor of psychology at Purdue University Fort Wayne and an online relationships expert, says that the allure of sexting is simple. It's just another form of sexual activity, which humans love. But there's also the fact that sexting can be so personal. “It is almost like pornography, created especially for you," Drouin tells Elite Daily. "Basically, either pornographic images or erotica — texts — crafted for you by someone you know. I think the draw is customization of sexual communication. And sex is popular."
Another thing to note is that sexting can be a go-to for fostering intimacy, especially in casual hookup relationships or situationships. “Some liken or say sexting is the ‘new first base,'" Drouin says. "So people who are in uncommitted sexual relationships — who are just discovering each other — might use sexting as a way to express their passion, express lust, to spur sexual interaction." It's intimate, of course, because you're giving your most guarded thoughts and body parts to someone.
In Drouin's research, respondents have said they engage in sexting because it's "fun" or "flirtatious." But there are also neurochemical factors to why crafting a spicy text. As Drouin points out, there haven't been any studies done on which parts of your brain light up from sexting. But based on her professional experience, she says your brain would likely act the same as when you're watching or reading porn. "When you view other nude photographs or view erotica, probably similar areas of the brain are lighting up," Drouin says.
A 2016 study on brain function while viewing porn confirmed that your ventral striatum — the part of your brain responsible for reward-processing — lights up when you look at porn. It also confirmed that your body releases dopamine when you're getting hot and bothered from viewing erotic images. Dopamine is all about the pay-off, a.k.a. those yummy rewards. It's the chemical that says, "Keep sending nudes, because think of what kind of juicy response you're gonna get back and how good that's gonna make you feel!"
The study went even deeper, presenting its participants with their preferred type of porn as well as non-preferred types. (Think different genres, scenarios, or kinks.) As you can probably guess, people's ventral striatum lit up even more when they were presented with their preferred type of porn. It was clear their brains processed their specific, sexy faves as extra rewarding. But researchers found that — more than just drawing a stronger reaction than the non-preferred stuff — preferred porn drew reactions similar to "self-reported symptoms of Internet pornography addiction." These symptoms included general sexual excitability and hypersexual behavior.
So, apart from the mechanics of your brain reacting to d*ck pics or your crush telling you they want to eat you out, where does this research apply IRL? If you consider how sexting is like porn made just for you, this research explains why sexting feels extra-rewarding and why a few good, NSFW selfies will make you re-arrange your schedule to go get d*cked down. In a manner of speaking, sexting (just like porn) can be kind of addictive.
It's important to note, too, that sexting isn't always nudes that make you wet or compliments that make you feel like a badass bitch — that's not the case for many people. Just like with sex IRL, consent is key. Unwanted sexting or coerced sexting has come up in Drouin's research. In particular, Drouin has seen the damage it does to women and femmes. “There’s a lot more discomfort and even trauma involved when they look back on that episode," Drouin says. "So, what’s going through your brain could differ greatly, based on what kind of relationship, whether or not you’re doing it willingly, or if someone kept asking you and you’re just giving in."
Research shows, too, that even consensual sexy messages between two people isn't all orgasms and roses: sexting can damage romantic relationships. A sexting study done by Drouin at the University of Alberta surveyed 615 Americans and Canadians, both queer and straight, who were in committed relationships. Researchers broke down respondents into non-sexters, "word-only sexters," frequent sexters, and "hyper-sexters." They found that, on one hand, people who sexted their partner a lot were more likely to report sexual satisfaction in their relationships. Lit, right?
But, on the other hand, the folks who were really into sexting also were more likely to report “infidelity-related online behavior,” conflict with their partner, tech interference in their relationship, and overall, feeling insecure with their partner.
Drouin's only advice? Proceed with caution. In practice, of course, this doesn't mean you have to delete your Snap, stop answering delightfully thirsty WYD texts, or nix the nude FaceTime calls. It just means be aware of what (and potentially, who) you're getting into, and the low-key addictive psychology behind sexting. Next time you're getting digitally hot and heavy (or countering boredom by exchanging nudes), keep these dirty neurochemical functions in mind.