Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 17, February 3, 2014


Sexting on the College Campus

Sloane Burke Winkelman, Ph.D., CHES
Department of Health Sciences
California State University, Northridge

Karen Vail Smith
Department of Health Education Promotion
East Carolina University

Jason Brinkley
Department of Biostatistics
East Carolina University

David Knox
Department of Sociology
East Carolina University

Contact and Additional Information to be addressed to: Sloane.burke(at)csun.edu


Sexting is a term used to describe the act of sending, receiving or forwarding nude, semi-nude photos, videos and/or sexually explicit text messages via cell or smart phones. This study examined the prevalence of sexting among college freshmen at a large southeastern university. It further examined the perceptions of respondents toward those who engage in sexting. Data from 1,652 undergraduates were used to explore the nature and prevalence of sexting among college students. Statistical analysis consisted of a combination of univariate analyses (histograms, descriptives, and simple tables), bivariate analysis (contingency tables), and data mining (via regression tress and bootstrap forests).  All statistical analyses were performed using JMP, SAS software. Results reveal that 65% of those surveyed have sent sexually suggestive texts or photos to a current or potential partner and 69% have received them. Approximately 31% shared these private communications with a third-party. Almost half (46%) had only positive perceptions of those sending nude photos. Females were significantly more likely to feel pressured to send sext messages.  African American respondents sent sext messages more than their white counterparts.  The majority of all respondents believed that there were potential negative consequences to participating in sexting. Based on the research findings of this study, it appears that health education can help to raise awareness and prevent serious consequences of sexting.


Sexting is the act of sending, receiving or forwarding nude, semi-nude photos, videos and/or sexually explicit messages via cell phones (Diliberto & Mattey, 2009; Jaishankar, 2009).  The practice has received media attention primarily because of the potential legal consequences for teens including legal prosecution for the production and/or distribution of child pornography.  For teens coming of age, given the current technological climate, text messaging is now used more frequently in romantic relationships not only to flirt and court (Faulkner & Culwin, 2005), but to send and receive sexually explicit messages and photos (Lenhart, 2009; Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones & Wolak., 2012; MTV & the Associated Press, 2009; Peskin et al., 2013; Strassberg, McKinnon, Sustaita & Rullo, 2013; Temple, Paul.,Van den Berg, McElhany & Temple, 2012).

The primary use of text messaging is to begin, maintain, escalate or in other ways impact interpersonal relationships (Faulkner & Culwin, 2005; Pettigrew, 2009; Thurlow, 2003).  Among teens and young adults in romantic relationships, texting is often the preferred form of communication and “acts as a social and emotional pick-me-up, to remind both parties that someone is thinking of them” (Short & McMurray pg. 163, 2009). It is considered to be “more constant and private” than mobile voice interaction (Pettigrew pg. 697, 2009).   

Several national studies have documented the extent of sexting among teens and young adults.    Estimates of prevalence for sexting vary from 4% to 27.6% for senders and creators and from 7.0% to 46% for recipients (Lenhart, 2009; Mitchell et al., 2012; MTV & the Associated Press, 2009; Peskin et al., 2013; Sex and Tech, 2008; Strassberg et al., 2013).  Gordon-Messer, Bauermeister, Grodzinski and Zimmerman (2013) studied a sample of 3,447 young adults (aged 18-24) inquiring about their sexting behavior.  These researchers concluded that sexting was not related to sexual risk behavior or psychological wellbeing.  Dir, Coskunpinar, Steiner and Cyders (2013) examined sexting expectancies and behaviors in 278 undergraduate students and used a “sexpectancies measure” developed by the researchers.  A factor analysis supported that there were both positive and negative expectancies. The researchers found that sexting behavior varied between gender, race, sexual identity and relationship status.  Focusing on teens aged 12-17, a 2009 Pew Research Center national study revealed that 4% of teens have sent nude or semi nude photos of themselves via text messaging and 15% had received such a photo (Lenhart, 2009).  The 2008 National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy/CosmoGirl.com “Sex and Tech” study of 1,280 of teens and young adults reported that 32% of young adults (20-26) have posted online or sent via text or email nude, or semi nude pictures or videos of themselves and 46% had received one.  Similarly the MTV-AP Digital Abuse Study (2009) concluded that 33% of 18-24 year-olds have been involved in some type of naked sexting.  

The overwhelming majority of young adult women (83%) and men (75%) who have sent “sext messages” have done so only to a boyfriend or girlfriend (Sex and Tech, 2008).  However, in the same study, 21% of young women and 30% of young men have also sent sexually suggestive photos or content to someone they hoped to date or “hook-up with, and 15% of women and 23% of men indicated that they had sent such messages to people they only knew online.  Lenhart (2009) suggested that among teens, “sexually suggestive images have become a form of relationship currency and are shared as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship with a significant other.”

Temple et al. (2012) analyzed data from 948 public high school students on their dating and sexual behavior (including sexting).  Twenty-eight percent of the sample reported having sent a naked picture of themselves through text or e-mail (sext), and 31% reported having asked someone for a sext. More than half (57%) had been asked to send a sext, with most being troubled as a result of having been asked. Adolescents who engaged in sexting behaviors were more likely to have begun dating and to have had sex than those who did not sext (all P < .001). For girls, sexting was also associated with risky sexual behaviors (e.g. drinking alcohol, multiple sexual partners, and no condom usage).  Walker et al. (2013) observed that girls often feel coerced by their partners to engage in sexting behavior. Thus, sexting can become a sexual behavior since the partner may put the nude photos on Facebook to intimidate and punish the girl..

Benotsch, Snipes, Martin and Bull (2013) analyzed Internet questionnaire data on 763 young adults, 44% of whom reported sexting.  The researchers compared those who sex texted/sent photos with their nonsexting counterparts.  The sexters were more likely to report recent substance use and high-risk sexual behaviors, such as unprotected sex and sex with multiple partners. Of those who engaged in sexting, a considerable percentage (31.8%) reported having sex with a new partner for the first time after sexting with that person. 

There are several potentially negative consequences of sexting.   While the main reason young adults indicated that they sext was to be “fun or flirtations,” to send a “sexy present,” or to respond to a sexually provocative message or image they received (Sex and Tech, 2008), some participated less willingly.  Eleven percent reported that they felt pressured to send naked photos and 61% who have done so indicated that they have been pressured by someone else to do so at least once (MTV-AP Digital Abuse Study, 2009).   

Another risk of sexting is receipt of messages or images by unintended viewers.  In the “Sex and Tech” study (2008), approximately one quarter of young adult women and 40% of the young men had received nude or semi-nude images originally meant for someone else.   In another study, 17% of 18-24s reported that they had passed nude images on to someone else, with more than half (55%) forwarding them to two or more people (MTV-AP Digital Abuse Study, 2009).  The American Psychological Association (APA) (2007) warned that “reputations are harmed, relationships broken, and friendships shattered when receivers of naked images violate senders’ trust by sending images on to others.”  Furthermore Ling and Yttri (2006) concluded that those whose photos are widely distributed might be harassed, victimized or ridiculed.  Even innocently intended sexting can cause harm when private photos are publicly disseminated, especially if done with actual malice (Sullivan, 2011). The APA also warns that young people, especially females, who send sexts engage in a type of self-objectification in which they “learn to think of and treat their own bodies as objects of others’ desires” and put themselves at risk of  “internalizing the observer’s perspective on their physical selves” (APA, 2007, p. 18).  

In an editorial in the journal, Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, Weiss and Samenow (pg. 241, 2010) stated that “Sexting has challenged society's definitions of normal adolescent behavior, problematic sexual behaviors, and a felony sex crime.”  Furthermore, the authors recommended that future research studies  evaluate the role and consequences of new communication technologies on sexual behavior.   The purpose of this research was to identify the frequency with which undergraduate college students are sending and receiving sexual text messages and photos to their partners.  The current research examined the nature and prevalence of sexting among a sample of undergraduate college students.  The research questions inherent in this study included:

Byrne and Findlay (2004) and Perkins et al. (2013) explored some of these research questions in previous studies of the college student population.   




The sample consisted of 1,652 undergraduates from a large southeastern university who were asked to complete a survey instrument.  No financial compensation was provided for completing the survey instrument..  Since there were no identifying codes associated with the submitted survey instruments, the identity of the respondents was anonymous.  Over 80 percent of those sampled were aged 18 or 19 years old (76% were freshmen and 15% were sophomores).  Sixty-eight percent were female (32% male), and 77% were white. Sixty-eight live in on-campus dormitories; 34% of the total sample consisted of white female freshmen who lived on campus.  The University’s student population consisted of  62% female and 38% male (East Carolina University, 2013). 


Modifying two existing instruments (Sex and Tech, 2008; Parker et al., 2011) the researchers developed a 27-item survey instrument that included five personal/demographic items (sex, age, ethnicity, class standing, and residency) and 22 items on sexting behavior and attitudes.   The survey instrument included 15 items on the frequency of sending and receiving sexual content as well as attitudes toward this behavior.

Participants were recruited from personal health courses to complete the anonymous online 22-item survey via in-class announcements  and emails from faculty teaching the course. In addition, announcements were posted on the online course management (BlackBoard) pages for each section of the personal health course.   Responses were collected online by the researchers using a Qualtrics® Survey Software account hosted by the University. The researchers used dichotomous, categorical, and Likert type items in the survey instrument.  Content and face validity of the survey instrument were determined by a review process conducted by expert researchers in the field.

Students received extra credit for taking the survey by presenting a printed receipt to their health instructors. Receipts were generated when completed online surveys were submitted by the participants.  The survey instrument, consent form, and research protocols were approved by the University’s Institutional Review Board.

Data Analysis

A variety of statistical techniques were applied to the data, starting with univariate analysis with standard techniques (histograms, descriptives, and simple one variable tables).  Bivariate analyses consisted almost exclusively of contingency tables and odds ratio analysis.  Data mining (finding relationships between variables using SAS JMP®) techniques were also employed for a more far-reaching look at the data.  Specifically, regression and classification trees were used to model the data and results were validated through the use of bootstrap (or random) forests. A review of these methods is found in Kuhn and Johnson (2013) for a complete overview of these methods.  In addition to addressing the research questions identified previously, the researchers/authors were also interested in the exploration of sexting behavior and, as such, the researchers/authors primarily relied on exploratory methods such as data mining.  Given that little is known about which subgroups are more likely to be engaged in sexting behavior (and their attitudes toward sexting),  the data mining techniques were utilized.  These methods have become common in the business community and have recently been implemented as innovative techniques for data exploration in the academic community (Vail-Smith, et al., 2010). These methods were not designed for policy-making decisions. Therefore, there is a need to independently verify these results with either validation data or follow-up research. However, these tools provide a starting point in hypothesis generation that forms the basis for additional research that uses traditional statistical methods. All statistical analyses were performed using JMP® software (SAS® - Raleigh North Carolina, 2013). Results of the data mining are described below. 


Frequency Data

Our results indicated that twenty-six percent of the respondents (1,652) reported that they had engaged in sexting behavior (95% C.I. 24.2%-28.4%) in general; 38.7% reported having sent a sex text or photo to a boyfriend or girlfriend (95% C.I. 36.4%-41.1%). 

Gender Differences

There was no significant difference in the rates of sexting behavior between women and men.   However, there were higher rates of receiving nude photos among men (50%) versus women (39%, p < 0.0001). Men also reported higher rates of sharing nude photos with others (23% of men versus 11% of women, p<0.0001).  Sixty- nine percent of all respondents reported having received a nude photo via text.  Of those who received a nude photo over two thirds (65%) reported a positive attitude toward receiving the photo (happy, excited, turned on, more likely to hook up, etc.), while 20% reported negative attitudes (angry, “creeped out”, disappointed, turned off, etc.).  The remaining group mostly felt amused. Females were significantly more likely to feel pressured into sending sexually explicit texts or photo messages with an Odds Ratio of 2.84 (p < 0.0001).

The distribution of demographic traits and sexting behaviors are found in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 3 summarizes suggestive (not explicit) messaging behavior, with 58% of the respondents reporting having sent suggestive messages and 69% having received them. Examples of a suggestive message are: (1)“We should hook up.” (2)“You look hot.” or (3)“I was thinking about you last night while lying in bed.”  While most suggestive messages were to current boyfriend/girlfriends (58%), another (22%) were sent to a former date or “hook-up.” Almost two- thirds (65%) of individuals surveyed reported having sent some form of sexually suggestive text to someone on the list.

Race/Ethnicity Differences

The rate of sexting between boyfriends/girlfriends was significantly higher among African Americans (48%, p=0.0011).  In fact, data mining revealed that of the 205 blacks in this study who lived in dorms, 52% reported having sexted their boyfriends/girlfriends.   The lowest rates of sexting to boyfriends/girlfriends were among non-African Americans who lived at home (19% boyfriend/girlfriend rate).

Perceived Consequences

Almost half of respondents (49.5%) considered these messages flirty; overall 59% reported a general positive attitude toward receiving a sext message (95% C.I. 56.5%-61.2%).  Table 4 lists the respondents’ descriptions of those who sent sext messages. 

Data mining revealed some mixed responses by gender.  Almost 40% (37%) of males described those who sent them a sex text as “hot;” in contrast, 21% of the females described those who sent them a sex text as “hot.”  Also 21% of males considered those who sent them a sex text as “slutty;” in contrast, 11% of the females who sent them a sex text as “slutty.”   Considering both labels, 12% of males described those who sent them a sex text as both “hot” and “slutty” versus 1.6% of women.

Attitudes Toward Sexting

Six-hundred and ninety-five (42%) the respondents reported having received a nude picture via text.  Of those, 65% reported a positive attitude toward receiving the photo (happy, excited, turned on, more likely to hook up, etc.) while 20% reported negative attitudes (angry, “creeped out”, disappointed, turned off, etc.).  The remaining group mostly felt amused.

Based on responses to survey questions, we were able to create a composite grouping indicating how respondents behaved when sending sext messages.  Listed in Table 5 is a by sex breakdown of this classification.  Overall, there is not a large disparity between the genders in regard to sexting behavior. (Females have a higher rate of no sexts while men do have a higher rate of more general sexting.) However, data mining indicated that a more obvious difference between groups could be revealed by looking at whether or not individuals were turned on by the act of sending out or receiving such messages (Table 6).

The data in Table 6 reveal a wide discrepancy between those who are “not turned on” or “turned on” by sexting than differences related to attitudes, experience, or demographic indicators of sexting behavior.  This analysis points more toward an association between enjoying sending/receiving such messages.  While gender and racial differences are significant between the groups (Chi Square p-value < 0.0001), multivariate analysis revealed that after controlling for significant effects of gender (p=0.0085) and Turned On (p<0.0001), race is no longer significant (p=0.4923). 


Females were significantly more likely to feel pressured into sending sext messages with an odds ratio of 2.84 (p < 0.0001).  After controlling for gender, there were no other significant influences on pressure to sext.  Table 7 shows the most commonly agreed upon consequences toward sexting.  Interestingly, less than half of the respondents (36%), but still a meaningful percentage, identified specific negative consequences of sexting regarding problems with the law (35%), school (32%) or future employment (40%).  Likewise, less than half (46%) thought that a consequence of sexting would be that others might perceive them as “slutty or easy in real life”.

All participants agreed that there were serious consequences to sexting.  In Table 8 the responses are stratified based on consequences of sexting among the different sexting groups.  It appears that the “no sexting messages” group agreed more than any other group that negative outcomes result from sending such messages.


The findings of this study support previous published data that there is a high prevalence of sexting activity.  Sexting is inherently reinforcing - it involves both cognitive and visual sexual content with an actual or potential sexual partner.  Sexting is a blend of sexual flirting and foreplay.  Consistent with previously published research, findings from this study reflect a similar or greater incidence of sexting compared to previous studies (Dir et al., 2013; Gordon-Messer et al., 2013). The data supports that there is a high prevalence of sexting activity, which is consistent with previously published data (Lenhart, 2009; Peskin, 2013; Sex and Tech, 2008).    Similar to the findings of Peskin et. al. and Dir et al. (2013), African American  students reported higher participation in sexting than their white counterparts.  In previous research, African Americans reported an earlier first sexual intercourse experience than whites (Cavazos-Rehg et al. 2010). This study had too low (<5%) of a response rate from other ethnicities to explore the race or ethnicity variable further.  Regarding gender, more men reported receiving sexts containing nude photos and had shared these nude photos with others than women confirming Strassburg et al. (2013) and Hinduja (2010) but refuting (Peskin et al., 2013) findings that Hispanic female students text less than their male counterparts. Almost half (46%) of respondents had positive perceptions of those sending nude photos.  Future research should explore this issue further.  

Females were significantly more likely to feel pressure to send sext messages which is consistent with prior research by Strassberg’s et al. (2013) and Hinduja et al. (2010) which found that more females text than males.  Further qualitative research investigating why females feel pressured to send sexts should be explored.  The majority of all respondents believed that there were potential negative consequences to participating in sexting yet still engaged in this behavior. The respondents may have perceived that there were more positive than negative outcomes to sexting or that the younger population felt invincible to any negative consequences to the behavior.  Further research needs to focus on this area of concern. 

In contrast, of those who received a nude photo, over two thirds (65%) reported a positive attitude toward receiving the photo (happy, excited, turned on, more likely to hook up, etc.) versus 20% that reported negative attitudes (angry, “creeped out”, disappointed, turned off, etc.).  This is noteworthy as consensual sexting between two young adults may actually not be an issue of concern or safety as previous research has suggested.  

Findings of the current research support the need for targeted public health awareness programs for college students. Innovative technology-based prevention such as safety campaigns on social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and text messaging campaigns that address some of the consequences of sexting should be considered.    The recent popularity of Instragram and SnapChat photo applications that have author delete options –may provide the sender with a false sense of security or control over the photos being sent; this may not be the case with other methods of capturing or sharing the photos provided.  To promote the recognition of appropriate partner interactions and to encourage healthy relationships among college students, campus-based prevention and wellness programs, campus law enforcement education on this issue, and personal health course content are needed. Additionally, the role of advocacy and policy reform to protect electronic information and personal information sharing should be evaluated.

Limitations and Future Research

There are several limitations of this research.   First, the 1,652 undergraduates in the convenience sample from one southeastern university are hardly representative of the 19.8 million undergraduates throughout the United States (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012-2013). . Large random national samples are needed to confirm findings.  Second, female respondents were overrepresented in the study.  However, the disproportionate number of females in the current study is consistent with the nationwide female share of college enrollments, approaching 60% (Aud et al., 2010).  Third, heterosexual respondents were overly represented in this study.  The low number of GLBT respondents did not allow for any meaningful comparisons.  A sexting research study focused on the GLBT population would be a significant contribution to the literature.  Fourth, the data are quantitative with no qualitative interviews to provide insights on the quantitative data.  Subsequent research might include interviews with students about their motivations, experiences, and outcomes of sexting behavior.  Fifth, self-report measures are subject to reporting bias and respondents answering in an untruthful or socially acceptable manner.  Finally, extra-credit was offered to the students for completion of the survey, which may have impacted response validity.  Given these various issues, generalizing the findings beyond these data is limited.   

Importantly, although sexual orientation was a demographic variable in this study, findings were too small to show statistical significance or inference.  Additionally, only negative attitudes or consequences towards sexting were measured as other variables associated with sexting (felt sexting was sexy, was turned on by sexting, etc.) were also evaluated but had lower percentages associated with responses.   Third, self-report measures are subject to reporting bias and respondents answering in an untruthful manner.  Finally, extra-credit was offered to the students for completion of the survey, which may have impacted response validity.  Given these aforementioned issues, interpretation and the limited generalizability of our results should be considered. 

Future research should explore the context of the relationship in which texting occurs (e.g. recent “hookups”, new or established relationships), peer norms/influences that encourage one to engage in sexting, trust levels operative (e.g. does partner share photos with others?), motivations for texting, and relationship outcomes (e.g. does texting enhance or hinder the relationship?).   Future research should also focus on the unique needs of the LGBT population, and policy measures to protect young adults.


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Table 1
Demographics (N= 1,652)





18 or younger

37%  (n = 604)


44%  (n = 725)

20 and over

16%   (n = 262)

No Response

4% (n=61)




68% (n = 1121)


32% (n = 525)

No response

< 1% (n=6)




77% (n = 1268)


16% (n = 258)

Other/No Response

7% (n = 121/5)

Table 2
Sexting Behavior

  n %
Engaged in Sexting Behavior  429 26
Received a sext 695 42
Shared nude pics someone texted you 135 8.1
Shared nude pics by showing someone you were with 248 15
Feeling pressured to send sext (females) 391 23.7
Feeling pressured to send sext (males) 80 4.8
Sent a sext as a joke 125 7.6
Sexting boyfriend/girlfriend 639 38.7
Sexting someone “want to hook up with”   120 7.3
Someone I dated/hooked up with    200 12.1
If never engaged in sexting – would maybe consider it     238 14.4

Table 3
Sexually Suggestive Texts

  n %
Sent sexually suggestive text messages 914 55.3
Received sexually suggestive text messages  1126 68.2
Forwarded sexually suggestive text messages    260 15.7
Showed sexually suggestive text to another  510 30.9
Felt pressured by male to send sexually suggestive text    295 17.9
Felt pressured by female to send sexually suggestive text   118 7.1
Sent sexually suggestive text to boyfriend/girlfriend  960 58.1
Sent sexually suggestive text to someone want to hook up with 231 14.0
Sent sexually suggestive text to someone dated  366 22.2
Sent sexually suggestive texts to be fun/flirtatious 903 54.7
Sent sexually suggestive texts for a sexy present 294 17.8
Sent sexually suggestive texts as a response to a sext or text   187 11.3
Sent sexually suggestive texts as a joke  396 24.0
Felt amused when received suggestive text  666 40.3
Felt “creeped out” when received suggestive text  188 11.4
Felt excited when received suggestive text 425 25.7
Felt happy when received suggestive text 329 19.9
Felt surprised when received suggestive text 331 20.0
Felt “Turned On” when received suggestive text 516 31.2
Felt more interested in hooking up with sender 237 14.3

Table 4 
Sext/Sexually Suggestive Text Descriptions of Others

Description  n %
I would describe people who send sext/sst as flirty  818 49.5
I would describe people who send sext/sst as hot 429 26.0
I would describe people who send sext/sst as bold 358 21.7
I would describe people who send sext/sst as funny 404 24.5
I would describe people who send sext/sst as immature 200 12.1
I would describe people who send sext/sst as slutty 231 14.1


Table 5


Sext/SST Classifications  



Sexting Group





No Sexts or Suggesting Message





Suggesting Message Only





Monogamous Sexting





More General Sexting





Confused/Conflicting Answers





Table 6


Not Turned On

Turned On









Sexting Group









No Sexts or Suggesting Message









Suggesting Message Only









Monogamous Sexting









More General Sexting









Confused/Conflicting Answers

















Table 7
Sexting Consequences

Consequence     n %
Disappoint Family 946 57
Regret it late 989 60
Hurt Reputation  963 58
Potential Embarrassment  872 53

Table 8
Consequences of Sexting

Negative Outcomes




Sexting Group

Row %


Row %


No Sexts or Suggesting Message





Suggesting Message Only





Monogamous Sexting





More General Sexting





Confused/Conflicting Answers