Sexting…Is It All About Power?


Susan Lipkins, Phd., Jaclyn M. Levy, and Barbara Jerabkova, MSc.

We conducted an online psychological survey that investigated sexting behaviors and power. We found that 66% of the group sexted. A description of the study and the complete results are presented here.

Sexting is an important topic because it is a risky behavior that may endanger lives. However, it is also a widespread phenomenon that is prevalent among people between the ages of 13-26; namely those who have grown up with digital technology.

Sexting is a word that combines text messaging and sex.

There are many different reasons that people sext.

  • Sexting may be a new type of “mating call”.
  • Sexting may be another way to gossip.
  • Sexting may be a way to have fun or be funny.
  • Sexting may be a way to improve social status.
  • Sexting may be malicious, a form of sexual harassment.

Description of Study

An online portal was created and 323 anonymous volunteers completed a psychological test known as the “power profile” and a survey on sexting experiences and attitudes. 225 women and 92 men, aged 13-72 completed the survey in Feb. and March 2009. The hypothesis of this study was that sexting was a way to increase one’s social status and that the drive to do so could be measured by one’s power score.

[Power Profile – – online personality assessment]

What is Sexting?

Sexting is defined as sending provocative personal pictures or video, taken of oneself, alone or by a friend, to a boyfriend/girlfriend. Such images may be:

  • sexually suggestive
  • semi-nude or nude
  • intimate body parts

but they do NOT include spam or sexy images of people you do not know personally. Sexting refers to pictures, video and video chats sent to or from a computer or cell phone; and/or are posted in an online scrapbook or a social networking site such as facebook or myspace.

Results of this Study


  • When looking at the entire group of 323 people, 66% sexted.
  • When considering only teens, 13-19 year olds, 65.5% sexted.
  • When considering only young adults, 20-26 year olds, 73.5% sexted.

Power Scores

This study investigated the relationship between sexting and power.

As a total group, (ages 13-72) sexters did have a significantly higher power score[1] as compared to non-sexters.

However, when observing teens there was no difference in the power scores between sexters and non-sexters. This means that sexting may serve different purposes for people aged 26 and younger vs. those over age 26.

(Among teens, there is no significant difference between sexters and non-sexters (t(53) = -0.47; p > 0.1) in terms of Power Profile score. Among young adults, there is no significant difference between sexters and non-sexters (t(209) = -1.62; p > 0.1) in terms of Power Profile score)

This finding is very interesting because it implies a difference in the motivation to sext; based on age. <div class=”content-box-brown-border”>>[1] Power Profile – – online personality assessment

High scores indicate that a person has a strong desire for power, and may often take control in an abrasive or aggressive manner. Low scores indicate that a person tends to avoid authority, and would probably rather follow others than take control.</div>

Attitudes About Sexting

Are sexters insecure?
“No way” say sexters; but non-sexters think they are insecure.

(A very highly significant chi-square was found in the opinion that sexting was about being insecure (x2=12.9; p<0.001).

Is sexting about getting attention?
“Absolutely not” claim sexters; though non-sexters think it is about getting attention.

(A significant chi-square was found in the opinion that sexting was about getting attention (x2=10.2; p<0.001).

Is sexting a good thing?
“Yes,” sexters feel very positive about sexting; whereas non-sexters feel very negative about sexting.

(On the Positive attitude (t(296.0) = -6.4; p < 0.001), sexters had a very highly significantly higher positive attitude towards sexting (x?=24.5) than non-sexters (x?=14.1). On the Negative attitude (t(321) = 2.1; p < 0.05), non-sexters had a significantly higher negative attitude (x?=26.6) towards sexting than do sexters(x?=21.9).

Do sexters feel more popular?
There was a trend in which sexters do not think that sexting makes you popular; but non-sexters did think sexting makes you popular.

(A trend in the chi-square was found such that sexters feel more popular (x2=3.8; p<0. 1). Non-sexters think that sexters feel more popular but Sextiers do not feel more popular because they sext.)

Discussion of Results

This is the first psychological study on sexting. The frequency of sexting in the general population is quite large (66%) and it seems that this number may be an under-reporting of sexting. Like in hazing, many young people do not recognize their own behavior as sexting; even though a clear definition was provided. Upon interview, some subjects did not identify themselves as sexters, although they were involved in sexting behavior.

The analysis of power scores was also significant and an unexpected finding. For the group as a whole, sexters were more likely to strive for power and control than non-sexters. This was the hypothesis, and the reason it is important is it seemed that the need for power might be motivating people to sext. The link between power and social status was implied.

However, more importantly, the way that the age groups viewed sexting is even more interesting. When considering young people (13-26), we find that they do not have a difference in their power scores, implying that sexting does not relate to control or social status in this age group. Surprisingly, for the rest of the group, it seems that power or dominance is a factor.

The difference in motivation of sexters, due to age, may be an indication of a generation gap, a sexual revolution which is presently occurring.

Intervention and Prevention

The consequences of sexting range from mild to severe. The incidence of sexting is high, and it is increasing in frequency and degree of promiscuity. At the same time, sexting is occurring at younger and younger ages. (In this study, six percent (6%) of the sexters began at age 9.)

It is unrealistic to believe that sexting will be stopped by legislation. However the following suggestions might be considered:

  • On all digital devices a pop-up screen should occur before a photo was sent. The message would ask: Are you sure you want to send this picture? Send now? Send later? Delete? The addition of a question, and an imposed pause, reduces impulsive behavior and should help curb some harmful sexting.
  • Most victims do not report sexual harassment, cyberbullying or hazing because they fear the wrath of the group, via retribution or being ostracized. Therefore, we need to change the culture of reporting. We need to reward those who report and we must make it easy to report, anonymously, online, and via other venues.
  • Sexting should be addressed in health classes and could begin by age nine. Education about sexting and the legal; social and psychological consequences should be included in the curriculum.
  • Some kinds of sexting may be defined as sexual harassment. Sexting prevention programs need to emphasize the responsibility of: an individual who sexts; the victims of sexting; bystanders of sexting; as well as the general community and/or school.