Sexting, the sending of intimate or explicit personal pictures, videos, or texts [1
], has become common practice within different age groups [2
]. Definitions vary, and the confusion of consensual and non-consensual sexting proves to be a central conceptual problem. [6
]. While consensual sexting refers to the purposeful, active, and often pleasurable sending of one’s own images, the non-consensual sharing of sexting images happens against the will or without the knowledge of the person depicted [8
]. This non-consensual sharing is one of the most frequently discussed risks in the context of sexting [9
]. If sexting images are forwarded against the will of the person depicted (e.g., in their circle of friends) or published on the internet, this poses a serious risk to mental health. Situations in which victims are exposed to public humiliation and online bullying can lead to grave psychosocial consequences, in some cases even suicide [3
Not only in the public debate but also in ‘sexting abstinence’ campaigns [19
], sexting, in general, is deemed dangerous [20
]. Not differentiating between consensual and non-consensual sexting can lead to victim blaming if the depicted producers of the images are held responsible for the unintended dissemination [7
]. This mechanism has been criticized in the theoretical context of ‘rape culture’ [21
] and linked to the broader concepts of ‘sexual objectification’ [24
] and ‘rape myth acceptance’ [26
]. Objectification theory postulates that in western societies women are sexually objectified, treated as objects and are only considered worthy to the extent that their bodies give pleasure to others [29
] (for reviews [28
]). Sexual objectification can be seen as a continuum ranging from acts of violence to subtler acts such as objectifying gazes [30
]. These gazes, conceptualized as visually inspecting (sexual) body parts, have been empirically demonstrated using eye-tracking technology [32
]. Additionally, people who sexually objectify others have been shown to be more likely to accept rape myths [24
], which serve to normalize sexual violence, e.g., through victim blaming (for reviews [27
]). These subtle myths have been conceptualized as cognitive schemes [34
] and demonstrated to influence eye movements [35
Although research has evolved around non-consensual sexting and its correlates [7
], little effort has been conducted to investigate reasons for consuming such images. The question arises why people consume non-consensual sexting material when mere comparisons with consensual material do not reveal apparent differences in image content. Is there a specific attraction in the non-consensuality itself, at least for some of the consumers? Against this background, we experimentally investigate the question of how the supposed way of distribution (consensual vs. non-consensual) influences the perception of sexting images. Thus, the study promises important findings for future prevention efforts.
In accordance with the objectification theory we expect differences in evaluation and perception of sexting images depending on their supposedly consensual or non-consensual forwarding. In line with previous research, we argue that increased objectification is associated with higher attractiveness ratings of the objectified person [37
] and a more pronounced objectifying gaze [32
]. We further hypothesize that supposedly non-consensually forwarded images are considered as more intimate and their further distribution as more unpleasant. Overall tendencies for other objectification and higher rape-myth acceptance are also expected to increase objectification.
A large part of the scientific literature on sexting focuses on the behavior of adolescents. This may reflect widespread societal fears, but, in fact, sexting experience is significantly higher among adults than among adolescents. In a current systematic review [3
] the prevalence estimate of studies of adolescents sending messages containing sexually suggestive texts or photos was found to be 10.2% (95% CI (1.77–18.63)), while the estimated mean prevalence of studies of adults was 53.31% (95% CI (49.57–57.07)). Against this background, and also because the present experimental study does not focus on a representative image of the user population, we have decided to examine a sample of adults. We assume that the mechanisms shown are comparable in adolescents, but this must be demonstrated by future research.
2. Materials and Methods
A total of 76 participants (57% female, Mage = 31.99, SDage = 10.28) were recruited via university newsletters. They were informed about the tasks and the stimulus content but were kept naïve to the full purpose of the experiment. Participants provided written consent to study participation. No compensation was given. The ethics committee of the state chamber of psychotherapists of Hamburg (Psychotherapeutenkammer Hamburg) approved the study protocol of the present study (03/2015-PTK-HH).
2.2. Stimuli and Apparatus
Volunteers personally known to the authors but unknown to the study participants provided 14 semi-nude sexting images [38
]. One additional image per gender was obtained from freely available internet sources for public presentation purposes, resulting in a set of 16 pictures (50% female).
Stimulus presentation and data collection were conducted on a 22-inch widescreen monitor (1680 × 1050 pixels) using SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI GmbH, Teltow, Germany) software ExperimentCenterTM. A remote eye tracker (SMI, RED system) recorded eye movements at 120 Hz from 50 cm viewing distance using a head-chin rest.
Individuals’ objectification of others was assessed using a German translation of the modified version of the Self-Objectification Questionnaire [39
] for other objectification (Other Objectification Scale, OOS [40
]). The scale consists of 10 body attributes, five competence-based (i.e., strength) and five are appearance-based (i.e., physical attractiveness). Participants were asked to rank how important they perceive each attribute (10 = “most important”; 1 = “least important”) separately for men and women. Possible scores range from −25 to 25 with higher scores indicating higher levels of objectification.
Participants further completed an 11-item short version of the German Acceptance of Modern Myths About Sexual Aggression Scale (AMMSA) [41
] which had been used successfully in other eye tracking studies already [35
]. Each item was rated on a 7-point scale (1 = “completely disagree”; 7 = “completely agree”).
Participants read an introductory text stating that the study aimed to understand more about the evaluation of sexting images. Depending on the condition, picture distribution was either described as voluntary (consensual condition) or as unwanted, against the will of the depicted person (non-consensual condition). The manipulation was strengthened by asking participants to state three feelings the image distribution could have evoked in the depicted persons. Following, participants saw the images three times with different tasks. Pictures were randomized within blocks, starting with the male images. Pictures were presented individually on full screen for 5 seconds, preceded by a black fixation cross on the left side shown for 1 second. The first task was to freely view the pictures. Second, participants rated the sexual attractiveness of the depicted person. For the third task, participants were asked to evaluate how intimate they considered the image content and how unpleasant further picture distribution would be for the depicted person (ranging from 1 = “not at all …”; 7 = “very …”). After completion of the sociodemographic information, and the questionnaires, participants were thanked and debriefed.
2.5. Data Reduction and Data Analysis
To account for repeated measures made on the same subject, a mixed model approach was employed. We examined the fixed effects of the independent variables condition (consensual vs. non-consensual distribution), gender (women vs. men), image gender (female vs. male images), of their three and two-way interactions and of the OOS score and AMMSA score on the ratings of (1) sexual attractiveness, (2) intimacy of image content, and (3) perceived unpleasantness of picture distribution. Random intercepts were assumed for participants. We report the marginal means and their 95%-confidence intervals. We report the results of the final models after a backward elimination of the non-significant effects according to Kleinbaum et al. [42
]. All statistical tests were two-tailed (α = 0.05).
The eye tracking data were analyzed using the same model as described above with the objectifying gaze as the dependent variable. The objectifying gaze was operationalized as the relative time spent looking at the body compared to the time spent looking at faces [32
]. We created two areas of interest (AOI) on each image, one containing the head and the other containing all the rest of the body. The total dwell time for both AOIs, i.e., the overall time viewing the person depicted, was set to 100%. For the following analysis, we focus on the percentage of that time directed at the body. Accordingly, an increase in viewing time on the body always results in a decrease of dwell time on the face, since both values always add up to 100%. So a stronger objectifying gaze refers to relatively longer viewing time on the body and shorter viewing time on the face.
Computations were done using the GENLINMIXED (Generalized linear mixed model) routine of SPSS version 22 (IBM Corporation, Armonk, NY, USA) and eye tracking data reduction was realized using the standard settings of BeGazeTM (SMI, Teltow, Germany), providing gaze information such as duration (dwell time).