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Title: Sexting, non-consensual image sharing and psychological health
Author: Holloway, Natalie
ISNI:       0000 0004 8506 968X
Awarding Body: University of Lincoln
Current Institution: University of Lincoln
Date of Award: 2019
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Background and Aims: Sexting refers to the exchange (sending and/or receiving) of self-taken sexual photographs, usually depicting the sender nude or semi-nude, via mobile phone. Academic and media narratives tend to portray sexting as a deviant behaviour due to the perceived risks of non-consensual image distribution (where individuals' sexual images are shared without permission): Qualitative research suggests the psychological harms of revenge pornography (one type of non-consensual image distribution) are comparable to the effects of sexual assault and are gendered in nature; considered part of a continuum of sexual violence against women. There is a lack of quantitative research regarding adult sexting and non-consensual image sharing. Studies to date have conflated consensual and non-consensual sexting behaviours and have poor methodological design in terms of the operational definitions used. Researchers investigating sexters' psychological health have thus far neglected to consider individual factors (e.g. coping, resilience and sexting attitudes), interpersonal aspects (e.g. relationship context and privacy expectations) and image characteristics. Existing research is biased by the measures used (i.e. primary focus on psychological distress) and there has been limited opportunity to demonstrate positive sexting associations (e.g. relational wellbeing). We therefore sought to develop a more nuanced understanding of sexters' psychological health and wellbeing by addressing the following questions: How common are non-consensual image sharing experiences amongst a UK community (non-clinical) sample of adult sexters? Are there any differences in the psychological health and wellbeing of non-sexters and sexters (including those who have experienced non-consensual image sharing)? Are any sexting specific factors, such as privacy expectations, image characteristics and relationship with recipients, associated with psychological health? Are there any differences in psychological health and wellbeing between consensual sexters', those who have experienced non-consensual sexting, and non-sexters' when coping, resilience and sexting specific factors are accounted for? Method: We utilised a quantitative, cross-sectional online survey design. Participants from a non-clinical adult population (N = 270) were recruited via social media. The survey consisted of a sexting questionnaire identifying type of sexting behaviours, relationship context, privacy beliefs and sexting attitudes; as well as non-consensual image sharing behaviours and experiences. Psychological measures used included: the Depression, Anxiety and Stress scales (DASS-21), the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing scale (WEMWBS), the Impact of Event Scale (IES-6), the Brief COPE and the Brief Resilience Scale (BRS). Results: 87% of the sample had engaged in sexting as an adult, primarily within committed relationships in order to maintain sexual intimacy. 14% of sexters had experienced the non-consensual distribution of their images and 16% had distributed others' images without permission. Males and females did not differ significantly in who experienced non-consensual image distribution. Images were most often shared by someone the person was dating, typically with friends and family, although images were shared online in 43% of cases. Privacy expectations and sexting attitudes were not related to psychological health or wellbeing. When coping and resilience were accounted for, experiencing non-consensual image distribution was not related to psychological distress but individuals who were uncertain if their images had been shared had lower wellbeing, and consensual sexters who sent sexts to multiple partners had higher anxiety. Conclusion: Our research suggests that the problematic coping strategies individuals employ, and their level of resilience have a stronger relationship with psychological health than do their sexting behaviours; although further quantitative research with clear consistent definitions of sexting and non-consensual image sharing is needed to identify if these findings are replicable. Clinical interventions for those who are distressed by non-consensual image distribution should focus on identifying and reducing the use of problematic coping strategies such as avoidance, denial and self-blame. Sexting may be considered a normative part of intimate relationships: Educational strategies should fully explore issues of consent and perceived gender stereotypes; as opposed to encouraging individuals to abstain from sexting as a deviant or risky behaviour (which could contribute to self-blame and victim blaming). Future research should focus on understanding specific motivations for and types of non-consensual image distribution (e.g. revenge pornography) and whether it is associated with more harmful aspects of relationships such as interpersonal violence.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (D.Clin.Psy.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available