Sexting naked or suggestive photos to a partner is pretty common these days. But why people sext explicit pics isn't always discussed. Of course, the obvious reason is to heat things up when you're not physically in the same place as your partner. But as one researcher discovered, the exact motives are surprisingly complex.

Morgan Johnstonbaugh, a PhD candidate in the school of sociology at the University of Arizona, decided to do a study looking into what motivated young adults to sext images. She surveyed 1,918 college students during the 2018-2019 academic year and asked them questions about their sexting habits. 

The students were asked to describe the last time they sent a nude or semi-nude photograph of themselves to another person electronically. About 56% said they had sent one in the past. Of those who reported sending a photo, 73% were women. 

The students were then asked why they shared that most recent sext. They were presented with a list of 23 possible reasons and told to check as many or as few as they wanted. 

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After Johnstonbaugh crunched the numbers, it turned out that the female students were four times more likely than their male counterparts to send explicit images of themselves in order to prevent the recipient from losing sexual interest in them.

At the same time, women were four times more likely than men to say that they sent images as a way to feel empowered, and they were twice as likely to say that sexting boosted their confidence.

Interestingly, it wasn't uncommon for the female students in the study to select both empowering and disempowering reasons for sexting, showing the two aren't mutually exclusive. 

"These interactions can be much more complex than people realize," Johnstonbaugh tells Health. "When you're thinking about sharing a photo with someone, you might have competing ideas influencing your behavior." For example, you may be doing it to excite a partner or influence their reaction in another way, but you might also be doing it to express your sexuality for your own benefit.

RELATED: Sexting Really Can Make Your Relationship Hotter—Here's the Right Way to Do It

Johnstonbaugh presented her not-yet-published study at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting in New York City last week. She hopes her research will spark discussion around sexting and help people, especially the parents of young adults, to see that it's a complex activity and shouldn't be dismissed.

"A lot of parents just don't want to think about that, or they tell their children, 'Never do that,'" Johnstonbaugh says. "In reality, kind of like sex education, we should be having conversations about what young people do with their intimate partners and what the consequences could be."

The results of her study might also help you think more about your own motives for hitting send on those explicit pics, and realize that just like sex IRL, sex via digital device isn't so one-dimensional. 

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