High-profile sexting cases continue to bring this topic to light in the media, but is compulsive sexting an “addiction” or something else?
Anthony Weiner’s first sexting scandal in 2011 was the source of many jokes.
Then there was a second scandal in 2013.
And now there’s a third.
This one might also have elicited jokes — if his 4-year-old son hadn’t been in one of the sexually explicit pictures that Weiner sent over social media to a woman he had never met.
Weiner’s behavior has prompted the New York City Administration for Children’s Services to investigate him.
As a result of these scandals, his political career has been destroyed, and he is now separated from his wife, Huma Abedin, a top aide to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
So why would someone like Weiner risk his career and marriage by repeating a behavior that keeps landing him in hot water?
Some have suggested that Weiner’s behavior is just poor judgment.
Others say it points to signs of an addiction to sexting.
But although “sexting addiction” shows up again and again in the media — not just in Weiner’s case — it’s still not clear whether someone can really be addicted to sexting.
First of all, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) hasn’t identified it as a disorder.
In fact, the APA doesn’t include sex addiction or internet addiction in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Some research backs up the APA’s decision to not give sexual addiction its own diagnosis.
A study at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that what happens in the brains of people that exhibit excessive sexual behavior is not that much different than the brains of people with less active libidos.
So if Weiner’s recurring activities are not an addiction, what are they?
As pointed out in the Washington Post, a 2013 study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, suggests that people who lean toward risky activities may be attracted to the thrill of sexting. Weiner, as a former politician, falls easily into this camp.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, psychotherapist Joseph Burgo wrote that Weiner’s behaviors may be a response to unconscious shame.
If so, then calling his sexting problems an “addiction” may not help him move forward because it doesn’t get at the underlying issues.
In spite of sexting’s unclear legitimacy as a diagnostic category, this activity — like many others — can still disrupt a person’s life.
But not everyone who engages in this behavior goes over the edge. Some people in a committed relationship find that it enhances their sexual satisfaction.
There is also no clear line at which sexting becomes a problem.
“Generally, a behavior becomes problematic when the person can no longer control it and it causes impairment in various aspects of their lives,” David DeMatteo, J.D., Ph.D., associate professor of law and psychology at Drexel University, said in an email to Healthline.
But sexting is generally a private activity — until the pictures or text messages go viral — so it may not be clear that someone’s sexting has become compulsive.
This makes it difficult to know how common sexting is. Surveys come up with different estimates — depending on how many people are asked or how sexting is defined.
One 2013 review of previous studies found that 53 percent of 18- to 30-year-olds had sent sexually suggestive texts or photos to others. Among teens, it was 10 percent.
A Teen Health and Technology Study from two years earlier found that 7 percent of teens had sexted. Sexting was more common among older teens.
Young people today, who have grown up surrounded by technology, may also view sexting differently than Gen Xers like Weiner.
“The younger generation flirts electronically (often via sexting), meets people electronically, and remains in contact with friends, family, etc., electronically,” said DeMatteo. “Given how much contact takes place electronically, it’s no surprise that sexting has become a normative part of many teens’ experiences.”
Recent research suggests that “sexting is a new ‘normal’ part of adolescent sexual development.”
Younger people are also more likely to engage in risky behavior. Not just sexting, but also drugs, unsafe driving, sex, and other activities.
Which has consequences.
“A younger person may send a sexually explicit picture without thinking through the potential consequences of their behavior,” said DeMatteo. “Those consequences could include social alienation, humiliation, embarrassment, and legal punishments.”
But there’s another important distinction between teens and adults when it comes to sexting. What happens if you get caught?
“Sending a sexually explicit picture of a minor, even if the person is sending a picture of themselves, is considered child pornography in many jurisdictions,” said DeMatteo. “This can lead to harsh legal punishment in those jurisdictions, including potential incarceration and registration as a sex offender.”