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Sociology professor Sara Raley, left, and Rula Zaru '13 take a break from the proceedings at the American Sociological Association conference this summer.

Undergraduate’s sexting research presented at international conference

September 03, 2013

When Rula Zaru ’13 presented her Sociology honors thesis on attitudes toward sexting at the international meeting of the American Sociological Association this summer, members were surprised that an undergraduate was behind the groundbreaking study and presentation.

In fact, Zaru’s academic paper, in collaboration with Sociology professor Sara Raley, was begun during the Sociology major’s sophomore year when she noticed that there was a disconnect between what the media was saying about sexting – sending sexually suggestive messages and/or nude photos electronically – and what was really going on.

“Everything in the media was alarmist with sexting scandals centered on golfer Tiger Woods and then Congressman Anthony Weiner,” Zaru said, explaining that scholarly work on the topic was almost nonexistent. “The headlines like ‘Save Your Teen from Epidemic’ were so dramatic.”

Media outlets based findings on online polls, Raley said, and not careful sociological research.  During her methods class with Sociology professor Deb Lemke, Zaru designed the questionnaire and randomly sampled McDaniel students to examine the relationship between gender and attitudes toward sexting.

“In any sociological study, we always ask, ‘who cares?’ or ‘why do we care?’ about these results,” said professor Raley. “Rula’s study looked at gender differences – we care because we care about gender inequality.”

The results, based on 294 responses from the McDaniel students surveyed, are both surprising and revealing, Zaru said. Responses showed that sexting is far less prevalent than the media attention suggests. About half of men and women don’t send or receive sexually suggestive texts. However, women are more likely than men to send nude photos and sexually suggestive texts even though a majority of women report being more uncomfortable with doing so and concerned about the implications, such as negative effects on their reputations.

“This may indicate that sexting may contribute to conventional notions of gender inequality – that women feel pressured to be sexual and sexually appealing for men,” Zaru said. “It also may speak to the quality of the relationship – that there is a measure of trust that the recipient is going to keep the photo private and not post it all over the Internet.”

There is also evidence in their study of a positive side to sexting, Raley said.

“Sexting may empower the sender,” the professor added.

“Sexually suggestive texting as opposed to sending nude photos may offer women a way to express themselves without feeling pressure to show off their bodies and also express their sexual needs and interests without doing something or being face-to-face,” said Zaru, who is noted as first author on the academic paper.

While the researchers propose more studies in sexting – particularly in why texts versus images elicited different responses and further investigation of why women overestimate and men underestimate the extent to which the opposite gender finds sending sexual texts stimulating. In fact, the results of Zaru and Raley’s survey challenge the notion that men are more stimulated by sexual images and talk than women.

Zaru is encouraged by how much she learned from the research. The fact that a prestigious organization accepted her paper for presentation is the proverbial icing on the cake.

“It is always fantastic to go into new territory in research,” said Raley. “Rula did that with the study – and it was very well received by the ASA.”

 
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