FRIDAY, June 24 (HealthDay News) -- A new study finds that the practice of "sexting" -- sending salacious texts or nude photos over the Internet -- is now a key tool for Americans bent on infidelity.
Sexting, which notoriously cost former Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner his job, is "alive and well," said sociologist Diane Kholos Wysocki, the study's lead author. In fact, she said, it's a part of the whole extra-marital mating ritual, according to Wysocki, who said adulterous interactions that begin online seem to follow a regular pattern.
"People meet, then they send pictures, then they send naked pictures, then they proceed and ultimately meet if they find that they're compatible," she said.
The study, based on a survey of almost 5,200 users of a website devoted to extra-marital dating called ashleymadison.com, doesn't say anything about the habits of the American population in general. And, as Kholos Wysocki acknowledged, its value is also limited because it only includes those people who volunteered to take part and were already using the site.
"Any time you get a group of people on the Internet, we can't say it's representative," said Kholos Wysocki, a professor of sociology, University of Nebraska at Kearney. However, she said the survey does offer insight into why people choose to stay married but still have affairs.
As of a year ago, the ashleymadison.com site, whose motto is "Life is short. Have an affair," claimed more than 6 million members. Working with the site, Kholos Wysocki in 2009 posted a survey for members with 68 questions. The results appear in a recent online issue of the journal Sexuality & Culture.
Those who responded tend to be upscale (with a median income of about $86,000), mostly married (64 percent) and highly educated (about 70 percent attended college, and 20 percent had advanced degrees). More than 6 out of every 10 respondents were male.
Sixty percent of the women and close to half of the men said they'd engaged in sexting -- sending naked photos of themselves via email or cell phone. Age was no bar for the practice, since about 40 percent of people over the age of 50 had done so. However, sexting was much more likely among the few surveyed who were aged 19-24.
About three-quarters of people of both genders acknowledged having cheated while in a serious relationship. More than 8 in 10 women and two-thirds of men said they'd met people in person after first encountering them online. That suggests many users plan on consummating an extra-marital relationship, not just looking and flirting online.
Jeffrey T. Parsons, professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York City, said the finding isn't surprising. "People who are going to use a website to look for extra-marital affairs are probably willing to go the distance, as it were," he said. "Sure, there are probably some who just use the website for the titillation factor and the sense of thrill and danger and perhaps 'being bad.' But the nature of the website no doubt attracts those who are interested in more than just cybersex."
In some cases, spouses weren't kept in the dark. "There were a number of them who went on there with their spouses, looking to add to their sex life," Kholos Wysocki noted.
Psychology professor Parsons explained that "there are adults in consensual relationships in which sexting, cybersex, and even in-person sexual relations with other people are negotiated and allowed."
What has the Internet's overall impact been on adultery? "You can't blame cheating on the Internet," Kholos Wysocki reasoned. "People who don't have the Internet are still cheating."
However, she said, the Internet has probably made it easier to find new partners. "It takes less time," she said.
For details on sexual health, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.