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Is Sexting Cheating? A Simple Question with a Complex Answer

by eharmony Editorial Team - November 22, 2023

Picture this: you’re chatting with a new flame (or an old one) and things are getting flirtatious, but going over to their place (or them coming over) isn’t an option. So you send a hot and heavy text message, or even a racy photo of yourself. Congratulations, you’ve just sexted!

While people have been making and sending each other NSFW messages since the dawn of mass literacy, only in the recent past has sexting become commonplace. Let’s look at what sexting is, whether it’s cheating, the guidelines for sexting in different kinds of relationships, and what to do if you find out your partner has been sexting someone else.

What does sexting mean? Is sexting considered cheating?  

Sexting is a portmanteau of the words ‘sex’ and ‘texting’ and is generally defined as sending and receiving sexually explicit texts, photographs, audio clips, or videos – basically, the act of sending sexual content of yourself to someone else. It can be a form of foreplay, or a way to have sexual contact with someone you’re not physically close to.

It’s become more and more commonplace – a 2011 study revealed 54% of participants had sent sexually explicit texts or photos to their partners at least once, and a third had done so occasionally1. The numbers have only risen since, especially with the proliferation of apps like Snapchat, whose auto-delete feature makes privacy less of a concern.

Whether sexting is cheating comes down to one important factor: consent. If you’re in a relationship, you need to make sure your partner is okay with you having sexually explicit conversations with other people, even if it’s an open relationship.

Is sexting good or bad for you and your relationship?

Sexting can be a great way to connect with your partner. The flip side is that you might wind up so focused on the sex that other equally important aspects – your emotional connection, time spent doing non-sexual things together – might fall by the wayside.

But there is also the other type of sexing in a relationship when your partner is writing with another person. One of eharmony’s relationship experts Laurel House says: “Sexting is viewed by many couples as a form of cheating. It’s like phone sex, but potentially more of a betrayal because the sexual typing can happen even while in the same room as your partner, as they have no idea what or with whom you’re texting. And it can be more dangerous because texting words can quickly turn into asking for sexy photos, and then videos, and then in-person. More than the words being written and photos and videos being created and sent, it’s also the fantasies that are created and the immediately gratifying sexual engagement.

Some reveal a different, dirtier, more vulnerable sexual side over text that they might not be comfortable exploring IRL. Many people have a more wild and even reckless sexual side that lives silently in their fantasies and can quietly come out through their fingers through text, while somehow remaining a secret since it’s not actually spoken.”

According to a 2017 study by the University of Alberta, while sexting can improve your sex life it may be detrimental to other aspects of your relationship2. Researchers found that people who sexted frequently did report a higher level of sexual satisfaction. However, frequent sexters reported higher levels of conflict in their relationships. They were also more ambivalent about their relationship continuing than people who didn’t sext. Additionally, they felt less secure in their relationships and reported lower levels of commitment. They were also more likely to watch porn and behave flirtatiously on social media.

Another concern is what happens to the pictures after the relationship is over. While it is to be hoped that your ex won’t stoop so low as to share anything without your consent, research shows the vast majority of explicit images are distributed without the consent of the subject3.

Is it okay to sext while you’re in a relationship?

Is sexting cheating if you’re in a relationship? As with pretty much everything, consent is key, alongside respect and privacy. Some tips for sexting while you’re in a relationship:

  • Start slow. Not only is this a good idea generally, it lets you build up trust before sharing anything too risqué
  • Check in regularly. Never assume that a yes once is a yes all the time, or that because your partner is okay with sharing some things they’re okay with sharing everything
  • Remove everything from the cloud: Given the frequency of hacks, never save your photos and videos to the cloud, and ask your partner to not do so
  • Guard your privacy. Regardless of how much you trust your partner, it’s only sensible to take a few precautionary measures, like not showing your face and blurring your background

Sexting in open relationships

Sexting in open relationships isn’t very much different than in traditional relationships – as always, consent is key, as is communication. There’s nothing wrong with sexting someone when you’re in an open relationship so long as both your primary partner and the person you’re sexting know that you’re doing so. Depending on your specific relationship, you might even want to ask permission to sext people.

When it comes to sexting in open relationships, it’s important to not let the messages you’re sending to other people impact your primary relationship. Be sure to check in regularly with your partner, and put extra effort into maintaining that connection. At the end of the day, what matters is that you are open and honest about your needs and expectations. 

What to do if my partner is sexting someone else?

What if you find out that your partner is sexting someone who isn’t you? As an eharmony relationship experts Laurel House says: “If your partner is sexting with someone else, the first question I would want answered is: where did you meet? Was it online or in person? If he or she was on a dating app, that too is a problem. What’s the intention for going on the dating app in the first place, if you’re in a committed relationship? How far has the sexting gone? Have photos and videos been exchanged? Has a meeting IRL been discussed? Equally important is the question: What aren’t you getting within the reality of our relationship that you are seeking in cyberspace? Is he open to exploring ways to satisfy that need within the relationship in order to avoid tempting physical cheating to occur?”

While ending the relationship immediately is a justified response, here are a few other steps if that’s not a path you want to take.

Have a conversation

Talk about why they felt the desire to sext, if there’s something they feel is missing from the relationship, and what the next steps are. It’s best if you have this conversation when you’re both calm and there are no distractions.

Rebuild trust

If you’re both set on salvaging the relationship, the next step is to rebuild the trust that was broken by your partner’s infidelity. Figure out what you will and won’t accept going forward and commit to working on the relationship. While it’s a good idea to have check-ins every once in a while, resist the urge to bring it up constantly – you may end up poisoning the relationship.

Practise self-care

It doesn’t matter if it was ‘just’ sexting rather than physical infidelity – it’s still a betrayal of your trust and it’s perfectly reasonable to feel hurt. Take the time to seek support from your friends or family. 

Seek professional help

Sometimes a relationship has problems too complex to solve on your own, and that’s okay. A relationship counselor or other mental health professional can help you repair your relationship and deal with the issues that led your partner to sext in the first place. Individual therapy can help you deal with issues infidelity may have given you.

What if I can’t forgive my partner for sexting?

One of eharmony’s relationship experts Laurel House says: “For many, the sexting statements aren’t sent with the intention of exploring them in real life, because it’s coming from a secret side that resides only in the mind. But while the intention in the “send” isn’t to act out the typed messages, because the texter is allowing themselves to be vulnerable and open, the vulnerability can build trust, and that trust can lead to turning words into actions. When that intimacy, vulnerability and trust is created with someone else outside of the relationship, it can instantly damage if not erase the emotional intimacy and trust within the relationship with your partner. The sexter is thinking about someone else, sometimes even when sitting right next to their partner in real life. And that emotional distraction can frequently be felt.

Everyone has their own lines in the sand, and it’s okay if yours’ is no sexting other people. If that’s the case, it’s best to end the relationship and move on to one where you are both on the same page.

Sexting is a double-edged sword in any relationship

Whether sexting is cheating or not comes down to one simple question: do you and your partner think it is? At eharmony, you’ll find people with a range of opinions, and many ways to find someone who shares yours. Sign up for eharmony and get started on the road to real love (with sexting or otherwise) today.

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