This Online Flirtation Technique Will Always Be Creepy, According To Research

Feeling frustrated swiping away on dating apps? Here are some research-backed dos and don'ts for a better experience.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 26, 2023

A new study published in Personal Relationships explores a common issue faced by daters online: unsolicited sexually explicit messages. The study spotlights the significance of understanding how these messages affect different recipients, while also emphasizing the importance of consent when initiating conversations online.

To explore the subject further, I recently spoke to interpersonal communication researcher Amanda Lilly of Utah State University, the lead author of the research, who shared valuable insights on the implications of different reactions to sexually explicit messages online. She also offered suggestions for online daters to improve their online dating experience. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What motivated you to study online daters' reactions to sexually explicit messages online? What were your main findings regarding recipients' reactions to sexually explicit content versus traditional greetings?

For the first part of this question, it is actually kind of a funny story.

I took a girls' trip with my best friend to go see our favorite comedian. While we were driving, her phone just started blowing up. She told me that she had signed up for some online dating sites and all of those notifications were messages from her matches. She told me to pull it up and look at the messages because she had been receiving some wild stuff.

I did, and there were eight unsolicited explicit images. And three more came in while I was scrolling through completely shocked. I had never done online dating or really knew much about it, and seeing those messages kind of flipped my world upside down.

I was shocked that this happened, and she explained it was fairly common. When I got back to campus I went into Google Scholar and the University of Missouri – St. Louis's library to see what other researchers had reported, and I found there wasn't a lot. I think I found like four or five sources in total. Then it just clicked, and I started exploring the subject and fell in love with researching sex communication in a computer-mediated context, especially sexualized initiation messages.

For the second part, I think the main findings were that using sexually explicit content is not expected as an initiation despite being commonplace and that most people do not favor these messages.

I would caution online daters away from using this tactic unless they somehow knew the other person was interested in this type of communication. However, we did find that characteristics of the message recipient can impact how they react to sexually explicit content in initiation messages.

Did the research uncover any key factors that can influence an individual's response to sexually explicit messages?

Yes, I think that this project highlighted that gender and the type of relationship online daters are seeking can impact how they respond to these messages.

Men responded less negatively than women, which can probably be traced back to norms around how genders should approach sex.

Western culture and media often suggest that male presenting people should always be open to having sex and that having more sex means that person is more masculine. Meanwhile, female presenting people should not have sex to remain pure for their long-term partner. Female presenting people are put in a position of almost being the gatekeepers for sex, the ones that should say no to keep society in line. I think these norms transfer onto how genders respond to receiving sexually charged messages.

Unfortunately, I didn't have enough of a sample to investigate how non-binary, genderqueer, and other genders respond to the messages, so I only have information on a gender binary, which is limited and not indicative of the full population. I'm hoping in my faculty position at Utah State University to do more work on how genders across the spectrum react to these types of messages.

I also found it fascinating that the reason people were on online dating made a big difference. Online dating has this reputation in pop culture of being a place to find hookups, and that isn't inaccurate, but there are people who use Tinder, Bumble, and Plenty of Fish to also find a long-term relationship.

People who are more interested in casual sex were more ok with sexualized initiation, whereas people who were interested in finding a long-term partner viewed these messages more negatively.

Were there any differences in the way men and women responded to these messages?

Yes, men tended to view the messages less negatively than did women. As I mentioned previously, I think that was to be expected because of the gender norms embedded in sexual scripts and courtship, but it was interesting to see a moderation effect based on gender.

Specifically, the moderation analysis revealed that the gender of the participant affected how negatively they viewed sexually explicit initiation messages. Men tended to view them less negatively than women.

However, I've been exploring this further in two different projects that I hope to send out for publication in the fall. One project was presented and won a top paper award at the Central States Communication Association convention where I analyzed people's messages back to someone who sent them a sexually explicit initiation message.

The response messages ranged from outright refusal to acceptance to insulting the sender. Acceptance responses, specifically, accounted for just over one-quarter of the responses and were sent by more men than women (about 26 vs. 15). Despite being a relatively small sample, it does indicate that there may be more to this than just universal dislike.

Similarly, data I gathered conducting focus groups for my dissertation showed some men and women like receiving these messages, but most of the people who mentioned enjoying it did also mention they were looking for casual sex relationships.

I also had participants and moderators involved in that project that said they were more successful in achieving responses, more communication, and face-to-face dates when using sexualized initiation messages compared to non-sexualized messages. However, these anecdotes and projects underway do not lead me to advise online daters to send sexualized initiation messages. My research and past research show that more often than not these messages are not appreciated and can be considered sexual harassment.

I mention these findings to demonstrate that sexualized initiation messages are a multifaceted communication phenomenon and need more research. I never want to 'yucky' anyone's 'yum' as long as it is between two consenting adults, but consent can be a problem with initiation messages because there is no previous communication to establish consent.

More work needs to be done especially on how this communication tactic is perceived differently in different communities and if used correctly could be a way to break down some of the patriarchal heteronormative barriers to sex. I'm excited to continue researching this communication tactic to help develop a fuller understanding of the nuances surrounding sexualized initiation messages.

What are the implications of such interactions for senders?

I would say that if a message recipient viewed a sexualized initiation message negatively, they would respond negatively to the sender. Responding negatively includes a spectrum of behaviors that can range from not responding, blocking, reporting the sender, and lashing out against the sender. I don't think currently there are many states that have laws against unsolicited explicit images, but senders could end up in legal trouble if the recipient does live in one such state and reports it.

I would caution people from using these types of messages because if they want to start a relationship, they don't want to sexually harass their potential partner. Plus, research has now shown that extensive online dating use without success is damaging people's mental health, so it kind of seems like a majority of the time it would result in negative consequences for the sender.

There are potential positive implications, but I don't have enough research currently to give guidelines on when it would be effective; so, I don't want to suggest something that I can't back up with data.

How can people use insights from your study to improve their online dating interactions?

I would caution online daters away from using sexualized initiation messages unless they somehow knew the other person was interested in this type of communication because it can result in negative consequences for them and the recipient.

The results from this study show that even people who are more tolerant of sexualized initiation messages don't view them positively, kind of neutral at best.

People don't want to be sexually harassed or exposed to sex content without consenting to it. People also don't want to match and message a bunch of potential partners only to be unsuccessful in achieving a connection.

Right now, for the communities I've studied this seems like a risky move. I don't know if this will always be the way things are as technology and communication are rapidly evolving. One of my plans working on this topic is to work with online dating platforms to see if there is a way to embed language or something in a profile to indicate this is what people want or don't want. That way those who want these kinds of messages can get them and work can be done to protect those who do not want these messages.