Sexting is not just a teen thing

The phenomenon of sexting - the exchange of sexually explicit messages or images - has long been associated with teens. But that changed this week when Rep. Anthony Weiner, a married congressman from New York, admitted to sending a sexually suggestive photo of himself through the social media site Twitter to a woman he didn't know. IS TEXT SEX CHEATING? Answer our poll question on Facebook.

By Neal Simpson
Men and women used to rely on discreet meetings and hand-written notes to carry on love affairs. Now, it is done via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, text messages and other avenues of digital communication that are less discreet than users believe.
Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre celebrates after throwing a 47-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice during the first half of the Vikings' victory over Dallas on Sunday. — Associated Press
IS TEXT SEX CHEATING? Answer our poll question on Facebook.

The phenomenon of sexting - the exchange of sexually explicit messages or images - has long been associated with teens.

But that changed this week when Rep. Anthony Weiner, a married congressman from New York, admitted to sending a sexually suggestive photo of himself through the social media site Twitter to a woman he didn't know.

Weiner's photo was posted publicly so anyone could see it - until he realized his mistake and took it down.

Experts say indiscretions like Weiner's are remarkably common, despite the very real risks and devastating consequences of getting caught.

"It's very pervasive," said Dr. Julie Johnson, a sex therapist with a practice in Plymouth. "I think everybody is sexting these days."

The kind of behavior that snared Weiner - a graphic photo sent to an apparently unwitting woman - is more common among men in high-powered positions, experts say. That includes not just politicians and athletes, as recently illustrated in the news, but also doctors, lawyers and businessmen.

John Plunkett, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Mass. Bay Counseling in Quincy, said the impulse to sext is often so great that he has to refer clients who struggle with it to addiction counseling.

"People who participate in those type of behaviors tend to be quiet narcissistic, and people who are narcissistic often have a sense of entitlement and tolerance for risk that a lot of other people might not be comfortable with," he said. "They also have a belief that, one, they'll get away with it, and two, if they get caught, they'll find some way to avoid taking responsibility for it."

The common man is not immune to the perils of sexting either. Johnson, the sex therapist from Plymouth, said she meets nearly every day with patients whose relationships have been shaken by an electronic indiscretion, whether a racy photo sent between cell phones, an email suggesting an affair or suggestive posts on Facebook or Twitter.

"Facebook is like the biggest thing that breaks marriages up," Johnson said.

Often those communications are part of a larger, physical affair, Johnson said. But even when the indiscretions end with just pictures and words, she says most people still see it as infidelity.

And though cheating is nothing new, Johnson said the Internet and social media has made it worse, tempting impulsive would-be adulterers with increasingly easy ways to seek attention outside their relationships.

"Infidelity might be as old as time, but it's just more accessible now," she said. "You could go out on an affair in five minutes if you wanted to.

"The Internet is a candy store for cheaters," she added.

Sexting can also creep into the work life, especially when it plays out in the context of social media. Experts say that even media-savvy adults sometimes forget that their private lives can become very public on the Internet - and can come up at a job interview or performance review.

"Anything can or will be used during the hiring process or to evaluate you," said Rufino Lomba, a human resources consultant with the Canton-based Neponset Valley Group. "Whether you are on the clock or off the clock, you are still a representative for the organization you work for."

Neal Simpson may be reached at nesimpson@ledger.com.

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