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The psychology of sexting

WSU faculty comments on Rep. Weiner scandal

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Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 11:21 am, Fri Apr 5, 2013.

U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, after first denying having done so, admitted to having sent sexually explicit pictures of himself to multiple female followers on Twitter – before and after his marriage to his wife, Huma Abedin.

Weiner sent a picture of his erect penis concealed by underwear briefs May 27 to a 21-year-old journalism student in Bellingham, Wash. After conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted on his blog a topless picture June 6 that Weiner had sent to another woman, Weiner admitted to having six online relationships over the past three years through Twitter and other social media outlets.

Wayne State psychology professor Antonia Abbey said “sexting,” -- sending sexually explicit material through digital media, most often cell phones -- is a new phenomenon, the consequences of which are only beginning to be understood. When involving minors, it has been considered a violation of child pornography laws.

“The possibilities for his motivation will no doubt be the topic of discussion among myriad analysts for some time to come,” Abbey said.

Since his public apology, Weiner has requested a short leave of absence from the House of Representatives. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has called for an ethics investigation against Weiner, has banned him from working on any House committees. Several Democrats are calling for his resignation.

“Combine the highs of success and power with lots of stress, lack of sleep, loneliness and numerous other factors, and a flattering email from a constituent can go from innocent flirting to sexting,” Abbey said.

Douglas Barnett, psychology professor and director of the Psychology Training Clinic at WSU, said many biological, psychological and social factors contribute to behavior decisions.

“Many adults like to feel sexually attractive – ‘sexy,’” he said. “We have seen time and again that being in a position of power can be sexually arousing to oneself and others. This could be a reason for sexting.”

Abedin, aide to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has been married to Weiner for less than a year. The New York Times reported that she is in the “early stages of pregnancy.”

“It is difficult to call (Abedin’s) next move because she is in a vulnerable state right now,” Barnett said. “Weiner’s job aside, she will probably deal with trust issues, too.”

“The distinction made by new media that what we once considered to be a one-to-one message is now also public once it is digitally posted,” WSU communication lecturer Karen McDevitt said.

McDevitt said everyone could learn from Weiner’s sexting scandal.

“What may be most important to take away from Rep. Weiner's situation is a realization of the fact that, in our new media environment, if we don't want everyone to know something, we should not be posting or texting it to anyone,” she said.

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