Depression and anxiety are mental health concerns affecting hundreds of millions of people worldwide. A new study announced by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University finds that sextech – emerging digital sexual technologies – may offer relief from depression and anxiety symptoms and contribute to mental well-being. New technologies, including virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and shared online environments already provide opportunities to explore new forms of social interaction and sexual fulfillment.
Dr. Alexandra Marcotte, lead researcher on the study said that, “As the global need for innovative mental health resources and interventions increases, these emerging sexual technologies may provide relief for people with mental health struggles. This research provides an important pathway for expanding the scope of mental health interventions, particularly as technology becomes increasingly prevalent and accessible in everyday life.”
The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, surveyed more than 8,000 American adults to examine associations between mental health concerns and online sexual behavior, particularly engagement with novel forms of sexual technology.
The main finding of the study was that participants who report higher rates of anxiety and depression were more likely to use sextech (including sending sexually-explicit images or videos and visiting erotic webcam sites). Researchers posit that Individuals suffering from impaired mental health may use sexual technologies as a tactic to experience temporary relief from their psychological distress.
Most participants reporting greater depression reported more sextech use. This included men of all sexual orientations, as well as heterosexual women. However, among lesbian and bisexual women, depression was not significantly related to their sextech use.
Similarly, increased anxiety was associated with greater use of various types of sextech for the overall sample and for men of all sexual orientations. Lesbian and bisexual women who reported higher anxiety used more forms of sextech, but heterosexual women’s anxiety was unrelated to their sextech use.
The researchers also sought to examine the common belief that online sexual experiences may be an alternative to social engagement, and may be a behavioral response to feelings of psychological loneliness. Contrary to expectations, the study found that participants who reported high levels of loneliness were less likely to engage with sextech, unlike the pattern for participants reporting high levels of anxiety and/or depression.
Dr. Amanda Gesselman, Anita Aldrich Endowed Research Scientist and Associate Director for Research at the Kinsey Institute, noted that, “a common misconception is that people turn to the Internet for romantic or sexual connection because they are incapable of forming relationships face-to-face. Our results provide evidence to the contrary, suggesting that online sexual spaces aren’t functioning as ‘last resorts’ for people who haven’t been able to form sexual relationships in real life. Instead, it’s likely that many users in these spaces do have social support and adequate social networks, but they’re turning to online sexual technologies for a unique boost to their psychological mindset.”
The most commonly used form of sextech was sending sexually explicit images or videos (i.e. sexting) reported by 30% of the study participants. Nearly one in 5 participants (18%) had visited a camming website. Other forms of sextech engaged with by participants included:
playing sexually-explicit RPGs or online video games (14%), participating in a camming stream (12%), accessing VR pornography (11%), using a teledildonic accessory (9%), and exchanging sexually-explicit messages with a chatbot (9%).
Within the sample, 79% of men and 51% of women reported using some form of sextech. Also,
61% of heterosexual and 83% of gay/bisexual participants had used sextech.
The study, independently funded by Docler Holdings, LLC, was conducted online with data collected by Prodege, a third-party data collection firm. Participant recruitment reflects demographics of the U.S. population as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Researchers contributing to the study include Alexandra Marcotte, Postdoctoral Researcher, Kinsey Institute; Ellen Kaufman, Graduate Research Assistant, Kinsey Institute and Indiana University School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering; Jessica T. Campbell, Postdoctoral Researcher, Kinsey Institute; Tania Reynolds, Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of New Mexico, and Research Fellow, Kinsey Institute; Justin R. Garcia, Executive Director, Kinsey Institute, and Ruth N. Halls Professor of Gender Studies, Indiana University; and Amanda Gesselman, Anita Aldrich Endowed Research Scientist and Associate Director for Research, Kinsey Institute.
Marcotte AS, Kaufman EM, Campbell JT, Reynolds TA, Garcia JR, Gesselman AN. Sextech Use as a Potential Mental Health Reprieve: The Role of Anxiety, Depression, and Loneliness in Seeking Sex Online. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Aug 25;18(17):8924. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18178924. PMID: 34501522; PMCID: PMC8430900.
About the Kinsey Institute
For almost 75 years, the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University has been the premier research institute on human sexuality and relationships and a trusted source for evidence-based information on critical issues in sexuality, relationships, gender, and reproduction. The Kinsey Institute's research program integrates scholarly fields including neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, history, and gender studies.
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