For months now, researchers at the University of British Columbia have been closely examining text messages to look for either subtle or explicit signs that they contain romantic or sexual messages.
In other words: academics, they're just like us!
The study came about after communication with campus undergrads, said Samantha Thomson, one of the study's authors. During focus groups about digital communication and dating, the subject of emojis just kept coming up.
"Emoji use has become an important part of communication and deserves some empirical investigation," Thomson told HuffPost Canada in an e-mail.
Thomson and the team, led by by Prof. Jocelyn Wentland at UBC's Okanagan campus, wanted to figure out what kind of role emojis had in "sexually suggestive" communication. They surveyed nearly 700 participants on their texting and online messaging habits. The results provide empirical evidence of what many already know: that people use emojis to add emotional or sexual prompts to their text messages.
Among the people surveyed, emojis were used in 50 per cent of all texts and 80 per cent of social media posts. And of the respondents who say they've sexted, 51 per cent say using emojis can lead to "sexually suggestive behaviour."
The fact that emojis themselves could lead to sexting was one of the most surprising findings for Thomson. "It was anticipated that emojis were involved in sexual communication online and via text message, but it was interesting to find that many people believed emojis were what initiated sexting with their partner," she said.
"Our team suspects that people may add sexy emojis to their text conversations to subtly see how the other person responds," Wentland said in a statement. "If the person responds favourably, it could be game on."
More than half the respondents — 54 per cent — say they "sometimes, often or always" use emoji in sexts.
So, which emojis have the most sexual connotations? The three most common faces sent or received during a period of what the study calls “sexually suggestive messaging” are the wink, (😉) the smirk (😏), and the blowing-a-kiss faces (😘). The three most common objects are the tongue (👅), the sweat droplets (💦), and — yes — the eggplant (🍆) which has long been suspected to have phallic properties.
The presence of the sweat droplets was another surprise for researchers, Thomson says. “We were a bit surprised that it beat out some other popular emoji, such as the peach (🍑) and taco (🌮).”
(You can skip this sentence if you’re under 40, but the peach is said to resemble a butt, while the taco is vaginal. You’re welcome.)
UBC says the study is the first of its kind to examine the relationship between emoji use and sexual behaviour, and to look closely at the emotional component of “what might otherwise be a cold, text-based computer-mediated message.” It’s also likely the first to include the winking face in its academic title: the research is officially called “Are you fluent in sexual emoji?😉: Exploring the use of emoji in romantic and sexual contexts.”
Thomson says she’s looking forward to future studies that will use this one as a basis to go further in exploring how we think about sex.
“As new emoji are introduced, there is the possibility that new sexual innuendos will be created and that our communication, both online and offline, could be affected,” she says.
There’s definitely no shortage of new conversations to have about the potential sexual connotations of various emojis. When the next round was introduced earlier this month, the “pinching hand” inspired a variety of responses, both positive and negative, from people who figured had trouble seeing it in a non-sexual context.
(Some headlines about the pinching hand: “Men like me with small penises suffer from low self-esteem – so why is there now an emoji to bully us?”, “Great news: Small penises are getting their own emoji,” and “There Is Now An Emoji For Your Ex.”
So now that there's empirical evidence of the eggplant's sexual status, Thomson would urge caution when employing it for culinary purposes. "Research suggests that emoji can function as a substitute for non-verbal cues, so if you add an eggplant to a contextually ambiguous message, the receiver of that message may use that emoji to fill in the blanks which could result in quite the misunderstanding!" she says.
"If you want to be sure that your eggplant message is received in a neutral, non-sexual way, you may want to avoid pairing the emoji with other sexually charged emoji, such as the peach or winking face."
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