NSFW?

The challenges of being horny on main and fucking around in the uncanny valley of professionalism

Chris Messina
Jul 8 · 13 min read

Setting the scene

Why did Chris Messina and Sonya Mann have a conversation about sexuality and social norms? Before now, the two had never even chatted online. Why discuss such a taboo topic and then publish their private exchange?

Because they’re both interested in cultural change. Societal and communal expectations are always in flux, driven by complex, iterated feedback loops of behavior and reaction. Figuring out what is acceptable to say in public, or what is acceptable to say in a particular context, amounts to a Keynesian beauty contest: To maintain your reputation, you need to make accurate informed guesses about what other people will sanction.

But what if you’re willing to pay a strategy tax? (“Strategy tax” is a term that Sonya learned from Ben Thompson, who defines it as “anything that makes a product less likely to succeed, yet is included to further larger corporate goals.”) If you want to change social norms, then maybe you’re willing to take a hit to your personal status in order to normalize behavior that is currently considered deviant.

Arguably, that’s what Chris decided to do when he changed his Twitter bio. The previous, anodyne version:

Hashtag inventor & product designer. Previously: @Google, @Uber, @YCombinator W’18. On a mission to make myself useful. ♥️

The updated, provocative version:

Hashtag inventor & product designer. ♥️ On a mission to give my beautiful partner the most orgasms she’s experienced in one day. 👉🏻http://bit.ly/sex-in-bio

Chris’s Twitter profile with updated bio

This was a radical change, to say the least. People noticed, and reactions were mixed, but mostly negative. At first it wasn’t clear that Chris’ partner had okayed the disclosure — Chris had to clarify that it was her idea in the first place. But the baffled, semi-outraged commentary didn’t stem from concerns for her privacy (or at least most of it didn’t). Primarily, people considered it bizarre and inappropriate to talk about orgasms on an ostensibly “professional” Twitter account.

Chris observed in a blog post:

[W]ithin 24 hours [people started] sharing screenshots to their active Twitter followings… including Ed Zitron (43K followers), Prof. Brian Krassenstein (23K followers, a parody account), Kate Sloan (10K followers), Zach Kahn (5K followers), Jenn Schiffer (32K followers), Jason Calacanis (300K followers), and others. I mention their follower counts only to indicate that what I thought would be this amusing little nothingburger inside joke between me and my partner suddenly had the potential to be seen by… a lot more people.

Reactions varied from concerned (“thought to message him to see if he was hacked”) to comical (“The guy who invented the hashtag has one of the weirdest and horniest bios in town”) to sarcastic (“This bio is a masterpiece.”) to… derivative (“On a mission to give my wife the most number of unicorn investments.”).

Chris continued:

[B]y declaring myself to be someone or something other than what people were expecting — I caused such severe cognitive dissonance in people that the most viable responses included ridicule, rejection, repression, skepticism, shame, or some kind of required reversion back to a previous, and thus more familiar, state. […]

So at least in some cases, it seemed like my bio freaked people out because they needed me to be the “inventor of the hashtag guy or whatever” but with my new bio that was talking about sex, I was fucking with the microscopic mental space they reserved for me (or for “people like me”) and that was breaking their brains at least a little.

All that, or — sharing the intimate sexual exploits in the context of a Twitter bio is weird.

He went on to point out that almost everyone has sex and aims for it to be enjoyable; that’s not a surprising revelation. “Moreover,” Chris wrote, “isn’t this taboo and our inability to speak openly and intelligently about sex and sexuality a key element of Silicon Valley’s juvenile toxicity towards women and non-cisgendered individuals? Isn’t it the general ignorance and lack of awareness preventing us from having plain and matter of fact conversations about consent, desire, curiosity, and healthy sexual wellness?”

Chris added, “Why is healthy sexuality or sexual desire inappropriate in one’s Twitter bio while struggle porn and ‘crushing it’ at your startup is celebrated?”

When Sonya first saw the new bio, here’s what she had to say (lightly edited for readability):

The man is exercising his God-given right to be horny on main. [Slang for “the practice of posting and engaging with sexually charged posts on one’s main account on a social media site instead of doing so from a secondary account created for that purpose.”] And I am exercising my right to be like, “Your public persona previously had nothing to do with sex and your implementation is the combination of /r/nobodyasked and /r/ihavesex.”

I would even find that bio weird from a sex educator. A porn star could probably swing it. Imagine walking up to someone at a party, or a networking event, extending your hand, and saying, “Hi, I’m Chris. I invented the hashtag. Also, I’m on a mission to give my beautiful partner the most orgasms she’s experienced in one day.”

Here’s my sense of the appropriate boundaries: I think you can talk about sex and sexuality on the meta level without getting weird, but talking about the details of your own sex life… hrrm. It’s not talking about NSFW subjects that I find objectionable — it’s foregrounding intimate details of your own sex life, totally out-of-the-blue and without the context of a relevant conversation.

She added:

I think that I find the whole thing unsettling because it’s a very strong signal of “I do not follow typical social norms and my boundaries or lack thereof are unpredictable.” Usually (though not always!) when a guy signals that with respect to sexual topics… it’s not a good sign.

Chris DM’d Sonya on Twitter to share his blog post about how people responded to the bio change. Sonya said that she was impressed by his equanimity in the face of harsh criticism, and proposed a collaborative conversation exploring the issues more deeply.

And so that brings us to their exchange, which follows.


Sonya:

I think that your blithe violation of a social norm, and lack of preemptive explanation for it, is what got people riled up. Sex is a touchy issue, so that intensified people’s feelings. And I wouldn’t dismiss the creation of uncertainty as a factor; transgressing one social norm makes people worry (subconsciously) that you might transgress further, or transgress in other ways.

It’s interesting how often the word “weird” has come up. There are examples above, but I also want to introduce an astute comment by Joel Grus:

IMO it’s not that people are “offended” by orgasms, it’s that real-name tech Twitter is this weird uncanny valley between personal and professional, and you’d get hauled into HR for creating a hostile workplace if you put that in your work bio, so it feels extremely out of place

it’s also the case that even my friends I’m not really interested in that level of detail regarding their sex lives, so it’s weird to have it pushed on you by someone’s Twitter bio

Joel is getting at the same cognitive dissonance that you mentioned in your blog post, and that feeling seems to condense to the concept of “weird.” In this context, the term means aberrant; unusual. It means that you did something which is Not Done™, and now Twitter’s crowdsourced panopticon (which, yes, includes me!) has turned its many eyes toward you.

Why do we police weirdness? I think that’s just human nature — we’re invested in group cohesion and we want each other to be predictable, so that we can better coordinate. People who overstep personal boundaries often use the premature intimacy as a manipulation tactic.

Why did I personally jump to police your weirdness? I’m an oddball myself, and my social circle is equally eccentric. I joke about being a furry; I follow porn subreddits from my main account, the handle of which is my full name; I’ve written about my brief stint as an underage escort. I have a locked “after dark” account on Twitter, which I use to retweet erotic art and post nonsense when I’m high. I don’t think it’s weird that @aphyr tweets butt-grabs and shibari.

So, why does it come across as weird for you to reveal your orgasm mission? Why does that parse as a transgression? I’m curious what you think.


Chris:

I seemed to have inadvertently hit upon an explosive combo with the juxtaposition of sex, the unexpectedness of such a provocative and typically-private statement, being a cis-white male from the tech world, and (I guess) being me.

And when I think about the various responses — what’s also interesting to me is how much they varied based on their social proximity to me… i.e. do they know me in some other context or have other insight about me to either respond with concern or disdain or judgment.

People who otherwise know me were concerned that I was hacked… i.e. that it would be unusual for me to make such a proclamation, and given the inconsistency, clearly someone must have been out to embarass me, because the assumption is that I would want to keep details of my sex life secret or private.

People who don’t know me or have their own audience and need grist for their content mills didn’t really care if I’d been hacked or was just hapless… I provided fodder for fool-making, and provided them with an easy-to-screenshot contextless expression of, as you point out, something that is “weird.” And by labeling and ridiculing what I did, they were able to create commonality with their followers by “othering” someone else (namely me). There was no curiosity or compassion; it was like pointing out an accidentally hilarious license plate (i.e. ANUSTART).

An accidentally hilarious license plate

While I wasn’t trying to manufacture a response, I’ve been on the internet long enough to not really take this kind of shade personally. These people don’t know me and they’re just snarking on a choice morsel of preposterousness. When I waded in, took ownership of it, and started to backfill the context earnestly I think there was this weird kind of acid reflux, like I was spoiling the game… like yes, dad did leave his Playboys out for the kids to find… intentionally. And then the conversation shifted (at least for those willing to continue the conversation). I had still done something apparently offensive, but when put under the microscope, the real offense seemed to dissipate, like when you affect the appearance of a photon by capturing an image of it.

That’s not in any way to suggest that I didn’t violate a set of social norms, it’s just that I wasn’t trying to comply with them in the first place. It’s more that so much of my prior behavior (i.e. my bio) simply aligned by coincidence, rather than explicit intention. I mean, the hashtag itself was originally a protest action against Twitter’s unwillingness to prioritize per-message group contextualization. I’ve been rebelling against the platform from the beginning!

Then again, it’s also the case that one’s profile on these platforms aren’t truly owned by us, but instead are a collective hallucinatory projection of what the platform demands of us at any given time since our (virtual) existences can be either crucified by the community or annihilated by the platform provider. My account can be denied to me at any time by the whims of the platform operator; we’re therefore all renters and not owners.

As such, the rules of a rented space apply — and may explain why responses were so perplexed at my behavior… what was I risking and why? What was the motivation? Was this some kind of desperate plea for attention or something else? Twitter (and other platforms) have become so policed and observed that it’s obscene to play at the edges of normalcy and decency unless you’ve set your shingle in the tent city of transgressive Twitter; to flip the script and live your weird out and proud. Perhaps then my transgression was to bring my weird into Twitter main… like proudly operating as an escort on LinkedIn, despite such roles being outlawed.

In other words, there’s a time and place for me to be publicly weirdly sex-obsessed on Twitter, just not on my primary, “This is my real name and who I am in real life” Twitter account. But instead of operating with a kind of Finsta-on-Twitter profile, I just went for it, balls out (quite literally) without deference for the consequences, and so, here we are.

But by now it seems like just about everyone’s moved on, demonstrating how our goldfish brains are good at expressing half-hearted outrage when it fits the stereotype of rage-worthy ignorance, but when it’s something otherwise, it’s just too darn obtuse to bother with continual engagement and evolution.


Side note: Chris and I are both busy, so we’re wrapping up this collaboration now, a little over a month after the original incident. It’s striking, though not surprising, just how thoroughly people have moved on. That’s the 24-hour take cycle for you. (C’est la vie.)


Sonya:

I just read through our conversation again, Chris, and one of your lines jumped out at me: “like yes, dad did leave his Playboys out for the kids to find… intentionally.” I know it’s an analogy, but maybe it’s a telling one?

Growing up, my parents had several “spiritual sex” books, and a couple of raunchy erotica collections. They lived on the top shelves, but eventually I figured out how to use a stool. I was a voracious reader — in general, but I found this material particularly fascinating. I always read these books in secret, hiding my interest in the raw, sweaty, sexy part of sex, as opposed to the anatomical version that adults delivered to kids. The illicit nature of the information made it extra alluring, of course, but the opportunity for solo exploration helped me feel safe. I was able to start developing my sexuality privately, gradually, on my own terms.

I’ve never asked my parents whether those books were left accessible on purpose, so I don’t know whether it was a considered choice or unthinking naivete. However, I would have been profoundly embarrassed and freaked out if my parents had plopped those books on my bed, like, “Here, Sonya, read about Tantric sex!” Even if they’d done that without saying anything to me directly.

I’m also reminded of the Drupal-and-BDSM kerfuffle. (Context, more context, and even more context.) The drama was complex, but in that case, someone’s sexual habits were brought into the public eye suddenly, largely without his consent. And people were furious on his behalf! Of course, a bunch of different people were furious at him.

Much of the conflict hinged on whether the person in question had done anything to make his sexuality visible in professional spaces. (My answer: Mostly no, but the specific idiosyncrasies of his partner and how he related to her made this hard to settle definitively.) If not the be-all-end-all crux of the issue, that was at least a significant litmus test for whether the Drupal community would accept him: Did he make anyone else bear witness to his kink without an express opt-in?

When you unexpectedly airdrop the visceral details of sex into a relationship or conversation, be it one-to-one or one-to-many, people feel uncomfortable. The shock and instinctive revulsion are potent enough to make people lash out, often cruelly. Hearing about someone’s sex life without being asked — even if you would have said yes if explicitly asked to listen! — feels like an imposition.

I’m circling back to what I originally said on Twitter:

I think you can talk about sex and sexuality on the meta level without getting weird, but talking about the details of your own sex life… hrrm. It’s not talking about NSFW subjects that I find objectionable — it’s foregrounding intimate details of your own sex life, totally out-of-the-blue and without the context of a relevant conversation.

Sex in the abstract is largely acceptable to talk about, if you tread lightly and dance around taboos. Introducing the specifics of how you get off makes it, well, weird. It’s like lobbing a hand grenade instead of trying to navigate a minefield.

To tee up your closing notes, Chris, I’m going to ask a few questions that I don’t want you to answer. I just want you to ponder how being asked makes you feel, and share your reaction.

You want to give your partner as many orgasms as possible. A laudable goal. Tell me, how do you go about that? Do you lick her clit? Maybe she likes being penetrated with a vibrating dildo? Do you grab her neck and pull her hair and tell her that she’s a good girl? Maybe she orders you to worship her and sits on your face, grinding and moaning while you put in the work. Maybe you fuck each other slowly in the missionary position, breathing in tandem, whispering “I love you” back and forth while she surges up against you to feel the pressure on her G-spot. Or do you pound her from behind, gripping her hips tightly, while she uses a vibrator on herself until she convulses and screams? Does she love feeling your mouth on her nipples, your hands cupping her soft, smooth breasts? All of the above?

Not gonna lie, I felt awkward writing that paragraph, since we’re barely acquaintances. I would feel awkward sending similar questions to my closest friends, even if we’d been talking about sexual preferences (and I can’t even remember the last time that such a discussion went farther than “redheads amirite”).

Now: Why didn’t anyone ask you these questions on Twitter? (I assume that they didn’t — if I’m wrong, that’ll be interesting.) And why didn’t you volunteer this information, which was relevant to the topic you introduced in your bio? Am I pushing a boundary by introducing this into our exchange? Those questions I do want you to answer. 🙂


Chris:

I appreciate that in this exchange, I will be publishing the most adult/sexual content that I have ever published, so here’s to stretching one’s boundaries!

Before I answer your question, I would like to reiterate some contrast between: “introducing the specifics of how you get off” and what was actually in my bio, which was a simply-stated desire to generally pursue my partner’s pleasure through a sexual activity (i.e. orgasm). Perhaps that’s what you’re saying though? As in, it would have actually been really weird had I followed up editing my bio by writing about specific methods or techniques to fulfill my orgasmic mission. Because you’re right — no one did ask me those questions. Nor did I think it necessary to offer explicit descriptions of my methods because they are specifically personal and private to me and my partner. That I desire to give my partner orgasms (regardless of quantity or quality), again, doesn’t strike me as that weird. But yes, sharing the specific, intimate details (no matter how conventional or bizarre) of our sex life is where I currently draw the line on what’s too much (for me) to share on main.

Thanks for entertaining this conversation and helping me explore this topic.


You can follow Chris on Twitter at @chrismessina and Sonya at @sonyaellenmann.

Chris Messina

This can all be made better. Ready? Begin.

Chris Messina

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Inventor of the hashtag. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Previously: Google, Uber, Molly (YC W18).

Chris Messina

This can all be made better. Ready? Begin.