What love (and sex) really looks
like in the 21st century.
By Jenna Wortham
Illustrations by Wesley Allsbrook, Trenton Duerksen, Lisa Hanawalt, Melody Newcomb, Pat Perry, Jonny Ruzzo, Sam Vanallemeersch, and Roxie Vizcarra
I sent my very first sext at the age of 15. Maybe I was 13. I was up late, talking to strangers in an AOL chatroom, when someone asked me to upload my photo. I can remember hesitating for a few moments, then obliging, my heart galloping along. I arranged myself on the thick carpet in my bedroom, took a photo with my Web cam, and sent it. Why? Why not? I was clothed, but it was definitely meant to be provocative, flirtatious. I couldn’t fathom any repercussions to my behavior, not at that moment, not at that age. And nothing bad happened, not really. People made comments of the variety you’d expect, some nice, some not so nice, and then the conversation trotted along.
Last weekend, my baby niece — who is now 17 — told me that at her high school, trading sexy photos is as common as trading Instagram handles. She doesn’t participate in the exchanges, she says, because these days, everything is forever. She lives in a different era. My photo mostly went away, but hers wouldn’t evaporate so easily.
I’ve long been interested in how technology mediates desire and the way that our phones, an extension of ourselves, foster intimate interactions that feel so personal and deep, despite being relayed through a machine. Oceans of emotion can be transmitted through a text message, an emoji sequence, and a winking semicolon, but humans are hardwired to respond to visuals.
This project came to life after the celebrity hacks of 2014 and the condescending aftermath of advice toward women that lectured them — us — about taking photos of our bodies, nude or even scantily clad in bikinis or in a dressing room. We were told that we only had ourselves to blame for expressing sexuality through our devices, and that we couldn’t expect the companies that sell us these machines and services to protect us if we behaved in a way deemed inappropriate. People weren’t (yet) telling these companies that they needed to work on their security protocols, so that the people using their devices and services would feel safe, or even that our safety was important. It enraged me. It still does.
I think that everybody sexts. Not everyone sends nude photos, of course, for a variety of reasons. But many people I’ve talked to define a sext as anything sent with sexual intent, be it a suggestive Gchat exchange, a racy photo, a suggestive Snapchat, or even those aqua-blue droplets of sweat emoji.
I asked people I knew — and many I didn’t — to talk to me about sexts and the stories behind them, the risks, perceived and real, and why they did it, knowing that they could be shared beyond their control. Lastly, I asked them to share a nude that they had sent to someone. And so many people did, without hesitation, or requiring anything in exchange. I was floored by their openness, and the expanse of human emotions and experiences on display. What I discovered, mainly, is that sexting — like anything else done on our phones — was mostly just meant to be fun, for fun, grown folks doing what grown folks do. That is what I’m hoping to convey to you through all of this. I hope this project lives beyond this version, and I hope to continue to collect images, and stories, which can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is an exploration of what it means to be a human being in the 21st century.
This is, Everybody Sexts.
Small business owner, Los Angeles
My friend Christopher, a photographer from PinUps magazine, took this pretty nude of me. I sent it to my current boyfriend as a naughty treat. He loved it. Of course. I sent my first nude years and years ago. It was probably a shot of my butt. I used to send them all the time, when I was single. Nudes are like baseball trading cards for the gays.
Brand marketer, New York
Q: How often do you send nude sexts?
A: I don’t actually send [sexts] often, especially considering all the celeb leaks of late. I’ve always been a bit reticent to send out nude pics that prominently feature any identifying characteristics, like my damn face.
Q: What’s the story with this sext?
A: [The guy I’m dating] asked for a “tit flick” to get him through nervous jitters surrounding a work presentation he had to make. A complete spur-of-the-moment request — and fulfillment of said request.
Q: Who makes the cut?
A: I’ve only sent nudies to guys I’m seriously dating, or boyfriends. Again, it’s the management of digital footprint thingy at play here. I try my best to protect myself out there in the innanetz.
Q: How do you know you can trust the recipient?
A: There’s a tacit agreement between lovers that what you share together as a couple is meant to and should be sacred, not to be violated or find its way outside the established circle of trust. Right?
Alan Dickson, 31
Film/TV Art Assistant, Everywhere/nowhere
This is me smiling for the camera in a bathtub in my parents’ house. I sent it last winter when I was in California around Christmas. I sent it to people who were probably 3,000 miles away in New York, because I rarely have sexual encounters with people on the West Coast. I sent it to… people whom I had just worked with and people whom I may have had sex with or whom I was possibly going to in the future? Not having much sexual release makes you take photos and send them to people, right?
I can’t believe I have been sending nudes for 13 years. Before telephones had cameras. I am going to remember that if some punk kid ever says something to me about my age or something. “Kid, I have been sending nudes before you were born.” At first it was a little nerve-racking. It was later, when the sex tape things started happening that I really came to realize that it might not be the end of the world if they leaked out a little. I try and send photos which are of good quality and not just like, “Here is a crappy picture of my dick,” so that if people see them they might be like oh that is nice or something to that effect.
Number of nudes sent to date: Probably ~1,000
I sent this in … January, I think? To a guy I’ve been sleeping with on and off (mostly off) for a while. We don’t hang out as friends, but so often — every couple of months, I would say — we text each other (usually he gets in touch with me) and after some back and forth, some hemming and hawing (mostly on my part), we meet somewhere and have sex. I sent this because it had been a while since we’d slept together, and I wanted to see him — or at least I wanted him to want to see me — and I knew that this was exactly the kind of thing he would like. His exact response was “Oh fuck.” I told him I’d taken the picture right before making myself come (true), and he texted back that he made himself come while looking at it (unverifiable). Later he elaborated that he’d been with people when he got it, and had to excuse himself and go to the bathroom and masturbate immediately. It’s kind of a control thing. I wanted to make him want me.
Q. Did you worry that he would send this pic to his friends or use it against out in the future?
A. I don’t worry about my ex-boyfriend doing either of those things. With this guy, I don’t worry about him sending it to someone else. But I am terrified he could somehow use all the pictures he has of my boobs against me, yes. With my ex, it developed into an important part of our relationship, because we were apart so much of the time. Since then, I’ve sent nudes just to this one guy — whose approval, specifically re my body, I crave. I trusted my ex completely, and I trust the guy I sent the attached to not at all. But in the moment, I want him to see my body and want it and tell me that he wants it. (On requiring one in exchange.) I sometimes feel like I should — but it’s not so much about an equal exchange for me. It’s about power, giving power up by yielding to someone else’s desire, wielding power by being able to satisfy or provoke someone else’s desire.
Cultural worker, Brooklyn
Q. Tell me about this image.
A. I sent this photo to my boyfriend, from his bedroom. He leaves much earlier for work than I do. I wanted to show him what he was missing.
Q. What was his response?
A. “Oh my lord.”
I sent my first sext the very first second cell phones with cameras were invented. It was very posed — white sheets semi-covering artfully displayed boobs. Now, I send them whenever the mood strikes, or I feel like I look especially great. It has to be someone I’ve been seriously dating for a long time and someone who will be properly in awe of my magnificent everything. I would not send a nude to someone I was not in a trusted relationship with, and anyone in a trusted relationship with me knows better than to trifle with that trust. I sent this [image] to my girlfriend in July, when she was off on tour with her band. She was sharing rooms with her bandmates every night and had zero privacy, and I wanted to torture her. She really, really liked it and sent me several desperate texts an hour for the rest of the day. This is the exact effect I hoped for.
Last summer I shot and sent this photo to a girl I met on Tumblr. We’d been talking for over a year at that point. Our relationship started off friendly — we became Facebook friends, chatted now and then. After a couple months we began talking on Gchat for hours every day, and then started sending each other photos — artful shots documenting our surroundings — over text. I think we’d actually been sending photos back and forth for months before our relationship really became romantic. So the sexts grew naturally out of our existing photo-sharing habit. At the point when this photo was sent, we had already met in person, but it was a short visit and I returned to NYC, while she stayed in her city. Our relationship was already starting to disintegrate when I sent her this photo. When I sent this sext, we were living in different cities and growing apart. I wasn’t happy about that. Sexting was something that was really exciting for us both before we met in person for the first time, so I guess I was trying to bring back that feeling. I can only assume she liked it, though I also recall that she never really had much to say in response to dick pics. I think she was more turned on by less explicit non-sext pictures of my body.
Victor G. Jeffreys II, 32
When solicitors ask me for an image — à la Grindr — I learned that this image would keep me from wasting some time. I have a job, I can read, I am excited about the world, I have an apartment, savings…blah blah blah…one can get pretty far in an internet conversation with those things. But as soon as people see the hair they freak the fuck out. So, I get it out of the way from the get go. Here I am, in all of my glory. And yes, my fucking hair is real.
Q. Any rules of thumb?
A. I generally ask before I send, then send before I receive. Trust is not a factor — I am hiding nothing. It is just me.
This is a typical shot I’ll send a guy via Scruff, usually accompanied by a few more abstracted body shots. I’m better with words, but a visual tends to speed the process along. Just enough to pique interest, but you’re not getting the goods. Just the tip. It’s never bitten me in the ass — pardon the pun — but I made a conscious decision about two years ago to leave my cock out of the equation. You just never know.
Social media manager, New York
I started sexting with my first love. It was a face-on photo: boobs covered, face hidden, curves accentuated. One that, if leaked, would still be a “my parents are going to kill me” moment. Time tells me who will leak, speak or bring it up. I don’t require one if I really like you, but those who I may be slight bit iffy about, I’d ask for one in exchange. Hate to say it but it would be blackmail.
I also think of how much the person has to lose. I still keep them very tasteful. Nothing too vulgar because truth be told, once they’re out they’re out. You can’t help but hope for the best when you press send. I never take a picture of my actual vagina. That’s a bit too vulgar and I’d be mortified if that came back to haunt me in the future.
I sent this image to my fiancé while he was traveling on a longish trip. I usually send more graphic or straightforward sexts, but as our relationship deepens and grows, so does our sexuality. We have already seen each other’s bodies a lot, and we will be seeing them a whole lot more, so sometimes eroticism can come from what is unseen, or presenting something in a different way. So for this one, I wanted to make it something with more subtle hint at sex rather than the usual. This is the mirror I get dressed in front of, and sometimes I catch him watching me primp and prep. I thought it would be interesting, and humorous, to re-contextualize my clutter of jewelry, accessories, etc. Instead of putting them on, they are all off.
He’d always been obsessed with my ass. This was me reminding him why he loved to fuck me without having to expose myself all that much. I also wanted it to seem offhand, like I couldn’t even be bothered to move — “nbd, just lounging luxuriously on a fluffy duvet thinkin’ of you.” In my opinion, sexts shouldn’t function as previews so much as a way to keep the momentum going, to maintain the eroticism of a really good sexual encounter. Sending pics before we’ve even hooked up takes all the mystery away.
Gallery manager, Los Angeles
Do you watch Seinfeld? I remember this one episode where Elaine puts it very well:
Elaine: “Whoa! Walking around naked? Ahh… that is not a good look for a man.”
George: “Why not? It’s a good look for a woman.”
Elaine: “Well, the female body is a… work of art. The male body is utilitarian, it’s for gettin’ around, like a jeep.”
I actually get very embarrassed when I receive nude images from men. I love dirty texts/emails, but their photos make me blush. These photos were taken in 2012. I was rekindling an email correspondence with an old lover who lived abroad. We hadn’t seen each other or spoken in years, and it was exciting to realize that fire between us was still alive. I first met this guy in 2002. He was older than me, and something about him was dangerous and exotic, and I needed to have him. He didn’t even ask me to, but I found myself sending him photos of myself. It was really only this particular man to whom I sent these kinds of photos. Our email relationship mostly evolved around my risqué pictures. I probably sent him about 30 altogether. Because of the geographical distance between us, all we had was email to communicate. And because of this intense attraction between us, I didn’t really give myself much choice in the matter. It was very impulsive and exciting. The emails we sent to each other fulfilled an urge in me. There really wasn’t much consideration on my part. I just needed to do this for myself.
Matthew Prutsman, 32
Librarian, Los Angeles
I sent this to my boyfriend on 4/1/14. He was in Las Vegas for a wedding so I came on his jockstrap and sent him a pic. He said something like “OMG sexy!!! I can’t wait to get back home to you.” [This project] is actually making me realize I don’t sext my boyfriend enough. I maybe send one maybe once a month?
Q. Do you ever worry about these photos coming back to haunt you?
A. On some level, yes, that is a fear. But it is decreasing with time. I worry very little about it now.
Q. Why do you think that is?
A. As I got older, I became less uptight. I just no longer give a fuck. If this image, for example, got out, it wouldn’t affect my life. And I guess that’s really what it is about. I have the luxury of not caring because I know it wouldn’t affect me in an way.
Lux Alptraum, 32
Writer, New York
I sent this to a girl I was flirting with with the message “Oh hey, we should make plans again some time.” I tend to send nudes as a way of flirting in the beginning of a relationship, as things progress and as a relationship goes from early flirtation to something more solid, the rate of nudes dies down, becoming more of an occasional thing I do when I’m feeling bored or my partner is out of town. In a lot of cases I don’t actually want them back. I am way more turned on by being idolized and objectified than I am by doing the reverse to other people; while there are definitely people I enjoy receiving hot photos from, sending them is a much bigger turn-on for me.
Elain B, 32
I was six weeks pregnant and I’d never felt so sexy. I was sick all day and my back hurt like a son of a bitch, but still those days were transcendent. Even though I’m not all new age-y, there was something about a life forming inside me that felt sacred—so it stood to reason that I was basically a goddess. The pic was for my boyfriend and baby daddy; we couldn’t keep our hands off each other after we found out and I wanted to have sex with him about a million times a day. It was hormones but it was something else, too—something bigger than us that made me so happy I wanted to match the physical fulfillment to the spiritual fulfillment I felt. I was going to crop it and maybe throw a filter on it for extra sexiness, but I miscarried soon after and forgot about it completely. I had a specific type of miscarriage — the medical term is missed abortion — and my boyfriend and I didn’t have sex for a while. I just couldn’t get into it. About three or four weeks later I started to feel better. I sent this just before a date so he would know it was on that night. He texted back, “Mmm, beautiful,” because he’s just so good at toeing that line between lusty and sweet.