“Aren’t tenses in sexting weird?” I asked my long-distance boyfriend one morning (he studies linguistics). He had noticed the weirdness of the verbs of some of our more raunchy conversations — it turns out he had been thinking the same thing every time he had sent me so much as an aubergine emoji.
Communicating about sex, like a lot of actual sex, is a kind of negotiation, a dance between blunt statements of longing and the careful clarity to ensure that you’re not totally embarrassing yourself. Both of us would use lots of tenses to communicate our desire, but one thing we could agree on was that the present tense was to be avoided at all costs. Just like IRL sex, we don’t really know how other people are doing it until we do it with them — that’s part of the mystique of a crush. Were other people sexting in the present tense, we wondered? As my boyfriend hypothesized about “illocutionary force” and “universal necessity modals” (hot), I took a more straightforward path and started a Twitter poll. “DIGITAL SEXERS: what tense/mood do you sext in?”
I set the poll to 24 hours and waited, ready for the responses of all varieties of the past, conditional, future, and they rolled in (people REALLY like talking about sex on the internet, it turns out). “2–3 different tenses per conversation would be optimal, imo,” said my friend Kiona, who suggested that linguistic variety would be indicative of an exciting sex life. “Conditional/future mix,” said someone called “Tsunami tha Wave.” I am sad to report, however, that my followers contained a contingent of those absolute perverts: sexting with a repulsive and oppressive immediacy that is conveyed solely in the present tense.
Let me explain. We don’t use the present tense to describe what we’re doing in the current moment that often in English. We barely ever use the simple present in particular (e.g. “I fondle, you choke, we moan”), apart from when we describe mental states (e.g. “I imagine, you want, we yearn for”). In that specific kind of sexting that involves using the present tense to create a sext-story, the narrative is built up in an unusual way. This makes present tense sexting sound like a genre, a format for using language that comes with expectations about context. That genre, my friends, is roleplaying. That’s right — you are doing the same thing as a fifteen-year-old boy playing Dungeons and Dragons.
As Glasgow law student Alice Caldwell-Kelly pointed out to me, this is the joke in the now-antiquarian meme “I put on my robe and wizard hat” (chat-room cybersex goes wrong when one user starts role-playing as a wizard). The meme is a fiction, created by an internet humor site called Fugly, but its narrative shows the linguistic echoes in the ultra-present language nicely:
bloodninja: Oh yeah, aight. Aight, I put on my robe and wizard hat.
BritneySpears14: Oh, I like to play dress up.
bloodninja: Me too baby.
BritneySpears14: I kiss you softly on your chest.
bloodninja: I cast Lvl. 3 Eroticism. You turn into a real beautiful woman.
bloodninja: I meditate to regain my mana, before casting Lvl. 8 Cock of the Infinite….
“I think there’s an idea of sexting as a format,” Caldwell-Kelly told me. As the creator of the @sextsbot account, she would know. The Sextsbot sends out filthy little moments of nonsensical debauchery — random, code-generated shots of lust. Although there’s the occasional future (e.g. “I’m going to put my suspicious tracksuit in your dick”), and quite a few imperatives (“Please climb my viral zine”), mostly, they’re in the simple present. “I fondly email you in the metaphorical titties,” it might sputter out, one Tuesday morning. “You bite down on those testicles like a lesbian band.” “I put my human rights in your tonsils, baby.”
It’s genius, and it works because we know what the idea of a sext looks like. They are bald and immediate in their desire. There’s no masking or flirtation in these sexts, they’re all pumped-up, demanding sex drive. Kind of like how the men on the Tumblr “Straight White Boys Texting” seem to imagine it works — as if chucking out a jarring demand of smut will begin a consensual sparring match of equally horny sexts.
“It’s funnier the blunter it is,” Caldwell-Kelly says. “Looking at the bot’s followers, I think a lot are the same generation as me, who probably did the exact same shut-in nerd sexual exploration before anything else and were confronted with this form of sex or flirting that’s really quite awkward and strained.”
My friend Sara tells me she’s kind of into the out-of-context sext. She likes to remind her beloved that sex with them is on her brain. She uses it less as the beginning of a mutual storytelling exercise and more of an everyday update of their sexual relationship. “So that I can keep them still thinking about me.” While she admits to using the present tense, she uses it more to state her current thoughts and desires, which we do more naturally in everyday English: something like “I want to push you up against a wall”, or “I can’t stop thinking about pinning you down on the bed and pulling your hair.”
According to philosophers of language like Jaakko Hintikka, sentences with desire verbs shift our perspective to a world in which our desires come true. Or, as my boyfriend paraphrased it: “He basically says that ‘I want to take off your clothes’ means ‘In those worlds where my desires are realized, your clothes are off.’” You can see which one looks hotter.
The present tense does have one thing on its side — brevity. When I spoke to internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch about this, she hypothesized that the number of keystrokes in itself might make people more likely to use the present tense in sexting especially as the exchange of messages becomes more excited — sexting, like its real-life counterpart, tends to have directional force. “Now I don’t have data on this but I don’t think that most people start a sexting conversation with ‘shall we do the sexting now?’ I think that it tends to grow organically out of the conversation. So if you’re saying: ‘I miss you, I wish you were here,’ this could turn into, ‘what would you do if you were here’.”
If you’re anything like my 2–3 tense-per-conversation friend Kiona, you don’t want to stay in the conditional, so as thing heat up, the tenses might flatten into simplicity. “I wonder if there’s a tendency to end up in the simplest tense, because that’s the one that takes the least effort to type,” she says. McCulloch also pointed out that we’ve developed a handy and not-weird way of theoretically enacting things in cyberspace, by using a third person present with asterisks either side. We’re used to reading Tweets that say *coughs*, *sighs* or *strokes beard*, and somehow they don’t feel at all Dungeons and Dragons-y. It’s just conventional in internet narrative. And yet, both Gretchen and I agree that this isn’t something we’d expect people to do in sext conversations, even though there seems to be a similar imaginative force behind them. *slowly pulls underwear down thighs* just doesn’t have the right ring to it.
What I, personally, would like to do is avoid any semblance of comedy, which present-tense, counterfactual absurdity can quite easily induce. Sex can appear to be a horrific morass of messy desire to anyone not involved in it, or even to the people who are involved in it, right after it occurs. This applies to communication also. By remaining outside of the simple present of role-playing, I’m trying to retain just that shred of dignity that makes the act slightly less depraved when I look back on it afterwards.
24 hours, 249 responses, and a whole lot of IRL conversations later, and my Twitter poll has proved that a lot of people on the internet have sexting habits that I find fucking weird.
So there we are: I am, apparently, a present-tense sexting kinkshamer, as multiple people explained to me when I made extreme facial expressions at their response to my invasive sexting questioning. I suppose, in conclusion, it doesn’t really matter what tense consenting adults decide to sext each other in — or if they want to play Dungeons and Dragons as foreplay — as long as they’re not sexting me, of course.
Josie Thaddeus-Johns is a writer and editor based in Berlin. She writes for the Guardian, Frieze, Creators, among others.