Sexting has the potential to break down barriers of shame surrounding desires and the body’s appearance.
T he first time I was asked to talk dirty was in my early college days, while giving my first long-term boyfriend oral sex. He presumably wanted me to say dirty shit with the same mouth I was using to do dirty shit all at once. I remember being taken aback by this request — what would I say? How would I say it seriously and with sexy conviction? Could I play this part? Did I want to play this part? We dated for almost seven years, and over that time, maybe I got a little more confident in melding my desire with words, but I’ll always wonder if our relationship partly failed because together we lacked an erotic language, a way of speaking to each other about sex and our desires in honest and vulnerable dialogue.
Ultimately, I found it difficult to talk dirty during sex without feeling utterly ridiculous. Though I knew that my partner found me sexually desirable, I was still wary of myself as a sexual being in my late teens and most of my twenties, a feeling I doubt was unique to my experience. Throughout my childhood, my weight and my body were scrutinized. As early as middle school, when I was subject to constant teasing and commentary — or even earlier, when my father made negative comments about my weight in second grade — I understood: chubby bodies are not desirable bodies. I brought my shame with me into adulthood, and inevitably it affected how I regarded my body as a vehicle for sexual expression. If I wasn’t able to even recognize, much less confidently assert, my desires or perceive my own desirability, I could not comprehend how another person would, nor could I imagine it would make any difference if I started gushing about his penis.
I found it difficult to talk dirty during sex without feeling utterly ridiculous.
It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I began sexting long-distance with a man, that I really began to unpack the shame and reticence that had been hindering my sexual expression. It was through this relationship — a drawn-out, off and on presence in my life for a couple of years — that I began to cultivate my erotic language in tandem with that of another. It was here that I discovered that certain words or phrases, or certain imagined acts described in words, produced an effect on me — an effect that I was emboldened to pursue. After some time and patience and many photos in which I initially felt weird and gross about my body, I slowly began to craft a way of speaking about my desires and presenting my body that felt true to myself and ultimately transformative. Writing about my fantasies and sharing the visual language of my body with a person who encouraged and supported my ideas, who in turn trusted me with their language and their body as a response to mine, opened me up to owning and embodying the kind of sex I hadn’t known I wanted or had been ashamed to ask for.
Because it combines the word and the body in a way which encourages self-reflection and sexual self-regard, sexting has the potential to break down barriers of shame surrounding desires and the body’s appearance, especially among those who have felt pressured to look and act a certain way. Women, and especially girls, are not perceived as active agents of their own sexuality; rather, they tend to be viewed as heteronormative, passive recipients of male desire. Expression of female desire or self-objectification is seen as deviant, especially within the realm of the supposedly “non-normative” practice of sexting. “We are sexual beings as soon as we become beings,” sex and relationship therapist Ashley Blu Lavalle told me via email. “Our society, with its puritanical roots, wants to ignore this especially in the female gender, preferring to bestow and encourage ‘innocence’ and ‘modesty.’” Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than in the moral panic surrounding teen sexting.
In Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent, Amy Adele Hasinoff thoroughly examines the way the criminal justice system regards the practice of sexting among teenagers. Not only can teens be charged with possession of child pornography for having nudes of themselves, legal structures exert a “disproportionate amount of control on the sexual activity of girls in the name of protection, especially on low-income girls, girls of color, and queer girls.”
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Hasinoff extrapolates the reasons and explanations often given for why teen girls sext and observes that while teen boys’ interest in sexuality is seen as expected, and therefore tolerated; for girls, their “active sexuality is often assumed to indicate some kind of deviant pathology or victimization by peers or mass culture…Sexual agency is conspicuously absent in this narrative.”
Ultimately, Hasinoff argues the problem with sexting is not teen sexuality, but rather the persistence of sexual violence-related problems like rape culture, victim-blaming, a discriminatory and counterproductive justice system (including short-sighted privacy laws), and systemic inequalities. “Talking about sexting by panicking about deviant girls, predators, and pornographers is attractive because it sells papers and does not challenge mainstream views of gender and sexuality,” she writes. (One way she suggests we can change the conversation about sexting is to reframe it as media production.)
The hysterical treatment of teen sexting extends into the adult sexting world. Hasinoff notes, “Sexting is not usually framed as an explicit moral problem in the United States but is viewed instead as the result of personal biological or psychological weaknesses…The implicit question in a lot of the research on sexting seems to be: What kind of person would sext? And what exactly is wrong with this person?”
The problem with sexting is not teen sexuality, but the persistence of sexual violence-related problems.
The anxiety that surrounds the act of sexting illustrates the amount of power the act is seen to have, especially in the hands of those who have been denied sexual agency. When the mainstream conversation about sexting isn’t concerned with the apocalyptic underpinnings of sexting young girls, it’s focusing on celebrity scandals which center sexting as non-normative and irresponsible. Only a precious few articles have addressed the benefits that could be obtained from the practice.
In fact, though, sexting can offer a safer, gentler space to practice overcoming ingrained shame. As any person who has used technology to find communities in which they feel welcome to express themselves knows, there are many advantages to accessing online spaces with only language, images, and shared interests as mediation. For one, you can withhold your physical appearance and “true identity” until you feel more comfortable in a particular online space. Trust is built over time, and it’s easier to be honest with yourself and others if you aren’t faced with the immediate intensity of physical presence.
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In 2003, sexuality scholar Josephine Ho gave a talk addressing how the internet is creating new spaces for identity and sexual exploration. In the text for her presentation, she explains, “These new formations of the self are changing not only the nature of intimacy but also the way people negotiate sexual contacts. Instead of being timid and silent about their sexual desires and needs, as the older generation were brought up to be, the net generation tend to be quite direct and clear about what they want.”
While sexting provides a more welcome space to voice sexual desires, it also importantly fosters communication about consent. Melissa Meyer, a scholar focusing on Millennials, cybersex, and criminology writes that not only is sexting a safer space physically, but it’s also “primarily a feminist space: when used correctly it offers both partners equal power to start, stop and direct the interaction.” Sexting is a more comfortable mode of expressing sexuality for young women, Meyer says, because they can’t be physically overpowered, and are less likely to feel sexually pressured.
Sexting importantly fosters communication about consent.
Meyer also discusses the benefits of getting to know a partner and building intimacy leading up to physical interaction. From a cyberfeminist perspective, sexting is appealing because of the agency and the negotiation of the story that partners build together. For Meyer, sexting is the “new normal” (one study found that nearly 88% of a sampled 870 adults have sexted) and provides more than just simple sexual gratification — it’s also a safe and convenient space that nurtures “exploration, intimacy, connection, and imagination on a playing field that is balanced, responsive, and liberating, especially for women.”
Nor is sexting only for the young. An article published in August on AARP’s website notes the popular allure of sexting for the “50-plus set,” describing it as “fun, easy and usually harmless way to spice up their sex.” Ultimately, sexting appeals to this age group because of the lower risk of judgment that cultivates a level of comfort for them to express their sexuality. I, for one, can certainly relate to 50-year-old Jill who says,”It makes you a little more brave. It takes the fear away, your inhibitions. I might be a little more bold in a text message than I would be over the phone or in person.”
According to relationship therapist Lavalle, when people first begin to sext, they may feel pressure to act on the dialogue they’ve created, but it’s important to set boundaries. “I try to impress that sexting, as an exercise, is not preparation for sex but about arousal and talking about desires and fantasy. Taking fantasy into real life should be a conversation of its own.” When people don’t know what to say to begin sexting, she recommends reading and sharing erotica and discussing what they like about it.
For Kristen, 38 (names have been changed), the act of writing itself affected her sexuality and its associated shame: “I had a lot of feelings I wanted to recreate, but had a hard time communicating them. I had to practice putting words to things because growing up I was always taught that sex was not something you talk about, especially the kind of stuff I was interested in. Writing things out made me admit my desires to myself and another person. That really helped me to not feel as much shame.”
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David, 27, find bodies of all kind desirable and has discovered through sexting that he’s probably more polyamorous than he wants to admit. He enjoys the convenience and flexibility of the act as opposed to physical sex. “I can do it anywhere, anytime. At work, even. And, being disconnected from the physical presence of another person, it re-positions sexuality to not being centered around building to an ultimate orgasm. Maybe I will come in person with these people (who I don’t know and haven’t had actual sex with yet) someday. Maybe I won’t. I don’t really care. I just enjoy sharing the pictures, talking dirty, etc.”
Explaining that her favorite part of sexting is feeling sexy via her partner’s appreciation, 33-year-old Holly says it keeps things exciting in her relationship. “I think it is healthy. It’s a fun way to make things more exciting with your partner and it’s a way to change things up in your sexual relationship that’s almost more cerebral/mental/emotional than just physical…I think I have released a lot of modesty or embarrassment about my own nudity and sexuality.”
Flannery, 26, explains that sexting comes naturally for them and has occasionally been more fulfilling than physical sex. “I’m obsessed with how effective and ‘real’ it can feel. I love that we are moving forward as a world to a place where these relationships initially thought of as superficial have real depth and consequences. Also, it’s hella fun to get off. I do enjoy the power aspect and how our phones are so invasive in our lives — I can be sitting at a mall or coffee shop and telling someone that I want them to do depraved sexy things to me. That’s cool as hell.”
Researcher Dr. Jeff Temple notes that sexting is nothing new: “We have been showing each other body parts for a long time, whether behind the bike shed or on a cave painting.” While there are obviously risks to sexting that, for the most part, didn’t exist in the body-parts-showing, dirty-letter-writing days of yore — accidentally sending messages to the wrong recipient, becoming emotionally invested in something commonly seen as emotionally void, a partner sharing your messages or being hacked (a greater risk for women and public figures) — the benefits of self-discovery and play seem to far outweigh them. Sexters mostly understand the risks and realize that the sexting act itself is not the core problem at the heart of a scandal that could befall a sexter.
In Written On the Body, Jeanette Winterson writes, “There is no discovery without risk and what you risk reveals what you value.”
So what do sexters value? Agency. Consent. Meeting their needs and desires. Intimacy. Relationship. Communication. Vulnerability. Self-reflection. Sex. Love. The materiality of the body and the materiality of the word. The embodiment of words that capture moments of identification that reveal an essence of truth about who people are, how they play, interact, and negotiate power. The willingness to be transformed by what they discover.
As for me, not only have I recognized a language that allows me to navigate and inhabit my desires more truly, but I’ve also come to love my body and all its softness, its curves and folds, each scar and wrinkle and roll, each part of my body a part of me, deserving of pleasure and a language that names it as such.