“Here’s a picture of me and Todd in Mexico,” Gaby says. A small grin teases the corners of her mouth. She’s at brunch with all her girlfriends — and a few gay male friends — and they gather around as she shows off her boyfriend of six months.
She flicks through more photos on the phone. “This is us at his dad’s retirement dinner. And this is at Six Flags. Oh, and this is at that craft beer festival I posted on Facebook about. Isn’t Todd cute when he’s tipsy?” Each flick adds proof to the happy, committed relationship.
But then, Gaby accidentally scrolls past a close-up of a man’s naked genitalia, which leaves nothing to the imagination.
“Oh my God,” Gaby gasps. She quickly hides the phone behind her back. She’s beet-red as they tease her about it.
“Is that Todd?”
“No wonder you’re so happy!”
Todd, it seems, has a funny habit of sending Gaby pictures of himself in an aroused state every so often. “It seems to make him happy and turns him on,” she confesses, “But I haven’t figured out how to tell him I’m kind of weird about it.”
But that’s going to be the least of Gaby’s problems. Turns out, Todd wants some reciprocation — he wants her to send explicit pictures of herself. But sexting — outside of a few flirtatious texts — is something she’s never done. She likes Todd and tells him she is open to the idea. But she has concerns, worries, hesitations — all the normal mental obstacles that come up when faced with new sexual territory.
“What do you guys think?” she asks her friends. “Do you think I should get over myself and do it?”
Gaby’s girlfriends all had stories about sexting — either their own, or something they heard about others. Whether it was dirty talk over text, sending explicit or suggestive pictures or even making homemade sex videos with phones, the stories are a tapestry of how mobile is expanding, changing and challenging sexual desire. Gaby listens as she tries to decide how far to go to explore her own sex life.
According to NBC News, over half of adults have sent or received sexual images over the phone. Not surprisingly, those aged 18 to 24 are the most active sexters, but one-in-four couples in the late 30s and 40s exchanged sexual material over the phones, too, according to Pew Internet Life Project. Even teens are reporting texting in high numbers. Sexting isn’t fringe behavior — it’s a mainstream sexual practice.
Nelly, a New York-based book editor in her late-20s, has sexted all her adult life. “I actually started sexting not over phones, but e-mail and webcam, when I was a teenager,” she says. She came of age “when it was cutting-edge to have a broadband connection,” when IM was her lifeline to friends and people video-conferenced using webcams.
“I learned to flirt electronically before I could even do it in person,” she adds.
Nelly’s first relationships began online, whether she met someone through some kind of online group or through social media. Her first serious boyfriend lived in Connecticut while she went to college in Boston, so the courtship took place over e-mail, webcam and IM.
Her first electronic “sext act,” as she calls it, was flirting over a webcam. The playful tone turned into innuendo, as it often did, and they dared one another to strip.
“It seemed natural, really,” she says. From there, “one thing led to another,” smiling at the memory.
Despite the newness of the medium, “I wasn’t nervous about it,” Nelly says. “My roommate was out for a few hours, if I remember, and my boyfriend was taking off his clothes as well. There wasn’t any way to easily record what we were doing back then, especially the video stuff.”
Instead, she remembers how turned-on she felt, and the connection she felt to her boyfriend. Online sex, as well as sending sexy messages over IM and e-mail, became part of their repertoire — a valuable part of their bond with each other.
“There was something about having those naughty notes in my inbox and chat history that made things seem more intimate,” she says. “I remember how I would read them over if I was missing him. I knew he read mine again and again, too, and that made me feel sexy and powerful. He’d refer to sessions and e-mails all the time, like ‘Remember when you said this’ or ‘How about when you did this onscreen’. I admit, it made me feel pretty iconic in a way. I loved knowing I inspired this lust in someone.”
“It became part of our secret conversation, and there’s still nothing sexier than having a secret with the person you love and lust for,” she adds.
That relationship, like many “young love” situations, faded away, due to growing apart and different life circumstances. But Nelly hasn’t been shy since about sexting.
“I see it as healthy sexual expression and exploration, if you do it for the right reasons,” she says. “I think sex begins in the mind, and there’s really no better way to become part of someone’s imagination and memory than with a message or a picture. There’s no better way to explore your own sexual imagination, too.”
Ironically, she feels electronic sex back in an earlier, connected age felt freer. Now, she worries about hacks, about images ending up online — but only slightly. “Honestly, it feels second nature to me to send sexy stuff over phones and whatever,” she adds. “It’s how I flirt and turn my partners on.”
Nelly has developed a certain incremental approach to sexting — and the reaction is part of how she judges her suitors. “I won’t do anything explicit with someone I’m just getting to know,” she says. “Just maybe some cleavage or whatever. If he gets aggressive or entitled and pressures me for more, then I find they’re pretty selfish lovers in general. But if it’s more playful and grateful — and I get a little something in return that feels proportional — then it starts to become this dance, where it’s exchanging gestures and energy, and it feels exciting, like you’re becoming part of each other’s imagination.”
In fact, that’s her advice to Gaby — besides making sure “none of the images have her face in it, you just never know with phones and the cloud anymore.” Think of sexting as a dance, a back-and-forth of desire and innuendo, according to Nelly. If she doesn’t like the pictures Todd sends her, maybe try talking dirty over text, or encourage him to send pictures that would turn her on instead.
With sexual matters, the key is openness, communication, non-judgment and being proactive about your wants and desires. “And if you don’t know what turns you on or what you want, explore it,” Nelly says.
“We’re sexual beings, and that goes beyond the bedroom,” she believes. “Bringing sex appropriately and intelligently, with discretion, into other pockets of your daily life makes living a lot juicier and ripe. That’s what sexting is great for. Who doesn’t want a juicier life?”
Henry goes further than Nelly’s mindful yet libertine approach. The Wisconsin-based factory worker in his early 30s is one of the few gay men at Gaby’s birthday brunch, and he sees no big deal when it comes to sexting.
“Everyone does it in the gay community,” he says. “And I mean everyone.”
In his experience, sexting happens “almost right away when you meet someone,” and not doing it is actually the aberrant behavior.
Henry isn’t exaggerating. Gay men and sexting are an understudied subject, but research shows what he says is true. Nearly nine-of-ten young gay men sext, according to the University of Michigan.
Henry whips out his phone for a little show-and-tell and scrolls through pic after pic of naked men. Some shots are cropped and close-up and some are blurry and wide, but all the selfies are sexual in intent.
The girls at the table all squeal and giggle at Henry’s makeshift gallery. “And these are all just, you know, dates, or short-term relationships that never went anywhere,” he explains.
Some of the images are from men he met online through Grindr, an online dating app. “For a lot of guys,” he says, “a dick pic is just another way to flirt, like a wink or an opening line. It’s like, boom, let’s just put it out there.”
Henry thinks sexts are, well, sexy, as well as good fun. He doesn’t worry about privacy or hacking. “In some ways, everyone doing it feels like a safeguard,” he adds. “Everyone has a picture of someone, somewhere probably, and if some hacker in Russia or whatever really wants to look at my pictures, well, help yourself.”
The pressure to sext within his community can impact his romantic life and self-esteem, though. Henry is a bit shy about sexting. He’s a tall, broad-shouldered guy, but he doesn’t have that typical hot physique. “I’m not a big, muscle-y guy or like a skinny, lanky fashion model type,” he says. “If you’re dating casually, you do get judged harshly on your body sometimes, so the pressure to sext sometimes makes me anxious. If I’m having a day when I feel not so great, I just don’t want to do it.”
He doesn’t mind sending a flirty text, but he’s definitely lost the interest of potential dates who want him to sext a naked picture back right away. “Typical,” he sighs.
Lately, he feels like he has to get his sexting game back on. “Sometimes I practice,” he laughs. “Like, I’ll make sure the lighting in my apartment in perfect and I’m holding the phone at just the right angle. And of course I’ll use a filter.”
Since the right photo takes some work, Henry has created his own naughty gallery of images, ready to send at a moment’s notice. “I was flirting with a date over text at work, and he asked for a picture, so I sent him one of my readymades,” he says. “He was like, ‘Wait, aren’t you at work?’ He seemed a little miffed that it wasn’t just for him, that it was some kind of stock photo.”
His advice to Gaby? “Just go for it. You have a great figure, so work it while you can.”
Nelly and Henry see sexting as part of their sexual norm, but the practice backfired on Emma, a massage therapist in Chicago in her mid-20s. “I have more of a cautionary tale,” says the tall, elegant redhead, one that illustrates the darker side of the intersection of sexuality and technology.
Emma comes from a dance background, “where it’s normal to be very free and open with your body,” she says. “I grew up backstage, where you just whip off your clothes and change fast into your next costume. It’s a point of honor to be very open and matter-of-fact in that world about your body.”
Coupled with her natural athleticism and strength, Emma’s physical form was a source of pride, strength and sense of self. She even made extra money modeling for figure-drawing classes at art schools during college and her early adulthood, when she was just getting her dance career off the ground.
A few years ago, her then-boyfriend, during a solo bike trip across the U.S., asked her to sext him a picture of her naked. He missed her, and it would be weeks until they were together again. They did phone sex while they were apart, but a sext would ease the drought.
Emma was happy to do it. “We had been together for a few years. We were both pretty young, but I trusted him. I had no reason not to,” Emma says.
Naturally creative, Emma aimed for an artsy, moody shot: sensual but not pornographic. “Vulgar isn’t my style,” she says. But the shot did “reveal a lot of me, literally.”
She took the photo, sent it off and soaked in her boyfriend’s compliments. “He drooled, frankly,” she laughs. “I remember things over the phone being pretty steamy after that.”
Emma’s boyfriend came home, and they reunited. All seemed well between the two. But then one night, they were out at a local bar with his friends when one of them drunkenly confessed to having seen Emma’s sexy photo. “Nice ass, Emma,” the friend drawled as he stumbled down the street home.
Emma felt violated at the idea of people other than her boyfriend seeing her sexy snapshot, and confronted her boyfriend. He confessed a friend had seen the shot by accident, and once one of them had a glimpse, the rest demanded a peep. He gave in rather than take the merciless ribbing.
But he also said he felt “proud” he had such a sexy picture of his beautiful girlfriend, and justified the sharing by saying the shot was on the artistic side — and wasn’t Emma used to random people looking at her body as a dancer and art-class model?
“That’s what got me really angry,” Emma says. “For me, there’s a big difference between posing for an art class and taking and then sharing a shot that, frankly, was meant to get my boyfriend — and him alone — off. I sent it to him with an expectation of privacy, and as part of the private ongoing dialogue of sex and love in our relationship. When it goes beyond that, it feels awful.”
The rift over the sext picture was the “beginning of the end” of Emma’s relationship with her boyfriend. “We had other issues, of course,” she says. “But what really hurt — and was hard to get over — was the fact that he gave into the feeling of being ‘one of the boys’ over protecting me. So if I had any advice at all, well, I’d say be sure you absolutely trust someone — and don’t let them keep the photo on their phone. It’s just much too easy to stumble upon there.”
Gaby takes in all the stories and advice — both at her birthday brunch and later, as she talks with other friends and gathers their own experiences. She thought about using Snapchat, but then heard there’s a way to save images from it and changed her mind.
In the end, she holds off on sending Todd any nude pics of herself. Part of it is not trusting the technology to keep her images private. The last thing she needs is the possibility of her naked form ending up anywhere else but her boyfriend’s phone or e-mail account.
“I can’t deny stuff like the whole Jennifer Lawrence hacking scandal didn’t influence my decision,” Gaby says. “But it was also the dialogue around the hacks, too. There’s still a huge contingent that blames the victim if something happens, like, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be sexting in the first place’. That doesn’t feel fair to me, especially since so many people sext. Shouldn’t it be on these companies to make all of our information — not just our naked pictures — safer?”
It’s not the right time in her relationship, either. “Maybe if we’re together longer and I see us really sticking it out for the long haul, then I’ll do it. It might be the right spice for the right time,” she jokes. “But for right now, it isn’t.”
Still, deciding not to sext — at least in the way Todd would like her to — hasn’t precluded Gaby from discovering her inner tech-enabled femme fatale. She’s a master of what she calls “naughty emoji,” or sending quick, suggestive texts. “I use the kissing and the eggplant emojis a lot,” she jokes.
And she’s not above doing a quick striptease over FaceTime. “Sometimes when Todd’s away I’ll do one,” she says. “I like that it’s not permanent, but it’s a way to keep our intimacy going, even far away. There are a lot of ways to be sexy online.”
For Gaby, it’s exciting new terrain to explore. And that’s what the intersection of sex and technology enables at its best: a sense of adventure and excitement, provided it’s done with trust and enough self-knowledge to know your own boundaries and desires. ♦