In the age of social media and smart phones, X-rated texting is now commonplace

Paloma Gil sexts with strangers. The thrill of the unknown and the fantasy fueling the exchanges, makes the heated text conversations all the more sexy. At the same time, the Paris-based 20-something musician only occasionally sexts with her Toronto-based partner, but they’d brought each other to climax with words before ever meeting face-to-face. “Once we cum we can turn off our phones and go back to our normal lives,” Gil says. “It takes half an hour and then I’m done. It’s so convenient. I like it better than porn.”

“Sexting,” a portmanteau of “sex” and “texting,” or the digital transmission of sexually explicit messages and images, first entered the lexicon a decade ago. It all truly began in January 2009, when six Pennsylvania high school students faced child pornography charges after sending their classmates nude photos. By March, NPR dubbed the practice "a disturbing new teen trend." In their year-end cultural retrospective in December, Time called "sexting" its number one buzzword of the year. By year’s end, Pew Research found that 15 percent of cell-owning teens received a sext in 2009. 

Sexting has since come to define a major component of online communication. And, despite public perception, the exchange represents far more than just a "new teen trend" when considering the peak days of Snapchat and the multiple political scandals borne from sexts. Even despite its roots as a teen phenomena, nearly 88 percent of adults polled in a 2015 study reported sending a sext during their lifetime, suggesting those teens, once synonymous with early aughts sexting scandals, grew up to become adults who leveraged what they learned during their technological upbringings in their current relationships. 

“This is really indicative of how technology is embedded in our communications and relationships,” says Dr. Rob Weisskirch, professor of human development at California State University, Monterey Bay. “There’s no going back. It’s all part of the road of getting into a relationship these days.”

There’s no going back. It’s all part of the road of getting into a relationship these days.
Sending sexually suggestive messages is hardly a millennial habit. The novelist James Joyce sent his partner Nora Barnacle dirty love letters during the early 20th century. United States president Warren G. Harding wrote his mistress over 100 sexy notes for a decade prior to his presidency from 1921 to 1923. Still, once correspondence became considerably truncated with the advent of the computer, email and chat rooms, dirty talk took a more instantaneous form. Add in webcams, and you could send nudes from the privacy of your own home. That said, when the iPhone debuted in 2007 and texts were organized in threads rather than in incoming and outgoing mailboxes, sexting became seamless, a portable, flowing conversation of explicit sentences and images.

The rise of sexting was borne from a comfort with new tech. The more ingrained computers and smartphones became in daily life, the more people were willing to experiment with it, explains psychotherapist and relationship expert Dr. Karen Ruskin. In the early days of texting, exchanging messages between partners was “a means of communication as a business relationship,” Ruskin says. “The phone itself has transitioned to become a device of not just business, but pleasure.” Over the last decade, texts between partners are just as likely to include “Can you pick up dinner?” as they are to incorporate more adult material.

As messaging became easier, more mediums for sexting arose. Snapchat’s design as a self-deleting photo-sharing app made it synonymous with sexting, while dating apps like Tinder and Grindr closed the gap between meeting and getting naked, oftentimes with the latter outpacing the former. “What sexting has allowed in the app-based arena is 'I can be sexual without having good social skills,'” says sexologist Dr. Robert Weiss.

Alas, one of the poster children for sexting, embattled former congressman Anthony Weiner, made a notorious faux pas when he publicly tweeted an image of his underwear-clad erection to a college-aged woman in 2011. Weiner went on to admit to sending the tweet and to engaging in dirty texting with several other women he met online. In 2016, Weiner was the subject of a federal investigation regarding sexts he’d sent a 15-year-old girl, a charge to which he pled guilty and served time.

The phone itself has transitioned to become a device of not just business, but pleasure.
Weiner is but one of many high-profile sexting scandals conflating what some consider a tantalizing form of foreplay into a salacious activity. (Sending and possessing lewd photos of minors is a crime. Consensual sexting between adults is not.) However, for average adults who sext with consenting partners, the communication has changed the way we interact with our partners. “Sexting gets a really bad rap,” Ruskin says. “The fact is, it’s very fun for some people in their regular, everyday interactions: Husband and wives, in the dating realm, younger and older. We’re talking millennials, we’re talking 40-somethings and 50-somethings.”

Lydia, a photographer from New York, and her husband both work from home. When the sexytime urge strikes, she could just walk into the next room, she says, however, she sometimes opts to send a sext instead. “The element of play and building tension that comes from reading sexy notes while I'm at work is really enjoyable.”

Both Lydia and her husband are polyamorous and illicit messaging helps keeps the sexual momentum going with other partners. On her phone is a password-protected app full of nudes, a bank of especially hot “old classics” that she’ll occasionally send to partners.

Natalie Wall, comedian and host of the comedy show and podcast “Awkward Sex And The City,” once sexted while bathing her parents cocateu. “I was like, I’m going to completely lie while I’m bathing this pet to make this boy cum now,” Wall says. She’s sent dirty texts while working as a nanny, while on tour, and built her current relationship around months of sexting. Not only does sexting allow partners to share their sexual fantasies and desires in a controlled way, Wall explains, but opens the door for healthy in-real-life exploration.

Despite the normalization of sexting, risks abound. Scorned ex-lovers disperse nudes, adults solicit illicit photos from minors. Federal and state child pornography laws protect minors in sexting situations (states vary greatly in the punishments for these offenses), holding culpable both those who send and receive photos. Borne from the nonconsensual dispersion of nude photos, many states have passed revenge porn laws within the last five years, criminalizing the distribution of sexual images and video.

New York recently became one of the 43 states to pass a nonconsensual porn law, where perpetrators could spend time behind bars. However, legal recourse can seldom reverse the embarrassment or personal strains spurred by a leaked nude. “When we look at scandals that have come from sexting over the past 10 years,” says relationship expert Jen Kirsch, “we can see the negative consequences and now sexting is something that is more a cause of fear than a cause of joy.”

With safety in mind, sex educator Gigi Engle empowered her students to sext freely, but with mindfulness, in her Sexting 101 seminar. Some guidelines are easy, like avoiding sending sexy photos which include your face or distinguishing marks, but others, such as determining if you indeed trust the person you’re sexting, come as more of a challenge. “You need to go into sexting with a sense of awareness that this could go badly,” Engle says, with the caveat that no victim of revenge porn should be blamed for their breach of privacy. Educating teenagers on the ways sex and tech intersect—and the real-life repercussions and emotions associated with both —could prove essential in bringing up a new generation of sexters, Engle explains.

Still, Weisskirch has found public perception around sexting’s risks has diminished over the last decade—namely because people tend to know who they’re messaging. Couples in long-distance partnerships keep the spark alive with dirty texts, longtime pairs send suggestive messages to change things up, and the newly dating exchange sexts, speeding up the getting-to-know-you process.

Sexting’s legacy, then, should not be one mired in scandal and shame, but instead another facet of intimacy, vulnerability. “It’s relationship development continuing,” Ruskin says, “even when you’re not in the flesh.”


Allie Volpe
Allie Volpe
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