Women in bedroom

Sexting Is Now Sex

But it's not the culprit in what researchers are calling a "sex recession"

4 PM production

I have been sexting with a stranger every day for the past month. It began just after I shared an Instagram story saying I was writing a piece for Playboy and was hoping to hear some thoughts on sexting: as a suddenly ubiquitous term, as a new technocultural phenomenon, as an increasingly common form of intimacy. Minutes after I posted this little open call for two cents, I was inundated with messages. Seemingly everyone I knew wanted to weigh in on the topic, from my best friends to acquaintances I hadn’t seen since high school.

After I engaged with the bulk of them, mostly listening to what people had to say, I saw a message request from someone I didn’t know. I clicked it and proceeded to read through a disarmingly thoughtful note about the inherent shortcomings of sexting and the practice’s unavoidable pitfalls. Before responding, I did what in 2019 is really just standard due diligence and found that the note’s author was a beautiful woman who seemed to live in a small house somewhere that was clearly not New York City—where I live. From what I could tell she was an artist. She looked about my age. We had no mutual followers.

It took a few days for us to transition from talking about sexting to actually sexting—which we did for the sake of my research, of course—but since that occurred, we’ve been sexting with the same kind of regularity and urgency as couples that have tangible sex at the beginning of new relationships. We’ve been in nearly constant communication, periodically sneaking away from our respective responsibilities to masturbate with one hand and exchange explicit words, photos, videos and audio messages with the other. Sometimes we guide each other through a mutually imagined fantasy. Sometimes one person directs the other how to pleasure themselves. Sometimes we simply explain what we would do if we happened to be in the same room. I haven’t touched a woman in a month and yet this month has been, without a doubt, one of the hottest of my life.
Horny people have always been experimental. It’s the tools that are new.
It was this realization—that I felt sexually satiated in the middle of a dry spell—that forced me to reexamine my previous understanding of sexting. I had long considered it to be a fun but weak and clunky simulation of a true sexual act. I thought that even the very best possible sexting session would leave its participants at least slightly unsatisfied because our species can always, deep in our bones, tell the difference between real intimacy and its phony shadow. I’m someone who believes “sex” to be a very fluid, flexible, large umbrella of a word that covers acts far removed from any standard dictionary definition. Even so, I simply did not consider sexting, which only entered the lexicon in 2004, to be sex.

This modernist mentality, this clinging to some ideal of authentic sex, might be perilously romantic—is sex ever authentic?—and maybe even problematically hierarchical—should we really be ranking sex at all? That said, it was how I felt. And from what I could glean from the many messages I received on the matter, it was how a lot of other people felt too. The general tone of my peers was that sexting, by its very nature, could be good but never great. Though what was even more clear from my very informal, very unscientific Instagram study, was that these publicly expressed sentiments don’t quite match up with private behaviors—everyone is sexting anyway. This conclusion is, in fact, backed up by more legitimate academic literature. Research from Drexel University presented to the American Psychological Association in 2015 suggests that 80 percent of American adults have sexted within the last year. There are other studies that say the number is far lower than that, but whoever is right, no one is debating the fact that sexting has, somewhat recently, gone from a fringe practice to a common part of modern romance.

That, of course, doesn’t mean sexting is without precedent. I recently emailed with Dr. Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist who focuses on human sexual behavior, and she reminded me that “people who sext with their partner are likely the same partners who would have left a sexy message on the old answering machine or put a steamy letter through the Pony Express. With the faster reinforcement and our more mobile society, we likely benefit from being able to act on these expressed desires with our partner more than was previously possible.” Prause’s point demonstrates that our species’ sexual biology probably hasn’t changed much over the centuries—evolution’s speed is glacial—but that this biology manifests in new behaviors in different generations. Horny people have always been experimental. It’s the tools that are new.
If it turns out we’re psychologically ready for full-fledged virtual sex whenever it arrives, we might recognize sexting as the practice that primed the pump.
Smartphones, then, are the game-changer. They are what have allowed us to overcome some of the biggest obstacles that have prevented sexual communication from going mainstream. Our phones and their ability to create, send and receive various forms of media instantaneously has made sexting an experience that can be seamlessly immersive and utterly convincing. But it’s not just these devices’ Swiss-army-like dynamism and real-time speed that make them such powerful sexual tools. More importantly, phones are now such a built-in part of our everyday lives that they have become de facto extensions of our bodies. We’re as comfortable viewing reality through our screens as a glasses-wearer is viewing it through their lenses. We can fuck on our phones because we’ve forgotten our phones, and it’s this forgetting that has bumped sexual communication out of the symbolic realm and into new ontological territory.

Lord Byron’s erotic poetry of the past and Pornhub’s HD videos of the present are certainly hot, but they are also certainly examples of representation—written and visual language—that fall short of transcending their inherent two-dimensionality. Sexting, on the other hand, is an example of representation that represents so successfully that it becomes real—a bonafide sexual act. Of course, I’m fully aware that when my new pen pal and I are “having sex,” we are, literally speaking, sitting in our respective bedrooms sending a bunch of zeros and ones to some enormous server in rural Iowa. But the point is that technology is now just good enough for both versions of reality to be simultaneously true. We are texting and having sex. Like when the Old Testament’s god supposedly said, “Let there be light” and made light, sexting is speech and action.
When sexting, we control our bodies, control our environment, control what happens. No one has bad breath or kisses weird or cums too quickly.
We’re probably most familiar with this kind of ontological gray area when on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and their ilk have helped our identities and communities begin the great migration out of the material world and into a virtual one. With every piece of content we post, we add nuance to an idea of ourselves, perfecting what are essentially convincing avatars. And we are comfortable identifying with these avatars because we made them in our own image. Whenever full-fledged virtual reality finally arrives, and we must leave behind our corporal selves in order to play, we might recognize social media as our technological training wheels. And if it turns out we’re psychologically ready for full-fledged virtual sex whenever it arrives, we might recognize sexting as the practice that primed the pump.

Americans are having less IRL sex than previous generations. Many have hypothesized about the causes behind this “sex recession,” as it’s sometimes called, and the consensus is that it’s the result of a complex confluence of societal forces. While we cannot and should not blame sexting for this startling macrotrend—there are actually studies that suggest sexting may be good for relationships.

There is no doubt that it’s a technology that offers us something we crave without forcing us to confront the risks we must normally negotiate to get it. Sex is, by its very nature, full of risk. It renders us physically and emotionally vulnerable. Sexting, on the other hand, is definitively safe. It is intimacy controlled. When sexting, we control our bodies, control our environment, control what happens. No one has bad breath or kisses weird or cums too quickly. The question is no longer whether sexting is sex. The question is one of value: as the first widespread incarnation of virtual sex becomes the norm, what, if anything, is lost?

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