You’ve spent the last 20 minutes contorting your body into weird, hopefully flattering positions and praying that the sweat you’ve worked up translates as a seductive glow. You’re thinking about arching your back and angles, making sure nothing distracting is in the background, and what kind of facial expression says this was effortless and now you want to fuck me.
What you’re not thinking about is what the lucky receiver of your nudes is going to do with them weeks, months, years later—once the two of you are no longer a thing, sexually speaking at least.
Many people assume, or at least hope, that once they end a relationship or fling with someone, their nudes perish—meeting their fate as their exes’ fingers smash that delete button. Unfortunately, though, your nudes gifted to lovers past are likely alive and well, forgotten and floating around someone’s iCloud at best, or remembered and retaining the potential to ruin your life publicly at worst.
By now, we’re all familiar with the cyber crime of revenge porn, which one in 25 Americans have been victims of, according to a study published by the Data & Society Research Institute. But what about nudes from former flings and relationships that don’t end up distributed online or elsewhere? Where do they go?
“Realistically, most people are going to have some nudes either of themselves or from their ex-partners stored among the many thousands, even millions, of images we now collect during our lifetimes,” Dr Anastasia Powell, criminologist and author of Sex, Power and Consent: Youth Culture and the Unwritten Rules, tells Broadly.
Lawyer Ann Olivarius, whose firm, McAllister Olivarius, specializes in revenge porn, tells Broadly, “What usually happens is people tell us they keep [nude photos from past relationships] or get disgusted by them, depending on how the relationship is and their own personal taste.”
But is it unethical, flattering, or just plain weird to keep your ex’s nudes? And should you care if your ex still has your nudes? The answers are mixed.
For some, like Cindy Gallop—founder of Make Love Not Porn, a NSFW video site dedicated to correcting porn-based myths about sex—keeping nudes from past lovers is a way to reminisce about good times from her past. “I have a whole bunch of nude photos that I’ve taken or that [people] have sent me. In my case, I consider and I treat those nudes as just a really nice and entirely private personal reflection. It’s nice to have them, and I don’t look at them that much, and I would never do anything with them.”
“I have a whole bunch of nude photos… I treat those nudes as just a really nice and entirely private personal reflection."
It’s understandable why some enjoy keeping nudes as memories, not dissimilar to couple’s photos or treasured vacation pictures. After all, though nudes are raunchy by nature, they can also be really sweet. Though Olivarius litigates revenge porn cases, she very much understands the appeal of sending nudes despite the risks involved. “To say, I love you so much I'm going to give you a naked picture, it's a flattering thing to do,” she says. Of course, sending naked photos or videos isn’t always a product of love, but for many, nudes kept as mementos, if not masturbation inspo, are just that: flattering. Sammi*, a single 23-year-old who lives outside of Denver tells me, “If you really want to keep a nude to jack off to every once in a while, it’s flattering—just keep it to yourself.”
But if the thought of your ex, former fling, or that Grindr match you talked to for a day masturbating to your nudes after the two of you have ended things makes you uncomfortable, that’s understandable. Former lovers are former lovers for a reason. Still, according to Olivarius, you’re going to want to make it very clear, preferably before you hit send on your sexy snaps, that if/when your relationship with the receiver ends, you’d like them to delete any naked photos of you. Revenge porn law, in states where it exists, generally only applies to the distribution of sexual images, not the keeping of sexual images by the person you sent them to.
So what’s one to do about leftover nudes from relationships past?
If you’ve recently ended things with someone whose nudes you still have, and you’re not sure what to do with them, Dr. Powell has some advice. “I think it is good manners when you break up with someone, to ask your ex if they'd prefer you delete any nudes they may have sent you,” says Dr. Powell. “If you're not on speaking terms, then just delete them. Why would you keep a gift from an ex that you were really angry or upset with?”
Olivarius has similar, if more formal, advice for those who are no longer involved with someone, but would like them to delete their nudes. “I'd probably send a note saying, ‘Hey, I gave you these [photos/videos] with the intent to keep them private between us in a period between us where there was a great deal of affection, love, regard, insert the appropriate word, and I ask you now not to distribute them, and destroy them, if you would. Would you please confirm for me what you intend to do?’” According to Olivarius, you may have a case if a former partner refuses to delete your nudes after you’ve asked them to, but proving guilt in court in this situation will be extremely difficult.
Social codes and unwritten rules are present in every aspect of our lives, from which way we face in an elevator to how we treat the nudes in our phone and the people in the nudes. It may seem obvious to you that sexual photos from a previous partner are to be deleted the second you break up, but that doesn’t mean it’s obvious to your ex-partner. Both Dr. Powell and Olivarius agree that our interpretations of unwritten rules about sex are gendered, but no matter the gender of the person receiving your nudes, it’s never a bad idea to talk about what you’re comfortable with when it comes to the photos you’re planning to send them or have already sent them.
Still, the only way to ensure that no exes or former flings have your nudes is not to send any at all, and the only way to protect yourself from revenge porn is not to create the content in the first place. But everyone knows that, and nudes live on. So if you’re going to send photos you wouldn’t want other people to see, remember to keep your face and any identifying tattoos out of them and follow these cyber security tips from Dr. Powell:
Most of these images are being automatically backed up into cloud storage, which we know is not always secure. It makes sense to do a bit of a digital clean-up every now and then. Go through your pics and check that any that you have of yourself, and of your ex's, are stored securely, delete any that you'd feel embarrassed about if they were stolen and circulated online. Use two-factor authentication on your accounts, and use encrypted platforms for sending your nudes to a partner. But at the end of the day, just as with online banking, it is possible that your private property could be hacked and stolen, and it's not the victim's fault if someone else chooses to commit a cyber crime of that sort.
Before you send a nude, understand that you’re sending someone a gift, and people have differing, unwritten rules for gifts they receive, as exhibited by my conversations with Dr. Powell and Olivarius. “Personally, I think it's within ethical guidelines to apply the norms of other intimate gift giving when it comes to nudes,” says Dr. Powell. “Gift giving is generally consensual, mutual, and expresses a level of care or thought towards the other person. There are social expectations that you don't re-gift, and that if a relationship ends you offer the gift back.”
Alternatively, “I think most people would say it's fair keeps,” says Olivarius. “You got a gift in the relationship and you can keep it. If you get an engagement ring you don't generally return it.”
Clearly, our unwritten rules for sexting aren’t black and white, so talk to your lucky nude-receivers about how you’d prefer they treat your sexy gifts, both during and after your relationship ends.