I've always been on the fence about sexting. Part of me engages in it with gusto; the other part of me still feels weird about receiving unsolicited dick pics and being asked by men I've never met to "come over and duck." It can be awkward, cryptic (eggplant emojis are not a symbol for going to the farmer's market), and fodder for blackmail and public shaming. But sexting can also create a real erotic dialogue between two people (or more, if that's your thing), letting them communicate sexual desires that would be too unbearably awkward to express face-to-face.
Regardless of how I feel about it, though, sexting is now a critical part of modern dating. A recent study conducted by professors at Drexel University estimates that eight out of ten Americans between the ages of 18 and 82 sext. In other words, everybody. Which leads me to wonder whether all that sexting has changed the way we talk about and engage in sex IRL?
According to sex researcher Zhana Vrangalova, sexting has the same effect as watching porn or reading erotica: It gets the imaginary sex wheel in our brain turning. Except unlike porn or erotica, sexting is personalized. "It shows that the person is interested in or turned on by you, and knowing that you're wanted is one of the greatest turn-ons ever," Vrangalova told me.
I can't argue with that. The best sexts I've ever received were from a guy I dated briefly, about a year ago, who would send me lengthy descriptions of exactly how he wanted me to sit on his face or how he wanted to lick my asshole. When we broke up, those surprise sexts were the main thing I missed. It was nice to know that someone was thinking about my asshole while I was waiting in line at the grocery store.
Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who specializes in the language of the internet, told me it's not that sexting has made people hornier. "Read the poems of Catallus, or the letters James Joyce sent to his wife Norah—those are incredibly dirty," she said. But with the advent of cell phones, those dirty conversations can happen any time. You can send a text about rock hard dicks while sitting in the coffee shop.
"People want to think of technology as causing a moral panic, but in many cases it's just democratizing what people have been doing for centuries," McCulloch said.
I don't think I've ever said the word "cock" out loud. It's like the Voldemort of genitalia.
But now, since we're cramming all of this dirty talk into our cell phones, we say things to our sexual partners we probably would never be able to say to them in person. I don't think I've ever said the word "cock" out loud in a sexual situation. "Penis," sure, and obviously "dick"—but never "cock." It's like the Voldemort of genitalia. Have you ever tried to say the things you sext to someone? It's not natural.
To prove this, filmmaker Eileen Yaghoobian started a project to act out real sexting conversations and turn them into short videos. The resulting Send Me Your Sexts videos are bizarre: None of the conversations make any sense; there's no real flow to the dialogue; there are awkward, extended pauses, and an uncomfortable vagueness about where exactly this dialogue should be taking place. Regardless of the context of the video, it's clear that these conversations were meant to exist in the digital world.
Yaghoobian's project resonates with me. When I read back something I've sent as a sext, I often find myself wondering, Who's typing this shit? Is this really me? It feels almost like the girl sending dirty texts is my alter ego, not the Alison that exists in real life.
McCulloch says it's not quite that extreme. "What's really happening is that sexting makes things more participatory, which also means we're doing it faster," she told me. "When we're rushed, we don't seem as eloquent."
That doesn't make what you're typing disingenuous. "You may indeed never say or do those things in person, those are your desires and interests," said Vrangalova. "So, in some ways, it's a more accurate representation of you."
What's more, according to the Drexel study, this kind of textual expression actually makes people feel more satisfied in their relationships, especially if those relationships are casual. It can also help people grapple with uncomfortable emotions. Remember that couple who texted exclusively in emojis for an entire month? At the end of their experiment, they found it was easier to express their feelings. Texting just simplifies things.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, sexting represents the real us, the better version of us. It's a space where we feel safer in sharing our fantasies, even the ones that will never actually come to life—and especially the ones that will.
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