What is worrying about sexting is not that people pass nude photos around their friends or post them online. It’s far worse that they were supposed to keep them secret: that these photos were supposed to have the status of a private, intimate exchange.
To send a sext is, basically, to objectify yourself, to make yourself into a porn object. Porn deals with a stereotyped, abstract sexuality; it is a question of organs, arousal, acts. Sexting has the same objectified language: it has the same focus on isolated organs, showing the penis or breasts without the face. Or it has the same stereotyped poses, pouting and sticking your bottom out; or the pre-fab lists of ‘sexy’ things to say.
So, on recieving a porn photo, it is not surprising that someone might pass it around their friends – have a laugh, post it online. It looks like a photo for general consumption; there is nothing intimate about it. To pass it around is the natural thing to do. It’s especially not suprising that young people do this, since at this age sexuality is largely a question of exploit and bragging to their peers, rather than of a close or trusting relation.
What is less natural is that sexting should be considered part of an intimate relation; that people should relate to one another through penis and breast shots.
Here, the sexual relation loses its quality of closeness, a private language and mutual sensuality. With sexting, the one-to-one relation is mediated through the exchange of photos and texts, through the production and consumption of images. The private sexted photo makes a gift out of your objectification (I did this for you) and also shows off (look at how big it is/how desirable I am). The other person then consumes this image.
The exchange of sexting occurs at a different pace and on a different plane to a real relation. In some cases, naked selfies are a prelude to a relationship: whereas once boys would want to touch a girl’s breasts (and brag about it to their friends) now they ask for a photo (and send it around). The photo is a prelude to, and temporary substitute for, someone else’s body. People relate through images before they relate through touching – some online daters make cyber sex a prelude to real sex.
As well as being more objectified, sexting is also a more privatised relation – it is the realm of private fantasy, the private relation between a person and the sex image. This means that sexting proceeds at the pace of fantasy rather than a real relationship. Women report that they meet someone nice and go to dinner – then, ‘bam’, receive a penis shot. It goes from talking, to penis shot, with nothing in between: ‘how am I supposed to respond?’ This isn’t the slow build-up of intimacies, but nor is it like jumping straight into bed with someone. Instead, the leap straight to the penis shot is a leap to the one-way offering – the objectified private fantasy.
One woman says that her ex-boyfriend broke up with her but keeps on sending filthy texts; he finished the relationship, and has no interest in seeing her, but continues sexting. Here, the person reading the texts is playing the role of mediator for someone’s private fantasy, a conversation he could be having in his head but is instead acting out through his phone.
So while most of the discussion is about young people sharing naked selfies online, this is actually the least significant aspect of sexting. What is more significant is its spread into intimate adult relations, such that intimacy starts to be mediated through the exchange of porn.