The dirty truth about sexting—and the strange reality of our times.
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
One of the enduring truths of sex is that there are more people in the world who want to have it than there are people having it. It follows that with sexts there are always more people getting them than sending them. A recent study at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston surveyed more than 1000 black and Latino high school students' sexting habits and found that while there is a rough equivalence in the frequency of sending texts for male and female students with 21% of students having sent a sext while 31% had received one. The ones responsible for the discrepancy were the boys, who were almost twice as likely as girls to have forwarded sexts.
The tendency to document and share proof that someone would maybe want to fornicate with you rather than just actually doing it is a strange hitch of the times. It is never enough to have an experience for its own sake, we must always keep some space in the back of our mind for what an experience might mean to someone else, even when the "it" being done is something whose only real meaning comes from its participants. Whatever sexual energy passes between two people willing to send one another naked pictures over a cellular network, their friends are not likely to add anything but prejudice and agitation to the process.
It is never enough to have an experience for its own sake, we must always keep some space in the back of our mind for what an experience might mean to someone else.
Sex creates a vortex of cultural hypocrisy in America, where it's legal for 16 year-olds to sleep together but illegal for them to buy images of other people doing the same exact thing. Sex is something you're lucky to get, but it's filthy and dangerous to do. For teenagers there must be a mess of contradictory impulses at work in the sext, part real expression of attraction, part roleplaying the model, part excitement at experiencing something new, part fear at seeing something illicit, part mistrust of a person's intentions, part ego-boost at knowing you're good enough to have at least one person want you.
What's unavoidably true of sexts is that sharing them is a betrayal of another person, a product of a fear reaction that sends someone in search of comforting explanations from friends. The corollary of fear is power, and so the impulse to denigrate the trusting gesture of someone else is undertaken as evidence of the person's skill in the dark arts of sex-getting, a quality that would not be especially remarkable were sex not the subject to the paranoid preciousness of the adults who form the social norms teens are given to live with.
The fervor over sexting is not something that necessarily diminishes with age. Wherever there is authority enforcing an overarching behavioral standards, erratic sexual obsession is always sure to follow. Last month an internal report from the FBI, obtained by CNN, revealed a rash of sexting among agents using government-provided phones.
"When you are given an FBI BlackBerry, it's for official use," FBI assistant director Candice Will told the website. "It's not to text the woman in another office who you found attractive or to send a picture of yourself in a state of undress. That is not why we provide you an FBI BlackBerry."
What makes sex volatile is that most people seem to want it, but we are less sure about who we want it from, an uncertainty that becomes paralyzing when combined with public standards of decency and technological implements for capturing and sharing personal data. It's that the rise of Internet-connected mobile sharing devices in everyone's pants is not responsible for an epidemic breakout of sexual prurience. Rather the increasing visibility into other's lives that they make possible suggests there is something unnatural about the old standards of public decency and decorum that we have built up around sex. One never talks about a public standard of sympathy when sex is brought up, only decency. So long as there remains a distinction between the two, all of our sexts will remain imbalanced and vulnerable, intimacies that leave our hands with the most hopeful thoughts and come back to us with howls of shame and indignation. Have a nice day at school.