‘My, my, my,’ chuckles the large salesman as he rings through my selections at the Museum of Sex on New York’s Fifth Avenue. He resembles Rerun from the 1970s sitcom What’s Happening?, though without the red tam and suspenders. Pausing to look me in the eye, the clerk smiles with what I imagine is respect tinged with surprise. I grin back shamelessly, but find his demeanour unprofessional, especially given the pro-sex-there-are-more-than-two-genders exhibitions featured upstairs. The best installation was about the history of filmed pornography from the turn of the century on. The awkward roadside scenes from the gritty 1930s were my favourite; everything went downhill after that. While I am willing to paste below some potentially disturbing photos taken inside the museum, I am not going to reveal what I purchased from its rather fabulous shop. For the first time, I am withholding sordid details about my lust-filled body. Perhaps you are relieved? Perhaps not.
If you really want to know what is now unwrapped and safely hidden amidst the gym socks in my luggage—I am currently still sitting in LaGuardia as my flight home has been delayed—you will have to text me. And by text I mean sext. As far as I can tell, sexting is the final no holds barred frontier, where the average person will suddenly use their thumbs to type something nasty about their vag or willy, and then (without even proofreading) send it to a person they may or may not actually know. An explicit picture is often involved. Just as quickly, the digital flasher will forget all about said message, shaking it from their etch-a-sketch memories. No doubt you have done this yourselves, you dirty birds. I have recently been privy to a few stories, one told by a certain non-gym lady friend of mine who, while in a drunken state, sexted her undying love (among other things) to an ex-boyfriend, regretting it the next day. No matter; both continued with their movie-watching-but-no-touching friendship without ever acknowledging this exchange. The next example involves a female friend I have not mentioned for quite some time, so don’t hazard to guess her identity. After a bout of flirtation at a club, she started receiving sexts from a certain stocky young man, which bragged about his large appendage and impressive foreplay techniques. At this point, my single friend responded; ‘Sounds good. Come over right now.’ After arriving at her home, he entered her bedroom, and proceeded to do … nothing. Apparently he could not live up to his own typed hype. This standard male bravado does not interest me, at least not today. What I want to know is: why do people express themselves freely in text messages, revealing personal and/or sexual details that they would never divulge in person, via telephone, or in an e-mail? What is so special about this medium? I decided to blog about this topic while hubbing at O’Hare airport, en route to New York about five days ago. I noticed that everyone around me was engaged with communication technologies of one kind or another, ranging from the large departure screens, to digital televisions, kindles, laptops, and cell phones. I was no different, and had in fact just sent a text to my partner that simply declared: ‘In Chicago.’ He was made aware of my travel progress in an immediate and banal fashion. It was not always this way. Before leaving for my trip, I was rearranging the man-closet—hoping to find room to store the 30 double rolls of toilet paper that were irresistibly on sale at the Superstore—and came across a tattered brown envelope, bulging with cards and letters sent by me to my partner between 1990 and 1991, before the heady days of e-mail and skype. During my first year of graduate school, I had been living rather miserably without friends or money in Rochester, New York, while he toured around Europe, sporting a scruffy beardy-thing and toting a backpack filled with soiled vapour undies. I was touched that he had saved all of my no doubt sappy correspondence, wondering whether it was nostalgia or simply pack-ratness that had preserved this archive of our early relationship. I was not, however, moved enough to read any of it, since I live in the thrilling present and glorious future, not the past. I nevertheless wondered how developing technologies had changed our interactions, paying particular attention to the ‘art’ of texting.
If I were to invoke Freud—so obvious at this juncture—I would associate texting with the id, a zone of unfettered and uncensored desire. Of course, that would be incorrect, since we have no direct access to the swampy region that is our unconscious. All the same, with texting there is no need for nicety or manners, no superego telling us to behave; one can be very blunt, without imposing artificial sentiments on the transmission. This convention makes text at once banal and boring, but also a zone for confession, and sexual innuendo minus the innuendo. Perhaps this practice developed because texts are usually not recorded or stored, unlike e-mail messages. But that is without real explanatory value, and legal cases have focused on the broad dissemination and hoarding of naughty photos, mostly of teen girls. Does it instead have something to do with the speed and immediacy of delivery, which lacks external censorship, unlike, for instance, Twitter? In my usual fashion, I did a little research, finding few interesting studies about sexting, and many discussions verging on hysteria about how one in five teens has sexted, and we are all going to hell in a hand basket as society becomes increasingly sexualized. All I can say is, relax old geezers because that egghead Foucault has already shown that, on the contrary, sexuality has never been more discussed and regimented, and sexting is just another example of this growing regulation. A reasonable analysis of sexting was produced by Richard Chalfen from Boston’s Center for Media and Child Health (Visual Studies, 2009), arguing that the exchange of explicit photos or written sexual descriptions among young people is neither new nor radical, though the potential for the worldwide distribution of such images is novel. He considers the legal efforts to control sexting, noting that nude or semi-nude photographs of people under the age of 18 are technically classified as child pornography, potentially even if sent by the subjects themselves to people their own age. In other words, teens might illegally have images of their girl/boyfriend saved on their cell phones, and be officially charged as purveyors of child pornography by sending them on to someone else. Such charges have indeed been laid. Like other scholars, Chalfen focuses on youth, suggesting that girls consistently send more sexts than do boys because they long for feedback about their appearance. Yet the fact that women are still primarily judged and visually assessed as sexual objects could be another reason that girls seem willingly to pose and reveal their nude bodies in a set of standard porn-inspired postures. They are trying on the masquerade, learning the rules of sexual activity, and literally becoming women in a modernized digital ritual. When older women similarly comply, they perform the kind of assertive female sexuality that is widely celebrated today. According to Angela McRobbie in The Aftermath of Feminism (2009), such ‘phallic girls’ uncritically identify with masculine subjectivity and sexuality, countering their ‘ladism’ with an ostentatiously feminine appearance and, of course, a white, single, non-reproductive body. Reading this book made FFG go ‘Hmmm.’
I have sent a few sexts, but am not very good at it. One time I delivered ‘Pants off man bitch!’ to MW when it was meant for my partner. Oops. Just last week I informed PDDs: ‘I just had sex with the leg curl machine, and we are in love!’ I rewrote a line from Anchorman after admitting that I had almost orgasmed while doing single leg ham curls during our leg workout. Bewildered and blaming my tight lululemon pants, I had envisioned a giant pail of earthworms in order to avoid public humiliation. And earlier today, I successfully sent this message to my partner, breaking the boredom of a mechanical delay: ‘Can’t wait to get you in the Siamese slanket I just ordered from Sky Mall.’
Not very sexy are they?
Luckily sexting 101 lessons are available online, explaining that aspiring sexters should send explicit notes about the ‘outlandish’ things they would like to do to the other person, avoiding all references to emotion. According to this helpful site: ‘Keep your sexts fresh by using modifiers. The best modifications are sensations: warm, salty, and firm.’ One should start simply, but eventually experiment by adding modifiers and similes which, ‘like statements, are another way to spice up your spicy texts.’ In order to develop a sexting skill set, useful templates are also provided:
#1 I want to put your__(Body Part)__in my__(Body Part)__.
Okay, here goes: I want to stuff your badly wrapped kebab in my hot pocket. You likey?
#2 I need to__(Verb)__ your__(Body Part)__with you in __(Large Object)__in the __(Location)__.
I do not yet have the mad sexting skills necessary to tackle this one. Help please.
#3 I want to_(Verb)_ your_(Noun)__with my__(Noun)__until you __(Verb)__on my floor.
I think I am getting the hang of this: I want to double entendre your Charles Nelson Riley with my Brett Somers wig until you flaunt homosexual content on my floor. Score!
That one is not bad, especially if you are familiar with Match Game, a long running show especially replete with risque gay and lesbian panelists during the 1970s. More interesting is that these sexting lessons portray spicy sex as a series of mechanical actions that occur between body parts, not people. That might be why the young and almost-middle-aged embrace this practice with little fear of consequences: in the end, the images and kebab messages sent are not really about them per se; they are about conventional, regulated, and socially sanctioned acts between wilful machine parts. I hear that. Just one more thing: