sex lives

Sexting’s Strange Paradox: It’s Just No Fun

Photo: Kava Gorna

I was sitting at the kitchen counter, wearing sweatpants and eating baby carrots, but according to the text messages I was sending, I was “in bed touching myself,” “black lace panties,” “so turned on.” His: He was “so hard,” “I’m coming,” “Can I do it on your face?”

“Love that,” I replied, even though I do not. He orgasmed and described it to me. I told him I was nearing orgasm, too, then checked my email. After a couple minutes sorting spam: “I came.” I had not.

Sexting must have arrived simultaneously with texting—it’s a safe bet that any new media not invented by lust makes room for it immediately. But we first heard about sexts, close to a decade ago, only in the context of misbehaving teens. Who else could be desperately horny enough to channel sexual energy into a medium so glib, a sexual behavior so pathetically chaste as to fall in the hierarchy of sex acts somewhere below dry humping? Most of us, it turns out: In a study from McAfee, more than half of those surveyed—and 70 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds—have received sexually explicit texts, videos, or pictures. But even as sexting colonizes our phones, the activity hasn’t exactly taken over our libidos: A study of American college students recently found that 55 percent of women and 48 percent of men have engaged in “consensual but unwanted sexting,” i.e., sexting when they’re not that into it. That sounds pretty bleak: Why contort yourself posing butt selfies in the bathroom if it doesn’t turn you on?

“I hate sexting,” a male friend confided recently. “If a girl bugs me enough, I’ll do it, but I try to get it over with really fast.” He compared enumerating explicit desires to having sex with the lights on. “But I actually like having the lights on, because I love watching myself have sex. But sext­ing is different, more like hearing your voice in a recording, sort of uncanny, seeing yourself from the outside.” That is, sext­ing is too performative to bear, said the man who relishes watching his naked body writhing in the mirror.

Of course, sex has always been something of a performance. But as amateur porn floods into our lives—and our lives flood into amateur porn—the difference between earnest pleasure and enthusiastic fakery is increasingly difficult to discern. It’s tempting to think that in performing the “consensual but unwanted” things we believe to be sexy, we are preventing ourselves from engaging in the truly sexy—behaving like thwarted teenagers instead of adults who actually have sex. But sexual diversions don’t need to be measured by how closely they approximate coitus; innuendo can be enjoyable on its own, the same way hot photos are fun to look at even when masturbation is, like, the furthest thing from our minds. If I hadn’t been sexting that night at my kitchen counter, I might have been watching TV or killing time on the internet. That sexting session wasn’t an inferior version of sex; it was
a superior version of Candy Crush.

Sexting is low-commitment, mobile, and so easy to fake that it could be considered an out-of-body erotic experience. This makes it the most flexible of sex acts, and the built-in dissociation might actually be the whole point: You are essentially engaged in a shared daydream. Wildly imaginative leaps are possible, and some depressing shortcomings, too. “Take a picture,” my baby-carrot sexting partner demanded, and since I had been sitting in my kitchen in a totally different outfit than I’d described, I had to run to the bedroom, rifle through my dresser, and change clothes.

“Making a girl wet from afar fills me with a sense of godlike power,” a male friend boasted. “Especially if she’s somewhere where she can’t have sex, if she’s at work or with her grandma. And I’m ­creating this hypersexual mind-set.”

The disassociation may be even more extreme when the sexting is totally out of the blue—or into it. According to that McAfee study, one in ten sexters have sent “intimate content” to “complete strangers.” This number strikes me as high, but then I had no trouble finding friends who copped to talking dirty with people they met online. (One woman cited Anthony Weiner as inspiration.) Some were vetting potential dates when the talk turned dirty; others simply felt like sexting.

But the line between flirtation and deception is not always clear. Take the example of my friends Peter and Ivan, a couple who sext in tandem. “Usually it’s when I’m drunk. I’ll take Ivan’s phone and go on Grindr, and then we’ll find people to sext together,” Peter explained over brunch. (Names in this article have been changed, though I stand by my theory that the infamy would have only improved Peter’s and Ivan’s Grindr life.) With his arm around his boyfriend, Ivan added, “Sometimes there’s a vague idea that we should find someone for a three-way, but we never actually do that. Mostly we’re just messing around, looking at dicks, and talking about sex. Peter doesn’t have Grindr anymore, so he pretends to be me, and I guess I’m helping him pretend to be me?” Peter compared it to a party he attended where a girl connected her phone to a TV set, to turn Tinder into a group activity. Even Peter thought this was unwise; how could you really get into it, if everyone was watching?

“Do the guys you sext know you aren’t actually going to sleep with them?” I asked Peter and Ivan. Even sexting-as-entertainment often takes the oddly technical form of sexual planning—descriptions of what you want to do to each other, and perhaps will someday. But the fantasy self of sexting can be markedly different from the self who actually has sex. Such was the case for my friend Helen’s long-distance boyfriend, Theo. Their friendship had turned romantic just as Theo was moving across the country, so their sexual interactions were, initially, conducted via sext. (Time-zone and roommate issues made phone and FaceTime sex difficult.) “He seemed fairly adventurous,” Helen told me while Gchatting from her office, “so I brought up how I like to be spanked and sent him a picture of this paddle I bought.”

“WAIT YOU LIKE TO BE PADDLED? I did not know that.”

“Yeah. It’s a whole thing. Anyway, after I sent Theo the paddle it was ALL he wanted to talk about. You know, the usual ‘I want to smack your ass so hard while I do you from behind,’ etc. So then the next time he visited we had all this crazy buildup. So I pulled out the paddle but he CHICKENED OUT. He like swatted me very gently, and I said ‘harder,’ and he sort of tried but I think he got intimidated so he threw it on the ground, then flipped me over so my butt was on the mattress and he didn’t have to think about it again.”

Helen was describing a sexting plausibility gap that made me feel guilty. I have been sexting my baby-carrot partner for the past five years—longer than any of my boyfriends have lasted. We hooked up a couple times in our early 20s, but then I met someone else and he moved to California. Ever since then, we have texted and Gchatted sporadically, with levels of flirtatiousness varying according to our respective relationship statuses, horn­iness, loneliness, or boredom. He has been back to New York several times, but we never manage to see each other. I always assumed this was by design, that on some level he didn’t want to test the sex acts we’d been describing in detail over the years. (It has been long enough that I even know how his sexual interests have shifted with age.) We haven’t seen each other in person in close to three years. I’m not sure I would recognize his voice if I heard it.

“How important is the belief that we will one day hook up again?” I asked by text. “Like if I told you I would never fuck you, would it ruin it?”

“Hmm that’s interesting. It would take some fun out of it, yes, because you want to believe the stuff you’re typing will happen. But it’s still fun in and of itself, so probably not a deal-breaker.”

A wave of relief. Then: “Do you ­REALLY masturbate when we’re sexting?” I asked. The logistics had never made sense to me. Could he type one-handed? How does anyone get off while sexting? “I mean it’s not simultaneous,” he said, laughing. “Alternate activities! Text for a bit, then jerk off, then back to text.” This strategy had never occurred to me. “Usually when I say I’m doing it, I’m lying,” I said. He didn’t seem to mind. Then I thanked him for talking it through and told him I wanted his hard cock in the back of my throat.

*This article appeared in the February 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Sexting’s Strange Paradox: It’s Just No Fun