Are You Obligated to Delete an Ex’s Nudes?

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

“Unless you’re Amish, nudes are the currency of love,” says Euphoria’s Rue Bennett in the show’s first episode. It’s a contentious statement, but it’s one that, statistically, carries weight: A recent study revealed that one-third of Americans have sent a nude photo in their lifetime, and of those, 73 percent do so as often as once a month. At some point during the rise of the nude, society developed a morality clause establishing that the recipient of a naked photograph should neither pass it on nor show it to anyone (this, of course, does not deter everyone, as the proliferation of revenge porn has mercilessly proven). What public discourse has unpacked less exhaustively is the question of who has ownership over a nude after the demise of a relationship: the sender or the receiver? Perhaps a nude is given to us on loan, the duration of which correlates directly with the length of the relationship. Or is it like a present — once you give it to someone, you forgo the right to ask for it back? Does it belong to the recipient, a token of erstwhile lust, ensconced in a misleadingly labeled folder for eternity? And do the rules change when we enter a new relationship?

Society’s perception of nudes has been largely shaped by the dangers they pose. Innumerable scandals have demonstrated time and again that they have the power to destroy careers, vandalize reputations, and sever marriages. Yet we continue to send them. In a society fueled by virtual communication, it was inevitable that sexual interaction would find its digital counterpart. Naked images weren’t conceived by millennial internet natives; they’ve been exchanged for centuries, in the form of Botticelli paintings, boudoir albums, and racy photos developed at the one-hour-photo spot. (Lest we forget Seinfeld’s George Costanza, peacocking half-naked atop that red velvet chaise.)

As of yet, there’s no widely agreed-upon social contract when it comes to post-breakup nude ownership. A glance at the Reddit threads pertaining to the topic confirms this. The comments section of Reddit’s “Do you delete ‘dirty photos’ from an ex after a breakup?” forum turns up a motley of responses, from “Yes, it’s common courtesy” to “If they had concerns about being violated why would they let you take them in the first place? I think once they are taken they are your property” and “I keep some because they were beautiful memories. I never keep any if they ask me to delete them, and I sure as shit don’t share them.” The poll results are equally Janus-faced. Over 2,000 people said they “always” delete their ex’s nudes, 1,200 responded, “If they ask me to,” and a disturbing 757 answered, “Not even if they ask.”

Philosophy professor and sex and technology researcher Neil McArthur concurs with the 1,200 redditors who said they’d delete them but only if instructed to. “If someone asks you to delete them, then I think you should, but I think the default position shouldn’t be that you’re doing something horribly wrong if you keep them,” he remarks. He goes on to argue that, in many ways, nudes are no different from other creative tokens of affection. “I have tons of love letters from former partners that I consider part of my personal history. When you start going down that road, nudes may seem like a special case, but they’re just the remnants of past relationships.”

But nudes have a power that love letters don’t, as the 2,000 people who voted “always” on the Reddit poll would likely attest to if consulted. It’s doubtful that a doting love letter would have the potential to destroy a political campaign, which is the example ideology psychology professor and prolific relationship researcher Michelle Drouin uses to “set the bar” on what constitutes sexually explicit content. She suggests that naked photos don’t warrant the same rules as run-of-the-mill gifts and argues that their personal nature and potential to incite shame and regret makes sending a nude more akin to letting someone read your diary than gifting them “a necklace or a record.” Keeping it after breaking up is therefore equivalent to refusing to hand said diary back.

Alia and her fiancé Joe (who are quoted here under pseudonyms) began sending one another nudes after they graduated from college and temporarily moved home to separate parts of the U.K. The couple is adamant that if they ever broke up, they would delete the photographs immediately. “100 percent,” they answer in classic fiancé-style sync. “I guess you have gifted it to me, but at the same time, the content is your body. So it makes sense to me that that still belongs to you,” Joe explains, adding that he’s also conscious of avoiding getting caught up in anything resembling revenge porn.

For others, however, the idea of an ex lusting over their nudes is a gratifying ego boost. Irish novelist and music teacher Sophie Oneill falls into this category. “They can miss me and realize they’ll never get this again,” she quips.

But if you were to bank an ex’s nudes, what happens when you enter a new relationship? Presumably, most wouldn’t take kindly to catching their significant other ogling explicit photos of their former flame. But is it morally wrong? McArthur doesn’t think so. “I don’t think that it’s any different from looking at pornography or doing any of the other things people do in private. The new partner may find it unsettling. If there’s an explicit conversation around it, I think you should respect that and negotiate,” she says. Psychologist and professor Jeff Temple agrees, stressing that we’re sexual beings and should bypass assigning morality to actions that aren’t directly harming others. “I think that people accept nowadays that everyone’s partner is looking at nude pictures of somebody,” adds McArthur, calling to mind debates surrounding which digital behaviors count as cheating, which only gets murkier with the development of new apps and technologies.

Alia sees it differently. She imagines that it would be “very uncomfortable” to encounter a naked photo of your partner’s ex on their phone and can’t quite comprehend why you would want to “reminisce on a past relationship” once you’ve entered a new one. “It would spark jealousy,” Joe chimes in, noting that it would suggest “they’re not getting what they want in the current relationship.” “It would open a floodgate of insecurities,” Alia says.

Sex and culture writer Katie Baskerville experienced this firsthand (and wrote a poignant poem about the incident). At 17, she stumbled upon a folder on her 20-year-old boyfriend’s laptop containing his ex’s nudes (she was 15 when the photos were taken). “I found the folder by accident. It totally caught me off guard,” she says. At first, she felt “really personally hurt that he’d kept them, keeping in mind I was 17. But in hindsight, it’s made me feel really uncomfortable. I deleted them because I felt angry he’d kept them but also felt weird that she didn’t know. It honestly made me churn.” Baskerville took it upon herself to notify the ex, who thanked her for deleting them.

As a wealth of public cases have shown, the shame associated with revenge porn can trigger severe distress, which, at worst, can culminate in suicide. But harm isn’t exclusive to calculated leaks; carelessness can harvest equally pernicious results. “We’ve seen how insecure photos can be when they’re uploaded to iCloud and so on. I think you have an ethical responsibility, not just to not share them but to ensure that they remain secure,” McArthur explains. The most infallible way to avoid a potential photo leak? Delete them, Drouin councils.

Flings and fizzled-out courtships bring up another set of questions related to nude ownership. Should we enter all situationships ready to determine proprietary image rights? And what about relationships that end due to infidelity? Knowing that a partner who broke your trust is hoarding such sensitive content could be unnerving. The circumstances under which the nudes were photographed also merit consideration. If the images were sent under duress, while under the influence, or at a markedly young age, the subject likely won’t want them immortalized.

Unfortunately, the law offers little in the way of concrete answers. Although most western countries and American states have legislation prohibiting revenge porn (largely thanks to Charlotte Laws) and child pornography (nude images of anyone under the age of 18 are considered child pornography), nude ownership is as muddy legally as it is morally, as was certified by the recent divorce proceedings of Lindsay and Chris Marsh. A judge ordered Lindsay to hand over to her husband the boudoir photos she’d taken for him several years prior but insisted that the images be obscured with the messages accompanying them preserved. Despite the redacted body parts, Lindsay felt violated. “These are things that were sensual and loving that I wrote to my husband that I loved. You’re my ex-husband now,” she told the Salt Lake Tribune. In this case, neither the judge’s ruling nor Lindsay’s response reflects the nudes-as-love-letters philosophy touted by McArthur.

Because U.S. courts have no legislation specific to nude ownership, judges are compelled to improvise, letting their take on each case dictate the verdict — a gamble which can reap less than desirable outcomes. “Decisions in these cases tend to vary greatly and may not take into account the psychological impact that nude images may have on one or both parties post-breakup,” explains attorney and associate professor Kimberly O’Connor.

O’Connor also says that copyright protection can, in some instances, be employed to prevent the dissemination of nudes when the photo was taken by the subject, like in the case of a selfie. If the photo were taken by another party, however, such as the subject’s partner, ownership becomes nebulous and copyright more difficult to invoke. Again, these laws apply more to photo distribution and circulation as opposed to the receiver’s rights post-breakup.

According to British lecturer and researcher Chris Lloyd, the crux of the problem lies in the law’s failure to keep up with digital advancements. Lloyd argues that the U.K.’s Sexual Offences Act of 2003 failed to consider technology’s increasing prevalence. To enforce legislation pertaining to nude ownership, he recommends caveats be added to the existing revenge-porn laws. “If ownership is made conditional, then failure to meet the conditions required could mean that possession of the imagery is illegal and sanctions could be pursued,” he suggests.

While we’re waiting for courts to reify the legislation surrounding ownership of nudes, there are steps apps could take to grant subjects further agency over their images. Most photo-sharing platforms already have disappearing-image features that allow senders to select how long an image can be viewed and alert the sender when a recipient screenshots a disappearing photo. Drouin recommends that apps integrate a feature whereby the subject perceptibly copyrights an image with the click of a button (although, again, this would be more effective in preventing nudes from being shared than revisited by the recipient after a breakup). Drouin also suggests a “digital breakup box,” in which sensitive images are transferred from the photos app into a digital “box” and returned to the subject. Such an app would likely require the technology to scan a laptop or phone for duplicate images to convincingly reassure the subject.

On a more personal level, psychologists stress the importance of boundaries and open communication. “People need to have rules. If you send nudes to a person, in any kind of relationship, and then you break that relationship off, make it explicit,” says Drouin, referring to what people want to happen to nudes when a relationship ends. “I think that these types of discussions need to be had early on in a relationship.” Meanwhile, Temple recommends deleting an ex’s nudes not just out of respect for the subject but to enable the receiver to move on without being reminded of “painful memories or what-might-have-beens.”

Relationships, and what we come out of them with, are deeply personal. So it’s doubtful that a one-size-fits-all approach will be unanimously adopted by couples when it comes to nude ownership. Still, erasing an ex’s explicit photographs is undoubtedly the most fail-safe way to protect them and will likely yield the most solace for both the ex in question and future partners. If you do keep and behold that bygone lover’s nudes every so often, however, you won’t have a bounty over your head from law enforcement or the morality police — but the same can’t be promised for the Reddit mob.

Are You Obligated to Delete an Ex’s Nudes?