Online dating brings with it a whole heap of questions about expectations and etiquette, not least the vexed issue of sexting. Should I? Must I? Ms X has some advice.
Dear Ms X,
My six year relationship has just ended. This is obviously very difficult and I need counselling on a number of levels including but not limited to, Did I Try Hard Enough to Make It Work, Will I Be Forever Alone, Do I Secretly WANT to be Forever Alone, How Does Tinder Work and Is It Compulsory, Can I Ever Have Sex With a New Person Now That My Boobs Are Six Years Saggier than Last Time, and of course, Should I Contact His Family To Say Thanks For Everything And Goodbye.
But my primary question is this: am I obligated to engage in sexting?
A big part of the reason for our break up was a mismatch in sexual behaviour. We were regularly long distance due to his work (approximately 50 percent of the time). I am not comfortable, and never have been, with taking and sending pictures of my naked body. I also don’t know how to send dirty messages. I don’t want to know, either. My shoulders are up around my ears even thinking about it. The whole idea gives me the icks.
This upset my ex quite a bit. He would regularly send me dick pics and/or very explicit messages describing things he would like me to do to him or things he would like to do to me.
Receiving these made me feel… awkward. Embarrassed. Cringey. Stressed out. How does one even respond to such messages? “Yes – that is your penis.”?
I just have no template for these kinds of conversations, so I would freeze and ignore them, or say something noncommittal and vaguely enthusiastic (“Mmm, sounds good.”), or else change the subject.
And what is the purpose of any of this if you’re so far away that you can’t follow through on any of the described activities for weeks if not months anyway? The whole thing just confuses me.
Several times he raised this with me and I tried to explain that I just don’t like that stuff. I like actual, in the flesh, face to face sexy times. But it seems that, while our break up was mutual, a big part of his reasons for agreeing to end it was my unwillingness to engage in this digital sex business.
I’m not that old (30) so I don’t know if this something the Cool Kids all do, and if I will have to somehow come to terms with sending this kind of thing if I ever want to have another relationship, even though I find it personally degrading and it makes me super uncomfortable. I’m hoping not.
Not Into Belfies.
You have every right to say that you are not into sexting or sending nude/semi-nude pics to anyone. You are also not alone in feeling this way, just in case you thought you were. 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.
Your letter highlights a modern conundrum: the place where technology and intimacy meet. That is still a place where we are establishing etiquette and often I wonder if it is not so much a brand new completely democratic land of opportunity so much as a nameless cul de sac where women can be colonised in bold new ways.
I have invited Dr Hannah August, author of No Country for Old Maids: Talking About the ‘Man Drought’ to join me in answering your letter.
Please note Hannah is a Dr of words, not medicine, but she has a specialised interest in how words are applied to the single women of NZ. I cannot recommend her book enough and her thorough and thoughtful research into the diverse experiences of single women in this country.
My initial response is that if sexting isn’t something you enjoy then don’t do it. You would not pretend to like a flavour of ice cream so don’t do it with a type of sexual activity. I can understand how that curtailed the opportunities for intimacy in a long distance relationship but I assume you are now looking to date someone who is in the same city. So why not be true to yourself, and your feelings?
It doesn’t sound like you have any broader issues around sex as you say you enjoy “face to face sexy times”. Instead, it seems to me that you simply have a preference, in much the same way some people don’t like anal sex or the missionary position or whatever (readers: please don’t have a shit fit about the examples I just used, they were just examples, not judgements).
Dr Hannah, who is younger than me and possibly more learned about dating apps, points out the bonuses of using tech to vet people:
“One of the anxieties held by some of the women I interviewed for my book had to do with how inescapable technology is in modern romance – particularly for those who are actively dating, as your correspondent may soon be. With busy jobs and established social circles, it’s hard to meet new people – which is where dating websites and apps like Tinder come to the rescue, connecting you with strangers for sex, or love, or maybe just a fascinating conversation about frogs. Looked at in the right way, these technological innovations are a gift. YOU set your parameters, YOU choose who you engage with, and if someone sends you a dick pic and you’re not into that, YOU unmatch them and move on.”
So Dr Hannah and I concur here – look for people who respect what you lay down as a boundary. You could work up a sentence for anyone you are starting to be intimate with or likely to be so soon. Something along the lines of: I really like you and enjoy spending time with you. I just want to let you know that I am not into sexting or dick pics. I hope that isn’t a big barrier for you but thought it would be good to let you know now.
How they respond next will tell you a lot. As you know, some people think no means yes. Hot tip: they are not the people you want to go on another date with unless you have some transgression fetish you haven’t mentioned. Mutual respect is what you want here and if someone cannot grasp a pretty straightforward request like “I don’t sext” then move on.
Look, NZ is so small that I am surprised that people don’t refer to having “clocked” Tinder in much the same way you would a Playstation game. But if you are straightforward with people about not being interested in a sexting arrangement you should be able to go out into dating app land and reasonably expect some respectful and interesting good times.
“Where the anxiety comes in is that there are unwritten assumptions about what contributes to ‘success’ on these platforms – that to get people to pay attention to you, you have to look a certain way, or reciprocate when someone sends you a photo of a naked part of their anatomy. It’s easy to get caught up in feeling that you have to curate your self-presentation to match what you think most people will want – but if you wouldn’t actually want to be with a person who found those things important, then what’s the point of doing them? There’s a vast spectrum of people using Tinder and other dating sites, and they haven’t all changed their modes of communicating or their sexual proclivities simply because they’re trying to meet people using a new medium. Stick to your guns and hang out for one who thinks and feels the way you do.”
I am going to break this down very simply, Caller. We all have things we don’t like and maybe we are not encouraged to be as honest about our dislikes as we should be. Ideally you should be confident in expressing those likes and dislikes but I can understand how maybe you aren’t.
I think a lot of media aimed at women encourages fear, low expectations and subterranean levels of self-esteem with headlines like “How to be sexy for a guy” as opposed to “Is this a guy worth my time?”.
I spend a lot of time advising young and not so young women to be conscious and careful about the media they consume. Seriously, don’t spend your pay (yes, the pay that is statistically 16-18 percent lower than your male colleagues’) on a magazine that shouts at you about your weight/skin/thigh gap while it blithely air brushes the photo of the woman on its cover.
The key for me in your letter was when you said you felt sexting was personally degrading. I would hate for you to be doing something that made you feel awful and uncomfortable just because some stupid magazine suggests you need to be able to fuck someone using a cell phone. If it feels bad don’t do it.
Again Dr Hannah:
“Many people find the types of sexual encounters and sexual lives that technology facilitates exciting, and provided their partner/s feel/s equal excitement, that’s a great thing. But technology-assisted sex is just like any other kind of sex – both partners have to be into it. The sext certainly wasn’t invented in order for women to lie back and think of England while unenthusiastically snapping photos of their boobs. If repeatedly explaining to a partner why you’re not into something when it comes to sex doesn’t suffice, then it’s certainly not you that needs to change. The best approach is to move on to a partner who likes the same things you do, or to the refreshing don’t-give-a-fuckness of early-thirties singledom.”
Yes Caller, Dr Hannah just said “fuckness”. You’re welcome.
I understand there’s a temptation to pretend that we as women are cool with anything (in a way that gives me creepy high school peer pressure flashbacks) but that doesn’t allow for the simple reality of not liking something.
Honestly, not wanting to sext should not be a massive problem for you in the dating environment. Yes, people are using their phones like an extra hand/vagina/penis/mouth now but that doesn’t mean you have to if you don’t enjoy it – because sex should be enjoyable.
PS. When I first read your letter to Dr Hannah I told her that I am sure you have great boobs, and she responded with magnificent scholarliness: “Aw, I bet she does too.” We both hope you get to show them a good time.
Got a question for Ms. X? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, ideally including key information such as your age and gender.
All messages will be kept in the strictest confidence and your name will not be published. If you wish to remain completely anonymous, consider using a free remailer service like Send Email.
Need help now?
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Youthline 0800 376 633
OUTline (LGBT helpline) 0800 688 5463
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.