It’s a good bet that most of us over the age of 50 have never sent a sexy picture of ourselves to a lover or partner. However, given current trends, we sexting virgins are set to become a smaller section of the sexually active population. A recent UK survey of 14 to 16 year olds found that young adults are increasingly familiar with the sending of sexual images, and that their attitudes to the material are increasingly non-judgemental1. Some 40% did not see anything wrong with a topless image and 15% did not take issue with any naked image. Data on sexting among mature adults is harder to come by, but anecdotally it is clear that attitudes are changing. Sharing explicit images is becoming a more widespread means of sexual communication, whether you are a teenager experimenting with how you look, an adult joining a dating site or someone looking online for a casual encounter with someone who shares their sexual preferences.
The selfie is a perfect example of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium becomes the message”: the combination of phone, camera, image editing and storage technologies is changing not just what but how we communicate sexually. Dating behaviour, for example, is now driven by the impression you create in photos – posed, taken and edited by yourself. It has never been so easy to experiment with how you want to be seen by potential sexual partners, to excite a lover by exchanging intimate pictures of each other, or just to send topless shots or penis pictures for fun. Images are now as much part of the message of sexual conversation as the words we choose. What Zoe Williams termed “citizen porn” is now well and truly out of the dark room2.
The image-as-conversation is a new and potentially exciting departure in human sexual communication. Image exchange has a long history in courtship, but its boundaries have always been set by the cost of technology. Now we all have the means to share our selves in ever more intimate ways. Pornography likewise was until recently a top-down media where consumers, mostly men, got what was made available. However, the ubiquity of technology now enables us not just to consume pornography anywhere but also to create it for ourselves.
There is no shortage of warnings about the impact of pornography in society, but the medium is outpacing the debate. Pornography long ago lost its 1960s purpose of sexual liberation and narrowed into a sexist and often misogynistic representation of a limited range of sexual activities and physical types. The sexy selfie, however, is not porn as we knew it. It gives both men and women a chance to take control of their image and self express sexually. Driven by ordinary people with ordinary bodies, it may already be starting to shift the entrenched attitudes that society has about default standards of beauty and sexual attractiveness. Generating your own material online, what web marketers call “user generated content”, is now changing porn as quickly as it has changed advertising and public relations. The selfie has the potential to emancipate our sexuality, to increase our agency in how we express it and to encourage healthy sexual self fashioning. Yet it also has risks and the stimulus is offers to greater sexual freedom, may come with a parallel downside.
The more we exist online, the more we develop an online persona; we position ourselves as “professional” on LinkedIn or “family man” on Facebook. We all now behave as brands. Anyone who has written a blog or posted pictures on Tumblr is competing for the attention of others. We want comments, likes, endorsements and “friends” to inflate our online self worth. Selfies can readily become exchangeable commodities that can generate online image value. They also provide a portion of the material that packs social network sites and which remains an irresistible draw to advertisers. The inauthenticity of much of this activity runs counter to the selfie as self-expression. Thanks to the naked selfie, dating sites can easily become market places where the bodies traded are more than likely to be female.
We need to be careful that the sexual selfie does not repeat or perpetuate old patterns, particularly with regard to how women present themselves sexually. In commercial advertising and pornography, the so-called “male gaze” fixes women’s bodies as objects to be consumed or as things to be looked at, and some women internalise that view and self objectify. Some feminist writers have welcomed the selfie as a means to retake control of the female image, subvert the male gaze with ironic posts and break down its faux cheesecake aesthetics. But with male exposure to mainstream porn increasing, the risk remains that women and girls simply try to find a way to fit into that culture. Even when women are posting photos of themselves publicly that don’t depict overtly sexual acts, the images will often still imitate pornographic ones. For every woman who posts a selfie with pride, others will use it to find the validation they cannot give themselves. A study from Buffalo University found that females who base their self worth on their appearance tend to share more photos online and maintain larger networks on online social networking sites. More men are likely to become prone to the same behaviour3.
Young women in their teenage years, trying to define themselves as sexual adults, are seen to be particularly susceptible to the affirmation through beauty message perpetuated by commercial media. Yet this need not occasion a moral panic about the sexual selfie or require the application of out-of-date obscene publication laws to police new media. Young adults today demonstrate great awareness and openness about matters of sex and sexuality, and educators and politicians are too quick to comment on a world that is relatively closed to them and developing faster than they can keep up. Teen sexting will require that sex education regimes change to teach young people about the ethics of pornography, privacy and appropriate sexual behaviour. However, we should be wary of painting teenage girls in particular as perennial victims of pornographic culture. Some girls send topless selfies because they crave intimacy, even on someone else’s terms; others do so because they want to make out with someone. The more we can educate and encourage young adults to consider and make informed choices about what they see and post online the better.
The naked selfie is the most recent demonstration of how the internet is changing sexual culture. Communication through and about sex is increasing and that is proving liberating for many. Pornography businesses were early adopters of the web, even arguably pioneers. Yet they now stand in danger of being devoured by the “citizen porn” revolution they helped create. The greatest potential of the sexy selfie is to return sexual image making into the hands of ordinary people with ordinary bodies and to encourage greater communication and greater pleasure. We all have the opportunity to explore its potential, but it will need us to re-examine our ethics, particularly when it comes to teaching young people about the ethics of the sexual image-as-conversation. For now at least, the naked selfie seems a good thing. But if the airbrush is just replaced by photoshop, we will have gained little.
- “A qualitative study of children, young people and ‘sexting’.” A report prepared for the NSPCC. May 2012. http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/resourcesforprofessionals/sexualabuse/sexting-research_wda89260.html
- Williams, Z. “Now I get the naked selfie – at its core its citizen porn”, The Guardian, 6 September 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2014/sep/05/saturday-sketch-naked-selfie-citizen-porn
- Facebook Photo Sharing Reflects Focus on Female Appearance, May 2011 http://www.buffalo.edu/news/releases/2011/03/12339.html