Sex & Relationships

We Are All Sexters Now: America’s Favorite Amateur Porn

Sexting nation, 78 million strong! How the scolds and moralists lost, and sexting became an all-American pastime.

Photo Credit: Ammentorp Photography/Shutterstock.com

It was only a few years ago when scolds and the media made “sexting” a national concern. Congressmen were being outed for exposing themselves in revealing sexts; states across the country were passing laws making it a crime; hundreds of kids were being busted for doing it; and talk-show talking heads, along with religious leaders and other social worthies, were bemoaning the fate of American youth. Sexting was scary.

Today, sexting has all but disappeared from public discourse. Sure, occasional teen busts are reported, but they capture far less media attention. Why? What’s happened to make the hottest media story of a couple of years ago pretty much disappear from the public stage?

With rare exception, the popular media are driven by the crisis du jour: the latest body count report, natural disaster or political sex scandal.  So, yesterday’s news is so yesterday.

But sexting is more than a media story; it is the first original form of pornography to emerge in the 21st century. Sexting may have disappeared from the public spotlight, but it has not disappeared from public life.

Sexting is an original form of do-it-yourself (DIY) or user-generated-content (UGC) media, amateur porn. It began as a subversive art, with young people taking, sending and receiving explicit nude, semi-nude and provocative still images, video clips and/or text messages of themselves and others via a smartphone or another mobile communication device.

Sexting is not child porn, or sexual bullying; for the most part, sexting is not a form of sexual exploitation, of violation. Rather, it is a postmodern aesthetic with roots reaching back to pre-modern forms of female representation, from the original 17th century “posture girl.”  Between 10 and 20 percent of teens engage in sexting, but they are only the tip of an increasingly popular social phenomenon.

The outings of Congressmen Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., and Chris Lee, R-N.Y., in 2011 shifted the sexting storyline.  It went from a tabloid tale of out-of-control teens, a 21st-century version of 1950s kids into obscene comic books or Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One,” to pathetic tales of male exhibitionists. Perhaps most alarming: recent disclosures about the UK spy program, “Optic Nerve,” which scooped up an untold number of sexually explicit images, proves again that sexting is widespread among American adults.

Sexting is going suburban and vanilla.  Like “adult” pornography, it is being accepted as just one more of the “50 shades” of sexual titillation. Sexting scandals involving adults are regular occurrences and there’s even a website featuring the latest celebrity sexting scandal.  Retina-X Studios, a company that sells online tracking tools, recently conducted a study of 4,800 respondents and found that the most sexting takes place on Tuesday morning, between 10 a.m. and noon – time when most teens are in school. It also found that iPhone users engaged in sexting almost twice as frequently as Android users.

The most revealing testimony to the mainstreaming of sexting was a recent Washington Post piece, “A guide to safe sexting: How to send nude photos without ruining your life, career and reputation.” Its warning to readers was simple: “Repeat after me: If you can’t prevent people from spreading your nudes, the next-best thing you can do is prevent them from ever knowing said nudes belong to you.”

The Post instructed readers to follow two essential rules for online posts. First: “Never include your face in the photo. Make the background nondescript. Cover or omit distinguishing features, like birthmarks and tattoos.” Second: “Anonymize the photo file itself. All photos, even ones taken on a smartphone or tablet, are embedded with information about how, when and where the photo was taken. This is called EXIF data, and you want to strip it from any photos you may need to deny ownership of in the future.” One can only wonder how many inside-the-Beltway players saved the article. Sexting has become an all-American form of self-expression.

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No one knows how many Americans engage in sexting.  However, recent surveys by McAfee and Pew suggest how sexting is going mainstream.

McAfee, the cyber security firm, released a study earlier this year of “more than 1,500 consumers” and found that more than half (54%) “send or receive intimate content including video, photos, emails and messages.” It found that one in three American adults have filmed sexual content on their mobile devices.

Digging deeper, McAfee reported that 70 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds receive sexually suggestive content and that (among those using mobile devices) more males than females do so (61% vs. 48%). It also found that 45 percent of adults stored the sexts they received while 40 percent stored the ones they sent. Among those who sent “intimate or racy content,” three-fourths (77%) sent it to their significant other, while only 1 in 10 sent such content to a total stranger.

Pew Research reported that “sexting … is practiced by couples and singles alike” and has nearly doubled since its last survey in 2012. The most active adults engaged in sexting were between 25 and 34 years of age. “Married and partnered adults are just as likely as those not in a relationship to say they have sent sexts,” the report noted, adding, “single adults are more likely to report receiving and forwarding such images or videos.” Pew’s research also found the following among adults: 20 percent of “cellphone” owners have received a sext of someone they know; 9 percent have sent a message of themselves to someone else; and 3 percent have forwarded a sext to someone else.

Approximately 145 million Americans own a “smartphone,” a 3G or 4G mobile device capable of image-based sexting. Extrapolating from this estimate, the McAfee reportsuggests that upwards of 78 million users have engaged in sexting. The Pew report suggests that some 30 million Americans have received a sext and about 13 million have sent one. The scope of sexting among Americans likely resides somewhere between the two estimates. Clearly, sexting is no longer simply a teen titillation.

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Sexting emerged as a form of DIY or amateur pornography about a decade ago and originally subverted the dominant porn conventions in (for the most part) three ways. First, it involved teen makers and viewers, not adults (e.g., sex predators); second, it involved erotic display and not explicit sex acts (e.g., fellatio, intercourse); and third, it was a non-commercial form of enticements (i.e., not a product for sale).  Sexting continues as a form of teen flirting, something essentially by and for young people and freely exchanged, a gift.

However, sexting seems to be increasingly adopted as part of the postmodern adult sex scene, and as it goes mainstream it is losing its critical edge. In the U.S., “noncommercial” sexual relations between consenting adults are not illegal. One can easily imagine sexts becoming the next intimate Valentine’s card or seductive private message, the latest personal turn-on. Who needs chocolates when one can send a sext?

Will sexting be integrated into the commercial sex industry? Sex is big business in the U.S., estimated at $50 billion in annual revenue. Prostitution, illegal in all but a handful of Nevada counties, pulls in an estimated $18 billion; the sex toy or “sexual wellness” sector is pegged at $15 billion; the 3,000 or so gentlemen’s clubs are reported to serve some 1.2 million (mostly male) customers a day and generate an estimated $3.1 billion to $7.5 billion in revenues. And this does not include the private “safe sex” clubs for gays and straights as well as specialized fetish clubs (e.g., B&D, S&M) often hosted by a professional dominatrix, the gay bathhouses or other illicit “noncommercial” hookups easily arranged via voice calls, Internet sites and wireless app services.

The U.S. porn business is estimated at $10 billion-plus annually. According to one source, there are nearly 25 million porn sites worldwide, making up 12 percent of all websites. Sebastian Anthony, writing for ExtremeTech, reports that Xvideos is the biggest porn site on the Web, receiving 4.4 billion page views and 350 million unique visits per month. He claims porn accounts for 30 percent of all Web traffic. (In comparison, Wikipedia gets about 8 billion page views.) Anthony estimates the average length of time spent on Xvideo at 15 minutes. From an aesthetic perspective, he notes that, alas, most people receive their digital video feeds using low-resolution streaming.

Sex saturates the marketplace, whether promoting personal satisfaction or glamorizing a product, be it a new car or a mouthwash. Sexting illustrates the power of technological innovation and, sadly, of how a once-radical, DIY form of self-expression is being recuperated, integrated into the commercial economy. The marketplace has perfected the art of turning the most intimate human exchange into a commodity. The only unanswered question is what intimacy remains to be plundered?