Question: I was checking out what the Mayo Clinic said about safe sex during Covid-19. It gives as one possibility of safe sex: “You might also consider engaging in sexual activity with partners via text, photos or videos, ideally using an encrypted platform to provide privacy protection.” What do you think of this recommendation? What are the legalities of the practice of sexting?
Note: I originally posted this Q & A on Frank Answers Briefly About Male Body Issues. But it concerns women as well as men and it was not so brief. So I made it into a longer answer and post it here as a separate article.
Warning: some explicit images
Frank Answers: I read the recommendations about sexual practices during the COVID pandemic. Having partners from outside the household is considered risky. The usual mitigations apply also to sex: wearing a mask, keeping six feet apart, washing hands, and wiping down surfaces with disinfectant. Kissing on the mouth is definitely out. I’ve seen recommendations from health agencies that might allow sexual intercourse in positions that don’t require breathing toward the partner, but still wearing a mask. Obviously, sex with a partner you live with in your own household is safer than with a partner coming in from outside your home.
Nevertheless, all the agencies say that the safest form of sex is solo masturbation. But in addition, the recommendation on the Mayo Clinic web site does encourage the option of people sending nude photos of themselves as way to have safe sex during this COVID-19 pandemic. Since Mayo Clinic is a reputable institution, it’s a sexual practice that I have to be less judgmental about. So I’ve done some investigation of the practice in order to answer the question.
Sexting (for old foggies who don’t know) is the use of the iphone camera to take and send nude or sexually-enticing or sexually-explicit photos to someone. It’s a relatively new development in human sexual relationships. Surveys indicate that it is practiced equally by males and females since, as might be expected, it involves two-way communication. “Sexting” combines the words “sex” and “text.” It assumes sending text messages along with selfies. The words used can add to the eroticism of the communication exchange.
But there are some differences between the attitudes of men and women toward sexting. I will address the gender differences more fully and say what I think of the practice. But first I will address the legal issues because there are some confusions between what is legal and what is acceptable on social internet platforms.
I doubt that the Mayo Clinic would have put this suggestion on their web site if it were illegal. In the USA and many other Western countries it is actually legal to send nude or sexually-explicit photos or videos through social media platforms if these are being sent to one person who has consented to receive them and if both the sender and the receiver are “of age” (18 and older in the U.S.).
Here is what is illegal in the USA.
It is illegal to share nude or sexually-explicit photos or videos of other people without the consent of the person who is portrayed in them or to harass someone by sending unwanted nude or sexually-explicit photos.
It is illegal for minors (under the age of 18) to send nude or sexually-explicit photos of themselves. Even 17-year-olds have been prosecuted as sex offenders for sharing nude images of minors, even though they are also minors.
However, there are also the social media platforms to consider. These are private companies and they have their own rules. Facebook has been the most conservative of these platforms. Even classic paintings such as those of Michelangelo in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel haven’t passed muster with FB’s censors. FB has loosened up a little. It doesn’t allow nude images but goes on to clarify that in spite of this, “we aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.” This policy would apply also to FB’s Messenger.
Google’s social network does not allow sexually-explicit material, or anything that drives traffic to pornographic sites. But, of course, Google Images abounds in pornographic sites on which “amateurs” can post photos and videos.
Instagram has rules about posting nude or sexually-explicit photos, but this social platform apparently abounds in such photos. I personally don’t use it although I “follow” some family members and friends. So I’m relying on what what I’ve read.
I also don’t use Twitter, but it is the most permissive of the large social networking sites. Users are instructed, “You may not use obscene or pornographic images in either your profile photo, header photo, or user background,” but users are allowed to post pornography in their feed.
People can use Face Time, Skype, and Zoom to carry on conversations while nude or while engaging in a sexual act. However, unless Zoom links are encrypted, you run the risk of screen capture and getting pictures of yourself posted on the internet. The advice from Mayo Clinic added to its suggestion of sharing sexual images, “ideally using an encrypted platform to provide privacy protection.”
Snapchat is apparently designed to send photos that become inaccessible after a while. This seems a fairly safe way to send nude or sexually-explicit photos. But people with the right technology can still capture the images.
Millions of people around the world are sexting or sending nude photos on these social platforms but there’s a risk of being reprimanded, censored, or having one’s use suspended. Remember that these platforms are owned by private companies that can set their own rules and degree of enforcement. They’re concerned about not turning away users who would object to these images because having many users draws the advertisers who pay for the platform. You can bare your breasts legally on the streets of New York City, but not on some social platforms.
The final risk is the personal one. Do you want to send pictures of your penis or breasts to someone and take the chance that the picture won’t be just between you and your “friend?” The reality is that friends share the sext nudes they have received with one another. Also, revenge porn has become a major issue as alienated lovers post nude photos of their exes in retaliation for some personal slight or betrayal. Revenge porn is illegal. It does not fall under free speech because it is an invasion of privacy. One estimate is that 4% of Americans have suffered this invasion of privacy in the internet. So be forewarned.
As far as the differences between men and women are concerned, research has shown that women are more often the initiators of sexting and men more often the recipients of sexts. This is probably because women feel pressured or coerced into sending nude photos to men with whom they are in a relationship. Some women use sexting as a way of dealing with insecurities about their relationship. The men are happy to receive the photos because it satisfies their sexual needs and they are usually happy to reciprocate. See the study of 222 undergraduate students at Butler University during the spring term in 2016: Katie M. Springston (2017), “Gender Differences in Participation in and Motivations for Sexting: The Effects of Gender Role Attitudes, Masculinity, and Femininity,” Butler Journal of Undergraduate Research, Vol. 3 , Article 9. Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.butler.edu/bjur/vol3/iss1/9
Men — both gay and straight — also send sext messages to one another. Some men are just looking for sext buddies with whom to chat and send photos. This may be a form of sexual enticement, which is relatively safe since the hook up culture is shut down during COVID. Or they may just be showing themselves working out in a home gym, since their regular gyms are closed.
Sexting was well underway before COVID struck, and it will last beyond the pandemic. Modern dating has moved online. With that sexting becomes inevitable since it is so ubiquitous among young adults. Tinder and its analogues are a primary way in which single people connect. Since this is the case, being able to portray your sexual self virtually has really become the precursor to meeting someone in the flesh. So it’s worth taking the trouble of learning how to take a good selfie. And the first sext men send should not be of their penis. Men need to make an effort to do more creative sexting that leaves something to be discovered in subsequent meetings.
I agree with the researchers that sexting works best between couples who are in a relationship as a way of re-enforcing the intimacy they are already sharing. In such a relationship sexting can be a playful way of dealing with sex as the photographer figures out different positions to assume while still handling the iphone camera. I say this as one who isn’t good at taking any kind of selfie. But, as with all things, practice can make perfect.
Perhaps as sexting becomes more mature, the amateur photographers will take some cues from the great works of nude figures in art history and send images worth contemplating for form and expression and not just exposed flesh. Lest some folk become prudish about this, let us consider that sending nude photos today is not too different from the Renaissance portrait painters who made a living painting nudes for paying customers. One of the most prolific was the Wittenberg shop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, who, in between illustrating Martin Luther’s German Bible and painting altar pieces and portraits of the reformers, painted thousands of nudes, using Wittenberg ladies as models.
If German artists during the Renaissance got away with painting nudes if a pagan theme was being represented, Italian (especially Florentine) artists painted homoerotic nudes if they were representing a saint (especially St. Sebastian). Here is Agnolo Bronzino’s portrait of a Florentine youth representing St. Sebastian.
Sexting selfies is here to stay and has proven to be a welcome means of virtual love-making during the COVID pandemic. My suggestion is that eroticism can be heightened by learning from the great artists how to compose portraits.