A few weeks ago I wrote about the Bad Sex Awards, and the difficulties in writing publicly about sex, about representing a bodily and mental experience that is so full of passing ardour in a format that is so fixed. “The problem,” I wrote, “is that one of writing’s main virtues as a technology is that it allows for the longevity of thought. What I tap out now lingers to be read after I go to bed, after I change my mind, after I die: the very permanence of thought that seems the antithesis of sex’s fleeting impressions, allowed to blur with remembering.” It’s those complexities that make writing about sex something that is approached cautiously, with some degree of risk, for many writers. Most of those nominated for the Bad Sex Awards are accomplished writers, yet their skill and popularity are no defence against the accusation of bad taste or sincerity that the award levels. It can appear that even attempting to represent sex in literature is cause enough for a nomination. Strange, given its ever-present bubbling beneath all social relations, that to attempt to address sex is worthy of contempt, and yet unsurprising, given it’s a British award, and the British never stop devising new ways to police and censor any suggestion that you might feel something, and be vulnerable as a result.
Like everything else British, its days are surely numbered. There was a point where the written expression of sex and desire was limited largely to printed matter; from the erotic novel and pulp porno-fiction to The Sun’s photo-casebook (almost always about why threesomes are a bad idea) and sex columnists like Carrie Bradshaw, whose questionable literary merits sold, according to an episode first broadcast in 2001, for $4.50 a word. But as with everything else, our unfolding technological and digital revolution is changing all that. Are cellphones heralding their own revolution in literate desire? I couldn’t help but wonder: has technology really made life easier, or has it just made us easier?
When people discuss the rise of the internet and sex, the most common claim for revolutionary change is the ease and ubiquity of porn, and especially pornographic videos. Undoubtedly the explosion in online porn, camming and sites like OnlyFans has been a powerful one, and has changed not only people’s relationship with porn, but the form of porn itself. New genres are born online and shaped by the algorithm, and kinks, taboos and other niche interests have become mainstream, while the sharing of explicit photos between partners and lovers has become far easier. But I think the effect of new digital technologies on written forms of sexual desire, play, and pornography — what I’ll call, in shorthand, literate sexuality — is even more profound. It is sometimes said that Foucault claimed fisting was the sexual invention of the twentieth century. Perhaps it can also be claimed that sexting, that literate blending of fantasy and scheduling, of brain, phone and genitals, of solicitation, consummation and masturbation, is the sexual invention of the twenty-first century, with the handheld digital device the world’s most popular sexual prosthesis and all of us unknowing, rutting cyborgs. For the first time in history, millions of people regularly experience sex not just through reading, but through writing.
Sexting, if you were wondering, is the sharing of erotic fantasies via messaging service with another person or persons, an exchange that can take many different forms. Sometimes it’s a form of extended flirtation, a sort of literate rehearsal of a sexual encounter to be had at some future date. Sometimes it’s a form of discovery, learning what desires and kinks a potential partner might have, in hope of finding someone compatible. Sometimes it’s shared alongside naked or explicit photos. Often, sexting is a sex act in itself, a digitally-mediated mutual masturbation, where a future physical consummation is either a thin excuse or never ever mentioned. Sometimes the person is already a lover, sometimes someone one has already met in person, or often someone met through dating and hookup apps who you’ve only conversed with via text. The nature of the exchange is just as varied, from the exchange of past experiences to future fantasies. I did this to him, she did this to me, I want to do that to you, and I want everyone else to join in.
Of course, people have always written their sexual desires down, either for entertainment, for the benefit of strangers, or as intimate love letters. A recent viral tweet is evidence enough of this: twitter user @fineanddanya went antiquing and picked up a cache of what she thought were “cute letters”, bound up in string, from the middle of the last century. Upon opening one she found one from a woman to her Air Force sweetheart, where she described how she had “been fucked standing up, sitting down, sideways, in the arm pits, between the tits, etc. … Tom is coming over to see us for a final match. We are going to try double fucking again.” The writer signs off “Your Well Fucked Girl Friend, Ann.” Good for you, Ann, but while I’m sure her lucky partner got off to her dispatch, an erotic letter is not the same as sexting.
No doubt erotic love letters predate even the postal service, but it’s technology that’s the key here. Revolutions in printing technology made erotic literary fantasies a consumer object from the earliest parts of the renaissance in Europe, to such an extent that English diarist Samuel Pepys referred to Charles II’s mistress as having “all the tricks of Aretin” — i.e. being good at fucking, a reference to the literary pornographer Pietro Aretino who, despite having died a century earlier, was still selling well in Restoration London. Pepys was a particular fan of the so-called “whores’ dialogues”, written discourses between fictional sex workers that parodied Socratic dialogues, such as “L’Escole Des Filles”, which he described as “a mighty lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform himself in the villainy of the world.” Later that night, drunk, Pepys returned to his bedroom with the book, read it “for information sake”, purely to inform himself of the villainy, you understand, and then, presumably in a pique of post-wank shame, burnt it.
Access to cheaper, easier printing technologies in the twentieth century also opened up a way for people to share their erotic fantasies. In the first few years of the 1970s the New York writer Boyd McDonald began to publish gay men’s real-life stories of sexual encounters in the magazine Straight to Hell, variously subtitled New York Review of Cocksucking, The North American Horndog Reader and The Society for the Preservation of Quality Blow Jobs, amongst others. Packed full of descriptions of fucking, blowjobs and hookups sent in by readers, the magazine is a survey of mid-century homosexual sex cultures, a mixture of bragging and consciousness-raising, and its numerous tales of homosexual encounters with everyone from teachers to sailors, from building sites to bars, make it a sort of wank-bank Kinsey Report, detailing the polymorphous underbelly of US masculinity. Yet this form of literary, real-life fantasy-sharing is also significantly different from sexting, because sexting is not merely about sharing the desires, but about sharing them as a form of real-time sexual play. Publication and correspondence are different forms of literature.
While Ann would have had to wait weeks for any feedback on the sort of double fucking that earned them the nickname “The Greatest Generation”, messaging technology allows for an instant exchange that make sexting a unique form of literary exchange, of correspondence, one that is, I suspect, unprecedented in history. The unique attributes of sexting are both facilitated by technology, but also reflective of it. It fills gaps caused by technological change, it soothes the growing pains of new worlds, and it quietens the death rattles of old ones. Sexting cannot really be understood outside of the context of dating apps, as a place where written dialogue combines both flirtation and filtration of candidates, and where flirtation, once something verbal and visual, has become literary. As the labour market has become increasingly fractured and unstable, the growth of dating apps has helped to replace the workplace as a location people find potential romantic partners, for example, and has replaced bars as a place to find casual sex. Sobriety probably makes one more discriminating in one’s tastes and desire: sexting produces an environment where you can find what you want, more specifically. In this function, sexting is a form of pleasure and of planning, of hoping to find the right fit and the right sexual dynamic from the comfort of the couch, to avoid mismatches. Here, sexting occurs in the future tense, a combination of fantasy and logistics: when we meet, I want you to do this, and I want to do that, and do you like this, and can I do that. It doesn’t have to be good, as instagram accounts like beam_me_up_softboi can attest:
But sexting is not simply about finding a sexual partner suited to you. In producing a sexual form within a domestic space, isolated from risk, and with a relatively low degree of mediation (unlike Straight to Hell, your sexts don’t have an editor, and more’s the pity) it can provide many with a fantasy space in which to experiment with sexual subjectivity. While sexting one can imagine relinquishing control. One can be recast as a figure of dominance. One can learn with a stranger what it feels like to be called a slur. The literary form of sexting, unlike sharing photos or fucking in person, functions just as other forms of written fiction: it allows one to think through the thoughts of others, to explore vicariously facets of your own personality. Sexting in this mode doesn’t transcend the body, of course, but nor is it reliant upon it. Here, sexting moves into the present tense of masturbatory fantasy: I am doing this, you are doing that, you remove your panties, I am blindfolded and shackled, they brandish their riding crops, etc.
I wrote last week about how some of my earliest forms of sexual experience were online via chatrooms, where people introduced themselves with “a/s/l?” (age/sex/location). You met someone “your own age” (more on that in last week’s post) and ended up sharing your experimental sexual fantasies. My only physical sexual experiences up to this point had been with straight boys of my own age, little more than experimental fumblings. Via sexting on these forums, however, I found a space where I was could inhabit a different, sexually confident, sometimes scary gay identity that was denied to me in person by the aggressively homophobic environment of the time. These were more than sharing sexual fantasies, like Straight to Hell; the element of discourse meant that I could learn a responsive sense of my own sexual identity, developing an aspect of myself that I could only translate into reality later. I learnt what other guys wanted, how they liked me to “act”, how I liked them to appear to me. I also learnt new forms of shame and disgust. The translations never matched once I got to a city and fucked real boys, of course: but that’s because sexting is an autonomous type of sexual activity, and that’s my point. I’m not here to make the claim that sexting is a positive or negative development in sex (like all sex, it can be either), merely that it is a novel development.
Internet theorists of that time sometimes delineated the online and offline worlds, using the term digital dualism to suggest they existed as different realms, and often, in a sexual context, separate spaces of fantasy. On our forums and on MSN Messenger we used the acronym “IRL”, or “In Real Life”, not here, where are who we want to be, but there, in the schoolyard and the top deck of the bus, where we are what they tell us we are. That viewpoint now seems fatally flawed, as the digital realm is lived in, and just as significant and impactful a space as the streets around our houses, and the two press against each other. I would suggest that sexting is not something that can be siloed into the purely digital realm either; it is a corporeal form of sexual practice. Perhaps we can start to think as the cellphone as not merely a medium, but as a form of sexual prosthesis, a sex toy like a vibrator or fleshlight, or pushing it further, as an extension of the nervous system, an extension of the brain. The dialogic nature of sexting moves beyond the pornographic magazine, or the erotic novel, or the love letter. The back and forth makes it something more than a medium to get off with; it’s a form of responsive sexual contact with another human that takes on its own meaning, and helps reshape our own sexual self. As a literary form it is almost uncharted, but it is clear that, as with the novel or the newspaper, it is being shaped by the technological medium through which it manifests. That is to say, it’s not just flirting, nor planning, nor chatting. It’s a form of sex in and of itself.
Thanks to Max Fox for linking me up with the Straight to Hell archive.
I have unlocked Part II of my recent essay “Poove Power”, a history of homosexuality as seen in Private Eye magazine. Many of you read Part I a few weeks ago, which I sent out to all my free subscribers. You can read Part II here, where I trace Private Eye’s coverage of the Greater London Council, Peter Tatchell’s candidacy in the 1983 Bermondsey By-Election, the AIDS crisis, Mandelson, Oaten and Hughes, and finally the magazine’s continued role as an anonymous organ of anti-trans activism
I have also sent out a bunch of other essays to paid subscribers only this year. They include:
A Car Park in England, an essay on the aesthetic and political legacy of Blairism after “Cool Britannia” dissipated, from Booze Britain to Facebook Live anti-paedophile vigilantes,
It’s a Shame, an hour long audio conversation with Juliet Jacques about the recent hit Channel Four miniseries It’s a Sin, set during the height of the AIDS crisis in 1980s London, and a wider discussion about representation of homosexuality at the time,
Being, At Best, An Utter Bore is a short personal essay on the non-cataclysmic and trivial manifestations of the pandemic,
Chanty Muzak is me jumping on the sea shanty bandwagon of January 2021 (remember that?) with an essay about the role of music in the disciplining of labour, and the role of sailors in the transatlantic class struggle.
Paid subscriptions are just $5 a month, or $50 a year, and they make ‘utopian drivel’ feasible for all. If you’d like to subscribe, you can here. Thank you so much to all those that already do. If you can’t subscribe for any reason, but would still like to read any ‘utopian drivel’ essays, just DM or email me with your email address and I’ll be happy to forward to you.