*Some time ago, in the olden days, two new friends sit by the fire, furtively passing notes to each other on a single piece of parchment…*
Cloris (she/her/hers): “It was lovely to make your acquaintance yesterday.” *Attempts to sketch a marigold*
Beau (he/him/his): “Likewise.” *Squints at page* *Sketches an apple tree*
Cloris: “There’s a nice tree on the edge of the property. Perhaps we could take a turn about it?”
Beau: “I’ve got two nice apples.”
Cloris: “Oh, wonderful!’ *Sketches a rose*
Beau: *Sketches what he believes to be an anatomically correct image of his own member*
Cloris: *Crumples up the paper* *Throws paper on the fire* *Storms off to complain to Agatha*
-To be continued-
Oof. Poor dears. They weren’t exactly ‘on the same page’ (hehe).
Thus begins a series on sexting etiquette! Sexting is “sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit messages, photographs, or images, primarily between mobile phones, of oneself to others. It may also include the use of a computer or any digital device” (thanks, Wikipedia).
Like any other form of communication, sexting is a social behavior. In social settings, we use ‘etiquette,’ a system of often unspoken rules, to guide our behavior and expectations, ideally to show consideration for others and make communication smoother. Etiquette varies from place to place and should change with people’s needs. It doesn’t cover every issue, and it’s not inherently ‘good’ on its own.
For example, I like to open doors for people, a common part of social etiquette whose meaning changes with circumstance. To me, it says “I care.” To others, however, it might say “I don’t think you can handle this yourself” or even “I want to hold power over you.” Thus, my door-holding behavior isn’t always appropriate. I have a habit of almost always holding the door for specific friends. They know what I mean by it because…we’ve talked about it. The same caveat applies to sexting etiquette; there’s no universal language, and it will have to change over time.
That said, we often don’t apply basic rules of consideration to sexting situations in the first place, which is partly why I think that intentionally using the lens of etiquette can help. Sometimes, we’re so embarrassed by the prospect of sexting that we don’t know how to think of it as a social situation with another human–we spend so much time seeing sex as this scandalous, unspeakable thing that when we actually get to be sexy, we don’t know how. We may not know how to initiate, how to say what we want (or what to say at all!), and how to stand up for ourselves and set boundaries if sexting feels uncomfortable. So, let’s start with some basic rules and guidelines for ‘initiating’.
First, decide whether it’s ethical and appropriate for you to sext. If there’s a major power difference or professional boundary between you and the other person/people (Ex: you’re their employer, they’re your pastor, etc.), it’s not advisable. As a rule of thumb, if one of you might be afraid to say no to the other, don’t do it. A general note on power: All kinds of power differences affect our interactions with others–wealth, age, gender, race, and citizenship status, to name a few. As a man, Beau has social (and even legal) power that Cloris may not have as a woman, but if Cloris is much wealthier, she may leverage that wealth against him. There are few easy answers when it comes to power difference, but it’s important to recognize where they exist.
If the playing field is relatively even, you may ask for consent to start sexting. We’re not always good at asking for consent before diving into something sexually explicit–it’s easy to forget that there’s a real person behind the screen, not a fantasy-fulfiller.
Even if think you’re ‘flirting,’ don’t introduce an explicit sexual element without checking in. Make sure that the other person wants to participate. This is especially important with new partners. In that vein, sending a picture of your anatomy without asking, like Beau did, is not a good way to obtain consent. It’s the texting equivalent of flashing someone in the street.
I wonder how differently Beau and Cloris’ conversation might have gone if Beau had taken more time to understand what Cloris’ messages meant, gotten to know her better, and then asked what she wanted.
He might have said “I am sexually interested in you” and waited for an encouraging reply from Cloris that wasn’t just a flower. Then, he could say “I would like to write about my desire with you and hear your desire” and later, perhaps, “May I offer you a portrait of my member?” Then, Cloris could be like “I’d like to see the real thing. There’s an apple tree at the edge of the property…” (Of course, she might just be like “What’s a member?”)
Note: In this situation, you might be thinking, “Well, Cloris might feel like she shouldn’t say yes because she’s a proper lady.” Very true! Her refusal is valid regardless.
If you’re not sure what something means, ask! (For Cloris, marigolds symbolize happiness. She was schooled in the language of flowers. Beau is not.) If you think something would be really sexy to talk about, ask if you can talk about it. We can’t take our own standards for granted when interacting with new people.
A partner might be comfortable with text but not pictures. Maybe they’re at work and don’t want to risk others seeing. Maybe they only feel comfortable talking about sex with you in a theoretical way. (This is a common issue for people who work in the sexuality field; people assume that because they talk about sex professionally, it’s okay to sext the professional without asking.)
Say what you want and ask them what they want. Does that sound awkward and vulnerable? It is, especially if you’re new at it. That’s okay! It’ll get smoother, and if you keep talking to the same person, you may gain enough familiarity after a while to sext them without negotiating each time beforehand. Ask, and (maybe) you shall receive.
In short, treat your potential sexting partner as a human being who is creating an experience with you. No need to be as formal as Beau and Cloris.
Here are a few ways to gauge comfort levels and ask for consent in different contexts (your mileage may vary):
- “I’m pretty sure we’re flirting. Are we? *wink face*”
- “I love your FetLife photos! Can I send one of mine (it’s a nude)?”
- “I’m feeling really turned on right now. Can I tell you about it?”
- *sends devil emoji* (Their response will give me an idea of how to proceed.)
- “OMG I just had a hot sex dream. *blush face* Want to hear about it?”
- “How do you feel about anal?”
- “My hand is on your thigh. Tell me where you want it to go.”
- “(Are you okay with using pet names when we sext?)”
As you get more familiar with your sexting partner, you may be able to use the shorthand of the dynamic you’ve fostered to gauge some things without asking. You might give blanket consent for sexting after a while, with the understanding that it can be withdrawn. For example, I am currently comfortable with my sub sending explicit messages to my phone most of the time, though there are specific times during the day when I don’t want to be messaged (namely, when I’m asleep). If I don’t want to receive sexts at any point or don’t like something, I just tell him. Those boundaries don’t work for everyone, but they work well for our dynamic right now. Pro-tip: If you have a smartphone, modify your settings so that message contents don’t show up on your lock screen.
This epistle has focused mainly on what happens before or when you’re just starting to sext. In future installments, I’ll talk more about ongoing negotiation when the sexting gets hot and heavy, how to state boundaries and protect privacy, sexting in kink-specific contexts (like power exchange dynamics), and using sex-positive sites like FetLife.
We’ll also find out whether Cloris and Beau kiss and make up. #Boris?What’s your “sexting etiquette”? Let me know in the comments!