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Is there a gender imbalance in sexting?

We look at how smartphones have become a key part of our modern sex story and how – at least seemingly in heterosexual relationships between men and women – it isn’t quite the same ‘game’

TextKat GeorgeIllustrationLuca Barbieri

There’s an imbalance in sexting, or at least, it seems, when it comes to cisgendered, heterosexual relationships between men and women. Personal sex, through mobile technology and social media, has become more performative, the act of performing sexuality no longer the sole purview of media and entertainment. Now, we are expected not only to have sex, but to be constantly aware of and active in the narrative of that sex, which often includes the sending of dirty text messages and naked photos. Unfortunately, for women, ‘expectation’ and ‘obligation’ are sensations that aren’t always mutually exclusive from the act of texting sex. Women are, overwhelmingly, required to either partake in offering their photos for consumption, or to submit passively to unsolicited photos (colloquially: dick pics) being foisted upon them.

For some women, especially young women discovering their sexuality in this new landscape of sexual politics where 59 per cent of young people between the ages of 20 and 26 say they have sent a sext, the onus of providing sexual imagery to their partners can be overwhelming. Abbey is 23 and works in music PR, and is a cis heterosexual woman who sees sexting as often a “one-way street”. “They want you to tell the story but they want to get off on it,” she says, “You feel like if you don’t send anything, you’re suddenly uninteresting, unsexy and boring. Like you have nothing more to give than making them come. I actually had a guy tell me I was a ‘colossal waste of time’ for not sending anything or participating.”

Twenty-three-year-old Olivia, a research lab manager, is pansexual and polyamorous. She has “two boyfriends and a few casual partners of multiple gender identities”, and sees that there are different roles and expectations for women and men in the sexting game. “I have definitely experienced an imbalance when sexting guys,” she says. “It often feels very similar to the societally expected/accepted flow of typical p-in-v sex, where the expectation is that the guy gets turned on, eventually comes, and then it is over.” It’s part of the ongoing paradigm of men acting and women appearing, and when it comes to sexting, women are often objectifying themselves through the lens of the (increasingly outdated) male gaze.

“You feel like if you don’t send anything, you’re suddenly uninteresting, unsexy and boring. Like you have nothing more to give than making them come” – Abbey

It’s this desire to please the male partner by fetishising oneself that is so alarming – female pleasure is often overlooked when it comes to sexting. Tina, a 28-year-old creative, says that “girls are made to feel as though a sext ought to be initiated by the guy in order for it to be ‘appropriate’. I think this follows the general (very unfortunate and concerning) dynamic that I’ve observed between men and women in the dating world right now. Women are sometimes made to feel as though we would be smart to censor ourselves and our desires a bit in order to make sure that the men we are sleeping with don’t misinterpret our behavior as desperate/crazy/grasping/needy.”

Olivia agrees, saying that when women sext other women, it’s often an expression of desire, rather than an obligation to please. Women, she says, share their fantasies by “sending sexy GIFs we found on Reddit back and forth, rather than actually take pictures of ourselves”. Olivia believes this is part of our socialisation, that “women are taught to be passive in our sexuality and pursued by men, such that we are not really sure how to be the pursuer in a situation”.

The theme of pursuit boils over into the notion that allows men to be empowered to send their own nudes, completely unsolicited. You only have to be a woman who’s used online dating to know that somehow, a naked penis will find its way to your phone or computer, whether you asked for it or not. Abbey says she could make an “art show of dick-pics”, she’s been sent so many, a lot of them unwanted. “I think that’s the Tinder generation for you. Also, Snapchat makes it much easier, because I think people feel like there isn’t a consequence as in ten seconds (or less) it’s gone,” she adds. The same behaviour in a physical social situation, obviously, would be tantamount to sexual harassment. But in sexting, a stranger’s penis has found its justification. Abbey agrees that the cis heterosexual male privilege of sending dick pics with impunity is an ongoing problem. “It definitely feels like guys don’t understand that unwarranted dick pics are a form of harassment,” she says.

David, a 26-year-old straight manual labourer, thinks there is an “assumption” that women will send sexy photos, but has never assumed himself. “I asked a woman for pics once,” he says. “I don’t ask for pics because I think that’s sort of gross to do, unless the girl offers. I feel like dudes just send dick-pics without being asked and I have absolutely no idea why you would do that.” David also adds that he’s never actually asked to send photos, which is consistent with the persistent and ongoing act of men sending unwanted pictures to women. He also sees the act of sending sexy photos as “selfie culture, our generation’s narcissism”, and has a pessimistic view of doing so, saying “that shit can end up on some porn site”.

“Women are taught to be passive in our sexuality and pursued by men, such that we are not really sure how to be the pursuer in a situation” Olivia

But it’s not all bad news. Abbey says it’s all contextual: “Sometimes, if they’ve made you feel sexy and turned you on then of course you feel like you want to share.” As long as there’s no pressure, the exchange of photos can be mutually satisfying. Tina says it just comes down to communication: “Generally I think that this is a more of a really annoying but natural female anxiety exacerbated by the fact that the men we are sleeping with tend to project their own anxieties and assumptions on to us and our behavior, rather than having open communication about the whole mess.” It seems that consent can often get lost in translation, even digitally, and as sexting and the sending of sexy photos becomes more a part of dating culture, it might be time to reevaluate the gender dynamics that go with it, especially in cis, heterosexual relationships.

It’s unclear how the narrative between men and women in digital sex will change, but the disparity between the sexes is clear. It’s a misnomer that, by “taking charge” of their sexuality, women are actually in charge, because, when it comes to sending sexy photos, it’s still men who hold the power. That power comes from not only the expectations placed on women to be passive sex objects, but the idea that, by being open with sending nudes, women are somehow empowered. What’s really empowering is respect and mutual gratification: something we can’t achieve when women feel like sending sexy photos is necessary, and when men still take it upon themselves to send their own without consent.