[ToC]

 

THE PLEASURE OF THE SEXT

Christopher Kempf

11:56:01 (260):          i want 2 9 u

As part of the celebration for its centenary anniversary in August, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary added 400 new entries to its catalog of over 200,000 words, terms drawn primarily—as these additions tend to go—from technology-related fields and internet slang. Among the new additions, accordingly, were cyberbullying, retweet, and woot, defined by the OED's ear-to-the-pavement lexicographers as an "exclamation (informal, especially in electronic communication) used to express elation, enthusiasm, or triumph" as in "I definitely get off Fridays, woot!" (This is actually the example they use, ignorant, it seems, of the Freudian slip lurking therein. Lexicographers, hunched devotedly over their portmanteaus like medieval monks copying out the Summa Theologica, have apparently missed out on the entire 'That's what she said' revolution.) According to the British newspaper The Telegraph, "the new words were selected after being entered into a database of 2 billion words drawn from contemporary websites and texts to prove their ubiquity." Yet the term which has attracted the most media attention among the recently legitimized e-words has already had a rich and controversial—if not lengthy—history in the cultural zeitgeist, a lightning rod for criticism from organizations as disparate in their political agendas as the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, Forbes Magazine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. I'm referring, of course, to sexting.

My own rich history with sexting, of which the correspondence reproduced throughout this essay is part, dates back to my junior year at a Midwestern university whose name I've been advised against disclosing in the context of an essay involving masturbation in library bathrooms. (A triangulation of the unaltered area codes appearing herein, however, gives the reader some idea of the geographic region.) The university, it is permissible to disclose, is Catholic, its students apparently unappreciative of the fact that one of their own spent most nights—and some afternoons—furiously jerking off between conjugating Spanish verbs from the subjunctive and reading The Iliad. I remember distinctly the first sext message I received, a blurry, inch-sized boob shot from a girl I'd been seeing for several months (330), but who nonetheless seemed much too sweet for this kind of behavior. I thought some terrible but serendipitous mistake had been made, one in which she'd inadvertently sent the photo to me instead of to her own e-mail address/softcore porn server. Despite these misgivings, and despite the photo's resemblance, on my early-2000's Nokia flip-phone, to a puddle of melted Barbies, I did with it what I'd do many times over the coming years, when the women in my life would bestow their sexual munificence upon me—I took it to the bathroom, flipped open the phone, and sent back a grainy photo of my own, inch-sized dick.

There was, in those primitive days of pagers and pay-as-you-go photo-messaging, no term like "sexting" by which to understand what we were doing. Defined by the COED now, however, as "the sending of sexually explicit photographs or messages via mobile phone," sexting has come to occupy an increasingly contemptible status in American culture. Even research as hasty as a late-night search of the term on Google News—as academically rigorous as I'm prepared to get in this essay—reveals the sordid, even dangerous connotations the word carries with it. "Police: Man lured girl with sexting." "Sexting by minors officially illegal in Rhode Island." "Teens warned of tough jail terms for sexting." The FCC—no doubt bristling at the term's recent legitimation—is currently investigating links between sexting and cyber-bullying. School districts and PTA's across the country are rewriting codes of conduct to include prohibitions against sexting inside and outside of the classroom. And Fox News, bastion of mobile phone decency, has provided its viewers a list of the 50 most commonly used acronyms in sexting exchanges, among them FMLTWIA—"Fuck Me Like The Whore I Am"—and POS—either "Parent Over Shoulder," "Piece Of Shit," or both, depending on the situation. (These are actually the examples they use.) Where other causes célèbres have tried and failed to bring together demographics as far-flung as the AARP and Apple—currently modifying its iPhone software to include sext-blocking capabilities—sexting has united virtually every interest group with constituents over the age of 20 against what is perhaps the last great taboo of our time, a phenomenon on par with the Salem witch trials with respect to public hysteria and equal, in terms of the statistically reliable fidget-factor, to discussions of anal sex in a room full of WASPs—"White Anglo-Saxon Protestants" or "Wants A Sexual Partner," again depending on context.


12:04:38 (313):         dont u think its a little early in the relationship for sexting?

Squeamishness around the human body is nothing new of course. Commissioned for an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1884, Thomas Eakins' now canonical painting Swimming [fig. 1]—depicting a group of six nude men, including the artist, in various stages of aquatic ecstasy—was promptly declared unacceptable and exchanged for the more appropriate The Pathetic Song, a canvas which, as its name implies, depicts an abundantly clothed female singing in her somber Victorian drawing room. (Eakins, incidentally, would later be removed from his position at the Academy after removing the loincloth from a male model in a classroom of female students.) Nor is Eakins alone in resisting the prudish Victorianism of his contemporaries. Twenty years earlier, Édouard Manet had debuted his Le déjeuner sur l'herbe [fig. 2] to widespread controversy surrounding the painting's depiction of a nude woman between two fully-clothed men. A composite of Manet's wife, Suzanne Leenhoff, and his favorite model, Victorine Meurent—both of whom posed for the painting—the woman stares directly out at the viewer as if challenging—or seducing—him with her unabashed nudity. Satirizing the public scandal caused by the painting, Émile Zola wrote, "My God! What indecency: a woman without the slightest covering between two clothed men! That has never been seen!" Zola goes on, of course, to note the 50-plus similar nudes then on display in the Louvre.

I have, in my similarly fecund production of nudes, been the subject of public controversy only once, this more recently, in the post-flip-phone era. Feeling aroused one night, and finding nothing of interest on the variably illicit dating sites I frequent—it's a small town—I took my phone, an admittedly outdated LG, to the bathroom for a shower and some experimental photography. Risking both electrocution and a roommate-alerting fall, I propped one leg on the edge of the tub, turned toward the mirror, and snapped a series of steamy, sweat-smeared photographs documenting the various stages of erection, something, I envisioned, like Muybridge's work with animal locomotion, those photographs of horses taken from a series of cameras triggered by the horse's passing [fig. 3]. Scroll fast enough, I imagined, and, like primitive film, you could see the old horse go. I sent the photos to a woman I was seeing at the time who, unbeknownst to me, was in the middle of a business dinner, her iPhone face-up beside her on the table, the "accept message" settings turned off. Which meant, of course, that up popped my erection, glowing on the iPhone's high-definition LCD screen, wedged between the salt-shaker and the operations manager for some—again undisclosable—Raleigh-based, evangelical non-profit. I haven't sexted her since.

Ill-timing aside, it now seems de rigueur that new modes of thinking about and representing the human form—and sexting is one such mode—are met with an outcry of public disapproval. The critical reception of literature, too, has long been characterized by the tension between avant-garde writers and their more conservative publics. Joyce's Ulysses, for example, was prosecuted on charges of obscenity for its description of Leopold Bloom masturbating and farting. A Farewell to Arms was described by one critic as a "sex-novel." And Nabokov's Lolita—most egregious of offenders, under review as late as 2006 in Marion County, Florida for its thematizing of pedophilia and incest—was banned across the globe throughout its early reception. Yet it was Michel Foucault who in 1976 first pointed out the hypocrisy of these kinds of condemnations, arguing that ostensibly taboo subjects in fact dominate our words and thoughts. What we think of as the suppression of inappropriate subjects in the name of decorum is actually, Foucault argues, the production of abundant and vibrant forms of discourse on the very subjects we ostensibly believe should be suppressed—sexting included. Put succinctly, Foucault explores, with the fervor of a Kinsey researcher, our post-Freudian proclivity for talking about how much we don't talk about sex.

Foucault's theory, a pivotal foundation for subsequent postmodern approaches to power and sexuality, is perhaps no more apparent than in the glee with which the American public greeted the humiliation and downfall of former U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner. Justified in name by the fact that Weiner publicly lied about his sex scandal, America's zealous prosecution of the Weiner affair in fact had its roots in the country's deep and abiding fascination with its own private sins made public. We punished in Weiner, in other words, what we also saw in ourselves. So too have we been consistently quick to evince moral disapproval with similar celebrity sext-scandals. In December of 2010, then-Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was fined $50,000 by the NFL for "failing to cooperate" with an NFL investigation of his alleged sexting affair with New York Jets cheerleader Jenn Sterger. The deliberately ambiguous "failing to cooperate" implies, however, a much more questionable punishment, one meted out for a violation the NFL would never be so risqué as to broadcast publicly, namely that Favre refused to submit his own dick for comparison with the alleged sext messages. Despite Favre's understandable anxiety about this dick lineup, and despite limited and circumstantial evidence, the NFL and its attendant media outlets—read: ESPN—pursued the story for months, turning the 24-hour sports cycle into a virtual pillory for the disgraced Favre.

Kanye West, conversely, bankrolled his own sext-scandal into a top-20 Billboard hit, famously crooning on 2010's brooding epic Runaway that he "sent this bitch a picture of my dick." West, who did in fact send photos of his junk to several women via MySpace, goes on to say that he doesn't "know what it is with females, but I'm not too good at that shit." (The scatological slant-rhyme of "dick" and "shit" should, as always, be noted.) Based on the MySpace scandal and Kanye's now infamous interruption of Taylor Swift at the VMA Awards—to say nothing of the fact that he appears to be the sole American still using MySpace—this statement indeed appears accurate. More than tawdry, paparazzi-grabbed crotch-shots, these sext messages had their origins as intimate, if misguided, communiqués between adults in various stages of sexual relationships. In the hands of the media, though—consistently feeding, like sharks, on sexting's chum of digitized skin—these messages became an opportunity to excoriate public figures for supposedly immoral behavior otherwise freely enjoyed, I contend, by a majority of the American population. While not, to our knowledge, embroiled in his own sext-scandal, Shakespeare himself did recognize this incredible human capacity for self-righteousness; as a crazed Lear wanders the storm-wracked British countryside, naked and abandoned by his family, he speaks to an imagined officer of the church: "Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand! Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back; Thou hotly lust'st to use her in that kind for which thou whipp'st her."

Likewise sexting, despite the isolated, headline-grabbing legal cases and the public uproar against it, occupies a much more prominent position in American culture than anyone cares to admit; the wave of reactionary, interest-group opposition to sexting constitutes, I would suggest, a disciplining of "the younger generation" for the very practices engaged in by sexting's most vocal opponents. A much cited but already dated Associated Press/MTV poll from 2009—one suspects the numbers have continued to climb—revealed that more than a quarter of young people under the age of 24 participated in some form of sexting. Tellingly, however, poll numbers do not exist for demographics outside of this age bracket, a glaring absence recalling the Foucauldian suggestion that precisely the behaviors we deny are those with which we are most engaged. We have, as a culture, every reason to suspect that sexting is equally prominent across all segments of the population. I know of no one my own age—which does fall outside the sample of the AP/MTV poll—who hasn't at one time or another sent or received a sext message; indeed, with the rise of internet dating—a similar phenomenon requiring an entirely separate essay to deconstruct-- sexting has become standard operating procedure even prior to the first date, though perhaps this admission reveals more about my choice in friends than it constitutes statistically valid research. W. Somerset Maugham, however, phrases it this way: "There is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror."


8:37:33 (248):Im watching the english patient. naked.

Whatever their provenance, the reasons behind the current sexting uproar are as myriad as the forms of sexting themselves. Though the COED firmly pins down "sexting" as a noun, the term resists such simplistic categorization, struggling against it like a child in a handed-down t-shirt a size too small; the word is, in actuality, a gerund, functioning as a noun but ultimately deriving from a verb and—as many of our favorite verbs do—expressing a rich variety of sexual and technological behaviors. Sexting, in other words, is not some passive entity that merely exists in the universe like dark matter, but is rather an active process in which we, as humans, participate. Sexting is something we do. And while the COED legitimizes the portmanteau by defining it alongside such stalwarts as "broasted" and "spork," it also restricts its meaning to purely mobile-phone exchanges, neglecting the other forms that sexting takes, some of which have been described above—the transmission of "sexually explicit photographs or messages" via e-mail or internet, as well as the exchange of sexually explicit video through any of the same media. To be fair, all dictionaries are in the business of pinning down a word to a single, precise meaning, but insistence on a monolithic denotation in this case comes at the expense of the varied and diverse connotations in which we participate when we, too, sext.

If it is these connotations that are in part responsible for the widespread public uneasiness with sexting, it should be noted that a similar uneasiness surrounds even the prominence in American culture of plain old texting, a pandemic associated particularly with the young in the same way that the spread of urban diseases came to be—falsely—associated with second-wave, western-European immigrants in the 19th century. Texting, critics object, decreases the already attenuated attention spans of children and adolescents, particularly in the classroom where it can be easily concealed beneath a desk or in a pocket. Texting disrupts sleeping patterns by instilling a perpetual need to check one's phone, always near at hand and often resting in bed directly beside these unfortunate, at-risk youth. Texting has even been blamed for a spate of riots in Philadelphia's Center City in August, flash-mobs organized via text-message, according to officials, and culminating in the arrest of over 50 predominately African-American teenagers. Texting is, if nothing else, the perfect scapegoat, capable of masking societal deficiencies—the rioting teenagers had no jobs and no health care—and of standing in as an easy—though failed—solution for systemic problems in the very structure of American society.

The problem, according to critics, isn't the inequalities engendered by this society, the problem is young people's response to these inequalities. The problem is texting. When protestors threatened to overwhelm the Bay Area Rapid Transit System this summer in response to the latest shooting by transit police, BART shut down mobile phone service to its stations in order to prevent protestors from organizing, a tactic deployed earlier in the summer by ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. When a high-school girl died in a car crash down the road from my home last month, every preliminary report I could find cited texting as a contributing factor, despite limited evidence to support this claim. (Subsequent investigations revealed the girl was not, in fact, texting.) So prevalent is the suspicion of texting that it is now standard procedure to cull an accident victim's phone records in order to confirm the guilt that has been presumed all along. And it is, as I've suggested, portrayed as a moral failing. In response, more than three-fourths of state governments have banned texting while driving, instituting regulations which both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute say contribute to more dangerous driving conditions given the rate of noncompliance and the strained effort to conceal one's texting while simultaneously keeping one eye on the road and another on Johnny Law. All this is to say nothing of the ubiquitous public-health campaigns aimed at texting while driving; in my own state, one billboard campaign reads "TEXT AND DRIVE" with the "R" and "V" cleverly vanishing into smoke. Such anti-texting movements are framed with the same kind of moral imperative traditionally reserved for abstinence programs, teenage pregnancy prevention, and STD campaigns, a suggestive confluence of text and sex that perhaps explains at least part of the hysteria surrounding sexting.

There is, however, one public figure who seems unperturbed by the rise of sexting, taking it in stride as just another—perhaps the best—part of his day: the Verizon guy. Having irreparably cracked the sleek, matte-finished body of my current LG—picnic, lightning—I took it up the block to exchange for a new one, always a nauseating, throughly postmodern experience requiring extensive knowledge of legalese and at least a BA in actuarial sciences. After selecting another, relatively inexpensive LG—I break them a lot—I followed the Verizon guy up to the counter where, he informed me, he could transfer my data from the busted LG to the newer one. There are, when purchasing a new phone—Verizon calls it "upgrading to a newer model," as if it's a car—two options for transferring one's stored information—numbers, photos, etc. You can, on one hand, manually input the information into the new phone yourself, a tedious, mind-numbing process that typically involves asking for numbers on Facebook and three bottles of chardonnay. Conversely, you can pay the Verizon guy $10 and he'll transfer the numbers automatically, through some kind of secret, USB-ish connection that clearly should not cost $10. Knowing the agony of manually inputting the numbers of my five friends, I told him to go ahead and transfer them automatically, a process in which each number and photo briefly flashes on both the old and new phones. This I had failed to anticipate. The pre-loaded wallpaper images of bubbles, flowers, and the Brooklyn Bridge quickly yielded to dick close-ups, full-body mirror shots, and every shape of breast you can imagine, all accumulated over a healthy, year-long sext life. Rather than tearing the phone from its connection and throwing it against the wall as I'd anticipated, however, the Verizon guy merely nodded and said "Alright" without the slightest tone of shock or disapproval, a tone located, in fact, somewhere between admiration and boredom.

By and large, however, sexting is perceived by its detractors—i.e. not myself or the Verizon guy—as a societal evil in much the same way that bourgeois religion understands premarital and homosexual sex as evil, as a hindrance to the full expression of human experience and an irresponsible, non-procreative perversion of God-given sexuality.  Like its slightly more palatable cousin, sexting instills in its practitioners a belief in and desire for instant gratification; whereas in the good old days sex functioned as the consummation of an intricate, years-long courtship ritual, now sex—or its digital equivalent—can be enjoyed within seconds of the impulse behind it. As is apparent, this is the same attention-span objection raised with regard to texting; sexting itself, then, should not be seen as some isolated form of cultural degeneration, nor as a unique cause of what is in fact a culture-wide attention deficit disorder. Rather it is one manifestation—among many—of a pervasive cultural desire for hyper-stimulation, a desire we believe suppressed but which, as Foucault anticipated, constantly marks our discourse, surging forth to latch on to whatever media it can access.


9:08:48 (216):           is it cum dumpster, cum-dumpster, or cumdumpster?

But what of the charge, also leveled by its critics, that sexting fundamentally alters the meaning, or at least the experience, of sex? In his 1997 book The Theology of the Body, a collection of sermons delivered over a span of five years in the early 80's, Pope John Paul II defends the Catholic Church's opposition to premarital and homosexual sex on the grounds that, stripped from the goal of reproduction, non-procreative sex distorts the full experience of God's gift of sexuality. Such sexual behaviors, JPII argues, deconstruct the body into mere matter robbed of its spiritual, life-affirming potential, both in its capacity to create life and to bring two—heterosexual and married—human beings together in physical and symbolic union. So too would sexting seem, to its detractors, a tainted strain of human sexuality, one that replaces an intimate personal encounter with grainy, 400-pixel snapshots of the fetishized human body. For sexting too deconstructs the human experience, parceling it in static, cell phone-sized images that are transmitted across the stratosphere at the rate of around 50 cents per message, depending of course on wireless carrier and service plan.

But if sexting converts the human body—or portions of it—into a commodity to be packaged, processed, and shipped, it also allows its participants to see in those tiny digital slides new perspectives on and possibilities for human sexuality. If it arises, as I concede it partially does, out of a narcissistic fascination with one's body, or out of a need for instant gratification, or even a desire to shock, so too does sexting fashion the raw creative impulse into thoughtfully constructed photographic compositions, into something, if so moved, we might call art. And like any artistic composition, sexting can change our lives. (This is actually an example I'll use.) I said earlier that sexting "deconstructs" the human body; appropriately, it is deconstruction—a branch of literary theory in which one can italicize halves of words—that allows us to see how sexting's parceled, pixelated body can be rebuilt as something greater than the sum of its parts, as one component of a felicitous exchange with the ability to bridge time and space and to bring together two people in an—albeit partly digital—relationship built on intimacy, trust, and an unlimited pix-message plan.

Pioneered and exported to the world in the late 60's by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, deconstruction, as its name suggests, challenges earlier structuralist assumptions that language—and the phenomena which grow out of it, including basically all of Western culture—contains a single unified and readily-comprehensible meaning. Instead of a discrete whole, a "text"—the word, as any graduate student can and will tell you, applies not merely to literary texts, but to a wide range of media, obviously including sext-messages—is composed of contradictions and internal oppositions that render the "meaning" of that text irreducibly multiple. Indeed, to speak of a single meaning represents something of a faux pas among the devotedly postmodern deconstructionists, for whom the meaning of a text exists not in its structural aesthetic unity, as formalism would have it, or in authorial intent, as my students insist, but in the free, felicitous play of linguistic "signifiers"—the fancy deconstructionist term for words. Any interpretation, then, necessarily confronts a point of uncertainty beyond which it cannot go, what Derrida called an aporia, a gap created between the multiple interpretations that take shape in the text's freely re-assembling words.

The term for deconstruction's free play of language, however, was coined not by Derrida but years earlier by fellow Frenchman Roland Barthes, who described this play as a sliding of codes that form and reform within the text, a glissement epistémologique that transforms reader into writer as he or she lavishes attention—as we lavish attention on legs and arms, breasts and buttocks—on any one or several of the interpretive possibilities coded into the text. This, for Barthes, constitutes "the pleasure of the text," its forever elusive flirtation with meaning, like the coy mating dances of the monarch butterfly. Like sexting. Indeed, a deconstructionist engagement with the text constitutes, perhaps, the earliest, most technologically-primitive form of sexting, that whimsical intercourse between sex and textuality. French for "sliding"—though it sounds like a particularly French sexual peccadillo involving the tongue and someplace no tongue should be—the word glissement seems felicitously appropriate when applied to sexting's miniature, slide-like photographs, roughly the same size and shape—depending on the phone—as the slides so meticulously arranged in Kodak Carousels of yore. For the deconstructionists, this process of sliding alsosuggests the endless recombinatorial possibilities of a text, like DNA; according to Barthes, a text, like the human body, is a slippery thing, fluid to the core.

Like any deconstructed text, the "meaning" of sexting is irreducible to the single stigmatized interpretation prematurely attributed to it by newspapers, polls, and PSA's. Rather than a manifestation of America's promiscuous, ADD-raddled youth, sexting should be looked at as a textual process whose endless compositional possibilities reflect the richness and variety of aesthetic and sexual experience. Sexting is not, I suggest, some spasmodic lurching for instant gratification in the digital dark; it is not the cell phone's glory hole. Sexters, myself included, choreograph sexts. We tilt the lampshade beside the bed, turning our bodies in the light so they capture just the correct amount of incandescence, a spectrum of color picked up by most cell-phone cameras only with great difficulty and often with low resolution. We hold the phone at arm's length, or bring it close, or prop it against a pillow, experimenting with angles and perspective and depth in the same way that Ansel Adams would photograph a single wind-sculpted desert arch from fifteen different positions. Monet, too, painted the same haystack 21 times, in each season, in every kind of weather. We use LG's and iPhones, Macbooks and Inspirons. We arch our backs and flex muscles. We sweat. We touch ourselves. We have mirrors to rival the finest in low-budget pornography. Often we work late at night, like the underground presses of the French resistance, snapping segmented frames of our bodies and sending them off through the darkness to a waiting conspirator.

Because, like any textual or communicative process—like painting, like literature—it takes two to sext, the exchange of compromising photos an intricate ritual in its own right, a form of coded, romantic communication reminiscent of 19th century French salons in which the angle of a lady's hand-fan signaled her level of interest and availability. We want, for example, to titillate the recipient(s) of our sexts, but we want to do so coyly, revealing the body piece by piece so as to leave perpetually open the possibility for future disclosures. One can't simply go around, after all, sending cock-shots to everybody one meets. Instead, we become adept at screens and subterfuge, at the art of the tease, and the entire sextual exchange becomes one gradual crescendo of nudity, vulnerability, and trust. In this way, perhaps the most apt metaphor for sexting is the senior Prom, a night one begins by shielding one's erection from Shannon McClintock, but which ends with the same raging boner jammed inevitably against her leg. In any case, the point remains that, as sexters, we spend hours crafting an exact series of photographs that dance their way in and out of the complex codes with which we write our lives. We take photos of our penises, and we tie a bow around those photos—some kind of 21st century Mapplethorpe—and we send them out, like tiny gifts, into a world breathless with anticipation.


5:04:38 (419):           Can I come to your office hours?
5:05:01 (260):           Of course.
5:05:50 (419):           Can I come again and again?

But sext-messages are not a gift. Or not, anyway, a gift as Derrida understands the term. For a gift, according to Derrida, is that which "interrupts economy," that which "in suspending economic calculation, no longer gives rise to exchange." "The gift does not come back," Derrida writes, meaning that the true gift is given without thought of reciprocity, without desire to receive anything in return, even the other's gratitude; for to desire gratitude from the recipient—or to desire his or her desire—is to desire a form of indebtedness that draws the gift back into economic circulation to which it must, by definition, always remain foreign. Sexting, conversely, operates entirely within the realms of indebtedness and economic circulation. Not only do we sext hoping that our own photos elicit the 3-megapixel genitals of another, but the process of taking one's photograph for sexting purposes is itself a kind of narcissistic exchange with oneself, masturbatory in the most literal sense of the word. We sext expecting—and getting off on the fact—that the recipient will do with our photos precisely what we do with his or hers, which is to say masturbate shamelessly. I suspect that sexting's critics object to this as well, to the ruthless economics of it all, the self-interested exchange of bodies for profit, even if this profit is calculable only in sexual or emotional terms. The sexuality of more immediate human relationships, so the argument goes, exists on a level beyond and irreducible to economic calculation; this is one of the reasons we so vigorously police prostitution, a sexual practice that brings down to the level of material exchange a phenomenon—sex—that we want to exalt as pure, disinterested love, a kind of Derridean gift rendered selflessly and without expectation of renumeration.

And if we sext in part because we are all, at the core, unavoidably self-interested, we also sext because we are all afraid. Part of sexting's appeal—and part of the reason for the public outcry against it—is the fear that the recipient of our sexts will at any moment broadcast them—cf. Anthony Weiner—to local news networks, police departments, and Kiwanis Clubs. The specter of Weiner hovers indelibly over every sext we send, admonishing us, like Hamlet's father, of our duties to the public sphere and threatening us with the destruction of our careers, our families, and our respectability. It is an honest ghost indeed. The French, as they do for so many phenomena requiring whole sentences in English, have a single word for this fear; they call it frisson, a word we Americans have appropriated to mean, as Google defines it, "a strong feeling of excitement or fear." "Or," however, is the incorrect conjunction here, the word "and" more appropriately capturing the simultaneous coexistence of conflicting emotions—the irreducible multiplicity of meanings—at the heart of frisson. The very public consequences of this supposedly private behavior are, as I've suggested, one reason for the uproar against it; there is so much to lose, critics of sexting allege, and comparatively little to gain from the surreptitious exchange of low-resolution boob pics. Yet it need not be this way. One imagines, for example—and perhaps somewhat utopically—the frank acceptance of sexting as one more of the varied and diverse sexual practices available to the human race. One imagines a less squeamish America, cognizant of the fact that we all have bodies and that they should be celebrated—invoking the nation's own language—as shining beacons on a hill rather than stifled under the bushel basket of knee-jerk conservative morality. One imagines, in short, a nation comfortable in its skin.

To be sure, the fear associated with sexting has its legitimacy, for part of what we fear is that those tiny photos of ourselves will endure far longer than the romantic or sexual relationships which inspired them, that they will continue to bounce around the digital universe long after the emotions behind them have cooled. In this sense, a more fitting metaphor for sext messages would be our own solar system, fiery planets formed under moments of intense—in this case sexual—pressure that will, almost inevitably, cool in time, losing their glow and lurking like dull rock in the inner orbits of our smart phones, laptops, and tablets. Yet there is also a profound sublimity in knowing that these glowing, surrogate selves will continue to exist—if only on remote, subterranean servers—long after the hard copies have vanished, long after our own bodies, once so pliant, have grown stiff. The Romantics defined this sense of sublimity as a feeling of one's smallness in the face of the universe. The same awe-inspiring humility experienced, for example, by Keats on a peak in Darien, or by Wordsworth on the banks of the Wye, exists also in surrendering control of our own sextuality, in recognizing and celebrating without fear of consequence the infinitely forwardable nature of the sext-message.

Though its adherents might very well be termed fetishists—along, of course, with foot-devotees and S&M queens—sext-messages themselves can be understood as objects fetishized in the Marxist sense, that is, objects expressive of, entering into, and facilitating quite meaningful human relationships. At the same time, these messages retain a very un-objectlike immateriality; you cannot, at its most vulnerable moment, touch a sext-message. At the moment of its transmission, suspended between sexter and recipient, the sext belongs to neither, freely playing across time and space, unbounded by SIM card, data plan, or parental supervision. It is this free play, the zipping of untouchable sext messages above our heads, that invests them with their openness and receptivity to the future--what deconstructionists call a kind of messianism, a waiting for a human redemption that is, ultimately, unpoliceable. This is the pleasure of the sext.


5:12:44 (440):           You realize we're going to have to act this out some day. So turned on.

 

[fig. 1] Thomas Eakins' Swimming. 1885. Oil on canvas.

 

[fig. 2] Édouard Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. 1863. Oil on canvas.


[fig. 3] Eadward Muybridge's The Horse in Motion. 1878.

 

 

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"The Pleasure of the Sext" had its origins in my realization that I could combine two of my great passions—sexting and deconstructionist theory—into a single essay which at the same time defended Brett Favre's awesomeness. It was written over several weeks in August of 2011, a period during which I was both sexting furiously and reading a lot of David Foster Wallace, especially his essay on porn, Big Red Son. I remain a little afraid that I'll be unemployable after TPOTS appears online.