It’s 2020, and nudes might now be acceptable dinner table talk. OK, this might depend on who you’re having dinner with. But some data suggests that talk of dick pics and nudes on Twitter increased 384 percent from early March to April.
Many people say that they’re engaging in sexting for the first time in their lives. Even the New York Times published an op-ed titled “The Nude Selfie Is Now High Art.”
The uptick in nude taking and sharing, of course, makes sense. We’re locked in our houses, many of us without the ability to actually f*ck each other, so the next best thing is to do so virtually. And while it’s without a doubt a positive thing, it’s worth unpacking: Why — as the New York Times says — “now”?
Yes, there’s the logistical practicality of nudes and sexting in the era of “no touching.” It’s also natural, with the existential dread of a pandemic and the great unknown, to feel like the social norms of a few months ago are now completely arbitrary.
Even I, a seasoned nudes enthusiast, have upped the ante on my sexting game while stuck at home. But as someone who has always been pro-nude, I find it a little disorienting to watch this activity — long mired in slut-shaming and stigma — be so openly and suddenly embraced.
Nudes helped me reclaim my sexuality after my endometriosis diagnosis. Taking and sharing them allows me to enjoy my sex life during a pain flare, when my body dictates limitations that might make IRL sex less preferable.
I love sending and receiving nude photos and videos, having video sex, sending dirty voice memos… you name it. And like so many of us, I enjoyed doing all that long before stay-at-home orders came down like a guillotine on our sex lives.
But it’s important to remember that physical distancing and isolation aren’t what made it OK to send nudes. Because nudes were never not OK.
Underneath the “f*ck it, we’re stuck at home” attitude is an insidious parochialism that implies we need permission to engage in our own sexuality. This is part of the narrow-minded outlook that sex is “deviant” and certain expressions of it require a justification.
There’s also a judgmental superiority to it — a “desperate times call for desperate measures” mentality. But sharing nudes isn’t a desperate measure, it’s simply a fun and fulfilling part of many people’s sexy lives.
When I posed nude for the spring 2020 “Sick” issue of Bitch magazine, I was excited more than anything else. The photos would accompany an essay I wrote about how being sexual helps me through the trauma of endometriosis. But I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me, deep down, that was nervous about what future employers or even partners might think.
We’ve all watched celebrity nude photo leaks play out in the press. Nude photos are weaponized against people to derail their careers and to attack their credibility, professionalism, and character. And that’s not going away during the pandemic.
A law firm specializing in “revenge porn” and other forms of cyber sexual abuse recently warned its Instagram followers about the potential increase in image-based sexual abuse as a result of more people turning to sexting while in isolation.
Despite being relatively comfortable in my skin (no pun intended), I still turn to my friends to validate the decisions I’m making about what I send. And despite my pro-nude stance, I still experienced some nervousness about posing nude for a magazine. I’m afraid that one day the nudes I’ve enthusiastically and proudly shared with others might fall into the wrong hands and be used to delegitimize my work or defame my character. We still live in a world where this is a possibility.
Too often we hear people say that sending nudes is “risky.” But there’s no reason sharing nude photos should be considered riskier or more lurid than (consenting adults) having sex (which is to say, not at all), even when those nudes are taken in a professional context.
There’s nothing inherently risky about sending nudes, just like there’s nothing inherently risky about how someone chooses to dress or how much someone has to drink. To frame risk through victim-blaming behavior allows predators to define harm and avoid fault.
I also know that because I’m a relatively thin, cis, white woman from an upper middle-class family, my experiences are framed through the privileges I live with. I’m more likely to be praised or paid for my nudes, because who gets shamed for being a slut depends on aspects of marginalization and privilege — of whorephobia, racism, fatphobia, and classism.
The internet has a conniption every time Lizzo shakes her ass — like during Diddy’s recent Instagram live, when he shamed her for twerking. In April, Buzzfeed reported that a young woman was fired from her job as a mechanic with Honda after her bosses found out she had an OnlyFans account. Meanwhile, when Caroline Calloway, a thin, white, upper-class woman, posted nudes on Twitter and started an OnlyFans account, the Irish Times championed her as the “queen of quarantine horniness.”
Influencers like Calloway have taken to websites like OnlyFans for clout and clicks — a trend that Elle magazine covered and that I call a sort of “slut tourism.”
In a world increasingly reliant on online commerce, influencers and newcomers dip their pinkies into sex work while minimizing the revenue share of actual sex workers and accounts who do this for a living. As sex workers get shadow banned, or outright banned, on Instagram, influencers get to market themselves freely. As the state of New York circulates a memo encouraging sending nudes and having virtual sex, sex workers have yet to receive government relief funds.
These stories all serve as reminders that even as nudes go mainstream, there’s still much work to be done. And offering “understanding” to nudes taken during the pandemic isn’t progressive or cool. If we say nudes taken during this time can be forgiven or don’t count, what we’re actually saying is that those taken at other times are fair game for shame, judgement, and exploitation.
Dictating who can enthusiastically and safely engage in their pleasure and who cannot gives rise to an empathy hierarchy where pandemic nudes can be looked at with more sympathy and understanding than those taken in other situations. The idea that only certain people can send nudes or that there are only certain times when one can send nudes is not empowerment.
To ensure that everyone can enjoy nudes with the enthusiasm and empowerment they deserve, the same acceptability and support needs to be extended to everyone who uses nudes to express their sexual agency and engage in pleasure — even, and especially, if those pics were taken before (and after!) the stay-at-home orders.
Maybe this moment will mitigate the harms of cyber exploitation, the power of which is, of course, rooted in the idea that there’s something shameful about sharing your body with someone else through photos or videos. Maybe it will finally shift the blame onto the sexual predator who nonconsensually shares nudes, as opposed to the person sending them.
And maybe — just maybe — society will stop losing its mind every time a person takes a photograph of their own body. Anyway, I’m off to send a man a video of me stripping.
Caroline Reilly is a Boston-based reproductive justice advocate, writer, and law student. You can find her work on the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media, and Rewire.News, where she writes about medical misogyny, sexual violence, abortion access, and more. Find her on Twitter.