Type “a/s/l” to anyone who came of age in the 90s and they will think that some freaky shit is about to go down. In the good ol’ days of AOL chat rooms, “age, sex, location” were the three things you needed to know before cybering, which meant having internet sex. It was an introduction, and also a way to tie usernames—which were rarely, if ever, one’s real identity—to an actual human being. (Ironically, people rarely gave their true a/s/l, because messaging was largely used to mess around).
AOL chatrooms saw their demise with the rise of DSL and social networks in the early aughts. And with the proliferation of cellphones, sexting has emerged as the new, more mainstream, version of cybersex. But unlike its forefather, sexting doesn’t have the perks of true anonymity because it is tied to your phone number. Unfortunately, we are no longer in the internet’s wild west. Gone are the days when a middle-aged man could make “friends” as “Hotgirl69.”
“It was a way to have a brand new sexual experience without having to take the same risks you took in a real meeting,” porn expert Rob Weiss told the Daily Dot about the cybersex boom of the mid-nineties. Of course, kids were warned that potential predators could lurk behind a fake avatar, but never that a naked picture would ruin any chance at a future political career. If an IRL meeting threatens your physical safety, then a sext exchange presents a more ominous, existential risk.
The media frames sexting as an illicit, dangerous habit, telling countless harrowing tales that demonstrate its life-ruining consequences. Teen girls’ nudes are constantly spreading across the internet; there’s even been a felony investigation of a Colorado high school over students sending thousands of sexts to one another. As recently as February, an assemblyman in California tried to ban digital dirty talk from schools.
But data has proven that “sexting prevention programs” aren’t just ineffective, they’re unnecessary. A University of Texas study found no link between sexting and risky sexual behavior, suggesting that it is “a new 'normal' part of adolescent sexual development.” In her research, Professor Amy Adele Hasinoff, author of Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent, discovered that the menacing consequences of sexting are largely imaginary. As few as 10% of teens who sext have felt like their privacy was violated by a sexting partner; the other 90% do it freely and without catastrophe.
Part of the fear and anxiety around sexting comes from the misconception that it’s exclusively for the young and careless. But it isn’t just teens that enjoy digital dirty talk: everybody sexts, from the married to the single to the somewhere in between. Over 80% of adults have sexted, half of whom did so with casual, non-monogamous partners. Even the AARP suggests sexting for those over 50!
Sexting has mass appeal because it’s done on something almost everyone has: a cellphone. We carry them around in our pockets, making it easier than cybering on a clunky desktop ever was. The intimate relationship we have with our devices means many sexters are prolific in their practice. A sextpert won’t let a “fire nude” go to waste, reusing them with future partners; they might even sext the same thing to multiple people at once.
As sexting becomes more common and casual, the connection between the performance and the physical act of sex is increasingly weak. Sexting from work meetings will get even easier when everyone is wearing their technology.
Messaging apps frequently used for sexting offer a return to the early internet where cybersex and its thrilling lack of accountability flourished. Kik, an app that’s extremely popular among teens, is username only; Yik Yak allows one to post completely anonymous messages. And then there is Snapchat, commonly referred to as the “sexting app” in its early days, where sent messages disappear when viewed. To the delight of sexters (which is basically, everyone) everywhere, Snapchat has made it feel safer to send someone—or ten special someones—a picture of your boobs.
Future generations steeped in digital surveillance will crave the kind of old school freedom that these apps provide. In a world where our relationships are increasingly policed, it’s no shock that Snapchat's user base isn’t just young; they’re the most engaged of any social network. We all want to feel—even if it’s largely an illusion—that some things, like our nudes, are just ours. And its even better when they belong to no one after a bad break up.
Deputy editor of Real Future.