How Sexting Is Influencing Art

Sexting is a kind of social currency that allows us to document and collect others’ sexual interest in us, all while bonding over shared sexual experiences.

Jan 21 2016, 5:03pm

Image: Surian Soosay/Flickr

In November 2014, journalist Jenna Wortham unveiled a new project on Matter: A collection of 16 illustrations based on nude photos, paired with quotes from the subjects pulled from interviews conducted by Wortham. The piece, titled Everybody Sexts, explores the way sexting has become embedded into our daily lives. Why do we it? When we do it? And who are we doing it with?

Inspired by the celebrity hack of 2014 (better known in some corners of the internet as The Fappening), Wortham's piece was intended as "an exploration of what it means to be a human being in the 21st century"—and though it was not the first bit of cultural commentary to examine the phenomenon of sexting, it was one of the first to transcend hand-wringing or how-to guides, and present the sexual behavior as something worthy of inspiring art.

Wortham's not the only person looking at sexting through an artist's lens: A year before the launch of Everybody Sexts, Karen Finley showcased Sext Me If You Canat The New Museum, and photographer Evan Baden turned his camera towards the topic of digital intimacy all the way back in 2008. But as sexting's gone from pervy pastime to everyday occurrence—the kind of thing you do while eating baby carrots and wearing sweatpants—the nature of the conversation has changed.

Once the intimacy itself has faded, the digital flotsam that remains is no longer connected to another human

Merely commenting on the existence of sexting, or the newness of digital intimacy, is no longer enough. Art that examines sexting is pushing the discussion in entirely different directions, examining the absurd hilarity of text-based sex, the way sexts can act as a form of social currency, and, perhaps most interestingly of all, why it is that we're so comfortable sharing and publicizing what's theoretically one of our most intimate moments.

Send Me Your Sexts is an ongoing project from Vancouver-based filmmaker Eileen Yaghoobian, who transforms sexts into short films that are intended to be funny, not sexy, with more absurdity than nudity (case in point: the trailer for Yaghoobian's latest installment offers up a skateboarding-filled homage to Hitchcock). Using screenshots of strangers' sext conversations as her script, Yaghoobian creates videos set in a variety of mundane locations—on the tennis court, in a car, in an arcade—that don't immediately bring banging to mind. Removed from any erotic context, the exchanges become awkward, absurd, and sometimes confusing; for Yaghoobian, that's the point. - Bruce & Jane Original Teaser Trailer! from Send Me Your Sexts on Vimeo.

"What turns me on about sexting is the ambiguity of it all," says Yaghoobian, noting that, unlike porn, the sexiest parts of sexting are often the bits you don't see. She also sees the absurd humor of it all as an essential element of sexting's eroticism. "The act of sex can be funny and awkward," she said, adding that seeing that same dynamic play out in sexting makes it more, not less, hot to her.

In addition to examining the unintended humor of our jerk-off texts, Yaghoobian's project is also a commentary on our very willingness to share what are theoretically our most intimate, private moments. Send Me Your Sexts was inspired by her own sexting habits: specifically, the way she found herself sharing screencaps of those conversations with some of her friends.

"Sexting is like baseball cards," Yaghoobian said, noting that they're a kind of social currency that allows us to document and collect others' sexual interest in us, all while bonding (and sometimes commiserating) with friends over shared sexual experiences. She's fascinated by the way sexts bridge the gap between public and private, managing to be both supremely intimate and yet incredibly shareable.

"It's amazing how easily people share their sexts," Yaghoobian said. And she should know: since launching the project, she's seen her fair share of people's sexts, and not just from the strangers who message her hoping to see their erotic exchanges transformed into mini movies.

"Even when actors were auditioning for me, they were sharing their sexts," she said. One actress even received a shared sext (in this case, a dick pic sent to one of her friends) during an audition—which, naturally, she shared with Yaghoobian.

Send Me Your Sexts doesn't offer an explanation for why sexts are so shareable, or why, for instance, total strangers would be willing to send their sext conversations to a filmmaker in Canada. But it does offer a hint: sexting is performative.

Sexting transforms sex from something we experience at the core of our being to something that we observe at a distance, the same way we observe the news, or Twitter, or even porn. Removed from the context of a specific experience, most sext exchanges are remarkably similar. After all, there are only so many ways that one can describe sucking and fucking, arousal and orgasm (and, in the heat of the moment, few of us are creative enough to really do it well).

We share our sexts because the sexts themselves aren't the true point. They're an echo of an intense experience, digital remnants that gesture towards, but never fully recreate, a moment of intimate exchange. Digital intimacy may bring us closer, but once the intimacy itself has faded, the digital flotsam that remains is no longer connected to another human. Until, that is, we reignite that sense of intimacy by using those sexts to bond with friends, strangers, and even Canadian filmmakers over the sheer absurdity of sex itself.