I've never been much of a sexter. Even in the heyday of anonymous chat-room encounters, when all my friends would log on to MSN and get four sentences into "cybering" with strangers before signing out in a panic, the idea never held much allure for me. Though I've always liked erotica, textually rendering sexual acts has so much potential for awkwardness that experiencing it one-on-one generally makes my skin crawl.
It's like the difference between seeing a friend perform at an open mic night and having them sing a song they wrote for you, just the two of you alone in the hushed quiet of their bedroom. For some people, it's romantic; for me, it's way too much pressure on either side to be anywhere near enjoyable.
Sex offline benefits from the near-immediate faultiness of human memory. It's rarely perfect, sure, but at least in real life an errant elbow or accidentally mumbled "I love you" can be brushed away, at least temporarily, by some quickly deployed distraction techniques. Not so with sexting: it forces you to lay your actions down in a permanent, unmistakable medium to be dissected and potentially rehashed later (or read aloud to your sext partner's roommates). Because of this, composing sexts requires a level of vulnerability that I find frankly intimidating.
Simultaneously, though, it's dispassionate in the way that a lot of digital communication can be. We've all had text or Gchat fights that got heated, I'm sure, but it's hard for me to get really worked up in primal passion when I've got one hand down my pants and the other one trying not to get body-gunk on my phone. Like erotica, it leaves spaces for my own imagination to fill, but unlike a 140,000-word pornographic fan fiction, I'm expected to reciprocate, too.
For better or for worse, sexting strips the messy, bulbous reality of relationships down to their core elements -- sometimes crackling, sometimes stilted, sometimes just plain uncomfortable. And for better or for worse, I'd decided a long time ago that it wasn't for me.
And then my friend Brendan found a way to make it one thousand times better -- through a project called The Sext Exchange.
Brendan, a developer based in Portland, is something of a genius when it comes to Twitter. I'd always seen the site as a tool for self-promotion, social outreach or seemingly endless 140-character variations summarizing the dreams I'd had about Snoop Dogg. Given Twitter's, as Brendan puts it, "really nice programming interface," however, some savvier people than I have used it in more creative ways than constantly updating people on their burrito-eating progress.
For example, every time Brendan reaches a multiple of 5,000 tweets, he "tries to roll out a new project of some kind" -- the last one, Starpilot, grants people temporary access to your account, which frankly terrifies the hell out of me. This time around, just in time for Valentine's Day, he created the Sext Exchange, which allows people to anonymously send and receive "sexts" to strangers through Twitter.
Here's how it works: using your Twitter account, you follow @sextexchange and wait for a follow-back. Then, you send it a direct message beginning with the word "sext:" Soon after, the bot will respond with a random (anonymous) sext from someone else, having sent your original message to someone who participated earlier. You can then upvote the sext you received by replying with a ";)" or "yes," which raises the chance of the sext's author of making it on the leaderboard and being Queen Sexter Throughout the Interland.
If it sounds suspiciously easy, that's because it is -- and the temptation to start things off by sending bullshit or vapid sexts is fierce. However, once you've received a few touching or heartfelt messages in response to, say, "You smell like a bucket of baby unicorns" (mine), you start feeling a strange responsibility to ensure that people aren't disappointed by their sextexchange experience. The vulnerable aspect of regular-type sexting is still present, but it's now cushioned by anonymity; the format allows you to take chances with what you produce, but it's somehow impossible to forget that these are real people being potentially moved, amused, wigged out or (OK, let's face it) turned on by the messages you're throwing into the ether.
As a result, Brendan says, users have created some genuinely great material. "I have been absolutely delighted by the response," he tells me via email. "It’s not a huge pool of players yet, but it’s still the most successful game I’ve ever started, and everyone involved is really GOOD at it. People on sextexchange have crafted some really beautiful, odd, hilarious, poignant and frankly hot messages, sometimes all at once."
"I hoped players would find an emotional resonance in the game, as has happened with some of the earlier projects, but I was also afraid people would just send garbage to see what they’d get back," he continues. "I’m really glad to have been wrong. The variety and imagination on display have been even better than I could have hoped for. There are certainly people who seem to show up to play Very Seriously, but the mix of humor, empathy and light-hearted titillation seems to be infectious. The sextexchange bio says 'be careful, be generous, be kind,' and it’s amazing how well everyone has bought into that."
Though there is a flagging system in place, Brendan says that of the more than 2,000 sexts that have been sent so far, only five have been marked for review. There's always a third-party factor involved with sexting: like it or not, you're slipping a love note into the palm of a messenger, albeit a largely invisible one whose only hazards are poor 3G connections or sudden death by toilet bowl. With sextexchange, the messenger is just a little bit more noticeable, and also wearing a candy thong.
The whole game is made even more interesting by the existence of the leaderboard, which uses the most frequently upvoted sexts to rank the top 12 players. Unsurprisingly for the competitive jerkwads among us, getting on the leaderboard is a little addictive. I should note, by the way, that although the messages you send can certainly be of the "I put on my robe and wizard hat" variety, the required prefix of the word "sext" essentially means that anything, anything can be a sext. (Brendan credits poet and comedian Patricia Lockwood for coming up with the format.) Which is fitting, I guess, considering that if there's one thing the Internet has taught me, it's that sexuality is far wider-reaching and deeper-plunging than Kinsey would have ever dreamed of.
But this conceit also imbues all the sexts you send with a kind of power, no matter how innocent you may intend them to be. You're essentially inscribing your own sexuality onto these messages -- and when people upvote them, it feels like a validation of those desires. In turn, it's hard not to be a little miffed when you spend time crafting a genuinely sexy message only to have it brushed aside by its recipient. Not having a sext upvoted brings to mind the experience of losing at Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples; it can be weirdly disheartening when someone doesn't find the same things as witty, moving or hot as you do.
I myself have never sent any NC-17-rated messages. In the past few weeks, though, I've started to use sextexchange like a lonely trucker might use a glory hole at a rest stop outside of St. Louis -- for brief, faceless, but still meaningful human contact. Each sext I send means extending my hand briefly into the digital abyss just to feel a fleeting brush of someone's anonymous fingers against my own. It's nice, too, to know some of my friends are playing: In "American Tail" terms, it's a great reminder that we're all looking at the same moon.
When I was throwing a tantrum about the U.S. women's hockey team losing gold at the Olympics, I sent, "sext: make me forget." When I missed someone I haven't seen in a while, I sent, "sext: let's eat burritos under an electric blanket." And when I found myself grinning aimlessly out at the lights along the Chicago River last Friday, I sent, "sext: look at that skyline. Doesn't it just bowl you over, even now?"
Each one got a response, of course. They always do. But even automated and anonymous, they were still love notes from another person -- someone who'd made themselves just a little vulnerable, who'd condensed their feelings into neat packages of 140 characters or fewer to be sent out into the universe.