Even the principal received the pictures, and so did most of our teachers. Those who didn’t see them on their colleagues’ computers. ‹Anna› was 15 when she decided to send explicit photos of her naked body from various angles, posing in front of a mirror with a digital camera to a boy she supposedly liked. I didn’t know why she did that. I didn’t ask, and I didn’t even ponder it. I accepted the canon – she was a slut. 

Fast-forward thirteen years. I’m in a long-distance relationship, exchanging naughty photos at least once every two days, sometimes even twice a day, on days when I have something to procrastinate. 

With a relationship confined to the unimaginatively designed interface of WhatsApp for 75% of the time, for two people, who completely trust each other and have very high libidos, sending “nudes” isn’t really an option, it lives somewhere between the first and the second levels of Maslow’s pyramid. 

A disclaimer, before I dive in. As a cisgender (Eastern European) woman attracted to, dating, and having sex with men, my perspective doesn’t represent the general experience around nudes. As a member of the cohort least likely to orgasm during sex (see: the orgasm gap), I am conscious that the attitude toward nudes is very different across the various scales, spectrums, and dimensions of gender and sexuality. Unfortunately, these are yet to be uncovered, given that existing research focuses almost entirely on nudes sent in the heterosexual context. Furthermore, studies are mostly carried out by staff of universities in the US or Western Europe. 

But what are nudes? 

Strictly, the word stands for the depiction of the naked body through pictures or statues. But when we talk about nudes, we talk about any photos or videos taken of one’s not wholly dressed body or parts of it, sent with a “sexual purpose” (1), distributed through mostly social media, as a part of or an addition to sexting. We exclude swimwear photos from this definition because they are considered appropriate in public settings. Therefore, nudes are a fascinating social construct influenced by the interplay of gender, social norms, morality, and even fashion, making it a highly contradictory and emotional subject.

Some weeks ago, we were sitting on the terrace with my childhood best friend, who taught me more about sex than any magazine before we knew how to use the internet properly for things other than playing games or instant messaging. I briefly mentioned my habit of exchanging nudes with my boyfriend. She frowned, disclosing she had neither done it nor felt the need to ask for one. Her tone suggested she viewed it as something weird people would do. 

This motivated me to ask around. Since I was in Hungary at that time, my not-at-all-representative mini-study was based on a few Hungarian girls, some of whom I went to high school with.

All of them saw sending nudes as something unnecessary and distasteful, something that further expanded the attack surface of their sexuality.

One of them mentioned Anna’s story. It made me wonder how much that event, the awkward silence from our teachers, and the disrespectful sharing of photos contributed to their internalised repulsion towards nudes. 

But what about receiving them, I wondered. “Why would I want to see a photo of a dick? They are so ugly,”a friend expressed in genuine shock. It made me think. Am I a pervert?

Who sends nudes?

According to literature, I might be. Social scientists and psychologists spent the last decade trying to answer my question, compiling a massive body of complex research to explore whether sending nudes means you’re deviant or not.

While they’re very obscure and stigmatising, suggesting that psychopaths and nude-senders (and even sexters) share an alarming number of traits (such as low agreeableness and neuroticism) (2), they also suggest that 60-70% of adults have engaged in the exchange of dirty messages or even sending sexually explicit photos at least once in their lives (2, 3).

Interestingly, attachment styles seem to affect sexting or sending nudes, too (4). If your attachment style is anxious, it might be a tool for you to keep your partner’s interest. If you’re avoidant, you can use dirty messages or photos as a digital substitute for intimacy. 

Another study carried out in Indiana goes even further. They suggest traces of the ‘Dark Triad’ (namely: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism) in one’s personality might also serve as an explanation for sending nudes. However, they didn’t find any proof,  so we can rest assured, psychopathy and nudes don’t go hand in hand with each other. These alarming suggestions are more likely cause by the tiny detail that many studies don’t differentiate between your average nude-sender and the so-called “cyberflashers”.

According to a survey carried out in the UK, 41% of millennial women have received an “unsolicited” photo of male genitalia, falling victim to what is called “image-based sexual abuse”. 

The perpetrators are “cyberflashers” (which is way too cool a term to describe abusers), and believe it or not, some of them may genuinely believe that this is a form of flirting, and expect reciprocity without fully understanding the implications of their actions. Encouraged by the illusion of safety, anonymity and invisibility of online spaces, it is easier to open up, say things we wouldn’t say otherwise. For some, it is the space where they can expose their private parts without anyone asking them to. This phenomenon, known as the online disinhibition effect, can lead to cathartic self-disclosure, however, it may cause lasting harm to others. 

In full disclosure, women can be cyberflashers, too. However, their victims usually don’t feel bad about it at all. Most “cyberflashed” men are reported to have positive reactions to unexpected nudes. This, obviously, sheds  light on the power imbalance between genders that are extremely pronounced in a sexual context, even in online spaces. In a society that works so relentlessly to reduce women’s value to their looks through different media, the stigmatisation of ageing or gaining weight, just to name a few, cyberflashing might be just another way of engaging in self-objectification for women. It also reinforces the outdated idea of men always having to be sexually interested in a naked female body. 

Most of the high-level academic material I read on nudes fill me with worry more than the look in my friends’ eyes. Chances are I’m either an unrepentant Machiavellian or an anxious victim of patriarchy who internalised the male gaze so much she identifies self-objectification as her source of pleasure.

Ultimately, a study from the University of Gothenburg brings me peace. The researchers surveyed people living in long-distance romantic relationships, and found 69% of women and 62% of men engage in cybersex with their significant other (3). The internet expands our dating pool, it also expands the framework of sexuality. 

Normalising nudes

Mainstream Western media seems to have made peace with the existence of nudes, paving the way to normalisation through spreading the ones of celebrities diligently through the years, exposing almost every single young actor on Disney Channel. Now, they produce an excess amount of articles concerning the topic: giving advice on how to prepare for the perfect photo (with the golden rule of keeping the nudes unidentifiable!), and how to deal with its aftermath. Personally, I find British GQ’s article educational and entertaining, something to share with friends, who have a dick to pic. The text, for those who don’t have male genitals, introduces dickpic-senders as a group potentially vulnerable to the outcomes of sending the photo. For the prospective senders, it examines the concept of consent, the importance of timing, and the art of sending a dickpic “respectfully”.

Mainstream Western media seems to have made peace with the existence of nudes, paving the way to normalisation through spreading the ones of celebrities diligently through the years.

However, another message we might stumble upon while reading these writings published by laymen and unsupervised by experts, is the toxic, cynical stoicism surrounding the act of leaking nudes “for fun” or as revenge. A listicle on Bolde, a website focusing on women’s relationships and dating, playfully warns female nude-senders that it’s highly likely their “goodies” will be seen by others in addition to the original recipient, and presents this as a form of flattery. This perspective is quite audacious, considering that sharing nude photos is far from complimentary; instead, it often results in devastating consequences, including the destruction of lives and trust, and tragically, in some cases, prompting individuals to take their own lives.

One would think the safest option is to refrain from sending nudes altogether. Nevertheless, thanks to AI, you don’t even have to get naked or snap a selfie anymore. Apps like Nudify create a new kind of sexual dystopia, a fertile ground for misuse and abuse. 

Nudes are not the problem 

As with sex, so with nudes, the takeaway is the same cliché repeated ad nauseam: do whatever makes you happy, but be very careful. Whatever that means. The real issue here isn’t whether I send nude photos or like them.

As women, we often find ourselves having to reconsider our actions multiple times—perhaps two, three, four, or even twenty times—resulting in overthinking to the point where we don’t even know what makes us happy anymore.

Not to mention, owning our bodies and our sexuality is so easily weaponised and used against us. But even if our nudes are safe with someone, there are so many other things to worry about, considering the limitations women experience in heterosexual sex, like the orgasm gap or constantly maintaining an attractive, “feminine” look. However, this exploration is further complicated by messages that emphasise women’s responsibility to ensure their own safety, such as the borderline slut-shaming of benevolent blog posts or magazine articles that warn us about our nudes being potentially leaked. By the time we start having sex, we already internalised so many toxic views about how we are supposed to do it that unravelling our place within this intricate web of societal norms and patterns, all shaped by our physical realities and pleasure, can be a lifelong endeavour. So maybe contemplating nudes is at the bottom of most women’s priority list.

As for Anna, I wonder if she ever sent a nude again after that experience in high school. Judging by her Facebook profile, she appears to be happily married to someone from our town, who has possibly seen those photos. So meanwhile, it’s hard to tell, if I’m a pervert or anxious or completely healthy and empowered, it’s safe to conclude, sending nudes is not necessarily the first step of a downward spiral that ends in tragedy. As it shouldn’t be. It’s our mutual responsibility to help victims and stigmatise the act of leaking nudes instead of sending them.

If you or someone you know have been a victim of non-consensual intimate image abuse, contact your local victim advocate for help and information.

Written by Maria Guban. 
Mária Gubán is a cultural journalist and an aspiring researcher of far-right movements living in Amsterdam. She has a degree in Psychology and Anthropology, and started her career as a theatre critic. Alongside writing, she loves picking up furniture from the streets and getting lost in nature.

Illustrated by Safae Boudrar.
Safae Boudrar, an illustrator and cartoonist from Morocco, is currently in her fourth year of architecture school at UM6P. A proud alumna of the Women Cartooning Fellowship, she mostly tackles gender equality issues with her drawings, but it’s not all serious. She also loves to spread warm thoughts and emotions through her breezy illustrations!