I remember being shocked, in 1999, after setting up my hulking desktop and connecting my dial-up for the first time, to hear “You’ve got mail!” And I remember being even more shocked, in that first session, to receive an chat message asking what I was wearing—and if I could take it off.
I eventually learned how to change my settings so that random creeps couldn’t pop up on my screen. (I’ve been struggling to change settings for nearly 20 years now.) Explicit stuff on the Internet has come a long way from AOL to MySpace to Snapchat.
Lauren, my 19-year-old stepdaughter, has just finished her first year of college. (She’s been a part of my life since she was 3, and was the maid of honor at my wedding to her dad; we have a super tight family, and Lauren counts three parents—her bio-mom, her dad, and me.) Over the past few months, the two of us have discussed the different ways she has to navigate sex in the 21st century. Today, we talked about the pervasive practice of taking and sending explicit pics and videos. She clued me in on the rules of the game, the importance of getting the right pic—and how John Oliver and Edward Snowden used nude pics to explain the reach of the NSA.
I’m pretty sure that your age group was the first to have the technology to take and send quality photos with relative ease.
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So, at what age did you realize that it was even an option?
Probably like 7th grade. Actually, it was probably 6th grade. But I only knew it was something that could be done. I had a computer at that point, but I never thought of doing it myself. It was kind of like: I now know people’s pics can wind up on the Internet and that’s probably not good. But I didn’t look into more than that.
So when did that change? When did you get curious?
The next year. [laughs]
That would be about 2009. What were your options?
There was Omegle and Chat Roulette. Chat rooms, with no pics or video back then.
[Note from Stepmom: Is it bad that I have never heard of Omegle and Chat Roulette? And my kid was on it in 7th grade? I thought I was super vigilant.]
So you were talking to random people on both sites?
Yes and no. You would sneak and go on there while in class with your friends and see what provocative and vulgar thing some people would say. It was a joke to me. But I did know that these people were doing it for real.
Did you ever hang out on the sites one-on-one?
Maybe once or twice… I was bored and curious about how perverted these people could be. But I never did it for my own benefit.
What happened to the sites?
They’re still around! I’m pretty sure they both have picture and video capability now. And they probably have an Adult section.
That your 9-year-old sister could access with ease.
So what about Chat Roulette?
Exact same thing as Omegle. Just not as popular.
When did it get really pervasive?
I think it was popular for awhile before it got to me. Kids at my super small private school were always late with stuff. Someone might go away for the summer and come back and say, Look! I got a naked picture of this girl. And it was like, a pretty big deal—when it had already become no big deal in other places. I didn’t hear about it frequently until junior year around 2014.
What about now? How much is it happening now?
Everyone. Does. It.
I mean, did you see John Oliver’s interview with Edward Snowden?!
No. What happened?
They used the idea of explicit pictures and videos being accessed because of the NSA to explain the whole idea. And people on the street were like, wait. So THAT is what the NSA could do? See the dirty pics I sent my husband?
So is it a standard part of dating culture now?
Yup. You’ll be asked at some point in the relationship. And if you don’t do it some guys will say you’re lame or a tease.
Well, women are starting to handle it better. At least in my peer group.
What do you mean?
I’ll give you an example. One of my friends is seeing a new guy. It’s exclusive. He asked for pics. She told him: Look, clearly you can see me naked. You have already. But I don’t want to send it through the cloud. Like, I’ll come over, you can take any kind of pics you want. And I’d be more into it anyway if you take the picture. Take it yourself!
I love that. But even if it’s not in the cloud, he could show it and send it.
Yeah. But I kinda feel like a guy who takes a pic of his girlfriend is less likely to be like, Dude, look at this pic of my girl I took on my bed.
But it’s completely understood that if you send a guy a pic, he’s probably gonna show it to someone.
That’s depressing. Or not?
Well, I don’t know. I can only say based on my friends, and I don’t think we’re a normal sample, necessarily—but in our world, pics and videos are definitely a relationship thing, not a hook-up thing. And the pic someone gets is based on the level of the relationship. There are rules to it.
What are the rules?
First mistake amateurs make is putting their face in the pic. Never. Ever. And the other rule is to tease something. Don’t send anything super explicit.
My single friends call it the Pap Smear pic.
EXACTLY. [laughs] Oh my god. Yeah, you don’t send all of that.
How has Snapchat affected this? I remember when I heard that th pics “disappeared”—me and your mom and dad all looked at each other like: I hope Lauren understands that this is not how this is gonna work.
The thing about SnapChat is that it’s so easy to send it to the wrong person. And iMessage too. You hit the wrong button or screw up your settings…a tragedy awaits. Remember that girl at my school?
I do remember. It was video. Super-explicit. Sent it to a zillion people by mistake.
It was really bad. Like, video. Like, solo-action. Oh god, it was so bad.
So what did she do?
Well, luckily she followed rule #1 and didn’t show her face. So she was like: ha ha got hacked wasn’t me ha ha. We all knew better, but that did help it subside. Also it was late in the year and she graduated. If that had been mid-year? It would have been ugly.
So my single 40-something friends are having a real hard time with this pics business.
Deciding who to send to?
No! Just trying to take a decent photo!
Oh for sure! You have to be an amateur photographer! I know people who make a set and use them over and over.
I can do you one better. I have a 40-something friend who did a real photo shoot—
Yes. Like, makeup, hair…not too photo-shoot looking. And she doles them out while she’s at the park and her kid is on the swings.
I mean, you’re supposed to be going back and forth, right? But who the hell can take a send-worthy pic in real time?!
I know. Underwear has to be cute. Lighting has to be good. Angles have to be right. You have to contort...
Right. Because NO ONE, no matter how hot their body—
Nope. No one can send without some contorting…
And meanwhile, the guys unzip and send pics. Why aren’t they contorting?!
I think some do. A muscle-flex pic maybe. Oh, and I heard some guys trim before they take a pic to look bigger than they are.
That ain’t just for pics.
Ah, I see.
Actually, now that you mention it. You guys are doing the same exact things we did before this era. We just did it in real life.
What do you mean?
Your aunt taught me how to contort during sex for the best angles.
Right! I remember you telling me that.
She said, you can’t be on top. Ever! Nothing looks good from that angle.
She’s also the one who told me to set an alarm at 4 a.m. so I could brush my teeth, reapply a light layer of makeup and fluff my hair out so my man didn’t see me with eye boogers and morning breath.
Well, yeah. We don’t send pics that show us how we really look in the bed.
I always like to know how the topic we’re discussing affected your sexual health—negative, positive, neither or both.
I think actually it had a positive effect! But then again, I can’t really say that because I’ve just observed and learned from it. I’ve never been in a bad situation. I may have done it once or twice. And I was like, Welp. That ain’t for me. I’m not that girl. I don’t feel comfortable with it. It’s just not my thing.
But a lot of my friends are way into it. And I have to say, many of them are doing it because they’re feeling good and they just want to feel a bit saucy. Not necessarily: I need to send this pic to this person so they like me. A lot of my girlfriends send pics to each other in this group chat we have going.
Wait. How does that work?
Okay. So don’t judge.
This is some real art school stuff. That’s why I said my friends are not a good sample…
Let’s hear it.
One of my friends texted a bunch of us and said, I’m doing a piece on body positivity. Come to my room. We’re gonna get naked and dance around. So she finished her piece. And then later, we all end up creating a group chat. And a few girls decided to send pics to our group chat instead of guys. It’s become a safe space to share these photos you feel good about.
I love it.
I think you’ve gotta have a sense of humor with this stuff.
For sure. I was listening to this podcast with this woman who made a series of photos of dick pics. I haven’t looked for her work yet but just from the podcast it sounds amazing. She thinks dick pics are hilarious. So she stages her own. She hires models and fluffers and sometimes dresses the penises up. It sounds awesome.
I have to look up that podcast. [Note: we think this is it.]
You must! Oh. And you know what? Wouldn’t our conversations make an awesome podcast??
I mean, it would. But someone would hear my voice and know it was me. I’m sure of it.
Devin Anderson is a writer and author from New Jersey. She’s written professionally since 1998 and currently works as a full-time freelance writer for various outlets. She’s also written five books, three non-fiction and two novels. The name Devin Anderson is a pseudonym. The writer is changing her name to protect the innocent, the guilty—and her mom.