Dear New Romantics,
Picture this: You’re a straight, cis woman currently partnered with a straight, cis man. You’re hanging out alone on the couch one evening, flipping through Netflix options, when you suddenly get a killer idea for a nude.
You run to your bedroom, muss up the sheets so they look appropriately disheveled, and check the lighting. It’s imperfect, so you arrange the lamps for an appropriate glow. In the bathroom, you take care to freshen up your fading lipstick and crumbling eyeliner, and you zhuzh your hair with a bit of product.
After changing into a bra-and-panty set that’s hot but casual enough to say “spontaneous,” you shoot a dozen or more photos that you then expertly crop and lightly edit.
Half an hour since the idea occurred to you, you send it off to your boo — and you wait.
“Ugh,” he writes. “That’s hot.”
Included is an image that’s supposed to be tit-for-tat on the hotness scale: in this case, a picture of his erect penis, pulled out from his Bart Simpson boxers, resting in his hand. He’s lying in bed. You can see the television on in the background. His room is a little messy, and for some reason, his tube-socked feet are included in the frame.
Oh. Um. Alright.
You’re really not impressed with this astounding lack of effort — does he know how many times you had to rearrange your breasts to get them to look that good? — but you’re not surprised either.
This, my friends, is the nudes gap.
The nudes gap is a phenomenon wherein the effort put into our sexy-selfie content can often be predicted by gender.
Anyone of any gender or orientation can take an awesome nude, just like anyone of any gender or orientation can take a boring one. But given social scripts around sex and dating, I think it’s worth investigating this discernible pattern, particularly between cis men and cis women who date one another.
Why are women sending fire nudes only to receive uninspiring images in return? Why, on average, do women send nudes that are more time- and labor-intensive to capture when men send much more quickly produced images, often less captivating and less intentional?
Maybe this is unsurprising. Pleasure itself is often differently defined between men and women. Where men often see penile-vaginal penetration as the main event, women often crave more time spent on other sexual activities. And in a patriarchal society, more weight is often given to men’s needs.
Clementine Morrigan, a writer and educator on Instagram, explained in a recent post, “Compulsory heteronormativity relies on scripts and roles to produce narrowly defined sexual experiences. We know ‘how’ to have sex under the rules of compulsory heteronormativity because we’ve been trained in these scripts our whole lives.”
Of course these scripts would then play a role in nudes.
And when exploring this as a gendered phenomenon, there are two prevailing — and, interestingly, kind of opposing — theories on where this might come from.
Objectification theory explores how womanhood is experienced within a social context that equates a woman’s worth with a level of beauty and sexual availability. That is, if you’ve been taught your whole life that your value is based on how attractive your body is, how might you move through the world?
For women, the expectation is often: Express a traditionally feminine aesthetic (hello, makeup and lingerie) to entice our (presumed straight, monogamous, male) partners with our wiles (oh hey, sexy selfies). In order to fulfill our social scripts — to behave in ways that are probable, given social context — we should make ourselves pretty and available.
The male gaze (a media term coined to describe the assumption that the predominant viewer is male) has an impact beyond media: Women are rewarded — and valued — when they please men, whether they’re partnered or not, and punished when they don’t. And women who are multiply marginalized — like women of color and trans women — experience even more overlapping gazes that they’re expected to acquiesce to.
Indeed, recent research shows that women are four times more likely than men “to say that they sent sexually explicit images of themselves in order to prevent the recipient from losing interest or to prevent the recipient from looking at images of others.”
This, under objectification theory, works as a transaction: Women package their bodies and “offer” them for something in return — in this case, an interested (and hopefully loyal) partner. It’s sexuality commodified.
Women’s entire physical forms are sexualized under objectification theory, whereas cis men receive the message that their penises are the most sexually potent parts of their bodies. And this may explain the differences in images. Women have more to work with — and live under higher expectations — than men do.
Men, on the other hand, may be more likely to exhibit their masculine worth through means unconnected to their bodies, like their wealth — or, uh, as we explored with the fish pics phenomenon, their ability to fish.
But let’s not jump to victimizing women just yet by assuming they’re all suffering in a cruel society in which there’s no agency. Because the other theory we want to explore here is that of empowerment.
The recent study mentioned above asked what motivated college students to send sexually explicit images of themselves through text message and found that 73 percent of women and 67 percent of men said their goal was to turn on the recipient.
But an interesting pattern emerged: Women were twice as likely as men to say that sending nudes boosted their confidence and four times as likely to say that doing so made them feel empowered.
In a press release about the study, researcher Morgan Johnstonbaugh explained, “Women might find sexting to be really empowering because you can create a space where you feel safe expressing your sexuality and exploring your body” — a point that may also explain the rise in interest in boudoir photography.
Sexting can often feel like a safer environment for that exploration (although there are risks), especially since it puts so much control in the (literal) hands of the selfie-taker. Maybe the preparation is less about the pleasure the recipient gets and much more about the sender controlling how they want “sexy” interpreted and expressed.
In other words, a really good nude pic, in a mutually respectful exchange, is also an opportunity for women to receive praise for just being themselves.
On the other hand, the social acceptability of men expressing themselves as sexual beings is more ubiquitous. It may not always feel this way. Surely, there are expressions of sexuality that can feel shameful or taboo for men.
But from the hundreds of pornography categories catered to men to the use of women’s bodies as entertainment in male-dominated spaces (think: cheerleaders) to rape myth acceptance around men’s lack of control of their desires, men are given outlets to explore sexuality in ways that women aren’t.
“This difference,” Johnstonbaugh said, “may be explained by the fact that men already feel empowered or because there are some ideas related to masculinity and intimacy that prevent them from sharing in this way.”
And this might explain their being less engaged with sexting as a means of self-expression. But when we consider flirting a form of self-expression, why wouldn’t you want the receiver to get the best you?
Why some people put more effort into nudes is complicated. On one hand, women in particular have been socialized to understand their bodies as currency and how to be more attractive to the male gaze. On the other, consensual nude pics are an opportunity to explore our bodies in a safe(r), more self-directed environment.
The efforts may be more about getting to know and love ourselves than trying to impress someone else. But wait — what are you supposed to do when you’re not getting back what you’re putting in?
If you’re sending fire nudes, exploring who you are sexually, but receiving desire-extinguishing pics in exchange, are you allowed to ask for more?
The answer is yes. You just want to be careful about how you express the request, focusing on what you do want rather than what you don’t want.
This plays two roles: (1) You’re concretely asking for specific things, which is more helpful than a vague “This isn’t working for me,” and (2) the feedback, spun in a positive light, will likely be received as exciting rather than hurtful.
Try asking “You know what I would love?” followed by a description of the kind of image that would really turn you on. Let them know which body parts excite you the most, what level of undress you’d like to see them in (goodbye, dick pic, hello, erection-through-boxer-briefs shot!), and whether you’d prefer moving or still images. And when they send you something awesome, let them know it.
Regardless of our genders and orientations, nudes can be a fun way to explore ourselves and excite our partners. So let’s make sure we’re getting what we truly want, from our own experiences and from each other.