Dear New Romantics,
You pick up your phone, even though it’s only been 20 seconds since the last time you checked, and click to your Instagram notifications.
Your latest post is getting a lot of likes. It’s a throwback to summer 2019: You’re faking a candid shot, looking casually sexy in your leopard print bikini top and cut-off jean shorts, licking an ice cream cone on the boardwalk. Your caption is a casual, unassuming note about the hell this year has been. You’re hoping, somewhat subconsciously, that people will think you look good — without it looking like you’re trying to look good. It’s an art form.
And there it is. The babe you’ve recently developed a crush on liked the picture. Not only that, but they commented with a simple but effective heart-eyes emoji, too. You think, Hell yes! I’ve practically got them wrapped around my finger.
The post worked: It gave you a small confirmation that maybe, just maybe, they’re crushing on you too.
Smugly satisfied, you put your phone down — without even responding to their comment. You don’t want to look desperate now, do you?
You’re caught in the thirst trap.
Setting a thirst trap is the idea that by posting something provocative and receiving the sought-after response, you have “trapped” (tricked) people into admitting their “thirst” (interest in or desperation for you). And it’s often done intentionally. According to Urban Dictionary, it’s specifically a “sexy photograph or flirty message posted on social media.” Some definitions argue that thirst traps are inherently attention-seeking or that the goal is to motivate DM slides.
A thirst trap can cast a broad net, posted more generally for the confidence boost of positive responses, or it can be narrowly focused, posted to gauge the interest of someone(s) in particular. And it can be posted either publicly or privately (like to a close friends group or a finsta).
Thirst traps can look lots of different ways
- Images or videos that are often suggestive but not overtly sexy. They’re posted to receive admiration, hopefully. They could be a boomerang of how good your butt looks in your new yoga pants (hello, fire emoji!) or a sweet picture of you casually braless in bed.
- Text — either on its own, like in a story post, or accompanying an image — that suggests a flirtatious air, like “Who wants to come cuddle me to sleep?” or “Spending another Sunday alone.”
- Open invitations to sexy content, either directly (“I’m in the mood for sexy banter. DM me to shoot your shot!”) or indirectly (starting a close friends group on Instagram for exclusive content, like nudes).
They’re not usually well concealed, but that’s often what makes them flirtatious — and even effective. Thirst traps are a clear communication of desire, but still coy enough to feel light and fun.
Thirst trapping is often looked down upon as desperate or otherwise unbecoming. This stems from the idea that people who seek validation (uhh, isn’t that all of us?) in a public manner are less worthy of that love and affirmation. There’s also the “are thirst traps feminist or anti-feminist” debate: where some believe that asking for affirmation of physical attractiveness is inherently anti-feminist while others argue that displaying sexual confidence and naming your desire (especially the more marginalized you are) is a feminist act.
A lot of the push and pull around thirst trapping is rooted in a social justice issue called desirability politics, according to Everyday Feminism. They’re the idea that some people are unanalytically considered more attractive than other people. Desirability politics highlight how the belief that thirst trapping is desperate or anti-feminist may be rooted in the belief that (especially marginalized) people should display humility instead of self-confidence.
But the politics of wanting to be desired, at the foundational level, are much simpler: Humans are social. We enjoy community belonging. Love and sex are two examples of that. And thirst trapping is a form of flirtation: an attempt to measure romantic or sexual interest in a fun, low stakes way.
But let’s talk some more about why we desire validation in the first place.
There are often two extreme camps that people fall into when thinking about validation:
- Camp A believes that validation is a human need for acceptance and feeling understood that we all have a right to seek.
- Camp B believes that we are over-reliant on external validation for self-concept and that a consistent need for validation, especially given how that can be measured online in likes, can point to crises in self-assurance.
I think we can infuse some nuance into this and settle on the truth: We all crave validation, and validation-seeking behavior can become unsupportive to our mental health.
To start, let’s acknowledge that self-esteem is a debated topic in psychology. On the one hand, the word captures a unique phenomenon: our subjective evaluation of our own worth. But our obsession with self-esteem — and the idea that building it can combat problems that are social in nature, rather than individual — is a relatively new phenomenon, according to The Guardian.
The self-esteem boom was born around the same time millennials were: in the mid 80s through early 90s. We are, truly, the Self-Esteem Generation. And criticisms of this movement abound, according to Will Storr’s book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us. But if we think of self-esteem in simple terms — how we feel about ourselves — then it comes from two places: internal and external validation.
That is, what we believe and communicate about ourselves matters, and what others believe and communicate about us matters too.
A quick Google search for “self-esteem building” shows that we tend to focus on the individual responsibility for self-esteem (as anyone who’s ever been directed to practice affirmations in front of a mirror can tell you). Most of the suggestions fall under self-work and self-love, which of course, is awesome — we probably all need to incorporate more of it into our lives.
But when we individualize it, we also create a bootstrap mentality around it. “If you have low self-esteem, that’s your fault — and it’s your job to fix.” As social beings, much of what we learn about ourselves and our place in the world comes from other people.
If we grow up with caregivers who abuse, neglect, or reject us, we probably won’t grow up to be particularly self-assured. This is also true of people who experience more marginalization in society. The more oppression one experiences, the more difficult it is to build positive self-concept.
Disapproval from people around us can be devastating. But that works both ways: Approval from other people is also formative! We want to be loved, cared for, and validated by the people around us because it helps us understand how and where we belong. Growing self-esteem from how other people applaud us is something we’re all doing, whether we post thirst traps or not.
The concern comes when our need for external validation overrides our ability to feel safe in ourselves.
When we are dependent on other people’s opinions of us to the point that we’re unable to define ourselves without that input or manage the disappointment of disapproval, we may need to pause. This is when we might need to tip the self-esteem building balance inward, so that we can learn to feel confident about who we are and what we deserve.
Posting a thirst trap is not a cry for help or an indication that someone has low self-esteem. Most of the time, it’s a healthy, supportive expression of a desire for external validation.
Now, I don’t think we need to analyze our own psychology each and every time we decide to post something on the Internet. But I do think we could engage in reflection sometimes to gain a better understanding of ourselves and our behaviors. This can be especially important when we notice patterns of feeling disappointment or frustration after engaging in certain behaviors.
The next time you’re ready to post a thirst trap, try sitting with these three questions:
- What do you dig about this post? How does the post reflect how you’re feeling about yourself? If you feel good about the picture because it’s an awesome representation of your unique self, feelings, and authentic expression of desire, that’s perfect.
- What am I hoping will result from posting this? There’s no right or wrong answer here. There are lots of reasons why we post thirst traps. But getting a sense of what we want it to accomplish — like if we’re looking for general validation of our cuteness or if we’re hoping someone in particular will respond — can be clarifying. If you’re hoping someone in particular will respond, is there a specific type of response you’re looking for?
- How will I react (both internally and interpersonally) if that result is not achieved? If you get low engagement on the post, how will that make you feel? If the person you’re crushing on doesn’t respond, will you be mad at them? This can be a great moment to decide if maybe you want to wait on the post, or maybe it’s time to directly communicate with someone instead!
- Does this feel fun, flirty, and low stakes? Or does it feel high stakes, like the result will impact your mood or confidence? If posting has the potential to leave you feeling badly, maybe there’s another way to have your validation needs met: Think of five things you love about yourself. Or send the post directly to a friend to get props instead!
Remember: Thirst trapping shouldn’t be pressure-filled. It should be casual and enjoyable — nbd!
The advent of social media has given us lots of fun new ways to flirt and otherwise explore our sexualities. Thirst traps are no different! And especially at a time when we can’t flaunt our stuff out in the real world, it makes sense that folks are more often turning to Instagram to be appreciated and approached.
And I’m all for it.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.