With social distancing amplifying the amount of time we’re all spending online, we’ve had to consider even more intently how to safely and consensually seek sexual connection in the digital space. Now, the latest Hollywood bombshell is forcing the issue. Page Six reported last week on leaked direct messages allegedly sent between actor Armie Hammer and a number of women. The DMs, which have yet to be verified, feature explicit sexual content, including graphic mentions of rape, cannibalism, and body mutilation.
The news has certainly raised questions around Hammer’s sexual preferences, but also around consent violations — especially within the context of sexting, something that’s become way more prevalent since the pandemic hit. “People are more online, and that’s where they're meeting people during COVID, so sexting has become more acceptable,” says Shannon Chavez, Psy.D., a psychologist and sex therapist in Los Angeles.
She notes that the rising popularity of sexting has led to people asking questions like, “How does this affect my own values around sex? What am I comfortable with? Is it easier to communicate when I’m sexting with someone than it is face-to-face?’” And often, the answers involve setting and respecting boundaries just like you would within in-person encounters.
Here, what you need to know to set the stage for safe, consensual sexting — especially when you’re broaching unconventional, kinkier, and even violent topics.
Where to start:
Say you match with someone, have a successful Zoom date, and flirting begins to take a more R-rated turn. Before veering into explicit territory, consider the following moves.
It’s important to get a sense of what you and your potential sexting partner are comfortable with, says Chavez. You can do this by asking specific questions like, “Do you want to hear about my fantasies?” or “Do you want to send and/or receive pictures?”
This technique is referred to as safeporting, explains Molly Godfrey, a trained dating and intimacy coach in New York City, who encourages her clients to integrate the tool into communication with potential partners. “Safeporting lets someone know what you're going to do before you do it,” she says. Examples include: “Can I express a desire?” or “Can I share something?” as well as “I'm going to change topics now, is that alright with you" or, if you’re about to talk about a less conventional fetish, perhaps, "Could I express something potentially intense to you?" Phrases like these can set a safe tone that helps you and your partner take things to the next level, says Godfrey.
Talk about what you’re comfortable with as well as safe words.
When texting, as opposed to talking face-to-face, it might even be easier to be assertive, vulnerable, and establish ground rules before broaching a more intimate exchange. That said, according to Chavez, your pre-sexting talk should cover:
- What’s off-limits. Don’t hesitate to share all the subjects and triggers (even a word or certain vulgarities) you can think of that you do not want mentioned.
- Boundaries around media. Talk about whether or not you’re comfortable sharing sensitive materials, like photos or videos.
- Where you’ll sext. Identify the platform (Snapchat? Whatsapp? iMessage?) you feel safest on.
- Whether you’ll be roleplaying. Because this can take sexting to another level, you’ll want to discuss it in detail. Establish that you and your sexting partner both consent to participate in the fantasy, and make sure that every aspect of that fantasy is OK for you both.
- Safe words. Because you can’t necessarily anticipate every topic that could come up, you can introduce a safe word that’s designed to put the brakes on the conversation.
This discussion can also serve as a gauge of your potential sexting partner’s values. If things take a frustrating turn — say, they can’t offer you consent or they’re not willing to be respectful in their exchange with you — you can nip the situation in the bud, says Chavez. “Part of being sexually healthy is setting boundaries upfront, and it's a part of healthy intimacy too,” she notes. “If a partner can't tolerate that, or they're not willing to respect that, then this probably isn't someone that you even want to have any exchange with.”
Embrace being direct.
Speaking of assertiveness, you might still find yourself floundering for the “right” language to express what you’re OK with and what you’re not — as well as what you’re into. “We think too much about what we want to say,” points out Chavez. “I think you just want to say it.”
To get a bit gutsier, she recommends thinking about an area of your life where it’s easier to be direct, then channel that energy into your pre-sexting talk. At the same time, try to reframe being direct not as a potential mood-killer but as one of the best forms of intimacy. “Whether it's a casual partner or not, it feels good to have that level of sexual self-esteem,” says Chavez.
Use “RACK” as a checklist.
If you’ve established that you’ll explore BDSM or specific fetishes, you might want to lean on an acronym used in the BDSM community: RACK, which stands for “Risk-Aware Consensual Kink” and serves as a helpful checklist for ensuring everyone’s on the same page. “It means that someone cannot consent until they have been made aware of all of the risks involved in the act,” says Shan Boodram, a certified intimacy educator and spokesperson for K-Y.
Risk-Aware: You and your sexting partner should be able to name the risks and how to prevent them.
Consensual: You and your sexting partner have affirmed consent.
Kink: You and your sexting partner understand the type of content that, in the case of sexting, you’ll be discussing.
Prepare phrases you can lean on later.
In addition to a safe word, Chavez recommends thinking of ways you can communicate discomfort if a boundary is violated or your texting partner doesn’t respect your safe word while you’re in the moment, i.e. “This isn’t a topic I want to discuss” or “I don't feel comfortable talking about this.”
Not only will having these phrases in mind help you feel more prepared to respond and disengage, if necessary, but it’s good practice for face-to-face interactions, says Chavez. “I encourage people not to avoid that communication and ignore or ghost a person, because it actually helps empower you towards being more aligned with your values rather than taking care of someone else's feelings in the moment.”
Get a read on chemistry and level of trust.
Before you dive in, it pays to tune into a few nonverbal factors: your chemistry, how well you’re communicating, and the level of trust you’ve established. “If there's a nice flow in your communication, and you feel like you're getting to know the person, and it's naturally progressing [in a more sexual] direction, I would just ask for that consent, see if they're comfortable with that, and start slowly,” says Chavez. “See how they respond. And maybe they share a little bit, and you can share more, so you can build up to sharing more intense fantasies or interests that are more unconventional.”
What to do in the moment:
You might feel like you’ve established trust, had a thorough talk about what you’re comfortable with, and your partner disclosed the same — but then you get into a sexting session and are caught off-guard by language or a fantasy you weren’t anticipating. That’s when you might want to try the following.
Bear in mind that fantasies are not the same as reality.
“There’s a lot of fear around hearing people’s fantasies, because they can be bizarre, different, and very diverse,” points out Chavez. She encourages people to hold that in mind and also remember that if a person you’re texting with shares a fantasy, it may not necessarily mean that they want to act it out. “It may be something that turns them on or part of their imagination around sex,” she notes.
At the same time, they could be looking to gauge your interest in that particular sexual act or desire. “Because it's not always clear, you want to ask that question upfront,” says Chavez. “You can say, ‘Is this just something that turns you on?’ Or ‘have you tried this before?’”
Trust how you’re feeling — and then speak to that.
Being mindful during sexting is key, as it can help you determine how you’re feeling in the moment. “Trust your feelings and express exactly what you feel,” suggests Chavez. Then, you can say something like, “This feels uncomfortable right now,” or, “What I'm noticing is that I feel disconnected right now.” And if you’re not exactly sure how you’re feeling but know something is “off,” and you need a moment to get centered, you can say, “I need to take a break for a minute” in order to check in with yourself.
Know that there’s no one “right” way or time to set boundaries.
Chavez says people might find themselves in a situation — especially during role-playing — in which they consented, took on a role, were having a little fun, but then it just went too far. In a case like that, she says it’s not only important to give feedback but to know that you can set a boundary at the beginning, middle, or end of any scenario.
Being direct about how you’re feeling — or how a sexting session made you feel — is a way you can take care of yourself in the moment and in the future. When you avoid sharing what you’re actually feeling to make the other person more comfortable or to avoid an upset or awkward response, you’re taking away from your own experience, says Chavez.
“It's more for you than it is for them,” she notes. “Being assertive is not necessarily to get them to really understand you. It's more for you to say, ‘I stood up for myself. I'm aligned in how I feel in my values and what I'm comfortable engaging with.’”
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