comment post: erotic expression and vulnerability

You may have heard about the teaching assistant who recently accidentally sent a nude photograph of herself to her students in lieu of the attachment she meant to send.

I'll let you all cringe in sympathy for a minute, because let's admit we've all been there -- maybe not in the nude photo sense, but in the "impolitic electronic communication" sense.

Done? Okay, good. Now the larger conversation in this instance is what lesson we might take away from these types of mistakes. That's what Claire Potter of the Tenured Radical and I have been discussing in comments over the past few days. My original comment was prompted by this passage in Claire's piece:
Herein lies a lesson for all of us: accidents happen to the best of people, so caution in the matter of nude selfies is advised. Things like this, and revenge porn, wouldn’t happen if people didn’t take nude pictures of themselves, and either give them away to boyfriends who they think are going to love them forever, or keep them on their computers. 
In response, I wrote:
I get where you're coming from on the "don't take nude pictures" line. However, I think a better approach would be to recommend more exacting privacy practices when it comes to erotic images and text you wish to keep between yourself and your intimate partners. Good practice: Not keeping nude photographs of yourself on your workplace computer. (Unless your work involves creating/disseminating nude photographs of yourself, obviously.) Bad practice: Keeping your naked photos in the same "Downloads" folder as the cat pictures you want to send to mom (and not labeling each set clearly, and double-checking all attachments before hitting "send").

Sure, the accidental sending off of the wrong photograph was inappropriate. Probably the TA's supervisor needs to have a conversation with her about working in less haste and keeping her private images private. But the real problems here in my opinion are a) a culture that shames women who leave evidence of their erotic lives that others accidentally or purposefully discover, and b) the students and administrators who see the sexual content of the accidental file transfer as grounds to blow this incident out of proportion.
Claire pushed back, writing in part:
But like the rule on secrets (information is no longer secret when two people know it), it is really unwise to give a photograph of yourself to *any*one that will shame you if it exceeds its intended audience. One person's erotic gift is another person's har-de-har-har or porn/revenge fantasy.
 To which I responded:
Thanks for the response. Again, I take your point in that caution is generally good advice.

I think where we (might?) differ in weighing the tricky balance is that I believe it is misplaced to offer advice like " it is really unwise to give a photograph of yourself to *any*one that will shame you if it exceeds its intended audience." We aren't prescient beings. We can't read the future. Sometimes we date asses who don't overtly advertise themselves as such. Sometimes a breakup is unintentionally messy and in a moment of pique the angry ex posts something they shouldn't.

I would argue that, as a society, we should not then turn around and blame the person who shared the image in a moment of private pleasure in the first place. We should blame the individual who shared that image of their ex without that person's consent.

In the balance, I think pushing individuals to err on the side of super-uber-never-share caution when it comes to erotic expression ends up reinforcing a culture of silence around pleasure. I can see it reinforcing women's sense that their sexual expressions and pleasures are invalid, shameful, and something not to share -- even with those whom they are sexually intimate with! That seems like a recipe for sexual mis-communication, as it fosters a climate of self-censorship rather than self-expression of desire.

Again, I realize you are NOT advocating for women (particularly) to stop speaking, writing, or enacting sex across the board. I think what I am observing is that such advice as you give above might unintentionally contribute to a culture-wide, persistent shaming of individual people daring to claim a sexuality that is personal and authentic to themselves through creating (among other things) images that speak of that desire, and sharing them with the people they wish to communicate that desire to.
Claire was gracious enough to continue the conversation, writing among other points:
I honestly don't think we are helping women by either saying they don't have to think about this, or that they should not distrust the capacity of other people to do them harm. It's not a moral issue from my perspective: it's a question of maintaining control if and when that is important to a person. I'm also a little curious about how it is that sharing a nude selfie is authentic and desiring in a different way than showing up in person and removing one's clothes, but that's another conversation, and this may be a generational distinction more than anything else.
To which I responded:
Thanks again for your thoughts.

I think to the extent we disagree it's a matter of emphasis rather than a more substantial philosophical divide. Like you, I would certainly counsel mindfulness about how, where, when, and with whom we share our most intimate selves. At the same time, none of us are omniscient and none of us are responsible (or can control) the actions of people who mishandle those parts of ourselves. If we withhold those parts of ourselves out of fear that we will get hurt ... chances are we won't get hurt, but we also won't have had that chance to share either.

Re: "I'm also a little curious about how it is that sharing a nude selfie is authentic and desiring in a different way than showing up in person and removing one's clothes, but that's another conversation, and this may be a generational distinction more than anything else."

I hesitate to attribute things too reflexively to a generational divide. There are likely people in your age cohort who have (or will) share erotic images of themselves; there are likely many my age (mid-30s) and younger who would recoil from that impulse.

I didn't mean to make it sound like the "nude selfie" is somehow a sacrosanct category of erotic expression -- but I think historically speaking we could probably find the rough equivalent of "the nude selfie" in virtually any generation. In the 1920s perhaps you and I would have been discussing the advisability of college girls going to dance halls, in the 1890s perhaps the advisability of girls sending erotically-charged letters to their beaus for fear they would fall into the wrong hands. I think that erotic self-expression is often a razor-thin balancing act of (on the one hand) sharing one's self with enough vulnerability with one's lovers for a successful, mutual relationship and (on the other hand) policing the boundaries of that intimacy against unwanted intrusion.

So yeah, I think we could haggle endlessly in this situation (or any other situation X) whether in the balance responsibility for breaching those boundaries falls more heavily with the individual or society (and what the consequences of that breach should be). But I don't think our readings are wholly incommensurate.
Any thoughts, readers?


  1. While there are unique powers to a nude photograph, being intimate with anyone, under any circumstance, throws up risks of secrets betrayed. A lover can disclose things about your body, about your sexual preferences and about sexual adventures you've had together, without photos. It doesn't matter if it's a casual lover or a spouse - this risk is ever present if we are sexually involved with other human beings.

    In other words, yes it is something we have to think about (and particularly encourage young people to think about - a few clicks can have lasting consequences). But should we expect to be able to trust our lovers not to publicly humiliate us? Of course.

    1. Well said, The Goldfish! Thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts.