Sexting is more rule-based than you think
Analysing the Marquis de Sade’s work, cultural theorist Roland Barthes notes that Sade creates “pornograms,” an intertwining of discourse with the erotic practices of bodies so that writing becomes a site for “the exchange of Logos and Eros” (Barthes 1976).
Contemporary lovers engage in pornograms of a different sort; by merging discourse with eroticism in text messages. Participatory compared to Sade’s one-sided depictions, texts provide a vehicle through which romantically involved partners can construct what McSweeney calls a “private world”, a shared virtual reality that can last for a short time or longer periods.
While sexting may feel open and unstructured, the reality is that messaging with a romantic partner or potential partner isn’t always a playful, erotic free for all. Instead, it is subject to the same unspoken rules that govern all semi-synchronous digital messages, in particular, pragmatic politeness.
What is Politeness?
In pragmatics, linguists broadly define politeness as “linguistic and non-linguistic behavior through which people indicate that they take others' feelings of how they should be treated into account” (Kádár 2013). That is, the tactics we employ to avoid conflict and maintain communicative peace (Leech 2014).
There are two key theoretical frameworks that linguists use to describe how politeness works. The first is through “face wants” and it follows the research set out by Goffman in 1955 and later by Brown and Levinson in 1987.
In this framework, which forms the basis of most linguistic pragmatic research, politeness is constructed by the positive and negative face wants of each individual. “Positive face wants are the desire for inclusion, social closeness, and familiarity; negative face wants represent the desire for autonomy, social distance, and respect” (McSweeney 2018).
The second theoretical approach, exemplified by Locher and Watts, views the conversational strategies people use in terms of social appropriateness as opposed to face wants. In regards to text messaging, this approach is as helpful as face wants. Consider the social appropriateness of sending six messages over several days to someone who is not responding or, in a sexting context, sending an unsolicited dick pic to a recipient barely known to the sender.
Basic politeness strategies such as saying please and thank you and letting a conversation go when it is obvious one participant is not engaged are well known. But performing politeness in text messaging is different than doing so in a face-to-face verbal conversation. This doesn’t mean that messaging is devoid of politeness, but rather that it is performed through different strategies.
Performing Politeness in Text Messages
Attending to the recipient’s face wants, be they positive or negative, can be accomplished in a number of ways, whether the sender is texting or sexting. Strategies such as emoji use, the time elapsed between messages, the use of letter repetition, and many others allow participants the chance to mitigate the force of messages, set the tone, and generate affection. Below are two key factors that determine politeness among texters.
Time Elapsed Between Messages
Texting, and indeed sexting is a semi-synchronous activity that is unique to computer-mediated conversation (CMC). There can be an immediate back and forth between participants (synchronous conversation) or a time lag between messages being opened and replied to (semi-synchronous).
In The Pragmatics of Text Messaging, McSweeney notes that texting theoretically offers flexibility in regards to time spans, but texters may feel differently. More than one lover has read much into how long their beloved takes to open and/or reply to a message, and may even use the time elapsed between messages as a gauge indicating the state of their relationship.
While sending a text might save negative face by giving the receiver a chance to decide when to respond, it can generate conflicts.
“He text me an eggplant, I text him a peanut” - Doja Cat
While the eggplant emoji may have taken over from the banana as the most explicit food-based emoji, it is far from the only emoticon partners use in text messages. In McSweeny’s corpus, emojis appeared in 90% of the messages between some romantically involved pairs. Most common is the kissing face emoji, which helps senders attend to the positive face wants of the recipient and simultaneous serve as pragmatic particles, setting the tone of the message.
In The Emoji Code, cognitive linguist Vyvyan Evans points out that emojis are much more than a passing phase. Instead, emojis reflect the “fundamental elements of communication; and in turn, this all shines a light on what it means to be human.” While emoji naysayers may be quick to point out that emojis are not a language, which, as they lack grammar, is true, they do provide a way for interlocuters to add nuances and mitigate the force of messages (Evans 2017). For romantically involved partners, emojis are used to help navigate the complex shared space created online.
In the same way that a kissing face emoji can be used to attend to the recipient’s positive face wants, a message lacking an emoji can be used to signal displeasure, or even serve as a face-threatening act in certain contexts.
While sexting and texting a lover or potential partner might be easy and uncomplicated for some, research reveals that for others it’s a fraught landscape with multiple factors affecting how well-received messages are. The strategies couples use to attend to each other’s face wants are governed by pragmatics, in much the same way as face to face conversations are, albeit filtered through a digital landscape.