Overexposed: The evaporation of privacy in our sex lives

There’s almost nothing as private as sex. Yet even fewer things are so ubiquitous. Movies often conceal the sex they imply, and suggestive advertisements usually still omit explicit sexual references. But modern media often subtly (or unsubtly) primes us to think about sex — while selling us gym memberships, athleisure outfits, cosmetics, food — by promising that if we look or act a certain way, we’ll get closer to sexual satisfaction.

So the secrecy of sex comes at the human level. While corporations wield sexual messaging for profit — as the adage goes, “sex sells” —  real people are more guarded. We’re probably more frank with close friends, and sure, some people broadcast their sex lives for the thrill or the attention. But most of us, across every generation, keep our sexual experiences within small circles; we discuss our sex lives with relatively few people and have actual sexual histories with even fewer.

Recent data suggests that the average American has sex with about seven people in their life, and other studies suggest millennials and Generation Z are on track to have sex with fewer partners than our parents or grandparents did. In that sense at least, sex isn’t becoming more ubiquitous — we’re actually growing more restrained. This surprises me.

Anecdotally, I encounter sex everywhere, and I get the impression that sex is rarely far from college students’ minds. Even if we’re not having much or any sex ourselves, we’re insatiably curious to hear about other people’s experiences, often in rich detail, and we find it liberating or exhilarating to talk about sex.

So is sex really something we keep to ourselves? Is it really still private, if it ever was? When I wrote a column on sex for this paper, I struggled constantly between the impulse to write candidly and the desire to safeguard my privacy. Even if honest reflections on my personal experience would help people, I feared some readers would pass judgment on my choices, thinking me promiscuous, self-deluding, lustful or prudish.

My wish for privacy was thus about reputation: I have always feared letting other people know enough about me to pass judgment. I imagine this is why most of us are reticent about our sex lives — we wish not to be judged. And culturally, our sexual pressures cut both ways, both encouraging us to indulge and revel in sex and to remain dignified and chaste. (It also bears repeating the obvious fact that women suffer this double standard more intensely than men do.) Still, we know others will judge our choices no matter how libertine we are or aren’t. 

Personally, I often regret all the attention paid to sex (forgive my hypocrisy for a moment). I think sex is one of humanity’s great strokes of luck; we’re biologically hardwired to want and enjoy sex, so it’s a natural occasion for us to seek a deeper meaning with someone else. But it’s harder to find emotional depth in your sex life when you see it through other people’s eyes. Perhaps it’s too much to argue that social messaging so infects our sex lives that we’re beholden to other people’s attitudes about sex and can’t form our own. But perhaps that’s the case, even just in part.

I’m also unsure how decisive technology is for our generation’s attitude toward sexual privacy. The chances are good that you post pictures of yourself to multiple social platforms — particularly Instagram or Facebook. And it’s nearly a guarantee that you have photos of yourself on your phone, which might sometimes invite you to save those images in the cloud. Most likely, the lion’s share of those pictures are resoundingly banal —  although unfortunately some of us have been victims of revenge porn or had exes refuse to delete nude pictures of us.

But it’s inescapably true that technology deprives us of our privacy. Whether we’re putting intimate photos on social media or storing such pictures on semi-secure devices, we’ve grown more comfortable sharing our sexual selves — and our sexual lives — in the public domain. Having crossed this Rubicon, we can’t know the risks of signing away our privacy on social media, nor can we know all the consequences of making our culture more image-driven than ever. 

Maybe we’ll chip away at the stigma on promiscuity, begin celebrating the beauty of all bodies and dispense with the fear of others’ judgment of our sexual wants. But color me skeptical. Personally, I fear the digital age will leave us at the mercy of our collective lusts, which risk suffocating more thoughtful, emotionally rich individual relationships to sex. I doubt we’re trading our privacy for a new, more open cultural dialogue about sex.

So even if we’re risking fewer STDs than the baby boomers and achieving more equitable sexual relationships than our parents’ generation, it’s not all victories. For millennials and Gen Z, our media upbringing is more ferociously sexualized than ever, and our collective premium on privacy has seldom been so low. 

As a sex columnist, I often advocated for more sexual openness: I enjoined people to chat freely with their friends and to be candid about whether partners managed to respect and satisfy them. But I think there’s also reason to keep your sex life off the grid — and maybe even keep parts of it completely to yourself. 

The internet can warp your anchoring sexual convictions or pressure you toward beliefs and behaviors you might be happier without. Maybe, when it makes you happy and healthy to do so, you can let the sorts of things that happen in Vegas stay in Vegas. And maybe it’s enough if we are the only witnesses to our intimate lives. 

Contact Aidan Bassett at [email protected].