In 2011, a remarkable and distinctly erotic 17th century portrait of Nell Gwyn was put up for sale by her descendants. It shows Gwyn, an actress who was one of Charles II’s mistresses for more than a decade, washing a string of sausages with her breasts exposed.
The painting is smaller than a sheet of printer paper, hardly a grand portrait to hang on a wall. Rather, Portraiture expert Phillip Mould told the Guardian that it probably had an “intimate purpose in the court circle.”
In short, it’s effectively the 17th century version of a sext.
Some people act as though using your phone to send an erotic note or photo to a lover is a brand new and kind of scary idea. The smartphone part is new. But the suggestive or explicit message? Those have been around for centuries. The format has changed with the available technology, but the sentiments remain the same.
Unlike Gwyn, most people couldn’t tap a court painter for their most intimate missives. They had to make do with pen, paper, and words. Words can still paint a pretty accurate picture of your desires.
Take, for example, Voltaire’s letters to Marie Louise Denis, written shortly after their romantic relationship began (and composed in Italian to keep their contents from casually prying eyes):
December 1745- The court, society, the great ones of the earth bore me. I shall be happy only when I can live with you. Your company, and better health wold make me happy. I kiss you a thousand times. My soul kisses yours, my prick, my heart are in love with you. I kiss your pretty arse and all your enchanting person.
October 1746- I ask your permission to let me bring my limpness. It would be better to have a hard-on, but whether I do or not, I shall always love you.
Or Warren Harding’s letters to his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips. The letter seems innocuous unless you know that “Jerry” is Harding’s penis.
March 12, 1915: Jerry — you recall Jerry, whose cards I once sent you to Europe — came in while I was pondering your notes in glad reflection, and we talked about it. He was strongly interested, and elated and clung to discussion. He told me to say that you are the best and darlingest in the world, and if he could have but one wish, it would be to be held in your darling embrace and be thrilled by your pink lips that convey the surpassing rapture of human touch and the unspeakable joy of love’s surpassing embrace.
Or James Joyce’s distinctly smutty letters with his wife, Nora Barnacle, in which he goes on, in Joycean stream-of-consciousness length, about what he wants to do with her. A brief sample:
9 December 1909: 44 Fontenoy Street, Dublin.
My sweet naughty little fuckbird,
Here is another note to buy pretty drawers or stockings or garters. Buy whorish drawers, love, and be sure you sprinkle the legs of them with some nice scent and also discolour them just a little behind. You seem anxious to know how I received your letter which you say is worse than mine. How is it worse than mine, love? Yes, it is worse in one part or two. I mean the part where you say what you will do with your tongue (I don’t mean sucking me off) and in that lovely word you write so big and underline, you little blackguard. It is thrilling to hear that word (and one or two others you have not written) on a girl’s lips. But I wish you spoke of yourself and not of me. Write me a long long letter, full of that and other things, about yourself, darling. You know now how to give me a cockstand. Tell me the smallest things about yourself so long as they are obscene and secret and filthy.
The invention of photography made it possible for people without court artists to share images, and by World War II, women were photographing themselves in bathing suits and sending their boyfriends and husbands overseas homemade pin-ups. Once Polaroid film arrived on the scene, plenty of couples tried their hand at some very personal pornography.
But before smartphones became ubiquitous, these private missives tended to stay private, tucked in a box in the attic or hidden at the back of a drawer. The letters that made it to public archives might be heavily edited or, as in the case of Harding’s letters, sealed to the public for decades. They were also ephemeral–if you find grandma’s naked Polaroids after she’s gone, what’s the chance you’re going to keep them? When there’s only one copy, once it’s destroyed, it’s gone forever.
Our phones have made it easy for a couple to dabble in verbal foreplay and visual display at a moment’s notice. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as both parties are adults: ongoing research is finding that lots of adults send sexts at least once in a while. But by changing the medium where we confess our desires, we’ve moved them to a format that is far easier to share.
That’s the only real difference, I think. When your erotic missive arrived in the afternoon post, you risked your feelings with one person. When it pops up on a phone, you take the risk that it may get shared to all your partner’s friends’ phones, too. Or get stolen from the site it was stored on and shared even more widely. If that doesn’t bother you, there’s no problem. If it does, sext with a partner you really trust. Or you could put down the phone, and pick up a pen. First class postage is still cheap.
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