Picture Perfect

Today’s Bad Idea: ‘Frexting,’ The Sexts You Send Friends

Supposedly straight women are sending intimate pictures of themselves to each other. But it’s just platonic, they keep insisting. Right.

Photographer: Igor Balasanov

“Frexting” is a truly Frankensteinian portmanteau of “friend” and “sexting.” It’s also a term that some women are using to describe platonic sexting between groups of straight female friends.

As author Kelly Williams Brown puts it in a blog post, “[I]nstead of sexting that random person … send them to a close friend, who will tell you you look hot. Only send PG or PG-13 rated pics, obviously.”

Obviously. Because sending an R- or X-rated pic to a friend would be like, totally gay. Eww.

Some straight men use the infamous rhyming slogan “no homo” to clarify that they are indeed heterosexual after saying something suggestive—or even just friendly—to another man. It’s both unnecessary and homophobic.

And frexting? Frexting is the female equivalent of “no homo” that no one asked for.

As is the case with most of the Internet neologisms that we grudgingly add to our spellcheck dictionaries, the phenomenon described by “frexting” has likely been taking place as long as young women have had access to smartphones.

But it’s only erupted into popular consciousness this month in a series of posts on women’s and style sites. For better or for worse—no, actually just for worse—frexting’s 15 minutes have arrived.

Advocates of frexting tout it as a way to boost confidence and build trust among girlfriends—straight girlfriends, to be clear. A heterosexual man might be a more appreciative recipient of a sext, the logic goes, but a close female friend can respond to it in a more empowering or lighthearted way.

As Alana Levinson describes the practice in her own plug for frexting on Medium, “Sexting is supposed to be serious and, well, sexual. But getting [a] pic from just-a-friend was humorous and, well, platonic.”

Or, as one of the women who provided comment for Levinson’s piece put it, “It’s much more empowering to receive the response ‘Damn girl, look at you.’ It’s more fun that way.”

I don’t doubt that “frexting” does all of the things that straight girls say it does. I’ve never frexted—unless you perceive my female partner as my “friend” as a lot of straight people do—but every woman knows that compliments from other women pack an added punch by virtue of our shared social position.

But as a practice, “frexting” seems built on the presumption that no one participating in it has even an inkling of erotic attraction to other women. And, in the vein of straight male homosociality’s famous two-word denial of sexual subtext—“no homo”—proponents of frexting seem a little too concerned with proving that “frexting” is totally straight.

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Levinson introduces one of her frexting colleagues as someone “who lives by the motto Dick is abundant and low value”—a link to a piece about sleeping with men on Tinder—because it’s apparently important to make it clear that women who frext definitely want the D.

And writing for Bustle, Beca Grimm—who thinks that frexting is “absolutely a thing you and your friends should be doing on the regular”—goes well out of her way to reassure the reader that it’s a “totally platonic” practice. She defines frexting as “Sending sexts to your friends. And not your ‘friends,’ aka, ‘people who you are friends with but whom you also do sex with’—I mean your actual, non-sex partner friends.”

Phew. I was starting to get worried that some women might want to “do sex with” their female “sex partner friends.”

The fact that no one who writes about “frexting” can seem to bring themselves to utter the words “lesbian” or “bisexual” in the same article is telling in and of itself.

No one wants to outright say “no homo”—because that’s what homophobic men do, right?—but “totally platonic” is essentially that same sentiment translated into cute digital age lady lingo.

Besides the annoyance of listening to straight people reassure themselves that they are straight, there are more than a few logistical problems with frexting.

For one, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 71 percent of bisexual people are not out to “all or most of the important people in their life.” Nearly 40 percent are only out to “a few” or “none” of the people to whom they are closest.

Statistically speaking, if you’re best friends with a lesbian, you’ll know it and chances are she’s not invited to the frexting party for the same reason that she wasn’t invited to your pool party, as my friend Autumn puts it.

If you’re best friends with a bi girl, however, it’s quite possible for you to be unaware of her sexual orientation no matter how well you think you know her.

In fact, it’s a near certainty that some recipients of “frexts”—one of the more grotesque plural nouns the Internet has given us—are harboring secret crushes on the very friends who are ironically sending them bathtub pics.

I don’t want to encourage the assumption that bi and lesbian women are all in love with their straight friends, but I also hate the de facto assumption of heterosexuality that is frexting.

But even if everyone participating in “frexting” is a certified Kinsey Zero, the denial of any erotic subtext to the practice feels too easy in a culture as Freudian as our own.

Numerous studies have shown that heterosexual women respond sexually to images of other women. In one 2007 experiment, Dr. Meredith Chivers and her colleagues found that heterosexual women in a small sample experienced genital arousal when watching sexual scenes no matter the gender of the actors.

That finding fell in line with previous expectations but Chivers’ team was surprised to discover that straight women even responded to films of women exercising alone.

This doesn’t mean that straight women who frext each other are secretly bisexual or secretly gay, of course.

Sexual identity and personal patterns of sexual arousal are related but they’re not the same so it’s doubtful that female frexters or frextees are seriously getting off on their frexting. But it’s undeniable that frexting exists on the blurry border between female homosociality and homoeroticism.

Believe it or not, it is possible for women to boost each other’s confidence without sending each other selfies in lingerie. We do it every time we say “Nice shoes” or “I love your dress” to a stranger in line at the grocery store.

Sending a frext instead of a compliment isn’t automatically gay but calling it “totally platonic” might be reaching when a simple compliment—or a generous helping of emoji—is still a legitimate option.

And just as some straight men have adopted “no homo” as a disclaimer that allows them to express greater physical affection for other men, frexters seem to take pleasure in teasing the possibility of same-sex desire before denying it.

Levinson’s lede in her frexting piece is intentionally salacious: “The first time I saw my best friend half-naked was late one night on the small lit up screen of my iPhone.” And then comes the reassurance that it is platonic.

It’s a piece of misdirection that turns the possibility of homosexual desire into the first half of a magic trick and heterosexuality into the rabbit that gets pulled out of the hat.

I’m all for women feeling good about their bodies and forging stronger female friendships. If that includes sending each other near-naked pictures, so be it. But maybe we don’t need a discourse around it or even a word for it, especially one as ugly as “frexting.”