After Mary Mosteller sent her first nude photos, all hell broke loose. Below, she reflects on what nudes, ghosting, and an encounter with the police taught her about our society’s fear of conflict.
I am a young divorcee with a fundamentalist Christian upbringing. What many people learn in their twenties, I am experimenting with in my early thirties: dating apps, buying my first vibrator, and coming out as bi. To make matters more complicated, my divorce was finalised only weeks before the pandemic. I’ve learned how to date in the most ghastly environment possible: in my bedroom, alone, staring at a screen.
Earlier this year after a serious bout of Covid, I got lonely. A few weeks before, while awaiting my PCR result at my GP, both people I was dating dumped me via text. There’s nothing like double rejection and a near death experience to get your pink biscuit whistling.
I attempted to resist an unfulfilling Bumble window shop, but trudging in the troughs of a Netflix binge swamp can only keep you entertained for so long. In no time I was filtering through photos – ranging from cute indie girls to divorcees with kids to (slightly) younger men with will-o’-the-wisp moustaches.
A few swipes later and I matched with David* the chef, “looking for something casual”. Usually I avoid these obvious fuckboy types, but I have a feminist penchant for men who can cook. David and I voice-messaged for two days straight about travel and food. We even made tentative plans for the weekend – a trip to the beach in his vintage campervan.
‘I was not prepared for the rigours of capturing nudes.’
The third night, the messages took a hedonistic turn. He sent me a video of him doing the ‘Magic Mike’ dance in a ripped tee and sweatpants, a corny attempt at a smouldering grin on his face. It was more funny than sexy, but I appreciated the bravado his Channing Tatum impression.
At first, I was unsure about how invested I wanted to get in the messages. He was sold white lies about me lying lonesome in bed, when I was actually in the lounge watching Married At First Sight with my flatmates. As the texts escalated, I received a disappearing photo. I tentatively opened it, eyes squinting behind lattice fingers. It showed his legs splayed on a bed, an eggplant emoji hiding his… eggplant.
“I can remove it if you want…” he sent. I asked my flatmates for advice. Did I really want to go down this road? “Go on,” they said. “We’ve been trapped in this house for weeks; we need some entertainment.” I agreed – plus, I had never received a dick pic before. As expected, it disappointed. The bad lighting and extreme close-up gave it a unidentifiable quality, like a piece of pixelated nineties clip art.
Eventually, the rubber hit the road and I realised that I had two options: I could either politely change the subject or get naked; MAFS be damned. What happened next is more explicit than I am willing to divulge, but let’s just say I doubt even my ex-husband saw my body in that level of detail.
I was not prepared for the rigours of capturing nudes. The simultaneous attempt of convoluted yoga poses while harnessing advanced photography skills eluded me. It was quite the balancing act. Several bruises were acquired from dropping my phone on my hip bone while trying to capture the right angle.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I have only sent nudes to one ex-partner– and those were silly mirror selfies, not the curated close-ups David desired. Something about the way he beckoned me felt off. I blamed myself – what delusion made me think I was cut out for this? What if he leaks he nudes? I assured myself the photos were the disappearing kind, that sharing another person’s nudes without consent is illegal. Still, I spiralled a little.
Two nights later I was in my lounge again, watching MAFS with the flatties. Suddenly, Danielle leaned forward to peer out the floor-to-ceiling windows smeared in inky night. “There’s someone out there,” she said.
“We have received a report that someone at this address is doing illegal sex acts online.”
It was a cop. His torch light rebounded off the window, illuminating a face with furrowed brows. When we made eye contact through the window, he walked towards the front door, and knocked.
“Good evening, ladies.” There were two of them. They were older, probably in their fifties. Honky pākehā dad vibes.
“Hi,” Danielle said, “is everything okay?”
They paused for a moment. “Um… we are here to investigate a report that someone at this house is an exhibitionist.”
“A what? Abolitionist?” Danielle asked.
They shifted from one foot to the other tentatively. “We have received a report that someone at this address is doing illegal sex acts online.”
“Wait… what?” Thankfully, Danielle was doing all the talking.
Well, fuck, I thought, my heart punching the back of my sternum, David must have leaked my nudes. This would happen to me the first time I do something slightly out of my comfort zone. I envisioned myself in an black and white movie, handcuffed in my nightgown, being led down a dark corridor to a jail cell of chain-smoking harlots.
The cop laughed abashedly, like a sitcom dad. “We are so sorry; we probably have the wrong address.”
“I’m sorry,” Danielle rebutted, “we are just really confused. What happened?.”
“We are confused too. You seem like nice ladies. I don’t know… I think we definitely have the wrong address.”
Unable to let it go, I finally piped up. “How did you hear about this?” I asked, heart like an earth’s tremor.
“So,” they stumbled to get the words out, “the neighbours called saying that someone left their curtains open while having sex on the internet.”
No. Certainly I did not forget to close the curtains.
“Oh, well,” Robin, queen of poise, took over, “I can assure you, officers, that none of us would do that.”
I died a little inside, knowing how hard it must be for Robin to keep it together knowing that I was the exhibitionist unknowingly putting on a show for the neighbours.
“Well, in that case, we will leave you. So sorry about this. Goodnight, ladies.”
As soon as Danielle shut the door, Robin spun on the spot and pointed her finger at me: “You!” she screamed, spewing up laughter.
“What? What happened?” Danielle was clueless.
“She left the curtains open when she was sending nudes the other night,” Robin guffawed.
“No. No. I definitely closed them.”
“Are you sure? Is there a way for you to check?”
My flatmates and I spent the rest of the night investigating the situation. How could the neighbours have seen me when our houses are separated by a two metre fence and a massive tree? Why were they awake at midnight on a Tuesday, and watching long enough to understand what was going on? And, why, in god’s name, did they call the police about a girl doing a private thing in her own bedroom?
‘I wondered what could have happened in a country where sex work isn’t legal.’
After the initial laughter, I got stroppy about it. They were the creepy voyeurs! This defiance soon dissolved into discomfort. I kept the curtains adamantly closed, disgusted when considering how many times they had likely watched me change clothes. I felt like a fugitive in my own home. What would have happened if I were a cis-man? Would they even call the cops?
And on the other extreme of privilege, what if I were not pākehā? Would the cops still make assumptions about me being “a nice girl”; would it have gotten more aggressive? I wondered what could have happened in a country where sex work isn’t legal. If this was back in my hometown in Alabama, would I have been taken into custody for that accusation?
The neighbours did not intend harm – they were merely too awkward to communicate directly. It shows, unsurprisingly with the times, that they believe women’s bodies need to be policed; that when involved in certain activities, we are a crime. It is sad that staying in the comfort of their own home was more important than considering the potential ramifications of calling the police, that they were okay with making me feel like a criminal to preserve their convenience.
‘I forget that, to some, a photo of a naked woman on the internet is just as real as a warm body.’
That night, I told David what happened. I expected him to find it as outlandish as I did, but the days after our tryst he barely responded. I expected it to fizzle, of course, but after we met in real life, preferably that weekend at the beach with a gourmet meal per our discussion. After being left on seen, I blocked him. I forget that, to some, a photo of a naked woman on the internet is just as real as a warm body. Thankfully, all he got were pixels, a split-second two-dimensional fraction of flesh. It wasn’t really me.
After being caught by my neighbours and ghosted, I shamefully questioned why I sent the nudes. Why had I degraded myself? Then, it hit me: I degraded myself? No, I felt degraded by him and my neighbours. I thought David’s and my vulnerability was reciprocal, that the stakes were even. Both his and my neighbour’s responses revealed the stakes were not even. Even though we were sending similar photos, sexual content from women and queers is regarded as degrading, whereas for cis-men, it is a claim to fame.
My regret didn’t result from taking the nudes; it came from not listening to my instinct that this guy sucked. That off-ness I felt was that, to him, I was only as necessary as the images I provided; I was decoration. Of course I didn’t expect someone looking for something casual to want anything more than sex, but I did expect an acknowledgement of humanity on the other end of the screen.
We aren’t taught how to do that though. We hop online, feeling lonely, and never clarify our intentions because we are unsure of what we want in the first place. I am guilty of this too – dating apps are often trial and error. The unfortunate part is that once we finally know what we want, we are too scared to say it.
My neighbours’ and David’s actions boil down to one, silly thing – we are not brave enough to talk to each other in real life. We let our fear of difficult conversations get in the way of mutual respect. Sitting behind screens has deprived us of giving and receiving real time responses – we forget that there are feelings behind the tapping of our thumbs. Have we always been so bad at this, but now it is just catalogued forever in posts and memes?
Spoiler alert: We did eventually talk to the neighbours. Apparently, the curtains were closed! They are just see-through because of a spotlight shining from their deck into my room… I moved house shortly after.