Would the person who cares about Jeff Bezos’ nude photos please stand up?
On Thursday evening, the Amazon founder published an explosive Medium post accusing National Enquirer owner American Media Inc. of threatening to publish his sexually explicit photos to and from married TV anchor Lauren Sanchez unless Bezos stopped an investigation into the company. In his post, Bezos quoted the description of the sexts in AMI’s possession, which ranged from “a selfie of Mr. Bezos fully clothed” to “a glimpse” of Sanchez’s “nether region.”
There are plenty of things we can take away from Bezos’ affair and impending divorce, including conclusions about grotesque wealth in America. Those discussions aside, though, all we have learned from this “scandal” is that Jeff Bezos is among the 88 percent of American adults who have sexted. AMI apparently argued that their publication of Bezos’ personal photos would be “newsworthy” in order to (in Bezos’ words) “show Amazon shareholders that my business judgment is terrible.” It is an assertion that is outlandish not because Bezos’ “business judgment” is self-evidently great, as he argues, but because the number of American businessmen and businesswomen who sext likely numbers in the hundreds of thousands. That a CEO sexts is not news — in fact, the existence of Bezos’ nudes is not even particularly salacious.
There was a time when Bezos’ text messages would have triggered hysteria, but it was a decade ago. In 2008, when The Washington Post published an article explaining that “Sex + Texting = Sexting,” news stories about the naughty e-phenomenon ranged from warnings to parents to monitor their teens’ electronic lives to “real life sexting stories” about people driven to suicide over the release of their pictures. In one study of media representations of sexting, researchers argued that the period of collective sexting prudishness reflected that “history is littered with examples of media-driven moral panics over the way in which individuals and groups conduct themselves in society, with young people often at the center of such panics, as either victims or offenders, or both.” After all, thousands of respected monuments of literature, art, science and history, from Mozart to Albert Einstein to James Joyce and Frida Kahlo, also sent explicit letters and drawings to their partners. The only thing that’s changed over the intervening years is the medium.
Then “Carlos Danger” happened.
Sexting went from parental scare tactic to topic of public discourse when Anthony Weiner, then a member of the House of Representatives, was found to have sent graphic photos to a 21-year-old woman in 2011. Weiner instantly became a joke and New York Daily News pun, although his story was always uncomfortably tinged with the inappropriate age difference between himself and some of the women. Still, Weiner recast the public perception of sexts — that they were no longer the exclusive domain of hormonal teenagers. By the time nude photos of Hollywood celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, were leaked in 2014, everyone pretty much knew better than to assume adults didn’t send sext messages to each other, too. They very well have been sending some themselves.
As a result, little is more boring in 2019 than the revelation that an adult has sent sexts. It is as uninteresting as the fact that sometimes married adults choose to have sex with someone else — exciting, perhaps, in a soap opera, but dull and ordinary in real life. Sexting stories now broadly elicit no more than a collective, bored so what? And when it comes to Bezos, the Amazon founder is a grown man who gets to make his own decisions about his relationships, and whose love life is inconsequential to the rest of us. It is no surprise, then, that to most, the news of his impending divorce elicited no more than a shrug or brief snicker at his pet name for Sanchez.
Tabloids, though, make their money off of people’s immature curiosity to know what goes on behind strangers’ bedroom doors. When the first news of Bezos’ affair broke in January, the story seemed purely to exist as fodder for publications like The Sun to breathlessly quote the Enquirer’s promise of an unpublished “below the belt selfie … too explicit to describe in detail.” The grammar used in AMI’s threatening email to Bezos, which walks through the photos in its possession, mirrors that wheezing excitement, with em-dashes used to theatrically build up the drama (“A naked selfie in a bathroom — while wearing his wedding ring”). Yet AMI’s excitement is more embarrassing than the material described: Again, who really cares?
Of course, there is another element to Bezos’ story: that AMI not only has the nude selfies ready to publish, but that it was using them as apparent blackmail. The strength of that alleged threat, though, is predicated on the response — that Bezos would be humiliated in front of his colleagues, employees, friends, and the American public for having sent sext messages to his extramarital girlfriend. Bezos’ decision to instead publish AMI’s email is a testament to how little nude photos really matter in 2019. Sure, it’s still embarrassing — “of course I don’t want personal photos published,” Bezos writes — but it’s not career-ending. It’s not even particularly thrilling to read about.
As far as “dirt” goes, I’m personally way more interested in the bestselling author who faked having cancer and dead relatives than in what two adults do for fun as part of their intimate relationship. It’s time for the media to stop thinking that people sexting is interesting or surprising. Everyone else already has.
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The Week · by Jeva Lange · February 8, 2019