Sexting with emoji

(Talk of sexual bodyparts and sexual acts, but with symbols rather than pictures of carnal reality.)

From the NYT‘s Fashion & Style section on the 14th, “Gaymoji: A New Language for That Search” by Guy Trebay, with the hot gay news from West Hollywood CA:

You don’t need a degree in semiotics to read meaning into an eggplant balanced on a ruler or peach with an old-fashioned telephone receiver on top. That the former is the universally recognized internet symbol for a large male member and the latter visual shorthand for a booty call is something most any 16-year-old could all too readily explain. [Maybe most any 16-year-old, but not a lot of older people; see below.]

As with most else in our culture, demographics define the future, particularly those describing an age cohort born with a smartphone in hand. That, at least, is the calculation being made by Grindr, the successful gay meeting app with ambitions to overhaul itself as an internet commons for a generation of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their pals.

And so, starting this week, Grindr will offer to users a set of trademarked emoji, called Gaymoji — 500 icons that function as visual shorthand for terms and acts and states of being that seem funnier, breezier and less freighted with complication when rendered in cartoon form in place of words.

One of the new emoji,  an image of semen / ejaculăte — jizz, spooge, cum, cream, spunk, etc.:


Each emoji is a pictographic symbol, with a conventional name — usually, a description of the thing depicted — and a physical form (with a corresponding Unicode coding). I don’t know the names for Grindr’s gaymoji, but earlier emoji (released over a number of years) have names and forms collected in inventories you can find on-line. The names and forms don’t tell you, however, how the symbols are used to convey meaning. There are widely agreed-on meanings for some, but there are alternative forms for some uses, and alternative uses for some forms, considerable variation in local usage, and often creative deployments of emoji among small groups, and these usages are constantly in flux. You can think of the sets of emoji as like sets of slang vocabulary.

For sexting purposes, various emoji with relatively literal uses have become widespread conventional symbols for bodyparts and acts. For some time, the Eggplant emoji has been the conventional penis symbol, although recently it’s been challenged by two other emoji, Banana and Hot Dog. We’ll see plenty of Eggplants below, but here are the other two:



Then, there’s the Peach emoji, usually representing a butt or bottom (either buttocks or anus), but also sometimes used as a vaginal symbol, where it’s now in competition with the Taco emoji:


Peaches are to come.

Specifically for the anus, there’s the Doughnut (or more outrageously, the Chocolate Doughnut) and the OK Symbol. For the testicles, Grapes. And for the breasts, Cherries. (There are other alternatives.)

The full range of penis emoji covers pretty much everything phallic, in addition to  eggplant/aubergine, banana, and hot dog: corncob, burrito, baby bottle, rocket, lipstick, unicorn, rooster (that is, cock; but the rooster is also used as a wake-up call), electric plug (can also convey ‘hook-up’), snake, mushroom, cactus, lollipop, joystick, elephant (can also convey ‘you’re not saying something that needs to be said’), gun (can also convey ‘insults fired’), soft ice cream, dagger, chili pepper, cricket bat, and field hockey stick. Three of my favorites from this set, Baby Bottle, Electric Plug, and Elephant:




Back to the NYT story:

“Almost 20 percent of all Grindr messages” already use emoji, its creative director, Landis Smithers, said. “There’s this shift going on culturally and we need to follow the users where they’re taking us.”

That is, toward a visual language of rainbow unicorns, bears, otters and handcuffs — to cite some of the images available in the first set of 100 free Gaymoji symbols. An additional 400 are there for the unlocking by those willing to pay $3.99 to own digital icons arranged in categories like Mood, Objects, Body, and Dating and Sex.

The company’s founder, Joel Simkhai, said that in his own communications on Grindr he had often felt the need for emoji that were not previously available.

“Partly, this project started because the current set of emojis set by some international board were limited and not evolving fast enough for us,” said Mr. Simkhai, who in certain ways fits the stereotype of a gay man in West Hollywood: a lithe, gym-fit, hairless nonsmoker who enjoys dancing at gay circuit parties. “If I wanted to say something about going dancing, I would always have to use the red-dress dancing woman. I thought, ‘Why isn’t there a guy dancing?’ It was weird to me that I always had to send that woman in the red dress.”

Among the pitfalls Grindr faces by introducing a set of icons to represent a group no longer easily defined is that by replacing one set of hoary stereotypes, it may be introducing others just as clunky and unfortunate.

“One problem is, you have this common language that’s not being organically created by marginalized people,” as were secret hankie or hatband codes once used to signal identity in the era of the closet, said Doug Meyer, an assistant professor in the department of women, gender and sexuality at the University of Virginia. “The corporate element is a new part of this. Having a common corporate language created to benefit a business ends up excluding a lot of people and creating very particular and normative ways of thinking about sex.”

The point is not altogether lost on Mr. Simkhai, who noted that at a recent birthday celebrated just before he inaugurated the Gaymoji, he was given the bad news by colleagues that, at 40, he might have aged out of his own app.

As if to emphasize that assertion, a reporter combing through the new set of Gaymoji in search of something that would symbolize a person of Mr. Simkhai’s vintage could find only one.

It was an image of a gray-haired daddy holding aloft a credit card.

Ah yes, Grindr’s users tend very strongly to the young and fit, most of whom believe themselves to be butch, so the new gaymoji have little place for older men, bulkier men who don’t identify as bears, or fems. As far as I can tell, the only Grindr gaymoji for the extravagant amongst us is the Kiki character, seen here in a collection of new emoji:


Row 1, emoji 3. From Wikipedia:

A “kiki” (alternately kiking or a ki) is a term which grew out of Queer Black /Latino social culture – loosely defined as an expression of laughter or onomatopoeia for laughing, which extended to mean a gathering of friends for the purpose of gossiping and chit-chat, and later made more widely known in the song “Let’s Have a Kiki” by the Scissor Sisters. [2012] [Scissor Sisters videos can be viewed here and here]

The Kiki world is extravagantly gay, also full of drag displays and general genderfuck. But the emoji that you’d expect to be used by guys who want to convey that they are noticeably gay — the Fire emoji, a picture of a flame, used for things that are “hot” in any of a number of senses


— has sometimes been pressed into service to convey ‘flamer, flaming faggot, fem’, though (so far as I can tell) only in a negative way, to convey rejection (as in the old sex ad abbreviation NFF ‘no fats or fems’), with a red diagonal or cross over the flame, or in combination with a rejection emoji, Restriction or Cross Mark:



Row 1, emoji 4 in #8 has the Peach + Telephone combination mentioned in the NYT piece, conveying ‘booty call’. And in row 1, emoji 2, Banana + Hammock, referring to a men’s garment that cradles the man’s junk as in a sling, pushing it forward to show it off — as in a classic Speedo, so is often used to convey “Speedo swimsuit’. And in row 1, emoji 5, (Rainbow) Unicorn Head, which could be treating the unicorn merely as a magical gay creature; or could convey horniness (with the unicorn serving as a phallic symbol); or, remarkably, signify a bisexual woman available for three-way sex with a couple (why a unicorn? you ask — because such women are as rare as unicorns, to the point of non-existence).

The last two emoji in row 2 are clever ways of conveying ‘bottom’ (receptive) vs. ‘top’ (insertive) roles in anal sex, via a guy in the bottom bunk of a bunk bed.  In older systems of emoji, this “flagging” of bottom vs. top roles (managed in hanky and armband codes by displaying colors on the right vs. left side of the body) was achieved by down vs. up symbols: a down arrow or finger pointing down vs. an up arrow or finger pointing up (unfortunately the arrows can also be used to convey disapproval vs. approval or ‘no’ vs.’yes’).

Another display of Grindr gaymoji:


Among other things, lots of eggplants and peaches. Also, in row 1, emoji 3, two guys in a men’s room stall, signifying tearoom / t-room sex. Meanwhile in row 3, Egglant + Ring used to convey ‘cockring’, Eggplant cock with a Prince Albert piercing, and Eggplant + Knife and Fork to convey ‘eat cock’.

Somewhat older intriguing emoji include Wind-Blowing Face:


and Cheese Wedge:


#13 conveys oral sex. #14 is sometimes described as a picture of a “hunk of cheese”, so that it could in principle convey ‘hunky man’ (the Grindr gaymoji include much more direct representations of such guys), but I don’t know if it’s been used that way.

Two gaps: hardly any semantics, hardly any syntax. The ordinary presentations of emoji for sexting give the visual forms and their names (or a description of the pictographs), but are remarkably coy about assigning meanings to them for use. This is like a slang lexicon without definitions. I’m not on Grindr — I don’t think I could get away with being a participant-observer (as I have been in looking at a number of other sexual practices of gay men), nor do I think it would be ethical for me to pretend to be guy looking for hook-ups on Grindr, in order to collect a corpus of emoji as used in actual interactions — so what I can glean about meaning in use is second-hand and imperfect (and mostly sanitized for presentation in newspapers, magazines, and blogs). It is clear that, as with slang lexical items, there’s a tremendous amount of variation here, and that the ways people use the emoji are enormously context-dependent. But I don’t have a grip on the variables, so I can only make some suggestive observations.

There’s an instructive comparison here to another type of system of visual forms with assigned names (and descriptions of the forms), but with what amounts to a semantics for the individual forms, namely phonetic symbols in various schemes of transcription. Pullum & Ladusaw’s Phonetic Symbol Guide (2nd ed., Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996) is an inventory of visual forms, each given a name and a description of its shape — but along with a description of the range of sounds the symbol refers to. Here’s one entry:


It gets a name, we get the picture of its shape (and there’s a Unicode coding for the shape) — but we also get a semantics for the symbol (expressed in the technical vocabulary of articulatory phonetics.

For some sexting emoji, we get all of this. For instance, we get the name Eggplant and a picture of its shape (and there’s a Unicode coding for the shape) — and we also get a (rough and skeletal) semantics for the symbol, in an English gloss: ‘penis’. But the semantics is grossly impoverished: any use of the Eggplant emoji doesn’t just refer to a penis, it performs some speech act in which a penis plays a central role: in particular, the user is saying that he loves penises, or that he loves particular kinds of penises (uncut ones, or big ones, etc.), or that he’s offering his penis for sex, or that he’s looking for a penis to enjoy in sex, or that he wants to be gangbanged, or whatever.  To use the Eggplant successfully, you either need more material in your sext, or you need to believe that the person you’re sexting can supply the content of such material from context.

Somewhere in all of this, you need more than just a big bag of emoji, with their referents, floating in space: you need a pragmatics, and you probably need some syntax to organize the emoji into coherent larger units. There are useful emoji for this — for instance, the rejection emoji above, and emoji like Binoculars, conveying ‘looking for’:


With some ingenuity, you can slap emoji together to get your hook-up message across. Your task is much like that of  speakers of mutually unintelligible languages who come into contact in a trading context; they come to share at least minimal lexical resources, and have to slap these words together into longer chunks, which (with the aid of gesture and facial expression) they can then use to get simple messages across. The process involves a lot of variability and indeterminacy, though the system can evolve to greater conventionalization and fixity — can move towards something more like an actual language, rather than an improvisational scheme for achieving simple goals.

Communicating via emoji (in sexting or for any other purpose) is different from communicating in a trade jargon context. Emoji texters share a lot of cultural knowledge; if they need to, they can fall back on regular texting in a language they share, or mix emoji and text (for a lot of texters, emoji serve mostly as a commentary on text or an expressive counterpart to it, much like prosody, gesture, and facial expression in speech); they will tend to treat emoji as an arena for playfulness, expressivity, and creativity; and they will see emoji as a medium for achieving great brevity and immediacy.

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