It was a hastily scribbled note on a torn piece of paper, hand-delivered to my desk at work more than 20 years ago. Yet its contents still have the power to make my stomach flip-flop. "I want you … NOW!!!" Unsigned, but in familiar scrawl, words dripping with urgency and longing, it resurfaced during a cupboard clean-out, casting me back to the heady days of an office affair. I kept the note, again, and stuffed it back into a shoebox. I don't know why, except to say it was a tangible reminder of knee-trembling times. Before a sense of professional responsibility, and arthritis, intervened.
This small act of hoarding made me wonder. How would my former colleague and I plan lunchtime trysts if we shared an open-plan office today? Sexting, sadly, seems to have replaced the handwritten note as an indicator of lustful intent. But I'd really like to think we wouldn't be swapping provocative selfies captioned "hey", "r u hot 4 me", and "sexxxxy".
Though my truncated scrap of correspondence may not be the best example, it's time to bring back the lost art of love-letter writing and, with it, a sense of romance. Deliciously dubbed billet-doux, meaning "sweet letter" by the French (who else?), love letters speak to the heart, not the loins.
Winston Churchill wrote to his wife Clementine, "I kiss your vision as it rises before my mind". Napoleon Bonaparte – the French, again! – penned countless letters to Josephine, speaking wistfully of "your caresses, your tears, your affectionate solitude". In the capable hands of English poet John Donne, the love letter reached its apotheosis. "Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glistering, But a far fairer world encompassing."
Well, perhaps they do speak to the loins sometimes.
Modern sexts, on the other hand, are the dirty grubs of the genre. Maybe it's just me, but "omg that ass" just doesn't have the same ring. Pardon the pun. And while individuals like Anthony Weiner and Queensland's own Peter Dowling might disagree, sexts containing close-ups of male genitalia don't bring to mind the bedroom. When I first saw Dowling's 2013 sexts to his mistress, I was utterly confused. Why is he force-feeding a giant earthworm red wine? Are earthworms, like the mezcal worms at the bottle of tequila bottles, a thing now? Has anyone thought to inform the RSPCA?
I also wonder if the course of history might have changed if Bonaparte and Churchill were distracted by ceaseless booty calls of the "I wanna do u" variety. And how might the vast, beautiful body of English literature have developed if Donne had dropped his codpiece instead of picking up his quill?
Sexts cheapen the most delicate discourse we're ever likely to have. And as Messrs Weiner, Dowling and many others have discovered, pressing "send" can have disastrous consequences – even when your missive reaches the intended recipient. Spare a thought for the lass who snapped herself in what could only be described as a lingerie-clad downward dog pose and dispatched it with the message "I know you want it". Seconds later, after realising she's sent it to the wrong number, she taps out "Im so sorry my bad". But it doesn't stop the huffy recipient texting back, "Seriously?!"
The very worst feature of sexts is that they invert the adoration equation. Donne, for instance, was worshipful in his description of his mistress, devoting couplet after couplet to her charms. Sexts, by comparison, serve to spruik the sender's assets. The recipient is, at best, an irrelevancy. If a sext could speak, it would say something like, "Look at my penis. See how big it is?" Boring.
Even "I want you … NOW!!!", a sext before the technology was invented, is quite clear about exactly whom is the object of desire: me, not him. Demonstrating that a picture ain't necessarily worth a thousand words, there are no bedroom eyes, no crude mimes of carnal acts, no narcissistic displays of nudity. And definitely no earthworms.
Denise Cullen is a Brisbane writer and psychology student.