Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and abuse in a way that may be distressing to some readers.
When we break up with someone, we often also go through the painstaking process of divvying up what is now ours and theirs. We argue over who gets the couch, and we even occasionally get the "Are you still using my Netflix account, seriously?" text. Then there's the actual exchange, where boxes of clothes and a toothbrush are dropped off at our door.
Breakups are a minefield, not just of the heart, but also the logistical nature of splitting up our belongings. But what we don't often think about (and probably should) is how to deal with some of our more sensitive, private property; specifically, our nudes. Because in a world of image-based abuse, revenge porn and social media, knowing an ex still has naked photos of you can be seriously terrifying.
"The risk of our nudes being nonconsensually kept or shared is one that we don't like to think about, but it's a reality that we need to face," Selina Nguyen, relationship therapist and sexologist from Good Vibes Clinic, tells Refinery29. It's not really possible to make sending intimate photos completely safe, but we can take certain steps to make it safer.
"Just as you may discuss sexual health before play, a conversation around expectations and consent is always warranted," Nguyen says. "I always encourage communication and that, in itself, can be a great barometer of whether or not to trust this person. Because if someone is dismissive of your concerns, they're definitely not worth sending a nude to. It also can be useful to not frame it as, 'How do I know I can trust you?' but more as 'How can we protect ourselves while showing care for each other in this?'"
So what are some safe nude-taking practices and principles we should follow?
The first basic rule is to avoid including your face and distinctive body features like tattoos or birthmarks in the photos, and ensure that the background of your picture is nondescript or non-identifying. That means, your backdrop should be clear of any photo portraits hanging on your wall, anything specific in your home that can be clearly linked back to you, and no signals as to your current location.
"It's also important to recognise that nude [photo] taking doesn't need to be explicit in order to be sexy," Nguyen notes. "A good nude is an art form, so playing around with undressing or covering up or different poses can be both really hot and [also] safer practice. Especially if you're planning on sending it to someone you've just met."
We also need to think about how we share and store our nudes because sadly, the screenshot function isn't going anywhere any time soon. "Using an app like Snapchat that notifies you of screenshots or storing them in a hidden folder or a secure app that is password protected can help ease your worries in the long run," Nguyen suggests. "Another alternative is to just show them in person and keep it on your phone!"
"Getting up to date on your rights and what the laws and resources are in your area around revenge porn is important."
Selina nguyen, relationship therapist & sexologist
So, say we do all that but are still worried about our ex having these pictures; will our ex really do us a solid and permanently delete them if we ask? According to Nguyen, that largely depends on the nature of your relationship and how it ended. "If you're confident it would be received well, it can be easy to just throw it in there while you're also dividing up the bathroom towels or furniture, but for those [situations] where it may be more tenuous, approaching it like you would any other tough conversation is helpful," Nguyen says.
"Pick a time when the heat of the breakup has cooled off, and invite reciprocity by letting them know that you'll delete theirs and ask them to return the favour," she suggests. "The use of the classic 'I' statements, like 'I'd feel more at ease knowing they were deleted' can be a great way to also prevent potential accusations or blame and keep the conversation from getting blown out of proportion."
However, the real issue is, technically, your ex isn't legally obligated to delete them, so even if we let them know we no longer consent to them having our photos, there's very little we can do. "Getting up to date on your rights and what the laws and resources are in your area around revenge porn is important," Nguyen says. Because what is a criminal offence in Australia is your ex (or anyone) distributing them without your permission under revenge porn laws.
"I'd like to think he wouldn't publish any of them, but I wouldn't ever give him the benefit of the doubt."
Renee*, 30, has two exes with her nudes, and while she's not worried about one of them — as he's a friend and she trusts that he wouldn't do anything weird or bad with them — it's a very different story with the other. "The other breakup was really bad and that ex isn't a nice person at all, so I definitely worry about what's happened with those photos," she says. "He also used to take videos of me while we were having sex without my consent (which is also sexual assault and illegal), so it's a really awful situation that I honestly try not to think about because it would just freak me out too much."
Renee never spoke to her ex about them as she just wanted to get as far away from that relationship as she could, demonstrating one of the key reasons it can be so hard to resolve these situations with a bad ex. "I'd like to think he wouldn't publish any of them, but I wouldn't ever give him the benefit of the doubt," she says.
So, what do you do if you ask for your photos to be deleted and they refuse? "If they refuse, you can continue to explain why you'd like them deleted, affirm that it's important to you and make it clear that you don't consent to them being kept," Nguyen says. "Yes, unfortunately, you can't make the other person do it, but you can try to support them in doing it by asking them what might help them, within reason, to make that decision."
The concern about what might happen to your nudes after a breakup shouldn't keep you from taking them if it's something you enjoy doing, as we certainly can't and shouldn't live our lives, or engage in sexual practices, in fear. But implementing a few safety practices and knowing our rights will go a long way in protecting us, and keeping the art form of nude-taking alive, sexy and most importantly, safe.
*Names have been changed for confidentiality
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.