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All My Exes Live in Pixels

Why some men save their former flames’ nudes long after a breakup

Tyler calls the folder on his laptop that contains nudes of his exes “Rogaine.” He changed it from “cocaine” after too many people asked him what he was keeping in there. Anwar called his “random stuff,” but he kept the nudes nested in the fourth of four untitled folders. That was before he deleted the folder sometime last year, when he got paranoid about potential hacking. Ryan’s old nudes are scattered throughout his email — you can find them by typing “.jpg” into the search bar — but he rarely looks at them, except when he’s newly single. Bill says he doesn’t know where his are, probably on camera memory cards and old hard drives. But now that I mention it, he’s gonna gather them into a single place.

Nudes from my exes are collected in a folder called “just drunk enough to send this.” I made it when I was studying abroad at a South African university with slow internet and a long-distance girlfriend. One day, she sent a video with the subject head “just drunk enough to send this.” I took my laptop to the library immediately and made small talk with a fellow American while the progress bar slowly filled up. The video featured my girlfriend wearing a tank top and camouflage booty shorts. “True Affection” by The Blow played in the background. The first line of that song is “I was out of your league,” which she almost definitely was. (I’ve only heard that song once in the years since she sent me the video. I would describe my reaction to it as Pavlovian.)

This was in 2010, just before the World Cup, and laptop cameras were still in the relative dark ages. Though the video was pixelated nearly beyond recognition, I watched it dozens of times before I got back to the United States. After that, because we lived in different cities and were off-and-on, the folder grew and grew. We broke up, finally, when I moved from Los Angeles to New York City and she didn’t. But there were other women that made their way into the folder. One girlfriend, a writer I dated for about six months, sent me a series of headless pictures of her lying on leopard-print bed sheets, boobs out, flipping me the bird. Another fling was fond of taking pictures in the bath, which put her face in high definition and gave the rest of her a kind of watery mystery.

And, though the specific practice is a modern phenomenon, we would be lying to ourselves if we said it wasn’t deeply rooted in history. Photographers like Albert Arthur Allen were producing boudoir photography as early as the 1920s, but nudes must have predated that. After all, the Tourist Multiple and the Simplex were consumer-focused cameras that debuted in 1913 and 1914, respectively. Another thing that debuted around that time was World War I. If you think that British, French and German women were sending their soldier husbands off to war empty-handed, then I have some beachfront property in Arizona to sell you.

Like all things invented in war, the practice has now moved to us soft-belly civilians. Basically as long as there’s been an ability to take photos, you can bet someone thought to train the camera on their own naked body. I don’t know whether people kept the photos around, but I’m sure if they did they did so in a pasteboard box, hidden at the back of some closet somewhere where nobody would look. You know, kind of like nesting it five deep in untitled folders.

Sending nudes is, whether we acknowledge it or not, an expression of trust. You trust that your significant other isn’t a fucking psychopath who’s going to use your belief in them against you, even if you have a terrible breakup. You trust your own feelings and desires and confidence in that moment. And if you’re feeling insecure about it, you can ask for a naked picture in return. (In my research for this article — combing through old emails — I found a lot of photos of my hard 20something dick poking out of jeans.)

I asked one of my exes what she thought of this whole thing—the fact that I still had her old nudes

“I don’t care,” she said. “The only thing I hate is when people message me like, the day of [having masturbated to them].”

Who does that? She listed three exes, though one had stopped when he got married. I hadn’t even known that was an option, to be frank. That seemed, and seems, several steps over the line. If you want to look, go right ahead, but there’s no need to let her know exactly how you’re using them.

There’s something comforting about looking at these nudes even now. It’s lower-impact than actually fucking, but still trips many of the same pleasure centers. I still want to see her naked, sure. But it’s also about being reminded of that time in my life, when romantic relationships were less encumbered by “real problems” and more defined by who lived on the same street, or had the best jokes about the uselessness of their major.

For a while, I thought I might be the only one with a nudes folder. It sat on my computer, visited mainly when I was hung over or the internet was out. That made me feel tremendously creepy, like I was somehow spying on content specifically produced for me. I realized only a few weeks ago just how commonplace it was. My current girlfriend left her phone on top of the car. As we drove onto the freeway, it slipped off and shattered on the pavement. She was upset, at least partially because she had lost all her old naked pictures of herself. Her estimate was that her ex had around 400 on his hard drive. So she Facebook messaged him and he sent them to her. And then she sent them to me.

It’s a strange experience, to see someone’s recycled nudes. I’m not naive enough to think that all naked pictures sent to me were taken with me as the intended recipient. I know for a fact that that’s not true. But to think that they had been produced for someone else, then repurposed for me, was enough to spin my head clean around. I told my girlfriend I thought she looked very pretty and then never looked at the pictures again. Why would I? I can’t be nostalgic for a past I never experienced.

Of course, transmission is where things get tricky, and where a more or less innocent site of wistful meat-beating can become essentially a nuclear weapon: revenge porn. I don’t personally think anyone should be embarrassed by naked images of themselves looking their best, but the violence of leaking those images to the general public is almost unspeakable. As a man, I’m free from this threat, but I have spent days in the hospital holding the hand of a woman who’s had it happen to her.The rest of the story is hers to tell, so I’ll stop there. But I wouldn’t recommend even my level of involvement to anyone, so I can’t even begin to fathom how the survivor must feel.

A nudes folder, however, is properly kept to oneself; it’s more of a respectful homage and a reminder of a path not taken. I firmly believe that falling and staying in love is at least partially a choice. Arranged marriages, after all, work from time to time. So each ex is a choice that was made, a life not lived. Looking back at them, I think about what it would have been like if I had stayed with the hyper-directed public health advocate, or with the poet who was struggling to come to terms with how to practice her art, or with the fiction writer that would spend dinners laughing through her hands at how stupid everyone around us was. For someone who believes each year is better than the last, I spend a shocking amount of time wondering what might have been.

People have different reasons for keeping a firestorm on their laptop, but they all have to do with heartbreak. Tyler, for example, sifts through pictures of his ex nearly every day. She went away to finish college in Massachusetts after years off, after ten months together. Their relationship had been in a slow-motion collapse over the past three, the pair of them having different editions of the same fight again and again.

“I look at the pictures of her doing normal things,” he says as we share a plate of Korean hot wings. “Like sitting on my toilet and flipping me off. It’s like she’s still in the other room, in a way.”

He wishes she’d speak to him, but this is the next-best thing. When you break up, in one instant, the feeling that you’ve had for someone is replaced by memories of that feeling, now qualified by their status as an ex. I remember, mainly, the fights, the upsets, the slow descent into mutual disillusionment. If we constantly remembered the good times, there would be no need to end the relationship. There would be no way to get over it. The human memory is a fallible and subjective thing for reasons of evolution.

Looking at old nudes is a little bit of a salve against that. The picture of my ex pulling down her bikini top to reveal her breasts reminds me of a day at the beach that was blessedly free of argument. The video of her sent during winter break from her childhood bedroom reminds me of the nights we spent trying to fuck quietly so her mother wouldn’t hear. They’re little postcards from a past, reminding you of what it’s like to be loved by someone who used to love you.

I changed phones recently, which meant I had a choice to make about the nudes living in various folders on the old one. I bricked it, erasing them, without much second thought. I’ve thought about them maybe once or twice, but not often. And I feel better for it. After all, at some point you’ve got to decide that the path you’re headed down is the best one. To pervert a phrase by E.L. Doctorow: “Relationships are like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Names have been changed.