My boyfriend and I have always enjoyed a great sex life, but not a particularly sext-heavy one — from the time we first met, we’ve spent so much time together that there’s been little need for any texts more complicated than “Can you grab me a Snapple on your way over here?” This is exactly the problem that Elizabeth Dell, founder of the sexting app Amorus, seeks to solve. When you’re looking to meet new people, you have endless options for sexy apps that turn every conversation into a buzzy little game: everything from old-school workhorses like Grindr and Tinder to group-sex apps like Feeld. But what about when you’ve already met somebody? What buzzy little games are available to you when most of your texts are just mundane expressions of your life together?
Amorus looks and behaves like a hybrid of Slack and Signal — you invite your lovers to talk dirty to you in-app, with the confidence that comes from knowing everything you say is encrypted end-to-end. Unlike Slack and Signal, though, Amorus’ developers have created sexy games and custom emoji reactions to spur your horny conversations. You can also play “fantasy swipe,” swiping left or right on kinks suggested by the app to learn which kinks you have in common with your conversation partner. You can stop-sign react to a message to indicate that it’s erotically distasteful to you. You can turn your nudes into jigsaw puzzles for your mate to solve.
I downloaded the app and sent an invite to my one and only sexting partner, the long-suffering boyfriend who’s been forced to drink brothtails and eat beef hands with me. Shortly thereafter, I received a notification that I had a new Amorus message from “SensualGrinch69.”
“If you’re not going to take this seriously…,” I responded, but he was already busy playing Fantasy Swipe, looking through the app’s five daily fantasy cards to see if he and I shared any fantasies. I jumped in, too, and was pleased to discover that we matched on all five cards.
“Maybe we should have sex sometime!” I said, feeling great about our compatibility. But he then rightly pointed out that the “fantasies” were all things we’d already done nearly every day for the whole two years we’ve been dating, like using toys and having sex for seven days in a row.
Lesson one learned: Amorus may not be for partners who have already spent two years having communicative, adventurous sex. It was easy enough for me to giggle fondly at how tame this stuff was, from my secure vantage point within a satisfying sexual relationship. But I’ve had my share of unsatisfying sexual relationships, too, and I could see how Amorus could offer cover in that context. After all, Amorus is intended to be used within an existing relationship, however casual. You can’t use it to find new partners, only with partners you’ve invited to sext with you — the point is to create a comfortable space to suggest new things.
Dell sees her creation in much the same way. “We’re looking for people who are, as I like to say, opted in to sexuality,” she says. “People who are willing to at least walk over the line of ‘I am willing to have these conversations with my partner, but maybe I could use a little help in getting there.’ Where we offer the most value is when people are excited about sex, but they’re maybe not ultra-ninja level. There’s a huge population of people who want to try things but don’t yet know everything.”
On the one hand, it’s good to be frank in delicate matters of sexuality to reduce the potential for miscommunication, and the app does suggest a number of fun kinks and sex games that the average person might not think of on their own. An adventurous but inexperienced user would get a lot of mileage out of these games. That said, if your problem is that you’re too timid to tell your lover in your own words that you’d like him to wake you up with sex, surely you’d be scared shitless to say it in Amorus’ words, which happen to be, “How does this alarm clock work? Is it fingers? A tongue?” There’s no suggestion, no flirtation and, perhaps scariest of all for a hypothetical shy user trying to spice up their sex life, nowhere to hide. Extroverted users to the front!
Speaking of which, I quickly moved on from Fantasy Swipes to Chat Sparks, in which the user presses a button to send automated, pre-written sexts. They were more successful, maybe because there are more of them. With only five Fantasy Swipes per day, you can’t build up much sexting momentum. But there are lots of Chat Sparks, and I admit I got a little reckless with them, sending my boyfriend more and more until his phone filled with notifications like, “What would you do with a Hall Pass?” and “Share one person on your sexual bucket list (contemporary or historical, real or imagined).”
“Oh my God, stop,” he pleaded, aggrieved at the repeated distractions from Words With Friends, which is our real sexting app.
Some of the Chat Sparks did inspire sexy conversations. (Wouldn’t you like to know which!) But some of them were just so goofy to us. That’s the problem with letting a third party write your sexts for you — no two people sext alike, and you’re likely to stumble on something that be-limpens your boner. I did enjoy many of the Chat Sparks in a row, but my enjoyment hit a brick wall at, “Oral, penetrative or solo: Pick only one. Explain.” It’s that “explain” at the end that kills me; the only way it could’ve been less sexy to me is if it had said, “Show your work.”
Next was the Jigsaw Puzzle feature, in which one user sends the other a nude that the app blurs out and turns into a jigsaw puzzle. In order to see my tits, SensualGrinch69 first needed to solve the puzzle, or else just reach over and lift up my shirt, I guess. And by the way, these puzzles are hard! (Dell is an avid jigsaw puzzle enthusiast herself, and probably would have solved my titty puzzle much faster.) Maybe the problem is that my boyfriend and I have both addled our brains with too many drugs over the years, but solving a jigsaw puzzle of a blurred image when you don’t know what the image is even supposed to be mostly just gave us anxiety sweats. At the end, we didn’t lock into a passionate embrace, unable to tolerate the erotic tension for another moment. He solved the puzzle, and then he was like, Phew!
Now, SensualGrinch69 and I are clearly not the target audience for this app, and I can easily imagine users who are forthright, game and curious — after all, I would have been one myself if this app had existed when I was in my early 20s. Back then, lordy, you could not have paid me to shut up about sex. (I still don’t shut up about sex, but I would if you paid me.) I was like a kid showing his fancy new toy off all over the playground.
Dell, too, uses the language of play to explain where the early-pandemic idea for Amorus came from. Back then, she was quarantining without a partner, and found a paucity of app-based resources for people who are already in relationships to improve their texting communication. “I spent a bunch of time trying to figure out what [making] sexting better looks like,” she says. “What I came to was that I wanted to help people with intimacy. And intimacy is, ‘Let’s talk about sex, let’s talk about pleasure, let’s connect around that juicy deliciousness,’ and the best way I could think to get into that was games, was play. Because that’s where we get excited. That’s where we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to fail. That’s where we open ourselves up to joy.”
These can be high-stakes games, though, which is where Amorus’ security features come in. The promotional materials emphasize the app’s gamification of sexting, but the security features are where Amorus is at its most sophisticated. “This is just my terminology, not a term of art, but there’s security and there’s privacy. Security: Is this safe from a third-party hacker? Is this safe in an Ashley Madison context?” Dell explains, referring to the dating website’s famous data breach. “Then there’s the privacy context: Is this safe when my relationship dynamics change?”
Security-wise, the app comes with end-to-end encryption, and the dev team can’t see any messages or content. They can only see metadata, like what time of day app traffic is at its highest, and Dell promises that the app doesn’t share or sell any data about its users. Doing so would be difficult anyway, as Amorus deliberately requires the absolute minimum of information from users making new accounts. “You give us an email and username, and we have to ask for date of birth. But we don’t ask you for any additional information, so that even if there was some sort of breach, there’s only that email address and username,” she says.
The so-called privacy side — where users might need to defend their sensitive messages from post-breakup revenge pornification — was clearly also designed with care. “I dated in L.A. for 15 years, and I learned quickly that, even if I was on an app where I had a different name, if I disclosed my cell phone number, then automatically all of the social media find-my-friend features would suggest whatever name I had on that app,” Dell says. “So I built [Amorus] to be a link-based invite system.” Meaning: If you’ve just begun flirting with a stranger on Tinder or whatever, you can email that person a link from a throwaway email account with a username you don’t use anywhere else, rather than worry about their finding you with your cell number.
The potential applications for bad actors are obvious, but that’s where Amorus’ “revocable consent” feature comes in, another one that I didn’t spot from a week of using the app. Everything you send in the app can be unsent, deleted on both sides. Entire relationships can be deleted in-app, clearing all the text and photo content. The only gap I noticed was in screenshotting. You can screenshot your Amorus conversations without the other user in the conversation getting notified, which encrypted messaging apps like Confide don’t allow (if you try, your screenshot gets grayed out and the screenshotted user is notified).
Dell’s mission is ultimately a sound one, and I’m optimistic that as Amorus moves out of its beta phase, its occasional clunkiness will be smoothed out. I’m no great fan of tech and envisioned a sleek, Silicon Valley tech giant when I sat down to talk with Dell; the woman I met instead is clearly passionate about keeping the magic alive, whatever shape that happens to take for you. More games are coming as the app continues to grow, and a group chat option is in development. At the end of our talk, Dell had only one question for me, which she asked with charming, disarming guilelessness: “Can I ask — did you have fun?”
I thought about the laughs and jokes and sweetness and, yes, sex that SensualGrinch69 and I had unexpectedly shared in our week of using an app that I was certain had nothing to offer us.
“Yes,” I responded. “Yes, we did!”