Article Thumbnail

The Ethical Debate Over Saving an Ex’s Nudes

Is it wrong — a violation of consent — to keep naked photos once a relationship ends? Or is it a gift without an expiration date?

Maz, a 22-year-old charity worker in the U.K., dated a guy we’ll call Troy when she was 16. A year into their relationship, she found out he was sexting other girls and summarily dumped him. She also made a specific request: that he delete the three nudes she’d sent him over the course of their relationship. “I was 16 and conscious of my age and the inappropriateness of anyone having those photos, even though he was 16, too,” she explains. “It also just felt like he didn’t deserve them.”

A few days after the breakup, Troy came over to Maz’s house groveling for forgiveness. She wasn’t interested in taking him back, but she did take the opportunity to check whether her nudes had been erased. “He just sort of shut down and got uncomfortable and shifty,” she continues. “He very obviously hadn’t deleted them.”

Maz asked to see Troy’s phone, prompting him to admit that he still had the nudes saved and sulk that he “just didn’t want to forget anything!” “It was a bizarre, self-pitying response to a fair request,” Maz tells me. “I think definitely delete that stuff if you have any morals. Delete it without needing to be asked, ideally.”

The ethics of keeping an ex’s nude was hotly debated on Twitter recently, after a tweet telling people to “delete ! their ! nudes ! if ! you ! are ! no ! longer ! with ! them !” racked up more than 600,000 likes and hundreds of replies and quote tweets endorsing it as an ethical bare minimum. But there was also significant opposition. “You gave them to me as a gift,” read one reply with 2.4K likes. “If I gave a girl a ring I wouldn’t ask for it back. Now, I’m not sharing those photos, but I’m definitely not deleting them.”

So, who’s right? Is it wrong to keep an ex’s nude once a relationship ends?

Team Delete and Team Keep are pretty polarized, but there are some areas of common ground. Virtually no one argues that it’s ethical to share an ex’s nude with a third party, or publish the nude online, without permission; this is revenge porn, and pretty much everyone agrees it’s a shitty thing to do. The debate is about whether it’s okay to keep the nude, and also possibly enjoy the nude, too.

Also, most people agree that it’s shitty to keep a nude you’ve been specifically asked to delete, like Troy did. The question is whether there’s an automatic moral obligation to delete an ex’s nudes once the relationship ends. Ashley, a 27-year-old writer in L.A., doesn’t think so. “It’s ethical [to keep them] as long as it’s for personal use and they haven’t specifically asked you to delete them,” she tells me. “I feel like it’s just the hornier version of keeping love letters.” Avery, an editor in New York City, agrees. “If I’m texting a nude to someone, I view it as a gift,” she says. “It’s theirs now.”

But J, a 29-year-old scientist in Chicago, sees things differently. “I definitely think it’s a consent issue,” they explain. “I’d always get somebody’s explicit consent to keep nudes when the breakup happens — and if I’d feel weird about asking, that’s a sign that they should go in the trash.”

This raises further questions: What do you consent to when you send someone a nude, and for how long? People rarely specify these things, so a whole lot of assumptions about the correct etiquette have popped up instead. Some consider a breakup an obvious sign that the recipient’s permission to keep the nudes has been revoked, while others think it’s not so clear-cut. “A person entrusted you with possession of that photo for you to use as you please at any time with or without their specific knowledge, which makes possession of explicit photos fundamentally different from sexual consent,” says Jim, a 40-year-old attorney in New York. “It doesn’t seem to me that you’re violating any kind of trust or infringing on anybody’s autonomy [by keeping them].”

Patrick, 35, who works in finance in Boston, recently did a 180 on the question of whether he should keep his exes’ nudes, deleting his collection in a fit of guilt. “Even though I trust myself with the photos I have, I don’t fully control the world,” he says. “What if my wife somehow found them? She’d be really upset. What if the women knew I still had them? Would they be disturbed? Or worst of all, what if they were somehow stolen? They’re tied to real identities, of people I care about. I’d be devastated to think that I was implicated in any pain caused.”

He raises reasonable points, although it’s not clear any of them settle the question. The question of his wife’s hurt feelings is a separate issue, and while it’s true that keeping an ex’s nudes exposes them to the risk of an unforeseen security breach, that risk already existed before the relationship ended, and the sender was willing to accept it then. Assuming you’re still taking the same reasonable precautions to prevent the nudes from being stolen or accidentally shared, what’s wrong with continuing to hold onto them?

As Patrick correctly intuits, one of the most common reasons people want their exes to automatically delete their nudes is because they’re disturbed by the idea that they’ll keep viewing or masturbating to them. Even when they’re reassured that no one else will see the nudes, they say it’s “weird” and “creepy” for their exes to do this.

People masturbate to memories of their exes all the time, and while you could quibble about whether that’s gross, it’s hard to argue that it’s unethical. So what’s the difference with using a memory aide, like a nude? Nothing, says Jim: “Whether [people masturbate] by looking at nudes they were sent during the relationship, looking at recent photos their ex posted on Facebook or just to mental images, it doesn’t impinge on the ex’s autonomy or impact them in any way.”

But some people think it’s just unfair that their exes can keep enjoying their nudes, especially if they ended up being shitty partners. “A nude is sort of like a gift, so it’s like, ‘I’m taking back that present I gave you, because you’re a knobhead,’” says Maz, explaining why she persisted in getting disloyal Troy to delete her pictures. “In that sense, it was mainly driven by feelings of anger and betrayal.”

Wanting to deprive an ex of nice things is a common enough impulse, but Lucy, a 34-year-old healthcare worker in Philadelphia, views things the opposite way. “I cannot relate to not sincerely hoping that every one of your exes is still jacking off to your nudes,” she says. “It’s hot, flattering and it’s probably causing them some suffering! What’s not to like?”