Why Do Smart People Send Nudes?

For many, it barely matters anymore.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos smiles and holds a phone in the air.
Ted S. Warren / AP

In so many ways, Jeff Bezos isn’t a relatable guy. As the CEO of Amazon, he’s the world’s richest man. He lords over much of the internet’s infrastructure. He turns the municipal governments of America’s largest cities into slavering lapdogs at the prospect of his company’s arrival. In at least one way, though, Bezos is exactly like a huge number of Americans in 2019: On at least a few occasions, he apparently has dashed off explicit texts and some predictably composed nudes to a romantic partner with little apparent regard for whether it could come back to bite him in the ass.

Bezos’s moment of reckoning came on Thursday, when the Amazon founder chose to publicize what he described as a blackmail and extortion attempt by American Media Inc. AMI, the publisher of the National Enquirer, had obtained intimate photos and messages that Bezos had previously sent to Lauren Sanchez, the woman now rumored to be his girlfriend. He announced last month that he and his wife, MacKenzie, would divorce after 25 years of marriage.

In a Medium post, Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, alleged that AMI wanted him to disavow publicly any knowledge of the publisher’s political dealings. In exchange, Bezos wrote, AMI would withhold publication of those private messages. In 2018, AMI admitted to federal authorities that it had paid off women on behalf of then–presidential candidate Donald Trump, and rumors abound of the company’s additional involvement with both the Trump campaign and the Saudi royal family.

For plenty of people, though, the details of high-level political backbiting aren’t the headline here, or at least not the only headline. Why was someone like Bezos, who has such an enormous and singular public profile and who’s known to be canny and relentless, lured in by the base, risky pleasures of taking dick pics?

According to researchers, the smart and powerful probably aren’t any less prone to sexting than the rest of us. Human history suggests that you can’t intellectualize your way out of being horny, no matter how much you’d like to.

Like most sexual behaviors, sexting can be healthy or harmful, depending on the context and the people involved. By all indications, Bezos’s sexts were consensual and reciprocated by Sanchez, and those kinds of exchanges have become a very common part of early-phase intimate relationships, according to Michelle Drouin, a psychology professor at Purdue University Fort Wayne. “It’s a way to establish intimacy with a partner, to tell them you’re having sexual thoughts about them, to convey sexual plans that you might have with them later on,” she says. “This is all part of the normative sexual experience now.” According to research by Drouin and others, more than 80 percent of young American adults have sent or received an explicit message or photo.

Most of the research on digital sexuality concerns adolescents and college students, but another area of sexting study might be more closely applicable to Bezos’s relationship with Sanchez: cheating. Drouin says that the structure of sexting lends has helped make it popular with those stepping out behind a partner’s back; it happens more frequently in these situations than between long-term, committed paramours. “Your cheating partner is not usually the person you go home to every night,” Drouin says. “It’s a way to express sexual desire at a distance in a way that can be hidden a little bit.”

Not only was Bezos in a new relationship and rumored to be cheating on his wife, which are a set of circumstances in which sexting is common, but he’s a man in America in 2019, which means that, on a cultural level, sending a dick pic just isn’t the scandal it was even a few years ago. Scores of celebrity nudes have been leaked by hackers, and so many regular people have tried and enjoyed sexting. For a person with even a modicum of cultural power, the risk (if it was even considered in the moment of dick-pic reverie) could seem negligible. “It adds a dimension of normality to him. Billionaires send sexts just like the rest of us,” Drouin says.

Which isn’t to say that sexting has no cultural risks, because it does. Consensual nude photos are still frequently repurposed to harass people—especially young women—which is a remnant of the fading cultural attitudes that likely made AMI think it might be successful in bending Bezos to its will. In the past, for instance, evidence of repeated extramarital sexting was used to derail the promising career of the politician Anthony Weiner.

But there are real differences in structural power between an ascendant-but-unproven political star and a hyper-wealthy business leader, and between sending salacious messages to a number of strangers online and to one romantic partner. If the blackmail allegations are true, it seems as if AMI’s math was a little off on exactly how scandalous a few racy photos are at this point in America’s smartphone saturation, and how much an already powerful person could be harmed by their revelation.

“Very powerful people feel protected, and that they’re so high up that nothing will happen to them,” says Susan Lipkins, a psychologist who has researched both sexting and bullying. “[Bezos’s] life is so fantastic and unreachable, it feels like it’s outside of the atmosphere of normal life.” Indeed, researchers have found that people who feel as if they have irrevocable power are significantly more likely to make risky decisions.

Whose power is more irrevocable than the world’s richest man’s? It’s hard to imagine a situation in which consequences for Bezos’s sexts go beyond personal embarrassment, and since he published evidence of AMI’s alleged extortion attempts, he’s been the star of a news cycle far more positive than any for him or his company in recent memory. Bezos, who sits atop a technology empire, was probably well aware of a small risk of hacking or interception when he sent those messages, and he appears not to have cared. He’s a smart guy. In this case, it seems he read the room correctly.