Emoji aren’t sexy. They’re simple, tame, and accessible icons that work wonders if you want convey basic emotions. But when it comes to sexting, they're pretty inadequate. Winky faces, eggplants, and bananas have their uses, of course, but if you want to be a little sexier, you’re going to have to use your words.
Fortunately, four designers in California have come up with a solution, and they're calling it "Flirtmoji" — sexy stickers designed to look like emoji that you can paste into messaging apps as needed. The project launched on Tuesday, so The Verge contacted Katy McCarthy, one of two artists attached to the project, to talk about the design process.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
How did Flirtmoji come to be?
It’s been many months in the making. All four of us had experience with jokingly and poorly substituting the existing emojis into text conversations to try to communicate sex, and it never worked. But the game-changer came because one of the guys in the group was having really elaborate texting engagement back and forth with a long distance girlfriend. We realized that we needed to do this, to draw up sex as icons, and make it completely comprehensive, funny, and diverse.I showed some of the Flirtmoji to a friend, and she wasn’t surprised when I told her that you’re a woman. She said that men don’t tend to draw breasts like that. What do you think of that reaction?
Well, I did draw them! And that’s so beautiful, coming from another woman, that she saw that. We had so much dialogue about [the drawings]. The boobs, in particular, were really hashed out. Everyone looked at them, everyone talked about them, everyone had their two cents, and then being the only woman in a group of guys discussing body parts, obviously there are moments that are a little hairy, but…
…That’s an interesting choice of words.
Well yea that’s a whole other conversation, because how do you make hair in simple line strokes?
Right, so I noticed that the free set of Flirtmoji don’t have hair, and I was wondering about that decision. Is that something your team discussed?
I’m really glad you’re bringing that up because I feel like I’m being held accountable for that. Hair has actually been really contentious and funny and also a major design issue, all while being a major conceptual necessity to all of us. I support hair; I have hair. I think it’s really important, and actually making it come across has been incredibly difficult. But we do have a few new ones that have hair, and we’re working on it.
"Hair has actually been really contentious and funny — and also a major design issue."
I’m not surprised that you discussed hair in that way because from what I can tell, Flirtmoji seems really sex-positive and diverse. It looks like you put a lot of thought into including different races, kinks, and sexual orientations. Why was that important to you?
Well, for obvious reasons. My friends and I are not accurately represented in emoji, and it’s frustrating. And particularly with sex, we felt that it was so crucial that everyone feel sexually represented.
We wanted to be able to show this to all of our friends and have them all feel comfortable. We wanted them to be able pick their own body parts in the Emoji — within the limits of size and colors. So we invited a ton of people to come look at them and to provide feedback. We wanted them to tear it apart, or say "yes, this is good and I feel safe." It’s not supposed to be college frat humor, although part of being inclusive is making it funny. It’s just not that hard to have everybody feel represented.
"Particularly with sex, we felt that it was so crucial that everyone feel sexually represented."
Some of these, like the vulva in particular, are really detailed and surprisingly anatomically correct. Did you have to think about ways to also make them sexy?
Well that’s the meat of the project. That’s where some of the most heated debate came out. To pass our test, the drawings have to be sex-positive. Anyone has to be able to look at them and not feel offended. There’s definitely a ton that didn’t make the cut.
But some people will probably find these offensive anyway.
Well sex-positive and offensive... there’s definitely a judgment call on that. There are people who will be very deeply offended — people who are offended by certain sexualities — but we’re not worried about those people. I mean, get your shit together. People are having sex, and it looks like this. And yes, part of being inclusive is that it’s all sexy. Even if it’s not my thing, necessarily, I wanted the Flirtmoji to be sexy because it’s someone else's thing and it’s sexy to them.
When you started the project, did you also look up other adult emoji or stickers to see if there was anyone else trying to do what you’re doing?
Yes, absolutely. We did a lot of research and tried to always stay connected, because we felt that what we were working on was so obvious and important that there’s no way that we’re the only ones doing this. But seeing what's out there was pretty surprising. People have put together bad collections, thoughtless collections, offensive collections... Actually one project that’s different, and that we admire is the Lesbian Emoji project. When that came out, we thought, "Oh this is cool." And it also scared us because we wondered if there would be room for everyone. But ultimately, I think they’re doing something very different — they're tapping into a lot more of a niche. What we're doing sits differently for me, because we’re making this really comprehensive little visual language that represents everybody and everything.
A lot of people have written about Emoji, and they've discussed whether they hinder conversations or enhance them. What do you think of that? When’s the right time to use emoji, or sex emoji?
What’s really beautiful about sex, and emoji, is that sex is really playful and also really difficult. And at the core of good sex is good communication. So to that end, I think that whatever it takes for you to be able to communicate what you want or need, or what you don’t want and don’t need is fine. With other emoji, there's definitely a time and a place. I don’t want to be broken up with in emojis. But I think with sex there are things that are really hard to say and hard to ask for, and that’s such a beautiful window to be able to provide someone with language.
I like the idea of Flirtmoji, but I’m not sold on the name yet. Why did you decided to call them that, instead of something like "Sextmoji," for instance?
I think sex is obvious, and we also wanted them to be available to people who aren’t having sex. You can be flirting, it doesn’t have to be about intercourse. If it’s not so serious to you, there are flirty icons. There’s stigma around sexting, so part of this project is light and funny. I think naming them around the word "flirting" keeps it there.
The Daily Dot wrote about Flirtmoji this week and they did so in a way that wasn’t entirely positive. The writer said that they could be misinterpreted and used in negative ways. As a result, your team wrote a blog post to explain how you translate Flirtmoji. Do you want to talk about that?
I'm going to let our blog post speak for itself. But, essentially, we felt grateful for the press, but disappointed that the author interpreted the icons with such negativity and violence and strife, and put women in such a position of receiving said violence and aggression. We designed the icons to be straightforward. We don't agree with The Daily Dot's interpretation that the icons have hidden, secret messages that are aggressive and dangerous.
That said, the way she described the icons reveals a truth that the user can misuse these Flirtmoji, but they can also use them for good and sext positively. The deciding factor lies with the user, but we like to think we set them up for success by creating positive, inclusive iconography.
Accessing Flirtmoji is very different from accessing other types of emoji on a mobile device. They aren’t in the iTunes store, for instance, so you have to go in your phone’s internet browser and copy them into a text message, or save them to your phone's photo album. Did you try to be included in app stores?
We never actually attempted to be included in the iTunes store. We did our research, and we were sort of disheartened by what we found. There’s this really beautiful design project called Geometric Porn that was kicked out of the iTunes store for being explicit, and it’s beautiful. It’s anatomical, it’s funny, and it’s sexy. It’s also literally triangles and circles and fleshy colored objects, so the fact that they were rejected really bummed us out.
There’s a lot of violence and games that objectify women in the app store though, so on that level, I’m pretty stoked to not be part of it. I know we’re asking people to use their phones in a different way than they are used to. But this a tiny project from four kids who care, and who went around conventional app stores. We could have built an app, tried and gotten rejected, but instead we're just not part of that system, and I think that's really cool.
Some of the emoji are free, and buying other collections costs $0.99. How has that worked out so far?
That’s still something we’re trying to figure out. I don’t know if we can get people to use their phones in a way that they’re not familiar with and to give us money to do it. And also feels complex to charge money for it, except that I’m an artist and I’ve been doing this for a while and… I just want people to see it. I want people to sext. I want people to have more candid conversations. It would be so rad if this caused people to have real, deep, hard conversations about sex and various kinks. I want that for everyone.