Note from the editor: Although thirst traps are not reserved for heteronormative relationships nor are they solely reserved to women, the author refers to this dynamic for the purposes of discussing the male gaze and her own experience with taking thirst traps.
Thirst traps are a relatively new phenomena, seemingly yet another trapping of modern dating, whose nature we can perhaps identify as the 21st century version of a peacock showcasing its feathers.
Google defines them as a social media post intended to entice viewers sexually; whilst many seem to frown upon and judge these types of posts, we can reframe this common perception to understand how thirst traps can actually provide a source of female empowerment in the digital age.
Of course, whilst thirst traps are not strictly reserved to female bodies. Yet with the hyper sexualisation of the female body, it is easy to see how they are commonly associated with a photo taken for the consumption of a heterosexual male. I would be lying if I said the first image that springs to mind is of a poised man provocatively flexing his muscles in the direction of the camera. In this way, it is clear that thirst traps are a much more complex concept than people initially realise. Unlike a male peacock posturing around, when a woman takes a provocative photo to ‘entice’ a particular person/people, it comes with all the implications of the male gaze and the general patriarchal way in which the female body is viewed and treated in our society. Although, despite all of this, female thirst traps allow a woman to take control over her own body as (at least in most cases), she is the one taking the actual photo.
In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, he explores the male gaze through revealing the previously concealed male spectator behind the camera/canvas. For example, in Renaissance paintings of women, the female body is seen as a passive subject apathetically languishing on a chair or a bed. Her entire being is perceived through the eyes of the active male artist. Clearly, then, today’s proliferation of thirst traps directly contradict the previously male-oriented artistic production of women through the absence of the man behind the camera. Thirst traps posted by women today, therefore, are carried out and controlled by the woman alone. Evidently, the male gaze does not disappear when the photo reaches the public domain, but women are able to portray their bodies in a way that they personally find alluring and sexy. The photo has not been contorted by the invisible man behind the camera. The man is metaphorically forced to hand the camera back to the female subject.
In my personal experience, thirst traps can be a source of self-validation and empowerment, regardless of the attention they may or may not receive. Due to internalised misogyny and the way in which our entire society functions, it is all too easy for women to feel ashamed and disgusted by their bodies. These images can provide an outlet for women to feel great in their bodies and to celebrate with others how good they look on a day when they are really feeling themselves. This kind of self-confidence emanates from the screen, allowing women to in some ways reappropriate their sexuality in whichever manner suits them. Personally, when I have taken thirst traps, I haven’t necessarily had a particular person in mind. The process of taking it was enough to instil some body confidence back into me – especially if I had previously been struggling with my body image.
Obviously, we are all existing within a fundamentally flawed system and we could (and should) unpack why it is women feel so empowered when they feel ‘sexy’ and ‘enticing’. However, any nugget of self-confidence and sexiness a woman feels is something to be celebrated and held on to. It is all too often that we see women tearing themselves apart on social media – so if a woman is able to reclaim autonomy over her body image through taking a photo that she deems Instagram-worthy, that should be celebrated as her right to do as she wishes with her body.
A common negative connotation surrounding thirst traps often stems from fellow women feeling a sense of inadequacy when they see another woman confidently flaunting her body over social media. But this is symptomatic of the patriarchy’s attempts to pit women up against each other. Women are taught to fear and be jealous of other women’s beauty rather than to celebrate it. This is yet another issue that needs unpacking, and we could all benefit from regularly acknowledging and questioning our deep-rooted internalised misogyny when these feelings of inadequacy arise.
So, all in all, thirst traps are much more complex than a simple sexy photo for the purpose of enticing another person. They can be a way for women to reclaim some sort of control over how the camera sees them and for them to find a newfound beauty in their bodies that is detached from any kind of subsequent attention the photo may receive. Social media is a complex minefield of mixed motivations and mismatched content, but this doesn’t mean it always has to be a negative thing. Thirst traps can serve more purpose than one – as an extremely effective medium for women to celebrate themselves with others on a digital platform.