The word “nudes” perfectly encapsulates what they refer to: naked photos. But what do we call a photo that’s not quite a nude, but not quite what we’re using as a profile pic for the Facebook account we’re only using to keep track of co-workers birthdays and the occasional comment from grandma? Maybe something even those of us with the right assets and an entrepreneurial spirit could make a few bucks off of? Do we call them “sexy pictures” or “softcore photos”?
No — this would be too obvious. Instead, our inclination to rhyme has taken over. For the extremely online, this grey area of hot pictures has a specific name: Lewds.
While “lewd” does imply something NSFW, it isn’t necessarily the obvious terminology for what it’s used to describe. Per Merriam-Webster, “lewd” is defined as something obscene or vulgar. At first glance, that would seem to be a better fit for the type of explicit nude where someone has their cheeks spread than a fully clothed gamer girl in lingerie-esque cosplay. Yet, it’s this latter image that lewd has come to define.
According to Urban Dictionary, anime is responsible for this. “Real definition: ‘crude and offensive in a sexual way.’ Definition according to people who watch anime: ‘anything remotely sexual,’” one submission for the term reads. Another defines lewd as “taking any anime character that’s seen as attractive and sexualizing it through artwork or memes. Commonly seen with many attractive female characters from manga as well as anime.” It’s different from hentai, where there’s explicitly sexual content being depicted, but it’s not exactly PG, either.
Both in anime and IRL, there seems to be just as much demand for lewds as there is nudes. Surprisingly, OnlyFans published a blog post on the topic in 2020, written by “tastefully nude” model Silfy Star. The blog, titled “Why Lewd Creators Should Diversify Their Content,” defines said lewd creators as people “who create erotic content without showing full nudity” and goes on to explain how they can utilize social media for growth and monetize their content on platforms like both Patreon and OnlyFans. While it doesn’t do much to explain how the lewd economy came to be, the fact that such a blog exists points to the reality that such an economy exists.
Star is also a Twitch streamer, which is significant given how strict the site has been toward nudity and even sexually “suggestive” content. This more prudish attitude from a platform that’s bolstered numerous people into potentially lucrative internet fame may be responsible for the popularity of lewds as well — by banning something as minor as focusing the camera upon one’s cleavage, viewers are all the more eager for whatever erotica they can get. There’s also significant overlap between Twitch streamers and the cosplay community. As such, it’s not surprising that some of the biggest OnlyFans accounts specializing in lewds — some of whom are among the top creators on the platform overall, like Sara Mei Kasai — fit within the gamer cosplay world themselves.
The cult of lewds has extended beyond gaming and cosplay, too. Fitness influencer Jem Wolfie, who has stated that she makes over $2 million AUD per year, has been described as a successful lewd model. Increasingly, then, “lewd” is just becoming synonymous with sexy photos in general.
Precisely why the word was chosen is still unclear. In all likelihood, there’s no better explanation than the fact that it simply rhymes with “nude.” As a keyword, it’s indeed useful and descriptive, potentially even evading filters trying to block explicit materials on sites like Twitch. But it also points to the ways in which the adult economy is both adapting to outside influences and desires (i.e., gaming and cosplay) while shaping exactly how we discuss erotic content at large. On one end, we have nudes. In the middle, we have lewds. On the complete other end of the spectrum, we have no choice but to refer to them as prudes.