The emoticon, a digital and textual representation of an emotion, has been around for decades as an indispensable way of communicating tone over text. But for most of their history, emoticons took a variety of different forms: from the earliest punctuation-based :) and :( symbols in the 1980s to the vast array of exclusive icon sets used on blogs, forums, and instant messenger programs in the ’90s. Finally, in the mid-2000s, a consistent standard began to emerge. The Unicode Consortium, which aims to provide a full set of every character ever used in any language, started to incorporate emojis as characters. While emojis originated as diverse sets of emoticons used chiefly in Japan, they’ve now been established as a global standard that works across all modern devices. And in the age of social media and smartphones, having a reliable graphical shorthand for our moods is more important than ever.
With only 140 characters allowed per message, Twitter demands brevity from its users – and lengthy hashtags or phrases can often be replaced by a single well-chosen emoji. The availability of hundreds of distinct emojis, ranging from faces to symbols to food, has inspired many on Twitter to come up with their own new meanings for some of these unique icons. And while emojis themselves are not explicit, this coded language quickly led to the emergence of a new kind of flirtatious and sexual shorthand, where romantic overtures and taboo topics can be casually suggested with just one or two otherwise innocuous characters.
To find out more about how Twitter users are expressing themselves with flirtatious and sexually suggestive emojis, we searched for every occurrence of the most widely used romantic and sexually charged emojis among millions of recent tweets from Europe and the United States. We’ve analysed this data to identify which characters and combinations are the most frequent and which locations are driving their popularity. Keep reading, and see who’s tweeting the most suggestive emojis around the world.
In the United States, far and away the most popular suggestive emoji is the “smiling face with heart-shaped eyes,” or heart-eyes emoji for short. This emoji’s history dates all the way back to the first set of emoji pioneered by the Japanese wireless carrier DoCoMo. As one of the tamer emojis among the ones we studied, heart-eyes has been used as a compliment on beauty or simply an expression of love in any situation.
The runner-up, officially defined as “face throwing a kiss,” is used less than half as often as heart-eyes. This emoji is also more openly affectionate, and that pattern seems to recur among top emojis: The more explicit they are, the less commonly they’re used. The simply named “tongue” emoji, consisting of a disembodied tongue, is only one-sixth as widely used in the U.S. as the face throwing a kiss.
The aubergine (or eggplant) emoji is notoriously used as a reference to male genitals due to its shape and color, to the point that Instagram has blocked its use as a hashtag in order to filter explicit content. However, this emoji is in barely 21,000 tweets in the U.S. over the time period studied. This makes it more than 90 times less common than heart-eyes, which exceeded 2 million uses. The “banana” emoji, a peeled banana used in a similar manner to the aubergine – was even less popular with barely 11,000 uses.
Notably, when examining the breakdown of how each gender uses these particular emojis, women are the clear majority of users for all except one. Interestingly, 57.7% of aubergine mentions over the time period studied were from men.
The leading emoji in Europe showed patterns similar to the U.S.: the heart-eyes emoji placed first, vastly outranking the runner-up emoji of throwing-a-kiss. The kiss-mark and “smiling cat face with heart-shaped eyes” emoji continued to place highly as well.
However, particularly explicit emojis dropped off steeply: The banana and aubergine emojis took ninth and 10th place in Europe, and the aubergine emoji had barely 1,500 total uses.
However, regardless of frequency, the pattern of gendered usage remained almost identical to the U.S.’s, and the aubergine emoji was the only one of the 10 for which the majority (51.9%) of uses were by men.
Given that users can pick from hundreds of emojis, many of which have taken on a new layer of meaning, it’s not surprising that people would find ways to combine them to create even more sexually explicit suggestions. In the U.S., three consecutive tongue emojis (representing repeated licking) are the most widely used explicit emoji chain – more than four times as common as the runner-up of two aubergine emojis.
Other emojis that appear commonly within these chains are the “splashing sweat” emoji (sometimes used as a stand-in for any bodily fluids), the peach emoji (referring either to buttocks or female genitalia), and a finger pointing at an OK sign – a not-so-subtle reference to intercourse.
As we’ve seen, the more explicit the message, the less common it tends to be – and this holds true here. All these detailed combinations of tongues, aubergines, peaches, and other emojis were less widely used in the U.S. than the single aubergine emoji, with some combos receiving less than 1,000 uses on Twitter.
Among these more overtly sexual messages, the gendered division becomes especially striking: For seven out of 10 of the emoji combinations we studied, men were responsible for the majority of uses.
Like in the U.S., the triple usage of the tongue emoji took first place among suggestive emoji combinations tweeted in Europe. However, within Europe, the pointing finger/OK sign combination was the runner-up, rather than the double aubergine. As with single uses of suggestive emojis, Europe shows far fewer instances of suggestive emoji combos than the U.S. Six of these 10 combos made fewer than 100 appearances over the time period studied.
Interestingly, in Europe, the gendered split in usage of suggestive emoji chains is much different from its use in the U.S. Of these 10 combinations, only three – the pointing finger/OK sign, aubergine/splashing sweat, and pointing finger/OK sign/splashing sweat – were used by men in the majority of cases. The remaining seven were mostly used by women.
Given the aubergine emoji’s notoriety, we performed a focused analysis of its levels of usage on Twitter across all U.S. states. And among those states, one stood out far ahead of the pack: Mississippi, with 448.2 aubergine uses per million tweets. This appears to be a part of a larger pattern of frequent aubergine usage within Southern and Southeastern states – six additional states in this region also made the top 10.
For Mississippi, there could be many potential connections between heavy usage of sexually suggestive emojis and sexual behavior: The state has some of the highest levels of unplanned pregnancies and teenage pregnancies in the U.S. Mississippi also shows some of the highest rates of usage of certain types of pornography.
We also looked at the usage of the aubergine emoji across European nations and found that the highest levels were concentrated in the east. Georgia took first place followed by Russia. While the Russian government has recently launched investigations into certain types of potentially suggestive emojis, the country’s Twitter users certainly don’t seem reluctant to use the infamous aubergine.
The U.K. places third in Europe, and although it doesn’t quite stack up to the rates of aubergine usage in U.S. states, it still outranks dozens of other European countries. Of the nations studied, 16 actually showed zero usage of the aubergine emoji over this time period. Out of those that did show any use of this emoji, Portugal, the Czech Republic, and Lebanon have the fewest Twitter occurrences of the aubergine.
On the tamer side, we also focused on the heart-eyes emoji and how it’s used in the U.S. As this emoji is far more popular than the aubergine, it’s extremely common across all U.S. states. At the top, Idaho leads the way, with heart-eyes used in 22,590 out of every million tweets. Michigan places a close second, with 20,868 heart-eyes tweets per million.
Altogether, a cluster of certain Western and Midwest states, along with much of the Northeast, tend to show lower rates of heart-eyes usage. Interestingly, this resembles the pattern of states ranked by frequency of sex and consumption of chocolate and champagne, two commodities which have been popularly associated with romance, courtship, and Valentine’s Day. In last place was the District of Columbia with only 9,027 heart-eyes tweets per million, followed by Vermont with 9,824 per million. However, even the District of Columbia’s heart-eyes usage was several times greater than aubergine usage in any state.
When tweeting the heart-eyes emoji, European nations use it about as frequently as the U.S. Kosovo ranks first in Europe with 29,014 heart-eyes usages per million tweets, and Georgia (the top aubergine tweeter in Europe) places second with 23,860. France, commonly thought of as a nation of romance, doesn’t even make it to the top 10, sitting at 12th place. However, even France comes out ahead of the U.K., which ranks 29th in Europe for heart-eyes tweets with only 8,720 per million.
While the pointing finger/OK sign is one of the most sexually overt emoji combinations, it’s also one of the least commonly used. At its peak in the U.S. – 34.54 usages per million tweets – it’s still several times less commonly used than the aubergine emoji. The widely distributed states of South Dakota, Idaho, and New Hampshire were top in the U.S. for usage of this combination, while most other states had barely a dozen mentions of this emoji chain per million tweets.
Unlike the gap between the U.S. and Europe in aubergine emoji usage, the pointing finger/OK sign combination is used at roughly equal levels across both the U.S. and European nations. Bulgaria and Slovenia are in the lead and nearly tied, closely challenged by Portugal. But while these nations stand out, this quickly decreases – Romania, 10th in Europe for pointing finger/OK sign usage, has less than half as much usage as the leading nations.
Starting the Conversation on Sexual Health
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We scraped all available tweets originating in the United States from July 1 to August 16, 2015, and originating in 51 European-region nations from August 22 to September 11, 2015. Within these selections, we searched for tweets containing 84 possible emoji characters and character sequences that are popularly associated with romantic or sexual suggestions. Out of these results, we included only the top 10 single emoji characters in the U.S., the top 10 emoji character combinations in the U.S., the top 10 single characters in Europe, and the top 10 character combinations in Europe. The quantities of the emoji chains eyes/peach, aubergine/peach, and banana/peach were counted in both their forward and reverse orders.
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