July 19, 2021

Before Tumblr banned pornography from its platform, its relationship with sex was little more than a footnote in the blogosphere. People knew that the site hosted a treasure trove of “adult content,” but no one was talking about the knock-on effects. Tumblr was among the most popular websites for teenagers and young adults. It created not only a thriving environment for sex workers and would-be sex workers, but also adolescents trying to emulate popular porn blogs. Here, the aesthetics of hypersexuality met teen angst.

In the Tumblr of the 2010s, quasi-Japanese imagery married pastel colours and adolescent limbs; Lana Del Rey’s fan base found itself; teen girls were identifying with “Daddy dom/little girl” relationships and adopting labels like nymphet. And it was prescient of a broader shift in pop culture, which was becoming increasingly sexually open. Fifty Shades of Grey de-mystified BDSM, giving it a veneer of the mundane. Millennials resigned themselves to hook-up culture. Vice and other hipster media outlets worked hard to glamorise sex work. Bold sexual admissions crept into everything from sitcoms to programs like The View; confessional, often deeply sexual, essays boomed in popularity.

Tumblr didn’t create this atmosphere but, by allowing seeds to germinate among young people, did help propel it forward — as it did many other now significant cultural issues. It’s been well-documented that the modern trans rights movement has roots in organising that took place on Tumblr. The platform also influenced Black Lives Matter.

But the internet shortens the life cycle of cultural moments. The boom in hypersexuality took place a decade ago; “The Man” adopted it and it stripped it of its cool factor. The pendulum is swinging. Young people feel rightfully burned by America’s imbalanced relationship with sex. A growing collection of articles, blog posts, TikToks, and popular Twitter personalities now implicitly and critical — or at least sceptical — of sex positivity, third and fourth wave feminism, as well as manifestations of both, like Brazilian Butt Lifts and fillers.

If I point this out to sex positive feminists, they’re quick to retort that purity culture has long been a mainstay of American life and has dominated public policy. They’ve got a point. The United States is a deeply conflicted country when it comes to sex — abortion and access to birth control remain hotly contested issues; accurate sex education is neither standardised nor a guarantee in public schools; untested rape kits pile up in police precincts around the country; gynaecological textbooks used in American medical schools didn’t have a full or accurate representation of the nerve endings in the clitoris until the activist Jessica Pin fought for its inclusion a few years ago.

But ultimately, it’s not the puritans — the Republican congresspeople, abstinence-only sex ed teachers in Deep South public schools, Evangelical Christian ministers — who are setting the tone for how ordinary Americans view sex. They have their own impact, especially on the individual level. But they’re not going to drive any massive cultural shifts. It’s corporations, universities, and mass media that lead the way. Until now, they have oversaturated popular culture with sexuality. In the coming years, could they give birth to a counterculture reacting against the Sexual Revolution?

Of course, there have already been myriad attempts, outside of Evangelical purity culture and Right-wing politics, to dampen sex positivity. Famous radical feminists like Germaine Greer have been deeply critical of so-called “sexual liberation,” prostitution, and pornography. There have been less well-known movements, like True Love Revolution at Harvard — a pro-chastity movement critical of hook-up culture, set up by student Julie Fredell in 2008. At Princeton, there’s the Anscombe Society, a similar student organisation that preaches the sanctity of sex. At the University of Texas, graduate student Ryan Hacker began his own chapter of the Anscombe Society, and led several protests about a wide range of issues on the subject of modesty. There was Wendy Shalit’s books Girls Gone Mild and A Return to Modesty, and Laura Sessions Step’s Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both.

In fact, there have been critiques of online pornography and dating sites and apps since before they went mainstream; criticism of hook-up culture was practically a vertical in and of itself between 2005 and 2015, just before #MeToo. But still, hypersexuality marched on: pole dancing became a popular form of exercise and was elevated to an art form beyond a small niche; sex workers’ rights became a cause célèbre even if it enjoys relatively little efficacy; OnlyFans is a unicorn; Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion participated in tribadism on stage to an audience of millions and to the shock of no one, my mother learned what “W.A.P.” stood for.

So while it’s true that our policies do not always reflect the fact that the nation is pro-sex work or pro-sex anything, in popular culture there is no sexual topic that is off limits. But what do the youth always want to do? Rebel against authority. For most people, that’s the fast food restaurant, retail store, or office where you’re underpaid and overworked. The digital advertisements which haunt your every waking moment, as you endlessly doom-scroll Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, for reasons that elude even yourself. The faceless corporations and affectless billionaires that promote all manner of sexual identities, lifestyles, and expressions while evading taxes. That’s not an environment that screams cool. The commodification of sex as both a product and a slogan has de-sexed sex: it’s like having police at the Pride Parade. Kids experiment, and they’ll experiment with what they think is taboo, not what their local Citibank is promoting.

So the difference between the “sex negativity” of the 1990s and the sex backlash of the 21st century is that it’s going to have a strong countercultural contingency. It won’t be driven by, for instance, religious groups who feel marginalised by hip-hop music videos on MTV and Clinton’s sexual impropriety; it’ll be driven by people who’ve tried sex work, and the people who would have tried it, had they born in 1995, not 2005. People who want to rebel.

Tumblr proved that youth-led online behaviour is a canary in the coal mine. But now TikTok has become the most popular place for young people to obsessively hang out online: a platform where messages are mimetically transmitted. And TikTok is full of clues, when it comes to the burgeoning backlash against sex positivity.

Ashley Clark Huffman, @trashley_anonymous on TikTok, makes videos almost exclusively critical of prostitution and the flippant attitude young people have about platforms like OnlyFans. She has 1.3 million followers, and her videos have become iconic, spawning a meme format. There’s also @glamdemon2004, otherwise known as Serena Shahidi, who has 411,700 followers, and was recently interviewed by The New York Times’ Taylor Lorenz. Her specialty is turning the depressing state of modern dating into a hilarious joke. While she’s not as expressly critical as Huffman, her videos are certainly sceptical:

“I realise the thing I hate about social media, lip gloss, girls-support-girls, we’re-all-baddies type of feminism is that it centres men’s opinions so aggressively … Men criticise women for being promiscuous, and then all of a sudden, it’s no critical thoughts, just sex positivity.”

There are countless other accounts, too. Young women creating videos where they talk about feeling left behind by a hypersexual feminism that centres the young woman as sexual object. @mommypilled (14.8K followers) mocks liberal feminism for “telling young girls hookup culture is liberating … and encouraging them to get into s*x work the minute they turn 18.” Then there’s here’s @slutty_tradwife, who makes videos on topics like the limits of #MeToo and the failures of liberal feminism. And finally, my personal favourite, @hystericfantasy, appears to be a parody of what the hipster of the aughts evolved into: a Red Scare-listening, Christopher Lasch reading, liberal feminist critical art ho who thinks we should outlaw divorce and restore the sanctity of marriage.

It’s pure camp, but it wouldn’t be so funny if there wasn’t any source material to draw from. That is to say, she’s a theatrical version of a real woman walking around. It was reported in January that that adult GenZers (18-23-year-olds) are having 14% less sex than the previous generation at that age. One woman, in Vice‘s report on the statistics, says: “I only want to be with a man who has earned my trust, who worships the ground I walk on, who honours and respects me,” seeming to make an explicit reference to the marriage vows. Will the professed opinions of @slutty_tradwife and @trashley_anonymous become the new normal? After all, there’s not one movement that took root on Tumblr whose echoes you can’t see in the broader culture today; and TikTok is the new Tumblr.

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