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Sex positivity can’t last TikTok holds clues about the next cultural shift

Are GenZ more interested in marriage than one-night stands? Credit: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

Are GenZ more interested in marriage than one-night stands? Credit: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images


July 19, 2021   5 mins

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 cĂ©lĂšbre 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.


Katherine Dee is a writer. To read more of her work, visit defaultfriend.substack.com.

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T Doyle
T Doyle
3 years ago

I read this three times and I can’t make sense of it. It’s just so badly written.

Judy Simpson
Judy Simpson
3 years ago
Reply to  T Doyle

And I thought it was just me. Well done for reading it three times, I made one failed attempt.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  T Doyle

I liked the ending – “TikTok is the new Tumblr” – because I have absolutely no idea what either of these is or was, nor any interest in them. Who are these? What are these? What are they for? Why do I care? Answer came there none.
They’ll both last another couple of years I guess, whatever they are. Teen tech fads are like boy bands: as Bros followed Wham followed Duran, each forgotten as the next turned up, it’s the same with pointless tech. Each demographic – you, your stupid kid brother, your stupid kid brother’s mates’ stupid kid brothers – think the latest new piece of junk is great because it’s new.
I feel very sorry for anyone born after about 1975.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jon Redman
John Riordan
John Riordan
3 years ago
Reply to  T Doyle

Perhaps you picked up upon the essential logical conflict between the ultra-permissiveness that social media seems to be selling all the time, and the fact that young people seem on average to be less sexually-liberated now than they were a single generation back.

The problem it’s revealing is that social media, being the modern equivalent of the public square, is dominated everywhere by a very shouty minority who effectively have gained the power to decide what can and cannot be said, irrespective of the personal views of everyone present. This isn’t merely confined to permissiveness, empowerment and whatever else they say it is; it applies to everything.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Thanks

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
3 years ago
Reply to  T Doyle

Okay, good. I wasn’t sure if I was bored because I was reading some weird millennial shorthand or if it was true that the author had written the equivalent of 12 paragraphs of emojis.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
3 years ago
Reply to  T Doyle

Thank you. I too wondered if it was just my ignorance.

Graham Thorpe
Graham Thorpe
3 years ago

The fact that noone understands this piece, from the headline onwards, is the most interesting thing about it.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Thorpe

I think this was written by Unerd’s new ‘Why pay writers when you can use the new article generator app?’ A new product from gramercy.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
3 years ago

I am not a parent, but if I were, I would banish all social media from my household and hold out on getting my children a smartphone until they are old enough to afford one themselves.Parents who allow their children unrestricted use of online computers and devices are exposing them to agenda-driven individuals and/or collectives who are able to circumnavigate parental controls and push their destructive ideologies on to the next generation.

Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
3 years ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I had a (well-meaning) father like you. Loads of banned stuff (in my day it was comic books, ITV, Enid Blyton, chewing gum, the Light Programme, ice lollies, eating anything in the street – sorry, I digress). It morphed into boys: you are not to see him sort of thing, you look like a tart wearing that. Luckily my mother was more astute. Point being I got round all these bans. Your imaginary children would simply get what they want from their friends. You have only added a tickle of excitement. Parents should set a good example re values etc and trust kids will grow up (which they will) into balanced citizens.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
3 years ago

I understand your point and upvoted you. However, I’d still rather have my children work around me than be too laissez-faire. When my parents split up, I lived with each of them for a while. While my father didn’t mind if I missed school, my mother would be livid. I attended school a lot more when I lived with my mother.
PS: What did your father disapprove of in Enid Blyton? I can’t think of a more innocuous children’s author.

Allie McBeth
Allie McBeth
2 years ago

I agree up to a point, but although I secretly smoked cigarettes, I would not smoke weed, and turned down a *black bomber experience purely out of fear of my dad finding out! *type of speed pill

Last edited 2 years ago by Allie McBeth
Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
3 years ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

My perspective as the father of two well-adjusted, happy, early 20 daughters, both in long term, marriage track relationships with great guys:
1 – hold off as long as possible with giving them cell phones, etc. – but not to the extreme that they are among the very last kids to get. I’ve seen that back fire as much as succeed.
2 – talk with your children every day about their lives and the bigger world around them and for goodness sakes look at their homework and help if needed.
3 – build trust – it is a two way street, Do what you say you will and expect the same of them with harsh but proportionate consequences for failures.
4 – do what you can to encourage friendships with “good kids” (rough proxy=academically inclined kids with good manners) and vice versa

Cat Fan
Cat Fan
3 years ago

We are about to get a phone for oldest child. We think we may start with a phone that does not have internet access and see how we go. I don’t mean a flip phone, but there are phone companies (not sure if I can specify here without it being removed?) that offer phones that have the appearance of smartphones but only use calls and texts and possibly have cameras.
It is becoming increasingly hard to stay in the loop of what is going on at school without access to smartphone technology. As he approaches high school (we’re in the US) it may become a necessity. The school system sends out updates via social media first, the classroom teachers use apps to communicate with parents and for the kids to upload work, extracurricular activities require you to download an app to receive team news and so.
Teaching your child use their devices responsibly is the issue. We have had a few talks with ours about the permanency of the internet and the dangers of the anonymity of the people he is talking to.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

“do what you can to encourage friendships with “good kids” (rough proxy=academically inclined kids with good manners)”
This was my daughter’s boyfriend at school. Absolutely smashing lad.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
3 years ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

On the contrary, at some point the smartphone is inevitable – although the later the better. Still, you don’t let the kidz buy it themselves. You pay 51% the cost. This gives you a majority interest on the board.

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago

I finally succumbed and got my first smartphone earlier this year. I’m 71.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

I have never used, and in many cases never even heard of, any of the here-yesterday-gone-today media fads namechecked in this article.
Tumblr – nope;
Lana Del Ray – nope;
“Daddy dom/little girl” relationships – nope;
“programs like The View” – nope;
and so on all the way through. As a result reading this piece was like reading instructions written in German on how to strip down a diesel engine. I can read German pretty well but would be entirely unfamiliar with the vocabulary. So there, as here, I could point out the subject, object, verb, dependent clauses etc but I have literally no idea what is being said because I don’t know a single one of the references.
Most of the technology that da yoof consumes is either sinister, like Facebook, or it has the lifespan of a boy band: two to three years. I don’t get why we need articles about flash in the pan trivia tech of yesteryear when it’s so unimportant and uninteresting even when it’s new.
I had none of this when I was 20 and when I was 20 nobody was asking for it. I know who is better off.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Solipsistic fallacy at play here. ‘I don’t use it, or see the need for it, so it’s trivial and unimportant’. It’s good that Unherd publishes articles from a younger generation who do fully understand this stuff, after all they will be around a long time after I, and I suspect you will.

Social media might sometimes or often deal with trivia, (though human sexuality isn’t trivial) but it isn’t in itself. It is one of the major forces in the world today, even I as an old fogey and technophobe can see that. Many people couldn’t see the point of the telephone or for that matter railways (people travelling around for no good reason?!) etc in their day.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Fair point – but a bit of translation would certainly be helpful.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

As far as I can tell, Tumblr used to be a visual blogging site where members could upload pictures of their pets and holidays etc. Over time many of the blogs appearing on it became overtly sexual and began to discuss topics like transgenderism and other fetishes. As a result, Tumblr banned nudity and other sexually explicit content from its site.
I know less about TikTok, but I believe it’s a site where members can upload all kinds of video content. I’ve never visited it so can’t really tell you more than that, except that it is Chinese owned and its critics suspect that TikTok is phishing its members for their personal details.

Angelique Todesco-Bond
Angelique Todesco-Bond
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I had to look up W.A.P., I wish I hadn’t.

Deborah B
Deborah B
3 years ago

I’m well past my “sell-by-date”, yet I understood most of this article. It makes a fair point, similar to the “kink” article recently posted. Rebellion is hardwired into the teen psych, so when mainstream media advocates sex positivity (or anything really) it’s automatically uncool and to be rebelled against.
As parents, we can cunningly use this to our advantage. You have to keep your eye on the ball while pretending to be totally disinterest in it.
On another subject, I read a piece yesterday on Medium about Blockchain and then explained it to my “tech savvy” husband! It pays to be well informed about all kinds of dull and inappropriate topics.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
3 years ago

I think that the way to understand this is the emergence of women into the “public square” starting over a century ago.
The idea is that men were having all the fun and the agency, and women — “hear me roar” — wanted in.
But now, a century later, women are just starting to confront the fact that they don’t like the public square and its culture of insult. They don’t like sex without commitment. They don’t like dating as a meat market.
And by “don’t like” I don’t mean consciously, or even Freud/Jung “unconsciously,” but something deeper and more basic in the mammalian female creature.
But it’s gonna get worse before it gets better.

Last edited 3 years ago by Christopher Chantrill
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago

Is that relief I feel?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

Why? What did you just do?

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
3 years ago

I don’t recall s ex being this complicated. Boy, girl, bed, and off you went.

stanley cohen
stanley cohen
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

The language used and the style of writing
is so opaque and confused.
Best comment goes to ‘TD’

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Masks make people look very self-satisfied.