January 22, 2022

The sexual entrepreneur keeps a spreadsheet of every encounter she’s ever had. It’s populated with all kinds of information: how much they talked, the different positions they tried, whether it was the first or second or fifth time, and, of course, whether the sex was paid or unpaid.

What might be most remarkable about this document, and the cultural moment in which it exists, is that this final data point doesn’t necessarily make much difference. The spreadsheet in question belongs to an internet personality known as Aella, who views the physical act of love with the detached curiosity of a scientist and the strategic eye of a statistician. She’s a rare bird, not just in her approach to sex but in how she’s successfully parlayed it into a miniature empire: Aella is a former camgirl, now escort, and an elite member of the 1% on the amateur porn-subscription site OnlyFans, where she once netted six figures per month sharing self-produced photos and videos. 

But while it’s not unusual for someone in her line of work to be good at decoupling heart (and hormones) from mind, when Aella appeared in conversation with sex educator Laci Green at last week’s “Hereticon” thoughtcrime conference in Miami, the presentation revealed less about the niche mindset of the sex worker than it did about how ordinary people struggle to connect in a gamified dating landscape driven by data before passion. In the era of the algorithm, the personal brand, the Tinder marketplace, perhaps all sex carries a whiff of transaction, whether or not any money changes hands. And in a world where young, single people are increasingly taught to be frightened of any threat to their safety — emotional, not just physical — the prospect of true intimacy grows ever distant, ever more impossible.

What’s happening in heterosexual couplings now is also, crucially, about what isn’t happening: a sexual famine amongst Gen Z, who are upending the entire romantic landscape as they come of age. There is less sex, but also less dating, less social interaction writ large without the intermediary of a screen.

This isn’t the free love of the sexual revolution, nor the sex positivity espoused by the commitment-free hookup culture that reigned in the early Noughties. It’s something new, and also something post-#MeToo, and perhaps not entirely unrelated to our contemporary obsession with consent as the primary (sometimes only) framework for determining if a given encounter was good or not. Meeting strangers on the internet went in a generational spasm from being maximally unsafe to the only way to do things, as the existence of dating apps rendered the old ways of connecting not just quaint, but creepy.

Our pre-internet rituals were especially fraught with the risk of approaching someone who didn’t consent to be seen as a romantic prospect. Now, every interaction is preceded by the assurance that your crush has contractually agreed to be lusted-after, that no boundaries are being violated.

Suggested reading
Meet Aella: the intellectual porn star

By Freddie Sayers

At the same time, the idea of sex as something people do for fun seems faded from the public consciousness, perhaps a natural consequence of too many millennial women having discovered that the utopian promise of feminist sex-positivity was laden with hidden negatives; that being able to have sex free of stigma or slut-shaming still comes with costs nevertheless.

For years, women had been thrust into the role of the bad cop, assigned the unpleasant duty of forever resisting the advances of horny men who couldn’t be expected to exercise restraint or good judgment on their own. But having been released from the social obligation to say “no” lest you be labeled a slut, a new pressure emerged to say “yes”, lest you be tarred with the stigma of the sex-negative prude. The result was a generation of women engaging in sex that was, yes, consensual, but also not much fun, especially when it was happening at the behest of a generation of men whose idea of sex was heavily influenced by internet porn. Women cast off the mantle of the sexual gatekeeper only to find themselves in a world where your boyfriend’s idea of first-date intimacy was to engage in a little light choking before ejaculating all over your face… oh, but consensually, of course.

When you consider how many women have been foundering around for years in the vast grey chasm of sex that is technically consensual but not remotely enjoyable, it’s no surprise that the act itself took a reputational hit. The emerging perception now is that sex is dangerous, dicey, probably not worth the risk — especially as concepts like “trauma” and “abuse” have expanded to include everything from the sting of a lover’s betrayal to the heartbreak when a consensual relationship ends. (See also: the increased use of the word “grooming”, once reserved for the sexual predation of children, to describe flirtatious relationships between consenting adults.) Under this rubric, the idea that someone might engage in physical intimacy for fun seems practically absurd. Young women in the post-MeToo era are taught that they can’t let their guard down for one single moment, while young men are told that they’re always just one misread cue or mixed message away from committing a rape.

It’s hardly surprising under the circumstances that this generation would take refuge in the safety of dating apps, or, for that matter, in the certainty of transactional sex. Whatever the pratfalls of subscribing to a freelance porn star’s OnlyFans the way some people used to do with Playboy, paying for intimacy outright at least eliminates the dangerous ambiguity that plagues an ordinary dating relationship, where the line between asking and coaxing, or coaxing and coercion, might shift at any moment and leave you standing with your pants down on the wrong side of the line.

Whether it’s settling for an imperfect match or turning to OnlyFans to fill your needs, human beings have always appreciated the security and promise of a sure thing. And when an entire progressive messaging apparatus insists that prostitution is the new empowerment, there’s little to dissuade young women from leveraging the minefield of sexuality into a remunerative side hustle — or young men from gravitating toward it as a safer form of sex.

We may not have quite reached the point where making freelance pornography is a rite of passage akin to attending the prom (even if anecdotes from Green suggest that “Do you have an OnlyFans?” might soon become the new “Will you go out with me?” among the school-age set). But will anyone be surprised when some young, enterprising, self-identified male feminist suggests that subscribing to OnlyFans is the only way to ensure proper consent, actually? Are we, perhaps, already halfway there?

All of this is happening against the backdrop of a radical shift in how we conceive of sex, sexuality, self. In the age of social media, sexual orientation is something you identify into, a public performance that requires no partner and no physical follow-through. (Consider also the odd proliferation of straight-married women who identify as “queer,” based on what seems mainly like a conviction that they’re just too interesting to be plain ol’ heterosexual.) It’s all identification, no action, a complete decoupling of sexual identity from the act itself. If this is a sexual revolution, it’s the chastest one we’ve ever had.

At the same time, the battle of the sexes has been arguably won by women, who are outperforming men in everything from education to investment. They best boys in high school and outnumber them on college campuses. They go to grad school in greater numbers and earn the majority of PhDs. And while they haven’t yet flooded boardrooms or executive suites, women are increasingly likely to outearn the men they marry — all of which adds up to a total inversion of the old dating dynamics wherein women with slightly less education or earning power made ideal mates for men with slightly more.

Instead, a whole lot of accomplished, educated, highly-paid ladies are competing in a dating pool that contains a scant few high-achieving men — and if they can’t land one, then their options are to date down, or not at all. In this reality, it’s the women jostling for position, optimising their dating profiles, trying to look good to the algorithm that will in turn serve them up to someone as a desirable catch. And the odds are stacked against them: for reasons that will some day make fascinating fodder for evolutionary psychologists, women are far harsher judges of male desirability than vice versa. Studies suggest that about 80% of women on dating apps are in competition for about 20% of the men.

The whole enterprise highlights the distinction-without-much-difference between selling yourself in the dating marketplace and just, well, selling yourself. Maybe you’re trying to make money, or maybe you’re trying to get married, but it’s the same hustle, more or less. If you’re not keeping a spreadsheet yourself, you’re just a data point on someone else’s. Except here, the disposability is a feature, not a bug. If your OnlyFans affair bores you, you can just unsubscribe; if your Tinder match fails to deliver, you can swipe the other way and vanish behind a block. No fuss. No muss. No breakup. Tinder, like Twitter, is not a real place.

This might make women like Aella the smart ones: if they’re savvy (and lucky), they can work the system to their advantage instead of fumbling around inside it like blind supplicants. Making metadata of human beings will always be better as a business proposition than as a strategy for human connection — which might explain why, despite the lauded safety and convenience of the apps, Gen Z is not only having less sex but also suffering from greater rates of depression and anxiety.

Dating apps, social media, the sexual marketplace where you can pay for parasocial affairs: all of this has been an attempt to organise not just raw data, but raw humanity, to contain the complexities of love and sex and intimacy in a set of neat little checkboxes. If it didn’t exactly make us happy, then at least (we thought) it would keep us safe. And it did, sort of — insofar as there’s a certain sort of protection in the avoidance of intimacy. If it’s all just a numbers game, if you’re getting what you paid for, if you never truly allow yourself to be vulnerable and naked, literally or figuratively, with another person, then nobody will ever get close enough to hurt you.

But they won’t get close enough to touch you, either.

And so maybe this is where the next sexual revolution will emerge: among young people who are tired of trying to connect with the contraceptive barrier of a screen between them. Who resent the hidden manipulations of the algorithm in messy human affairs. Who would rather risk the pain of an old-school heartbreak. Who understand the difference between being empowered and being a control freak. Who know, in their bones, that they would rather be sorry than safe.