For years now, my best friend (male, gay) and I (female, bi) have been calling ourselves “sex-negative.” We’re mostly kidding, one of many insane things in a long string of jokes we tell each other, and it makes us laugh because it’s such an extreme take. It seems so implausible for two queer, leftist zillenials living in New York City to be sex-negative, which is why it’s mostly a joke. (Explaining jokes makes them infinitely more funny, trust me.) But as Chaucher, writer of the Canterbury Tales and the sole person I take advice from (I’m kidding), said “many a true word is spoken in jest” (or am I?). While I’m not some Puritanical school marm wagging her finger at earthly pleasures (ask anyone and they’ll tell you how much of a Hedonist I am), I find it difficult to be as #youngwild&free as contemporary girl boss sex positivity tells me I should be. So I guess if I’m not qualified enough to be positive then I must be negative? How did the movement arrive here, to another polarizing binary? Has prude vs. sex goddess has replaced the madonna-whore complex?
To find out, let’s quickly hop in a time machine. Pre-Sex Revolution, American society followed a strict code about sexuality and gender, whether legal or social. There was one right and many wrong ways to have sex. Sure, not everyone followed the “rules” and, even if you did there was no guarantee of genuine happiness or sexual fulfillment. In fact, it seemed to make everyone’s life hell. The shame and fear built up around our bodies and what we did with them is an archaic mode of control, passed down from the Victorians. This code totally prioritized men’s pleasure over women’s, going so far into the “women don’t care about sex” narrative that sex and sensuality became a tool for women (aka “teases,” “frigid bitches,” or “balls-and-chains) to whield against men. Besides, you know, oppressing and mischaracterizing an entire gender, it also makes sex this all-powerful, frightening, and secretive act. Worst of all, science validated it with concepts like hysteria and an emphasis on hormonal mood swings. And we can’t forget the good old-fashioned libido suppressant Cornflakes!
The terms “sex positivity/negativity” gained mainstream traction in the late 1990s but it has its roots in the “Free Love”/Sexual Revolution movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In this second wave of feminism, developments like the Pill, abortion rights, normalization of women in the work force started to shake loose the Victorian framework of the past. Gradually, the work of various advocacy groups and socio-political ripples moved us toward the contemporary “anything goes” mentality. There were (and are) certainly some noble aims at hand: proper sex education and healthcare, greater workplace protection for queer people and those experiencing sexual harrassment, and an overall emphasis on bodily autonomy and consent. Thanks to the sex-pos movement, the stigmas around masturbation, STDs, sex work, assault, kink, and more have evolved. With more freedoms in place came the assumption that people would feel more…free! Yet, lurking underneath the shroud were more problems, layered like sediment on the earth.
In theory, we’re certainly living in a different, more open-minded world than our grandparents in but practice? Sex positivity would have us all believe these out-dated values were eradicated and it has left us with the hollow notion that any and all sex is positive, that there are no consequences to sex. There are still traces of “negativity” in how sex positivity’s expression of lack. Now, instead of diminishing your value, having sex gives you value. The normalcy pendulum swung from marriage-based, heterosexual/pro-creative sex to love-em-and-leave-em hook-ups and the confusing practice of “casual” dating. As of 2019, the US marriage rate was 6 marriages for every 1,000 people, the lowest since recording marriages began in 1867. Even though more men remain unmarried or wait longer to get married than women, studies always point to the growth of women’s education and work-force presence in addition to factors like economic instability and decline in religious belief. This means the more economically free women are from men the less likely they are to rely on marriage for stability; they can provide that for themselves. Men either didn’t receive the same updated memo or threw it away before reading (or worse…read it and then pretended they didn’t). Financial independence should be a positive development for relationships but men would rather find more creative ways to manipulate us than give up their control. The odd thing is, it’s not just marriages that are declining; sex is too.
It’s important to acknowledge not all women have an issue with casual sex, at least not outwardly. Certain research suggests it can be wonderful for increasing confidence. Like any activity, the more you practice, the more likely you are to feel comfortable, even free to explore and become more in tune with your body. “If you are ‘sociosexually unrestricted,’ or you desire casual sex, you might derive psychological benefits from feeling like you're acting authentically while having it. If you're "sociosexually restricted," it might work the opposite way,” says sex researcher Zhana Vrangalova. The problem is, negative associations with sex are all around us: a sex-negative religious upbringing, a lack of sex-positive female role models, assault, unrealistic body standards, an emphasis on “lady-like behavior,” pressure to please people, the list goes on…this leads women to partners who don’t meet their needs (because we aren’t told we have needs at all), to employ sex as a tool to make a new partner like them more, or avoid the act altogether. Once negative associations toward sex start developing, how do you stop? It gets even trickier when you consider the orgasm gap; heterosexual men have orgasms in 95% of sexual encounters while only 65% heterosexual women reported the same. With women reporting higher numbers in homosexual encounters, it’s clear the difference comes from a male performance insuffiency. The statistics are even more concerning when comparing orgasms from women having sex with their male partners to women having sex with male strangers.
Without the strict expectations of the past, our self-awareness and communication skills need bolstering. But instead, we ghost each other, say we want a relationship when we just want sex, or say we’re okay with a casual fling when we really want a relationship. Not every sexual encounter has to be an expression of misty-eyed devotion but even the most casual one-night-stand should be imbued with respect as a starting point. How do we vet partners? How do we set these kinds of boundaries? How can we be open to experiences without compromising our wants and needs? How do we even know what our wants and needs are? This discernment takes a level of vulnerability and self-awareness from all involved parties. Unfortunately, hook-up culture treats vulnerability like some old-fashioned feminine disease in desperate need of curing. By being vulnerable to a degree beyond getting naked (which depending on who you ask is not a small thing!), you risk losing the aura of sexual freedom our new age has promised. This perpetuates a tale as old as time men are the natural pursuers. When a woman wants anything badly, except for exactly what the corresponding man wants, she’s needy, desperate, not self-empowered. But when a man yearns for romance, he’s Ryan Gosling hanging on a Ferris wheel pole, begging a reluctant Rachel McAdams to go out with him. I remember seeing that movie and even as a kid thinking, “if a girl begged a boy to go out with her, he would laugh in her face.” But the love-sick guy is celebrated. His counterpart must be somewhat hesitant in order for his pursuit to be noble.
The taboo of women liking sex has inverted itself; it would be just as shocking for a millennial woman as a woman in the 1950s to admit to her peers she doesn’t like the sex culture of the day. Women’s lib didn’t come this far for us to still not have the freedom to speak our minds. Just as “girl bosses” are empowered to oppress the working class as the capitalist patriarchy has done for centuries, third-wave feminism often suggests women enage with sex in a more stereotypical male way. In other words, renouncing tenderness for manipulation and selfishness is the pinnacle of female empowerment. This might provide a temporary bandage for the wounds left on us by the crushing heel of the patriarchy but it doesn’t heal us.
In the sex-pos movement, the commodification of our bodies as wives and mothers was not conquered but transformed by a dystopian sexual marketplace and fake-woke messaging. When I refer to the “sexual market” I mean to capture the essence of both how we exchange sex for love, validation, sense of self, etc. and the actual market in which we pay for sex and sex objects. Sex work is a multi-million-dollar industry, you can watch/read/listen to any kind of pornography you desire online, and even get your own literal skin in the game by opening an account on websites like OnlyFans. The Internet facilitated this huge boom while the industry conveniently ignored how it exploited women/queer folks, both on and off screen. Many sex workers are empowered by their profession, following the mindset of men are going to objectify women so anyone willing might as well make a profit from it! Like most facets of this topic, this represents progress but to what end? In some of its current iterations, sex work simply too close to hustle culture to sit right with me. What does it say about American society if sex work is one of few alternate routes to poverty, debt, low-wage service jobs, and/or the drudgery of 9-to-5s while still being at the mercy of a male clientele’s preferences?
The by-women-for-women porn industry is certainly a huge cultural development for a society that once assumed women didn’t even enjoy sex. Now, masturbating, consuming erotica, and buying sex toys are considered normal for the twenty-first-century woman. (And the market certainly benefits from our participation.) Internet porn normalized having a rich sex life while simultaneously raising the sexual standard to an unattainable peak. A lot of people, mostly men, are unable to seperate what they see in porn and their real-life sexual encounters. Most women I know, including myself, have had at least one partner who failed to ask for consent when dabbling in kinkier practices. Going even further, many women are killed violently under the guise of BDSM acts, something activist Louise Perry strives to seek justice for through her organization “We Can’t Consent to This.” These tragic cases may seem fringe but speak to a universal truth: women are still not guaranteed safety as curious, sexually liberated beings.
That brings us right up to the present moment, where many are predicting an-already palpable “vibe shift.” One of the major components of this shift will be our relationship with sex, dating, and relationships. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a sort of forced domesticity began, with homemaking, marriage, and child-rearing becoming more popular. Though it’s not necessarily sex-neg to do any of these things, the return to a more “traditional” American way of life speaks to the particularities of the sex negativity trend as outlined by blogger Katherine Dee (alias Default Friend). Once I started to look, there were echoes of this trend everywhere from real-life behaviors to new scripted media to TikTok.
As this New Yorker article points out, sex scenes in movies and tv shows are trending toward compulsory rather than exciting, with little emphasis on romance or sensuality. The “reality” of sex is pushed to the forefront as though to counteract the glossy, unnatural scheme of porn. Shows like Sex Education, Big Mouth, and Euphoria cater to Gen Z’s paradoxical duality of sexual freedom and sex negativity. All address gender, sexuality, relationships, periods, kink, and so on with diversity and nuance. At times, it feels like the natural progression of culture and in others it feels forced. Even the full-frontal sex scenes in Pam & Tommy and the constant public sex in The Great (with some intimate, sensual exceptions) are more farce than erotic. Then there’s the recent rise of sexual horror with films like Hulu’s Fresh and A24’s X. The former is a story about a meet-cute-turned-cannibal-captivity which feasts on our contemporary dating fears from the simple what if he doesn’t live up to my expectations from his dating profile? To the terrifying variety pack: What if he makes it hard to say no? What if he assaults me on a date and no one believes me? What if he doesn’t ask for consent when exploring a kink? What if the cutest, most interesting guy I’ve met in a long time is a psycho killer? Qu'est-ce que c'est? X on the other hand is a contemporary nod to both 70s slasher b-movies and the era’s Vaseline-lensed pornos. A chilling, bloody horror about literally getting murdered for having sex and filming it might be biggest checkpoint for the growing tension we feel towards our bodies.
Any progressive introduction is almost always followed by some kind of regressive back-swing. The sex positivity movement is not immune to this pattern. First, there were incels who lurked on Reddit, Fourchan, and other more underground forums where they could discuss how much they resented feminism from taking away “trad” (traditional) values, expressing violence toward women for not wanting to sleep with them. Gamergate (and other Internet-subculture-fueled acts of domestic terrorism) should’ve told us how serious of a movement was brewing on the side lines, but I don’t think most people were ready to believe the extent to which men actually hate women. Men, because this realization will probably make them complicit, and women, because none of us would ever want to leave the house or use a computer ever again. This “everything’s fine” capitalist mentality keeps us divided, believing if individuals behave themselves things will work out. But history tells us if a subculture gains enough traction, it ascends to mainstream status. Enter: the misogynistic podcaster. This man-with-a-mic persona isn’t new. But he is having a larger-than-life resurgence. Joe Rogan is a figurehead in the male podcaster movement with a particular beat on “free” speech and masculinity. In emulation of Rogan came a parade of ultra-macho idiots who think buying a mic makes them qualified societal commentators. One of the most dubious is a podcast called “Fresh & Fit.” The name suggests content like “making the perfect kale salad” but the hosts actually focused on giving fellow or aspiring “alphas”/”kings” advice on dating and sex. The two hosts (who don’t look particularly fresh or fit) are on a constant tirade against women, especially women of color, with takes like “high-value men” need to cheat on their female (guys like this love the word “female”) partners, which women should understand since our biology dictates different relationships to sex.
TikTok is ripe for similarly frightening commentary from men like “women should bow down to me” and “if your girl won’t have sex with you whenever you want, you should threaten to leave her.” On one hand, pushback from the oppressive majority proves just how far sex positivity has come in changing the culture. Their platforms unfortunately have more power to radicalize a mainstream audience with Youtube and TikTok algorithms radicalizing viewers by showing them increasingly more “rabbit hole” content. These bozos are frightening and need to be taken seriously as a collective, despite how idiotic they sound. If more men are openly sex-negative, while simultaneously expecting sex as a birthright of being male, how will any of their partners fair, no matter how sex positive?
Another sign of progress here is the pushback to the pushback, with creators of all backgrounds dueting these insane anti-woman TikToks to mock, criticize, and reclaim agency. The queen of this content is Drew Afualo (@drewafaulo), known for her signature cackle, long nails, and roasts with millions of views. Other creators are starting conversations around compulsory heterosexuality, the ways many men subtly express they hate women, and voluntary celibacy (usually just “breaks”). Is this what the sex negativity trend will bring? Although there is an empowering, unifying slant here, it’s sour with cynicism. I don’t blame them. Growing into womanhood during the #MeToo movement has left an impact on this generation of women, showing us that physical and verbal assaults we have to speak up against might just be endless.
I myself am one of these women, searching for a way to own my body, my sexuality, and my needs. For me, the trouble began, as a lot of troubles do, with religion. I went to Catholic school from ages four to eighteen. I’m what people like to call a “late bloomer,” often a code word for “not cute in your formative years.” The sad thing is I was cute in middle school, even downright pretty as a teenager, but I was very out of sync with this reality.If you grow up hearing “you need to lose weight” and “you’re too tall” and “you look fat” and spending a lot of time fighting with your (very supportive but skinny) mom in Jessica McClintock dressing rooms because nothing fits and the dance is tomorrow(!!!) you’re not really going to feel like your body, mind, and heart are connected. In fact, you’re probably going to feel like you’re trapped in your body more often than not.
I was afraid to even kiss a boy so sex and dating certainly were not happening. I was a huge fan of romance, however, and had a dozen very intense and unrequited crushes but no boyfriend or any prospects of one. Some kids in high school were having sex, but no one I knew. It was a foreign adult activity for Future Me. There was a split-second where I thought I would wait to have sex until I got married, not out of any moral obligation to God, but out of genuine fear of being naked and having to do an activity I had absolutely no training for. We didn’t have any real health class, never mind sex ed, just D.A.R.E. and these horrendously glossy Family Life books to scare us into submission. Oh and lots and lots of mentions about the body being sinful. That one definitely stuck.
Starting classes at NYU nearly gave me whiplash. I read Simone de Beauvoir and Audre Lorde for the first time, drunkenly made out with many random guys, went on a lot of bad dates with over-grown twenty-year-old boys who had commitment issues or didn’t want me to ever disagree with them or both. Since neither are a real turn-on for me, I stayed single and celibate. I still didn’t mind, knowing I technically could be having an active sex life if I wanted, but even when I did want to, I looked for any reason why I shouldn’t.
Around graduation, I started to experiment with bisexuality. Being with women was way less scary, if not for the sheer fact that a female partner is less likely to kill me than a male one. Still, there was more to it than this great revelation. I was forced to reframe my identity after college, no longer able to cling onto being a “pleasure to have in class.” Living my adolescence believing I wasn’t confident or experienced or hot enough to be having sex and dating was its own self-fulfilling prophecy. In my early twenties I began to rewrite the story. I started thrifting louder and more expressive outfits, doing yoga and meditation regularly, and seeing a great therapist. I was experiencing a mind-body-heart connection I’ve never had before. Something clicked; if I was old enough to (barely) pay my bills then I was old enough to have adult relationships, so I did. And they were…learning experiences. In retrospect, I am grateful-in-a-cheesy-way for what I used to think of as “failed” relationships. There’s no other way to realize your boundaries, wants, and needs except to test them.
Even after my personal demystification of sex, I find it tough to de-personalize it, especially with men. I’m not afraid of being a “slut” as much as I fear what it means to be so physically and mentally vulnerable with someone I don’t know. And even if I do know them…it’s always the husband! Are my fears holding me back or keeping me safe?
As we move away from the millennial “sex and pizza are bae” mentality, I would like to put in a request with the Vibe Shift Gods. If they’re listening, can we ax the transactional, self-absorbed “sex positivity” in favor of something more human, more sexy, and less motivated by insecurity? Sex should be fun! And not fake-fun like that club everyone waits an hour in line for but inside everyone is texting and stepping on broken glass but real fun. Like when everyone shows up in their Saturday night best, ready to boogie. It’s one of the most intimate things we do, so why not do it with some pizazz? Thoughtful sex does not have to mean “infrequent” or “over-thinking it so much you suck the fun out of it” but being consciously in awe of the pleasure we are able to help ourselves and others feel.
I don’t think I’m asking for anything too difficult considering the light buzz I’m already hearing. Although increasingly jaded, Gen Z is very spiritually curious. This generation is concerned with the mind whereas millennials focused on the body. “Witch-tok” is another extremely popular TikTok trend. Encompassing a wide umbrella of astrology memes, crystal work, tarot, simple spells, manifestation rituals, superstitions, folklore, and history, this subculture has been exposed to the masses like never before, helping young adults cope with trauma, explore gender and sexual identities, and connect with themselves on a deeper level. The last time America saw such a high interest in spirituality was during the Free Love movement of the 1960s. It would be a mistake to say they had it all figured out, and since progress is not linear, we are still in the thick of change to the collective mindset around sexuality and the body. For anyone like me who has often felt distanced from their body, there is a lot of great advice on the route to connecting the mental with the physical. One of my favorite YouTubers is a spiritual guru named Hitomi who makes videos about eating vegan, how to be in touch with your emotions and the emotions of your loved ones, and how to have better sex. Similarly, I found an episode of Call Her Daddy, a podcast I would normally accuse of choking its listeners with sex-pos-but-really-neg rhetoric about being a girl boss sex freak, where the host “Father” Alex Cooper interviews a sex therapist. Dr. Brotto takes Cooper and listeners through her popular sex mindfulness retreat process and even provides a full body scan meditation for increasing awareness in the body. Finding a sacredness in sex, whether that comes with spirituality or just a celebration of earthly delights, could be the pivot we need from our own era’s toxic positivity and rise in sex negativity. Sex is a powerful act and denying its power is a disservice to you and your partners. Living in fear of it is too.
This pivot is as personal as it is collective. The ties between sex/dating culture and capitalism are so strong: how we look to orgasm as a measure of success rather than being sensitive to the nuances of intimacy; how we use body counts to deem someone good, bad, or slutty; how individualism is prioritized over all else. One of the many, more abrupt backlashes of late attacks the LGBTQ+ community in Florida with the newly signed “Don’t Say Gay” Bill while many other state legislatures (especially Texas) are targeting trans youth. While standing up for ourselves and our own needs, we must not forget to stand up for others. We are all vulnerable to the backslide the coming wave might bring.