Show caption Billie Eilish said recently that watching pornography from the age of 11 had ‘destroyed’ her brain. Photograph: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Spotify Sex ‘It stopped me having sex for a year’: why Generation Z is turning its back on sex-positive feminism The movement championed the right to enjoy sex and was supposed to free women from guilt or being shamed. But now many are questioning whether it has left them more vulnerable Gaby Hinsliff Wed 2 Feb 2022 06.00 GMT Share on Facebook
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Lala likes to think of herself as pretty unshockable. On her popular Instagram account @lalalaletmeexplain, she dishes out anonymous sex and dating advice on everything from orgasms to the etiquette of sending nude pictures. Nor is the 40-year-old sex educator and former social worker (Lala is a pseudonym) shy of sharing her own dating experiences as a single woman.
But even she was perturbed by a recent question, from a woman with a seven-year-old daughter who had caught her new partner watching “stepdaughter” porn involving teenage girls. Was that a red flag?
Given her professional training, the story set Lala’s alarm bells ringing. “To me, you can’t take these risks – things like that I’m willing to die on a hill for,” she says. So she was taken aback by some of the comments on her Instagram account, where she asks her 175,000 followers to respond to other people’s dilemmas. “There were people on that post saying: “What people watch in porn is not what they do in real life; how can you be so judgmental?’”
Gleeful exhibitionism … Love Island. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock
The idea that nobody should be judged for their sexual desires lies at the heart of so-called “sex-positive feminism”, the credo that stripping away the stigma historically surrounding female sexuality will liberate women to enjoy themselves without guilt or shame and help to eliminate the slut-shaming and victim-blaming that often stops violence against women being taken seriously. The movement is credited with shattering taboos around issues such as masturbation, periods, LGBT rights and female genital mutilation, thanks to its insistence on women’s right to sexual pleasure. From the gleeful exhibitionism of Love Island contestants to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s exuberant sex-positive anthem Wet Ass Pussy, the idea that enjoying sex is nothing to be ashamed of – in theory at least, if not always in practice – has filtered into young women’s everyday lives.
But if sex-positive feminism champions women pursuing their own desires without feeling judged, it also demands that they refrain from judging the way other people have sex – at least between consenting adults. Now, some are questioning who this free-for-all really serves and how consent is defined, in a society where women are still heavily conditioned to please men.
In her book Block, Delete, Move On, published this month, Lala writes of her gratitude to those who fought for women’s right to enjoy sex – however and whenever they want – and her refusal to be judged on the number of people she has slept with. But, while the endless supply of potential hook-ups provided by dating apps has been great for women who just want casual sex, she argues, it has downsides for those seeking long-term relationships. “Since sex has become easier to get,” she writes, “love has become harder to find.” Through her Instagram account and the dating column she writes for OK! magazine, she hears regularly from women tolerating activities they don’t enjoy in bed for fear of being rejected for someone more willing – an age-old story, except that those sexual norms are now set by pornography.
Exuberance … Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion in the Wet Ass Pussy video. Photograph: YouTube
“Sexual liberation is great, but in some ways we ran with that, and then ended up in a model of sex that has been created by men,” says Lala. “We have got the part where it’s: ‘You can do this without judgment, you don’t have to be married or worry about unintended pregnancies!’ but we’re not balancing that with the education or that sense of what sex really is – how should it feel, when should you do it, how should you do it?”
When Lala polled her Instagram followers recently, almost three quarters said they had experienced rough or painful sex but had chosen not to complain about it. “It’s like: ‘I don’t want to disappoint him, I don’t want to be bad in bed.’ If you really like someone but every time you have sex it hurts and you don’t want that, how do you negotiate that when you’re only 18?” For all her professional expertise, she says, she remembers some “pretty horrible sex” when she was younger.
In December, the singer Billie Eilish, then 19, declared that watching porn from the age of 11 had “destroyed” her brain. At first it made her feel like “one of the guys”, she told the Howard Stern radio show in the US, but now she thinks it twisted her expectations: “The first few times I, you know, had sex, I was not saying no to things that were not good. It was because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be attracted to.”
On Twitter, self-proclaimed sex-positive feminists accused her of being “anti-choice”, or stigmatising women who work in porn, while the #BillieEilish hashtag attracted images of topless models with her head crudely photoshopped on to them, and lurid boasts from men of what they’d like to do to her. But Eilish is not alone in questioning the way porn tropes have coloured everyday relationships.
Downsides … dating apps. Photograph: Stephen Frost/Alamy
Generation Z is the most sexually fluid generation yet – only 54% of its members define themselves as exclusively attracted to members of the opposite sex, compared with 81% of baby boomers – and is arguably the most adventurous. More than one in 10 teenagers claim to have had anal sex by the age of 18, according to the UK’s authoritative National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which also found under-24s almost as likely as middle-aged people to have had more than 10 partners, despite being sexually active for many fewer years. But the generation most likely to have its first sexual experience via a phone screen seems increasingly willing to question what that means for individuals’ lives.
A third of British women under 40 have experienced unwanted slapping, spitting, choking or gagging in bed, according to research carried out for the pressure group We Can’t Consent to This, which campaigns to limit the so-called “rough sex” defence for murder (used by men who killed their partners to argue that the women died accidentally, in consensual sex games). It is one of a string of recent grassroots campaigns led by young women against tech-enabled forms of sexual aggression, from the unsolicited sending of “dick pics” to sharing intimate photos online.
While women who enjoy rough sex have an absolute right to pursue it without shame, Lala argues, the normalisation of pain in porn may provide cover for some abusive men, and make women feel prudish for refusing potentially dangerous acts like choking. “A lot of young men have co-opted BDSM [bondage, discipline or domination, sadism and masochism]. They’re not into power plays and consent. They just like hurting women.”
Anna-Louise Adams was in her early 20s, and at university in London, when she experienced a handful of casual sexual encounters that turned rough without warning.
“It was quite forceful hair pulling, and spanking – stuff that, I suppose, you would see in porn and seems quite generic, but you would expect a conversation to be had before it happened,” she says on the phone from Birmingham, where she is completing a master’s in sociology. Luckily, she says, she was confident enough to object. “But I did find it quite shocking, and it did deter me from having sex for probably about a year. I’d had two or three experiences of varying degrees of extremity and I just thought: ‘what’s the point of this?’” she says. “I’d come to my own conclusions about sex that wasn’t in a relationship, at least. I feel quite sad for my younger self, really.”
Now 25, and having compared notes with friends who had similar experiences, she no longer thinks it relevant that the encounters that turned sour were casual ones. “I’ve heard about plenty of relationships where it’s happened, and happened unexpectedly.” Speaking publicly for the We Can’t Consent to This campaign has, she says, also helped to channel her feelings into something constructive.
Some might say sex positivity has benefited women such as Adams, giving them the confidence to set boundaries in bed and discuss their experiences openly. But she is unconvinced. “It doesn’t benefit women. Even if there are individuals who feel personally empowered, collectively it continues to oppress us,” she says. “It’s all well and good saying that we can have sex now without being shamed and victim blamed. But it’s not like that’s being translated into real life.” The sense that the revolution hasn’t lived up to its idealistic promises may be fuelling resistance.
Louise Perry, press officer for We Can’t Consent to This and author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, due to be published this summer, argues that a movement originally meant to liberate women is being hijacked to serve men’s interests. Perry, 29, held the same liberal views in her early 20s as “most other millennial urban graduates in the west”, about issues such as porn, hook-up culture, or BDSM, but began questioning them after a stint working in a rape crisis centre.
“I’m not anti the sexual revolution per se – I don’t want to go back to having 10 children, or whatever would have been in store without the pill,” she says. “But I think the beneficiaries [of sex-positive feminism] overwhelmingly have been a certain subset of men.”
Sex-positive feminism was never meant to be about just saying ‘yes’ to everything
The problem isn’t just porn, she argues, but dating apps inadvertently making men less accountable for abusive behaviour. “I’ve spoken to women who have dated men from apps and have been sexually assaulted, then find he’s deleted his profile and they don’t even know his username – that’s the sort of thing that really, really serves the interests of men.”
While there’s little evidence of singletons deleting apps en masse, the suspension of dating during the pandemic may have pushed some to rethink what they’re looking for. The dating app OKCupid reported a rise in the number of British users seeking a long-term relationship after the 2020 lockdown while in the US, Match.com’s annual Singles in America report last year found that only 11% of users claim to be seeking casual flings, with qualities such as trust and emotional maturity now prized over physical attractiveness. If only temporarily, the loneliness and insecurity of lockdown may have made cosy coupledom look more appealing.
Not anti-sex … asexual activist Yasmin Benoit speaks at the Prague Pride festival in 2019. Photograph: CTK/Alamy
Yet the idea that sex-positive feminism is “falling out of fashion”, as the New York Times writer Michelle Goldberg argued, may seem regressive to some people. After all, it was never meant to be about just saying “yes” to everything. Indeed, some sex-positive activists are defined by actively not wanting sex, such as the lingerie model Yasmin Benoit, who identifies as asexual or ace – meaning that she never or rarely experiences attraction to others – but maintains she is not anti-sex just because she isn’t interested, personally. And, historically, sex positivity is rooted in efforts to tackle sexual violence, via protests such as the “Slut Walks” movement of the past decade, where women marched, stripped to their bras, to project the message that nobody is “asking for it” by the way they dress.
Contentiously, for Generation Z in particular, while sex positivity is frequently associated with liberal-left views or support for trans rights, the backlash against it has become associated – not always fairly – with both rightwing media and gender-critical views. (The foreword to Perry’s book is by Prof Kathleen Stock, the academic who resigned from the University of Sussex last year, after protests against her views on trans rights.)
“I think we’re on the edge of a real anti-sex backlash,” says the activist and writer Laurie Penny, author of Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback, who points out that destigmatising sex has freed women to talk about what were once taboo subjects. “A culture where sex is stigmatised is also one where we can’t talk about any of those things and I don’t believe there’s anything progressive about a society that wants to control or limit women’s sexuality.”
Penny, who uses they/them pronouns, also thinks some attacks on sex-positive feminism – such as that it means porn is beyond criticism – are fights with straw men. “There’s a brilliant quote from [the porn star] Stoya, which says that trying to learn about sex from watching porn is like trying to learn to drive from watching monster truck videos. The thing is I don’t often see that argument made, that you’re not allowed to criticise pornography,” they say.
The activist and writer Laurie Penny. Photograph: Hal Bergman/Getty Images
But Penny agrees the “sex-positive” label is becoming outdated in a culture where old constraints on sexual behaviour are gone but the threat of male violence endures. “In this apparently sexually liberated culture, women still don’t feel able to have boundaries and say what they want, and everything is dictated by what men feel they’re supposed to want. I don’t think the problem is too much sexual liberation, I think it’s not enough. You have to actually deal with sexual violence in order to create substantive sexual liberation.”
If there is a backlash under way, it may not mean a return to sexual conservatism. Last year, the hashtag “Cancel P*rn” began spreading on TikTok, with users sharing horror stories of X-rated platforms caught hosting footage of rape and child abuse, or talking about the impact of the sex industry on their own lives. While arguments like this are sometimes dubbed “sex-negative” feminism, negative seems the wrong word for accounts such as @profitfromtrauma, a 23-year-old former escort and “sugar baby” to rich older men who paid her for sex. Now working as a trauma coach, she answers followers’ questions about why – in contrast to some more upbeat sex worker accounts on the platform – she really couldn’t recommend her old career. Yet she comes across as anything but prudish. One of her most popular posts is labelled “How I enjoy my body knowing I’m not a £150 sock to men any more”.
The missing element of this half-finished revolution, Lala argues, is a cultural shift in men’s attitudes. “Sex-positive feminism has laid the foundations, it’s given us a platform and a voice and a space to use our voices. But without getting men on board and proper sex education, we’re all going to be on the same old hamster wheel.”
That won’t happen overnight, she acknowledges. But she does see glimmers of hope. Recently, she counselled a man who had been choking his girlfriend during sex for years. It was only when the girlfriend mustered the courage to say she didn’t like it that he admitted he didn’t like it, either. They were both, it turned out, going along with what they thought the other one wanted, and each secretly wishing the other would make it stop.