Once a nude-filled wild west, the internet is now awash with censorship and rising anti-sex sentiments – here, Polyester Zine’s editor-in-chief Ione Gamble traces the rise and fall of sex positivity online
This article is part of our Future of Sex season – a series of features investigating the future of sex, relationships, dating, sex work and sex worker rights; tech; taboos; and the next socio-political sexual frontiers.
Cast your mind back ten years ago. Instagram was in its infancy; Facebook wasn’t just for boomers; and algorithms were non-existent. In the early 2010s, social media was largely unregulated, with personal branding not yet a universal plight and our selfie-editing skills only as sophisticated as Instagram’s built-in filters.
More crucially, a decade ago, social media was full of nudity, and even more sex. Every Tuesday, for example, women on Tumblr would pose nude for ‘topless Tuesdays’ – the social-blogging platform was a space where self-shot nudes could rack up thousands of likes, porn was littered all over our feeds, but also where sex education resources could be shared freely.
Coming of age online in the mid to late 00s felt like growing up in the wild west; anything we didn’t learn at school was available at the click of a mouse button, and your every sexual whim could be catered for without logging onto Pornhub. With this surge of sex-adjacent content gaining traction alongside fourth-wave feminism, sex positivity worked its way into our socio-political lexicon. Slut-shaming rightfully became a sin, as online conversations led to slut-walk protests in which women refused to have their sex lives used against them; we finally started talking about the orgasm gap; and there were around 10,000 different iterations of hyper-realistic labia illustrations.
Seeing all of this change happen through our computer screens felt transformative; no matter how restricted we felt in terms of sexual openness in our personal lives, online it was an entirely open, free, and non-judgemental world. Eventually, online discourse permeated beyond the URL world, with my generation far more open to discuss sex and our bodies without fear of recourse.
“Where we once used to be free to an almost troubling degree, it now seems impossible to breathe on social media without the threat of having your account deleted for violating guidelines”
For all the awareness this mass exposure brought millennials, it left millions of young people vulnerable. No matter how you slice it, having teenagers post topless photos weekly, en masse, is troubling at best and exploitative at worst. The early age of social media came with little to no safeguarding. Before Instagram banned ‘female’ nipples, policing what you posted online was your problem alone, leaving thousands of us publishing content we would later come to regret.
Now, the internet is a very different place. Despite the well-meaning plights of Free the Nipple campaigns, understandable fury from the heavily censored online community of sex workers, and shadow-banning discourse, we’re no longer allowed to pose naked on social media. More and more of our content is being censored. Since the no man’s land of Tumblr, social media companies have scrambled to keep their users safe by introducing blanket bans on specific content and implementing algorithmic deletion triggers that fail to grasp the nuance of how we interact with each other online. It doesn’t matter if your bikini selfie was posted with sexual intent or not; it’s likely that if you’re not skinny, cis, and white, Instagram will delete it. Where we once used to be free to an almost troubling degree, it now seems impossible to breathe on social media without the threat of having your account deleted for violating guidelines.
With TikTok taking the lead as the social network du jour, a whole new host of censorship norms are gaining prominence in online spaces. Not only can you no longer explicitly post sexual imagery, but you also can’t even talk about it. On our For You pages, creators can be found changing sex for ‘seggs’, starring out swearwords, and point blank refusing to use any kind of sexually suggestive language for fear of being banned from the platform. OnlyFans creators are forced to jump through multiple hoops in order to even post their page links, and sex educators are forced to use ridiculous euphemisms and code words in order to spread vital information that still, ten years on from Tumblr’s peak, isn’t available in the school system.
As it becomes more and more difficult to not only discuss sex, but even swear or use queer-specific slang on social media, a sex-positivity backlash is emerging among Gen Z. Labelled as ‘puriteens’, studies have found that 15 per cent of Gen Z are sexually inactive, compared with just 6 per cent of Gen X’ers saying the same. These statistics are echoed in the way young people express opinions online; with it becoming more popular to believe that sex positivity is in fact an agent of the patriarchy. In their minds, engaging in sex seems to present more negatives than positives; and with revenge porn, painful sex, and cyber flashing so prevalent in society, it’s not a stretch to see why.
While it may be easy to attribute an increase in ‘sex negativity’ discourse online to the more visible social changes taking place, like the rise in popularity of becoming a ‘trad wife’, the fact a portion of Gen Z seem to hate sex scenes, or the never-ending discourse surrounding whether kink should be banned at Pride; the root of our distaste for risqué content is less provocative. Our attitudes towards sex are changing, but it’s not a product of the ‘culture wars’; it’s because we can no longer speak about our desires freely.
“Without the tools for young people to discuss sex freely with their peers, sex only has the space to be good or bad, with none of the messy or complicated grey areas”
With millennials, Gen X and boomers still controlling popular culture at large, sex is still everywhere we look, from song lyrics and music videos to TV and film. This omnipresence of horniness, however, is not enough to pique the interest of younger generations. There’s a reason Gen Z are rejecting the hyper-sexuality in shows like Euphoria and moralising things like age-gap relationships. With sex banned from social media, and us all spending more and more time online, young people are robbed of the opportunity to create their own desire-informed worlds.
Instead, they’re pushed to create subcultures that glamourise a lack of sex, rather than revelling in the hedonism millennials experienced in their early years on the internet. The TikTok girls are aestheticising Catholicism – and not in a subversive, code-switching way; more like in a revelling in guilt and ‘we need God more than ever’ way, as demonstrated by Red Scare host Dasha Nekrasova, and discussed on my podcast, The Polyester Podcast. They’re also practising celibacy, donning Mormon-esque prairie dresses, and tried to ‘cancel porn’ through a social media campaign largely undertaken on TikTok. By attempting to wipe sexually provocative language from the face of social media, false binaries are created.
Without the tools for young people to discuss sex freely with their peers, sex only has the space to be good or bad, with none of the messy or complicated grey areas. While ‘topless Tuesdays’ should remain in the internet’s graveyard, outright sex negativity and ruthless censorship is hardly a more appealing alternative. For the first time in the 27 years since Clueless was released, “you’re a virgin who can’t drive” is seen as a compliment – and it’s our militant policing of language that got us here.