After the sex-positivity movements of the 90s and 00s, today’s young people are experiencing disillusionment with hookup culture
“Look, if you’re a successful saleswoman in this city, you have two choices. You can bang your head against the wall and try and find a relationship, or you can say screw it and just go out and have sex like a man. Without feeling.”
Samantha Jones explained this ‘radical’ concept in the very first episode of Sex and the City. The episode starts with narrator Carrie Bradshaw welcoming the viewer into the new era of Manhattan, an era she dubs the ‘age of un-innocence’. Nobody is having breakfast at Tiffany’s, but everybody is having sex, and they’re having a lot of it.
When Sex and the City first aired in 1998, it aimed to explore women’s newfound sexual freedom in the wake of the social and cultural achievements of the second wave of feminism. After the sex wars of the 1980s that debated the need for political lesbianism and celibacy in the face of patriarchal sexual violence, sex-positive feminism reigned supreme, promising full sexual fulfilment as part of political liberation. Due to these achievements, Sex and the City positioned feminism as an ideology no longer needed in liberal American society because women were now equal to men.
“This is the first time in the history of Manhattan that women have had as much money and power as men, plus the equal luxury of treating men like sex objects,” Samantha explains to the girls over dinner. Sexism and inequality were simply things of the past, and as a result, women could now walk, talk and, most importantly, fuck like patriarchs. It was their ‘choice,’ and those choices were empowering. The 2010s ushered in a similar type of casual sex discourse through Tumblr’s sex-positivity movement. Around this time, young women (many of whom were underage) were led to believe that they could ‘outsmart’ the patriarchy by sexualising themselves. Young people would go on Tumblr, discuss their dates with various older men, their sexual encounters, and even post their nudes online for ‘Topless Tuesdays’. At the time, the overall narrative promoted by the sex-positivity movement was that sex was not a big deal, and people, especially women, should be able to do whatever they wanted, with whomever they wanted, without judgement. It was once again their ‘choice,’ and their choices were empowering.
I can’t stress enough how the sex positivity movement on tumblr intensified my hyper-sexuality in my TEENS and allowed me to be used by countless men in the name of being “free”— brianna (@fkamorena) January 17, 2021
Even though Sex and the City and the sex-positivity movement attempted to denounce puritanical culture and how it has historically suppressed women’s sexual desires and needs, they both fell into the trap of ‘choice feminism’. First coined by American lawyer Linda Hirshman, ‘choice feminism’ is the belief that the individual choices of a woman were inherently feminist, even if those choices were harmful, furthered inequality or the patriarchal status quo.
In the last few years, more and more young people have come forward to discuss how this framing of sex and the sex-positivity movement negatively affected them as teenagers. One Twitter user wrote that the sex-positivity movement led her to be “manipulated and emotionally abused for sex”. She continued, “I would never slut shame anyone or tell people that casual sex is bad. I’m just saying that teens see these conversations too and think that it’s empowering to have sex without it meaning anything, which puts them at risk of being taken advantage of (like I was).”
22-year-old Charlie, writer of the Substack Evil Female told Dazed that they too fell prey to the Tumblr rhetoric “that having lots of casual, emotionless sex was some sort of political and aesthetic statement, a testament to feminism, to being cool and detached and cosmopolitan.” As they became increasingly detached from their partners, Charlie decided to re-evaluate their relationship with themselves, their body and the people around them. As a result, they chose to abstain from sex for a year and a half.
“My decision to stop making out with people has nothing to do with any sacred book or higher power. I’m not saving myself for God or marriage. I’m not ashamed or grossed out by sex or fluids or intimacy. I just wasn’t having fun anymore” – Dronme
Last month, new Google data revealed that the term ‘celibacy’ had a 90 per cent increase in searches in the UK. On TikTok, the hashtag ‘celibacy’ currently has 167.7 million views, with hundreds of young people making videos about their celibacy journey. Celibacy, known for its roots in traditional Christian teachings, is a voluntary vow of sexual abstinence for religious reasons. Though most people online use the term ’celibacy’, they mean ‘abstinence’ as they aren’t abstaining from sex for religious reasons. Model and writer, Dronme, who has been celibate for four years, is one of those people. “My decision to stop making out with people has nothing to do with any sacred book or higher power. I’m not saving myself for God or marriage. I’m not ashamed or grossed out by sex or fluids or intimacy. I just wasn’t having fun anymore.”
It’s no surprise that celibacy is a trending topic in the UK at the moment. Over the last few years, there have been numerous reports about Britain’s sexual decline. The British National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Nastal) have been carefully monitoring our sexual activity, reporting in 2019 that British people are having less sex now than in recent years. In 2020 and 2021, Nastal conducted two more surveys and, after speaking to 13,000 people between 18-59, found a further decline in sexual behaviour since lockdown. This lull in sexual activity doesn’t just pertain to the UK. Last year, The New Yorker reported on the declining rate of sexual activity in the United States. Similarly, Le Monde, the French daily afternoon newspaper, published a special sex edition last year after polling one thousand young French people from the ages of 15-24. They found that 43 per cent of them have not had sex yet, and the issue investigated exactly why young French people are just no longer interested in having it.
Young people’s reasons for becoming celibate vary. From a disillusionment with heterosexual hookup culture to a search for spiritual and mental development, the list is endless. But, one thing that all those practising sexual abstinence (or contemplating it) have come to understand is that sex is a much more complicated subject than they were previously led to believe. For 23-year-old Nina*, sex and dating are intrinsically tied to their self-worth, and they want to change that through abstinence. “Long story short, I am considering celibacy because I want to stop viewing sex as some sort of validation. To learn how to stop being jealous when people around me get more non-platonic attention than me. To find worth in myself, even if others (read: romantic, sexual partners) don’t.” 21-year-old Anna* had a period of hypersexual activity while she was a teenager and, as a result, wants to take a break from sex. “I had been hypersexual for a long time and self-admittedly pursued a ‘hoe-phase’ (or period of high-risk sex practices) to self-soothe. Through lots of therapy and seeking out information independently, I started to learn that sex was no longer a healthy or sustainable coping mechanism for me. I want to unlearn unhealthy attachments to sex and the ideas around it.”
In our society, men are socially conditioned to prioritise sex in order to reaffirm their masculinity. Due to this, discussions around voluntary celibacy do not tend to include them. However, over the last few years, a community of young celibate men has developed on Reddit, and they call themselves ‘volcels’. The difference between incels and volcels is that volcels are voluntarily celibate, whereas incels are involuntarily celibate. Last year, 20-year-old Riley Dyson told NBC Today how happy they were to find a community of men who wanted to abstain from sex. “I discovered there was a whole community online for people who are just not ready for a relationship, people who don’t want one or people who are more career-driven. Suddenly, my choices to be single and more solitary made a lot more sense, knowing some other people were making the same choice.”
When sex and dating take up such a large part of the human psyche, what’s left to consume our brains once they get deprioritised? “Your friends!” Artist and YouTuber Leah Wei tells Dazed. “I decided to be celibate for a year after my breakup, and prioritising friends over romantic relationships felt amazing. In that year, I wanted to feel like I was dating my friends. I bought groceries, cooked for them, and did all those extra things I didn’t do for my friends before because I thought it was extra or was primarily a romantic gesture. It made me realise that – OK, I have a handful of amazing friends, and for whatever reason if I had to spend the rest of my life with this person (my friend), I would be really, really happy.” Dronme also importantly notes that once she deprioritised sexual relationships, she was able to dress as she wanted without boys in mind: “Before, the way I dressed and moved and presented myself orbited around what I thought the men around me wanted. I would get dressed in the morning, asking the question, “what will Cute Boy #2 think of this outfit? Is this too bright? Too weird?” If the answer was yes, I’d change it. Now I wear whatever I want, regardless of the clashing colours or obnoxious prints, because it doesn’t actually matter to me what Cute Boy #7 likes or doesn’t like.”
Sex and relationships are incredibly complex things. Especially in a world where young people still receive inadequate sex and relationship education in schools and through the media they consume. With all this in mind, young people’s growing desire to step back from sex to learn more about their likes, dislikes and themselves is more than understandable. It does not mean that young people are wholly sex-negative as recent headlines would lead you to believe. A lot of them just want the culture around sex and relationships, that influences their personhood, to be better. In her book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel reminds us that “sex is a conversation, and like any conversation, it can be promising – or it can disappoint.” We must “try to understand what it is that we want. But we don’t simply work out what we want and then act on that knowledge. Working out what we want is a life’s work, and it has to be done over and over and over. The joy may lie in it never being done.”
*Names have been changed