Illustration by Li Ya Wen
The world is very good at cracking down on the wrong things at the wrong time, which will always confuse me. It happened with the fashion industry first—like, excuse me, why would anyone decide to focus on trying to change the weeks when you present collections when people have been complaining about the lack of diversity on the runway for decades? Now, the latest bout is on the sex industry. Slut-shaming and policing have been happening literally since the bible was written (shoutout to Lilith!); from the Salem witch trials to Anthony Comstock’s reign of terror, our country hasn’t exactly had the most sex-positive track record, but in 2017 things took an extra nosedive. It started with SESTA and FOSTA, a package of bills that decided consensual sex work was the same thing as sex trafficking, wreaking havoc on the internet by holding websites responsible for the sexual content individuals posted. Backpage, Craigslist, Reddit, and even Google were slammed with censorship rules, sex workers lost a huge portion of their income and their safety, and rapists and pedos were granted a new dose of free will thanks to the loss of potential background checks created with the very intention to weed out creeps. After that, the miserable case of Cyntoia Brown was brought back into the spotlight, anti-abortion bills were passed, we lost out on new episodes of Zoë Ligon’s genius series Sex Stuff (I know that’s because the platform it was posted on shut down, but it was still a sad moment). What else? Sex toy companies were nixed by the MTA and erection pills weren’t, Stormy Daniels was lambasted, Kavanaugh was confirmed, I had nowhere near enough orgasms… Oh my god, this is the worst list ever. Our country is a dumpster fire. Back to the point, Em. In a country where the attitude was already notoriously sex-negative, 2018 doubled down on everything bad. In December, Tumblr’s big, out-of-nowhere porn ban exemplified the new trend of neglecting what we really need, and, in turn, screwing us over more. No pun intended.
This article isn’t going to be about the many detriments of Tumblr’s awful decision, because I can hardly get into that in one short column. Instead, I want to talk about the ramifications of all these crackdowns. Lawmakers and MTA bigwigs and corporate figures and David Karp all seem to have missed the multiple scientific studies which have shown that in states with increasingly prominent religious attitudes toward sex, porn search histories have increased! That doesn’t necessarily mean religious people are hornier, of course; what’s much more likely is the reality that, when sex is made out to be this irresistible, morally deficient, taboo act, people get curious. “It’s wrong because it feels so right” is not the right mindset for a culture marked by its hedonism. If curiosity killed the cat, then ridiculous rules like the porn ban are igniting pussies (and all other genitalia). But what happens when the only resources left are mainstream porn and dated health-class textbooks? However enjoyable as the former may be, it’s not exactly known for its realism. Sites like Pornhub that provide free content depicting every kind of sex you could imagine do not have the intention of teaching about pleasure and consent and anatomy and all the many intricacies that should be covered in other media. That’s not the point of mainstream porn. It’s to provide a fantasy.
But every fantasy needs to be grounded in reality. And everyone talking about sex responsibly and accurately is getting majorly punished: when both Tumblr artists and sex workers across the internet aren't promoting or sharing their work, a good portion use their social media to dispel age-old myths about sex, promote pleasure, share terminology used in their work, and be an educational outlet. If SESTA/FOSTA and other restrictions succeed in their intended goal, and people can’t reach as many patrons for their art or clients for their jobs, the forum to discuss sex will shrink dramatically. I work in a bookstore, and every time I’m behind the register people check out sexy books. Once, to my and my coworker’s delight, a middle-aged woman came in and asked us to help her find a book for her friend who “just really loves cocks.” (We didn’t stock them at the time, but for any readers, the two best I found online were J. Ohnson and M. Ember’s Pen15 Club and Aaron Spitz’s The Penis Book.) Many come in from out of town and express kid-in-a-candy-store wonderment about the fact that a space like ours exists. “We have nothing like this in [insert standard midwestern town here],” they report, then maybe or maybe not purchase one of the books that definitely made it onto The Guardian’s “2018 Bad Sex in Literature” lists.
When Olivia and Remi emailed me a couple of months ago to ask if I’d be interested in writing a column about sex for teens—all the things your health teachers are maybe too afraid to share—I jumped at the chance. I’ve been the de-facto slutty friend since middle school, when I broke to my friend that she probably couldn’t text everyone “I’m cumming over!” without garnering some confusion, and since high school, I’ve become a very passionate advocate of curriculum reform. I got my first sex toy in 2016, and became the most dress-coded girl in my school’s recent history by senior year. I’m also a Gemini who will talk your ear off about literally anything the second you give me a chance, so a biweekly column is a dream.
Sex doesn’t have to be secret. No matter the laws passed, there will always be a huge community of people dedicated to demystifying it all, giving advice, and telling politicians exactly where they can stick their censorship. You can have an orgasm! You can buy toys! You can laugh at me trying to figure everything out! And you will—at least for the third.
Your big sister, Em