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Sex & Love How the internet failed the sex-positivity movement

Mar. 23, 2021
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Throughout most of my life, the internet served as a mentor for me. All the nooks and crannies of my preteen years felt far too sacred to share with the adults around me. When these internal turmoils were about to bubble over, online safe spaces like Tumblr took me under their wing, telling me that my feelings were normal and that I was okay. For many former Tumblr users, including myself, memories of the website are bittersweet. In many ways, Tumblr served as a guide in helping me come to terms with my identity, leading me to realize my bisexuality and helping me accept my trauma. Conversations surrounding these topics—body positivity, identity, and sex positivity—weren’t seen as taboo or against the grain on the platform. Many communities on Tumblr accepted these discussions as the norm. However, this wasn’t without faults. 

As Tumblr’s user base increased, aesthetics such as “traumacore” and Lana Del Rey-esque Lolita imagery grew in popularity. It became difficult to distinguish sex positivity and self-love in their purest forms from more twisted messages. Body-positive posts could be found beside pro-anorexia content, and kink-related posts were often juxtaposed with glorified depictions of abuse. This created a landscape difficult for anyone to navigate, but cast an especially strong grip on my young, impressionable self. Despite the fact that, in my experience, much of this content was posted by impressionable users around my age who had no ill intent, this shift into aestheticized sex and trauma was nonetheless jarring and hard to escape.

Accessing this environment at a young age left me hyper-aware of other online spaces like this. To little surprise, similar, sugarcoated sex-positive rhetoric had spread to all corners of the internet. The brash and sexual podcast Call Her Daddy was extremely popular among my friends during high school, and currently, conversations of kink are common on apps like TikTok, where children and teens make up the largest age demographic. On Twitter, tweets discussing choking, slapping, and other elements of “freaky” sex are regular viral hits, further normalizing this behavior among young people. Overall, sex positivity’s commodification has led it astray from the inclusive, education-based values it was originally known for.

Call Her Daddy is the perfect representation of how sex positivity has been hijacked. The Barstool Sports podcast revolves around its hosts, Alexandra Cooper, and formerly Sofia Franklyn, discussing hookup culture and how to navigate it as women. The program is shocking, and no topic is considered too risque. In concept, the podcast had the potential to open a dialogue for women looking to gain sexual confidence and liberation. But in actuality, the podcast has marinated its listeners in a more sinister motif. Instead of centering its conversations on topics like consent, sexual safety, and healthy relationship dynamics, the podcast perpetuates harmful sexual stereotypes that offer more danger to their audience than support. Franklyn and Cooper riff about putting their partners' needs above their own as “part of the job” of being a sexually active woman today.

This narrative portrays sexual liberation not as making safe, informed decisions to uplift oneself however one may choose, but as a performance for the benefit of others. Quotes such as "If you are not sucking your man’s dick that’s fine. 100% your decision. But just know, if you are not, someone else is" and "You’re just a hole," however tongue-in-cheek they may be, clearly illustrate the true message that the podcast sends to its viewers. There is no positivity in telling listeners that overt sexuality is the only way to keep men interested in them. There is no liberation behind promoting harmful, patriarchal practices. This narrative is no less misogynistic just because it’s told by women, and pretending that this rhetoric is empowering only serves to further confuse more impressionable or inexperienced listeners. Plus, behind this “sexually liberated” facade sits a parent company—Barstool Sports—that has a long history with scandals surrounding racism, sexism, and alt-right ideology. It all begs the question: who is truly meant to benefit from this?  

The commodification of sex positivity has steered the conversation away from breaking out of patriarchal, heteronormative standards. Kink isn’t discussed in terms of aftercare and consent, but rather in regards to how much pain one can withstand. Sex work isn’t promoted as a valid profession requiring long work hours, skill, and hard labor (both physical and emotional), but as a fun way to obtain quick and easy cash. It all leads us to believe that defining sex on our own terms is less important than making sure we’re adhering to society’s expectations of sexuality.

From companies like Barstool to individuals on Tumblr, a pattern emerges that not only transcends platforms, but rings true for the media industry as a whole: the most

gripping stories emphasize entertainment above veracity. But what happens to those that become too engulfed in the media’s hypersexual narrative?

I created an OnlyFans account on my 18th birthday. Over the course of a year, I’d watched the platform boom in popularity, its name plastered all over Twitter alongside earning screenshots from successful users boasting tens of thousands of dollars. While I knew the risks sex work entailed, OnlyFans seemed to “other” itself within the public eye. It was presented not as sex work, but as a cheeky side hustle that anybody could pursue. I became invested in the narrative, engulfed in the competition, and determined to become a top 1% creator like so many other women I’d seen on the platform.

My birthday came and went, and I quickly learned that OnlyFans was not the walk in the park I’d expected. Putting your body out there on the internet is more than a temporary performance that can be seized at a moment's notice. It’s heavy lifting, and it’s a load you have to carry with you in all spheres of your life. Fear of doxxing, paranoia about long-term consequences, and constant work for little payoff are all extreme realities of sex work that I didn’t truly understand before I started—not to mention the platform's exploitative format, built on competition and high withdrawal minimums that make income feel unstable for its users.

OnlyFans wasn’t a quick buck, and it wasn’t a ladder that could be climbed with ease. In retrospect, I was too young for the platform. Jumping on OnlyFans as a barely legal teenager with no real understanding of how to operate in the industry is a mistake I’ll carry for many more years. And by no means do I tell this story as an attempt to belittle anyone that makes their living with the platform. The platform, as flawed as it is, still serves as a saving grace for many sex workers. Yet that is exactly what it is: a platform for sex workers. Accordingly, it shouldn’t be marketed as anything other than that. The “othering” of OnlyFans from other online sex-work platforms allows it to be marketed in a misleading, harmful way. In the end, a rose-tinted view of the platform allows for OnlyFans to grow from its ambiguity, and gain from its controversy. It ultimately only benefits the company itself. 

Sex work is real work, and kink can be both exciting and theraputic. Trauma shouldn’t be taboo, and conversations about sex shouldn’t be discouraged. But these concepts shouldn’t be glamorized while we work toward making them respected. Sex posivity is an incredibly important step toward normalizing and uncovering all elements of sexuality, both the good and the ugly. But with all this in mind, as we live in this hypersexual era, we reserve the right to critique the companies and social media platforms that are exploiting these concepts.

I believe we owe it to those younger than us to try to do better, and beyond that, I believe we owe it to each other. The critique of kink or sex work can sometimes feel like an attack—understandably so, as so much of what women do is slandered. But it is through embracing criticism that we can begin to hold sexual media to a higher standard. Sex and all of its iterations can be empowering, indulgent, and beautiful, but they can also be upsetting, unhealthy, and dangerous. To allow these aspects their own place in the sex-positivity conversation is to give the world of sex the candor it deserves.