Sex

The 2010s Made Sex Political Again

Sex positivity was the pervasive message at the start of the decade. Then things got more complicated.

by Marie Solis; illustrated by Hunter French
26 November 2019, 9:50am

left: A rally to decriminalize sex work, Pacific Press/Getty Images, right: Harvey Weinstein, Spencer Platt/Getty Images 

In the past ten years, we lost hope in American politics, realized we were being watched on the internet, and finally broke the gender binary (kind of). So many of the beliefs we held to be true at the beginning of the decade have since been proved to be false—or at least, much more complicated than they once seemed. The Decade of Disillusion is a series that tracks how the hell we got here. This article originally appeared on VICE US.

What was sex in the 2010s? It’s hard to say exactly. At the beginning of the decade, sex positivity was the pervasive message. The fierce debates that had divided the feminist movement in the 70s and 80s— Is heterosexual sex inherently violent? Is porn inherently exploitative? Should women seek liberation through sex at all?—had virtually disappeared from the mainstream in the 21st century, and a relatively optimistic, politics-free view of sex yawned into the 2010s.

Perhaps women were more free to pursue their erotic desires: The 2010s transformed the dating landscape for women with the introduction of apps like Tinder, allowing them to find a sexual partner at a moment’s notice, if they wanted. As pop feminism became ascendent, women spoke out against the forces designed to constrain their sexual expression relative to men's. TIME magazine called 2014 “the best year for women since the dawn of time.”

Yet key moments of the decade made clear the limits of women’s sexual freedom and the persistent, lopsided power differential of heterosexual dynamics. College campuses became the repository for broader sexual anxieties, and in the extreme, a lack of concern for other people’s boundaries resulted in the egregious sexual assault cases that punctuated the decade. But the discussions surrounding consent and power dynamics in the earlier part of the decade paved the way for #MeToo, the mass reckoning that has colored the sexual politics of the years that followed.

It may be that now, sex—and in particular, heterosexual sex—is becoming reinfused with politics. A movement to decriminalize sex work is, for the first time, winning broad support. Renewed attacks on reproductive health care are exposing the threat sexual freedom poses to conservative ideals. And people are once again evaluating whether the way they have sex—how and with whom—aligns with their political views.

Where will it lead? We don’t know yet, but here’s what the last 10 years looked like:

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April 3, 2011 — The first SlutWalk takes place in Toronto, Ontario, starting discussion about victim-blaming and slut-shaming

The SlutWalk was a protest march and movement founded by Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis in response to comments from a Toronto police constable who told women to stop “dressing like sluts” in order to prevent men from sexually assaulting them. Months later, more than 3,000 women—many of them scantily clad—attended the inaugural SlutWalk, proudly identifying themselves as “sluts.” The purpose of the demonstration was to reject slut-shaming at the same time as reclaiming the word “slut” itself.

SlutWalk spread throughout Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, and the United States, bringing terms like "slut-shaming" as well as “victim-blaming” and “rape culture” into mainstream discourse. Feminist writer Jessica Valenti wrote that the movement’s grassroots spirit had ushered in a “new day in feminist organizing.”

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September 12, 2012 — Tinder launches for iPhone users, irrevocably changing the dating landscape

Three years after Grindr, Tinder became the first GPS-enabled dating app for women to gain widespread popularity and, crucially, it was the first to introduce the swiping mechanism now employed by almost all of its contemporaries.Tinder’s launch reactivated a discussion about what women desired when it came to sex and dating; at the time, some people still wondered if women would want to have casual sex with strangers. In 2013, writer Ann Friedman wrote for The New Yorker: “Despite our commitment to baseline feminist ideals, most of us don’t like to be relationship aggressors. … But what if that isn’t entirely true? What if women are just as open to spontaneously meeting a man for a drink—and maybe more?”

Yet just months later, in The Cut, Friedman declared that Tinder had “solved online dating for women,” offering statistics that showed women were using it “in roughly the same way as men.”

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October 15, 2013 — Emily Yoffe’s essay “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk” reflects moral panic around hook-up culture

For some, the growing popularity of dating apps like Tinder sparked renewed concern about “hookup culture.” And with awareness of campus sexual assault on the rise, some saw an obvious connection between the two phenomena. In a controversial essay for Slate, columnist Emily Yoffe posited that women were drinking and having casual sex, not in pursuit of fun and pleasure, but because they had internalized “feminist” messaging to keep up with the boys, and it was ending badly for them. Her advice? That women “stop getting drunk” and letting down their defenses, which allowed men to prey on them. The essay was just one of many published around that time to foment moral panic about young, sexually active women, particularly those on college campuses. Though often this panic was framed as concern about sexual assault, it was clear that there was lingering discomfort with the expanding plane of women’s sexual freedom. There also emerged well-meaning feminist doubt about whether this new dynamic made women more free at all. In a 2015 piece for Vanity Fair, Nancy Jo Sales, after hearing men complain that women on dating apps were “too easy,” wondered if women were dealing with more disrespect from male suitors than they were before.

“The promise of feminism and the goal of feminism was always just equality,” said Emily Wit, author of the 2014 book Future Sex. “But when you try to translate equality to a sexual dynamic between people of different genders, it doesn’t always map.”

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September 2014 — Emma Sulkowicz begins mattress protest on Columbia’s campus, advancing conversations around consent and sexual assault

In the fall of 2014, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz began “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” a performance art piece Sulkowicz conceived of after the student who allegedly raped her in her dorm room was found not responsible by the university. The performance made visible the burden of being a survivor: Revealingly, the New York Times referred to the mattress as Sulkowicz’s “scarlet letter, albeit an extra heavy version that [she] has taken up by choice,” suggesting that there was still shame and stigma associated with surviving sexual assault.

Though Sulkowicz’s wasn’t the first sexual assault of the decade to make national headlines, it precipitated a two-year period of intense reckoning with college campus assault, both on the campuses themselves, in the form of student protests, and in broader society. That same month, California passed its affirmative consent law, “Yes Means Yes,” sparking discussion about what it means to give enthusiastic consent for sex. In the years to come, conversations around power dynamics and consent would surround other major national events related to sexual assault, just some of which include: the Brock Turner case, the allegations against President Donald Trump, and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

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December 12, 2014 — Director Lina Esco’s film Free the Nipple raises awareness about the ways in which women’s bodies and sexuality continue to be policed

The “Free the Nipple” movement began in 2012, while filmmaker Lina Esco was producing a documentary of the same name, exposing the double standards inherent to the regulating of female toplessness. Over the course of shooting, Esco started the hashtag campaign #FreetheNipple, and spurred a number of legal battles over whether women can go topless in public. The movement also dovetailed with a social media campaign slamming platforms like Facebook and Instagram for their policies on photos of nipples; in 2014, celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Lena Dunham, and Rihanna posted nipple-baring photos in solidarity.

“Free the Nipple” illuminated the ways in which women’s bodies continued to be policed as well as inherently sexualized, particularly on tech platforms that marketed themselves as a democratic space for free expression.

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October 5, 2017 — The New York Times’ Harvey Weinstein investigation catalyzes an international movement

Contrary to some narratives, the #MeToo movement didn’t come out of nowhere. The rise of student activism in response to campus sexual assault, the mainstream discussions surrounding consent, and the feminist social media campaigns from the earlier part of the decade made 2017 fertile ground for a mass reckoning with sexual conduct. By the time the New York Times published its bombshell report on movie producer Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, the general public was better equipped to discuss the power dynamics at play in workplace sexual misconduct cases, and primed to believe those who came forward. In all, the Times reports at least 200 powerful men lost jobs or “major roles” after sexual misconduct allegations. People also noted how, despite this reckoning, the many women who accused Donald Trump of sexual assault and misconduct were brushed aside.

The months after the Weinstein investigation, however, brought with it some anxiety about “gray areas, which coalesced around the short story “Cat Person,” and allegations of impropriety against actor Aziz Ansari published on Babe.net. Did these accounts—one fictional—detail an awkward sexual encounter, or something more insidious? According to some, the ambiguity surrounding that question revealed #MeToo’s failure to articulate a politics of sex and pleasure in the positive.

“I think in general #MeToo is a movement we can be proud of, but it’s still missing the key concept of, ‘What are our desires and how can we fulfill them?’” said Nona Willis Aronowitz, a sex columnist for Teen Vogue.

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December 2017 — A machine learning algorithm creates a fake porn video of Gal Gadot, foretelling the rise of deepfakes and AI-assisted porn

In December 2017, someone online used a machine learning algorithm to generate a fake porn video of Gal Gadot by putting the actress’s face on a porn star’s body. The algorithm’s creator was a Redditor who went by “deepfakes,” and had also created porn videos of other celebrities like Scarlett Johanson and Taylor Swift. The fake celebrity porn turned out to be a harbinger of a now far more widespread problem, adding a new dimension to concerns over privacy and consent. Nearly two years later, a cybersecurity company has found that non-consensual deepfake porn accounts for 96 percent of all deep fake videos online, of which there are estimated to be more than 14,600.

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February 14, 2018 — A 19-year-old man who idolizes Elliot Rodger kills 17 in Parkland, bringing discussion of incel culture to the mainstream

In February, it was revealed that Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old man who killed 17 students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had once, in a YouTube comment, referenced Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara shooter who sought revenge on women who wouldn’t have sex with him in 2014. Cruz shot fellow classmates on Valentine's Day after being expelled for threatening a student who started dating his ex-girlfriend. The connection between Cruz and Rodger led to a more mainstream awareness of incel, or “involuntary celibate,” culture, which had festered in the margins of the internet for years, mingling with white supremacy.

When several months later, Alek Minassian drove a van into a busy square in Toronto, killing 10 and injuring 16 in an “incel rebellion,” there was more discussion about the violent ways men act on socially reinforced feelings of entitlement to sex.

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April 11, 2018 — President Donald Trump signs anti-trafficking legislation with devastating effects for sex workers

In April 2018, President Donald Trump signed FOSTA/SESTA, federal anti-sex trafficking legislation that made it easier for the government to police social media platforms. Most notably, the legislation—which was supported almost unanimously by members of Congress in both parties—shuttered Backpage, a website sex workers used to do their jobs more safely. In its absence, many sex workers have had to go back to street-based work, or return to clients who have abused them to make ends meet.

Sex workers quickly mobilized and built an even broader coalition of support for the decriminalization of their work, which now includes a number of politicians at the state and federal level. The decriminalization of sex work has also became a subject of debate for 2020 Democratic candidates, some of whom say they’re “open” to or would “consider” the idea. On the heels of #MeToo, the idea that women were the authority of their own experiences was ascendent, and Trump’s election had led to a resurgence of the labor movement. “[Decriminalization] fit in with these broader trends,” said Hallie Lieberman, a sex historian and journalist who writes about sex work. “People began to say, this is more about labor—people are making choices to do certain jobs, and jobs aren’t inherently bad just because they have sex involved in them.”

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December 1, 2018 — The Atlantic’s cover story “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” sparks debate about a so-called sex recession

A more conservative faction of #MeToo critics worried that the movement had stirred up a sexual panic: In the workplace men were now supposedly afraid of having one-on-one meetings with their women colleagues. Outside of work, they might be hesitant to flirt with or even just approach a woman, let alone initiate a sexual encounter. Atlantic senior editor Kate Julian seemed to contribute to that narrative when she penned the magazine’s December cover story: “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” Julian covers a range of reasons why fewer young people are having sex, but includes among them the lessons of the #MeToo movement.

Most agreed these reports were overblown, yet there may be a more nuanced sense in which she was right: When writer Lyz Lenz’s divorce coincided with #MeToo and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, she wondered how she could reconcile wanting to “fall in love with men, while also wanting them to “leave [her] the hell alone.”

Post-#MeToo feminist discourse notably included a resurgence of what critic Lauren Oyler called “campy misandry” in her review of the 2019 book How to Date Men When You Hate Men, and what scholar Indiana Seresin termed “heteropessism” in her seminal essay. In short, these terms described the jokey fatalism with which straight women began to apply to the idea of having sex with men.

If there is a “sex recession,” as Julian proposes, some say it may be because people are being more thoughtful about the sex they have: “Maybe one of the reasons younger people are having less sex is because they feel empowered to say no to sex they don’t want,” Willis Aronowitz said. “I think that’s nothing but positive.”

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