Some second-wave feminists had treated heterosexual sex — as well as remotely kinky queer sex — as inherently degrading, if not counterrevolutionary, which naturally drove many women away from feminism. (In a 1972 Village Voice essay, Karen Durbin described dropping out of the women’s movement in part because she was “hopelessly heterosexual.”) Sex-positive feminism understood the demand for celibacy or political lesbianism as a dead end, and saw sexual fulfillment as part of political liberation.
But sex positivity now seems to be fading from fashion among younger people, failing to speak to their longings and frustrations just as anti-porn feminism failed to speak to those of an earlier generation. It’s no longer radical, or even really necessary, to proclaim that women take pleasure in sex. If anything, taking pleasure in sex seems, to some, vaguely obligatory. In a July BuzzFeed News article headlined, “These Gen Z Women Think Sex Positivity Is Overrated,” one 23-year-old woman said, “It feels like we were tricked into exploiting ourselves.”
I started noticing the turn away from sex positivity a few years ago, when I wrote about a revival of interest in Dworkin’s work. Since then, there have been growing signs of young women rebelling against a culture that prizes erotic license over empathy and responsibility. (A similar reorientation is happening in other realms; generational battles over free speech are often about whether freedom should take precedence over sensitivity.)
Post #MeToo, feminists have expanded the types of sex that are considered coercive to include not just assault, but situations in which there are significant power differentials. Others are using new terms for what seem like old proclivities. The word “demisexual” refers to those attracted only to people with whom they share an emotional connection. Before the sexual revolution, of course, many people thought that most women were like this. Now an aversion to casual sex has become a bona fide sexual orientation.
In March, Vox’s Rebecca Jennings reported on the spread of the “Cancel Porn” movement on TikTok. “It’s just one facet of a conservatism, for lack of a better term, that’s proliferating on TikTok from rather unlikely sources,” she wrote. “Young, presumably progressive women (for the most part)” who think that what’s sometimes called “choice feminism” caters to “patriarchy and the male gaze.” Jennings quoted the caption to one video: “Liberal feminism telling young girls that hookup culture is liberating, conditioning them to think that if you don’t have extreme kinks at a young age then they’re boring and vanilla, and encouraging them to get into sex work the minute they turn 18.”