There is a growing subculture of young women (and girls) who identify as sex-negative feminists, taking to the likes of Twitter and TikTok to express candidly negative views on phenomena deemed the offshoots of a male-centric and hyper-sexualised society, such as porn and hookup culture. This movement stands at odds with the sex positive legacy of the mainly millennial-heralded 2010s, which paved the way for ‘slut pride’ and a heightened consciousness of kink and BDSM within the mainstream. Such generational differences have become apparent through ongoing discourse on popular youth programming providing unrealistic and inappropriately graphic depictions of female teens and young adults.
For example, Sam Levinson’s upcoming HBO show The Idol, which stars a 23-year-old Lily-Rose Depp, has been dubbed a toxic man’s ‘rape fantasy’ for its supposed glamourisation of sexual violence and exploitation of women. And since its 2019 debut, Euphoria (another Levinson-HBO project) has been under constant scrutiny for its on and off-screen antics concerning the adultifying and sexually explicit storylines involving 20-something-year-old actresses playing teenage girls.
More specifically, women from online Black communities are also speaking out against the narrow dimensions of sexual expression that young Black women in the spotlight seem to be able to explore. Stars like Chloe Bailey and Normani are at the centre of these conversations, with many young Black women and girls expressing frustration over their perceived public portrayals as zealously raunchy beings.
In response to these criticisms, millennials from some virtual queer and feminist groups are framing this cultural development as a form of reactionary Gen Z conservatism informed by a successively orthodox state of affairs. As someone who sits in between these two age groups — a “zillennial” — I’m weary of pathologising people’s beliefs and behaviours based on the year they were born. But having come of age shortly before and amid the #MeToo era, I’ve definitely noticed a change in societal attitudes towards sex and consent in the years since. This moral shift has lent itself to more reserved (and once widely-shunned) understandings of sexual liberation becoming more embraced within feminist spaces.
What Exactly Is Sex Negative Feminism?
Jah, a 21-year-old Jamaican-American, understands sex negativity as a political practice. “It’s women being disillusioned with the overt abuse and enforcement of patriarchal standards of womanhood,” she says. Her views are informed by her position as a former full-service sex worker (FFSW) and although she identifies as a lesbian, all of her clients were male. With this in mind, she elaborates on her stance, saying, “heterosexual sex is fraught with power imbalances that don’t cease to exist because we decide to think about them positively.” Conversely, Gemma, a 19-year-old South African, is more hesitant about the term ‘sex negative’ despite identifying with many of its ideals in the context of feminism, “It’s hard for me to divorce its meaning from the hyper-Christian perspective that idolises female chastity and negates pleasure.” She continues, “But I don’t think the collective of men are good or even safe sexual partners for women (who are attracted to men). They don’t care for our needs.”
“I came of age in 2016 - 2019 when the topic of sexual liberation was hot in the streets... all the magazines were talking about five ways to give him head and six ways to drive him mad. "
The roots of sex negativity as an organised, feminist ideal can be traced back to the works of white second-wave scholars like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon, who have written extensively about the sex industry (termed the ‘sex trade’) as an inherently violent arena for women that only serves to reinforce male hegemony. These views have often been dismissed as essentialist and puritanical in the face of the ‘free love’ movement that characterised the 1960s and 70s.
Prominent Black feminists of the same time period weren’t so explicit in labelling themselves ‘sex negative’ in their perspectives of female sexuality and its relation to the male gaze. The more layered conditions of racism and colonialism for Black women often deprived attention away from this topic to focus on issues like media representation, marriage and motherhood. Nonetheless, Angela Davis offered a retrospective analysis of sex negative politics in a 1999 interview with fellow Black American sociologist Siobhan Brooks, noting its utility. “The definition of pornography as assaultive, objectifying and violative of women's autonomy and self-determination was strategically important because it allowed for a distinction between what was exploitative and violative on the one hand, and what was an expression of agency on the other,” she said. Also discoursing in the 90s was Patricia Hill Collins, who identified a link between the oppressive sexual realities of Black and white womanhood through pornography, writing, “the profitability of Black women's sexual exploitation for white 'gentlemen' parallels pornography's financially lucrative benefits for pornographers” in her seminal work Black Feminist Thought.
Fast forward to today, and we have contemporaries like Sophie Lewis and Kimberly Foster speaking out against the objectification and exploitation of female sexuality in popular culture, even in cases deemed progressive and empowering by the mainstream, such as Cardi B’s and Megan thee Stalliion’s “WAP”. Foster has extended this discussion, questioning why Black female performers in general seem to “have to sell sex” to succeed.
Leona, a 33-year-old British-Nigerian millennial, has a very liberal approach to feminism and sex positivity, with a heavy focus on choice, “I ascribe to choice feminism. Even if a choice is problematic or harmful, a woman should still be given the choice to make it.” She continues, “sex positivity means being free to pursue your own sexual desires. Whether that means sleeping with a lot of people or still being a virgin in your 20s and 30s, you shouldn’t be shamed for it.” Choice feminism, or liberal feminism, is a branch of feminism that seeks to frame women’s choices as inherently empowering; the idea is that women’s current ability to choose autonomously is part of feminism’s end goal and therefore should be celebrated. This adaptation of feminist ideology — which emphasises the personal over the politics — is the dominant pop-cultural narrative that many younger women are now pushing against. “Feminism isn’t about individual choice. It’s about what collectively benefits the rights of women,” comments Gemma.
Compared to popular presentations of sex positivity, Gen Z and zillennial descriptions of sex positivity are a lot more politically-rooted, emphasising consent, destigmatisation for women of diverse sexual orientations, access to abortions, and psychological safety.
Davida, a 23-year-old British-Ghanaian, had this to say: “I came of age in a time, say 2016 - 2019, when the topic of sexual liberation was hot in the streets like, that was the newest crack [in the media]. For example, all the magazines were talking about five ways to give him head and six ways to drive him mad. And so, you had a whole generation of girls learning how to do anal and have no gag reflex, and put themselves in really dangerous situations in the name of sexual liberation because we believed that making ourselves useful to men in a sexual manner somehow fit into our liberation.”
Why Are So Many Gen Z Women Sex Negative?
"Gen Z has inherited a burning world. We don't even know if we're going to live past 2050. And all the dreams we've been sold about working hard and being able to put a down payment on a house and getting married and having 2.4 kids? We're currently seeing the undoing of all of that," Davida speaks sharply. She continues, "A lot of [older millennials] benefited from deeply liberal fiscal policies. Yes, there was a recession, but you still had access to EMA, maintenance grants [for university], and you were only paying £3000 for uni. Of course, we're going to be sex negative. We're not thinking about shagging when the world is literally ending, you know?"
This idea that young people simply have too much on their plate to be thinking about sex is a sentiment that has been echoed by many experts monitoring partnered sexual activity among teens and emerging adults, who've cited soaring costs of living and wage stagnation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and social media as key motivating factors behind this so-called 'sex recession'. For example, a 2017 joint study from Rutgers University and the University of Albany found that US 18-23-year-olds were having 14% less 'casual sex' than those of the same age category were in 2007, citing financial instability as a factor.
"Of course, we're going to be sex negative. We're not thinking about shagging when the world is literally ending."
Many of the Gen Z women I spoke to also referenced hookup culture, 'vanilla shaming' and the now hyper-accessibility of porn as unfavourable offshoots of the sex positive movement that came before them, with researchers and social media also documenting these insights. Summarising this almost collective mood, 23-year-old Zahar, a Nigerian-American, says, "I think Gen Z women and girls have seen much of the negative impact of sex positive millennial women and have chosen not to participate."
Cultural critic Kimberly Foster has understood these new developments as an adoption of "socially conservative ideals" that must be contextualised within a wider "moment of resistance" to the past 40 years of progress concerning women's rights. Speaking from a US context, Foster is alluding to America's recent backpedalling of abortion rights via Roe vs Wade (which is predicted to have a ripple effect around the world). We can see similar moves in other parts of the globe, such as in South Korea, which has declared sexism "a thing of the past", scrapping its governmental gender quotas with a view to abolishing its Gender Equality Ministry. Radical feminist thought has really resonated with many of the nation's young women as a result, and some groups of women are rejecting marriage, dating and even sex with men entirely via the 4B movement. With these regards, the absorption of sex negative values by young women may not be conceived as inherently regressive, despite critics lamenting otherwise. Rather, it's the case that in an increasingly repressive climate - economically, politically and socially — Gen Z is merely reacting to the cards they've been dealt.
Are Things Really So Black And White?
Though the data and responses to recent political events point to an overall paradigm shift regarding how women desire to show up in the world and foster connections with their male counterparts, there is also a move towards 'pleasure activism' and placing joy and pleasure at the heart of liberation. "I think the goal of sex negative feminism is really protection. Sex negative feminists view pleasure-centred sexuality as a Trojan horse or another way for men to exploit women. Sex positive feminism is radical freedom. It's the ability to conceptualise one's choices within political and social situations," explains Charmain, a 27-year-old British-Nigerian who places herself within the zillennial cusp. As a FSSW raised by a radical feminist mother, she identifies as sex positive but sympathises with the demand for political sex negativity among her peers.
Overall, sex positive and sex negative feminist principles seem diametrically opposed to one another, but they are born out of the same intention to empower women and their navigation through sex - even if each praxis may be subject to critique and refinement. Right now, Gen Z is swinging the pendulum by way of sexual truancy, but who's to say Gen Alpha won't be swinging it right back?