Some days, sex is everywhere. On Twitter, there are endless memes about horny influencers and fucking to Disney+. In the fandom world, there’s thirsting after hot cosplayers and guessing creators’ fetishes. Political figures are having a sexual moment too, and not just from oversharing their sex lives or being weirdly thirsty over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). In the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up, Americans are having nationwide conversations about what it means to engage in sex where everyone feels safe, heard, and loved.
From serious to surreal, one thing is obvious: Americans are talking very openly about sex. Among adults, 65% say they’re comfortable discussing their sex life with others, South West News Service reports. Young Americans, meanwhile, are queerer, more experimental, and “more likely than other generations to believe that an emotional connection makes sex better,” Cosmopolitan notes.
Something shifted over the past decade: Millennials and zoomers woke up and realized that it isn’t bad to be horny. In fact, being horny is a good thing, as is desiring sexual intimacy with another person. But our generation only thinks this way because the 2010s made us think harder about how we perceive pleasure.
E.L. James is the perfect example of someone who became horny during the 2010s. Born in 1963, James was an early Gen Xer who worked as a TV executive and raised a family in English suburbia. This seemed to be the course her life would take for the rest of her days—until she saw Twilight in theaters and proceeded to write her own books about the story’s characters. Only after the fact did she realize she reinvented fanfiction.
In 2011, Fifty Shades of Grey was published as an ebook and hard copy. The series, which follows a college senior named Anastasia Steele and wealthy BDSM enthusiast Christian Grey, became a sensation that introduced kink to the masses. Suddenly, BDSM was cool, and your mom was into it, too.
Of course, Fifty Shades isn’t the first popular fiction series to touch on BDSM relationships. Nor is it a good depiction of BDSM—or fiction writing at all, for that matter. Sex writer and Dildorks podcast host Kate Sloan called the series “problematic as hell,” criticizing Anastasia and Christian’s Domination/submission relationship as “far closer to abuse than consensual kink.” Yet she believes the series had a net positive impact on the world’s relationship with alternative sexuality.
“Millions upon millions of people probably discovered their latent kinks from encountering the Fifty Shades phenomenon in some form—or at least had their minds broadened on the subject of kink,” Sloan told me. “Reducing sexual shame is a good thing and I think Fifty Shades achieved that for a lot of people.”
Fifty Shades came at just the right time. In 2007, Amazon Kindle launched; by 2010, Kindle ebooks were outselling hardcover purchases. While independent book publishers have always been around, Amazon’s Kindle Store opened the floodgates to any writer who could access the internet and market themselves to readers. Suddenly, authors dealing with explicit or taboo subject matter could sell their books directly to consumers without being gatekept by a publisher, and readers could enjoy stories that would be considered too subversive for your standard Borders shelf.
But it wasn’t just Amazon and the growing ebook industry that helped Fifty Shades take off. James’ work reached an audience of women who owned a Kindle, enjoyed reading sultry romance books on Amazon’s store, and had just shepherded their teen, preteen, and college-aged daughters through the Twilight years. Fifty Shades rode that high, and it countered Twilight’s coming-of-age woes with a mature twist for Twilight fans’ middle-aged parents. Suddenly, BDSM made sense to a whole new generation of readers, and as Fifty Shades remained in the public spotlight, it lifted the shame around kink.
“There’s a certain type of elitist kinkster who disdains anyone who enjoyed Fifty Shades, like they’re not a ‘real’ kinkster because that novel happens to be bad. As if many of us didn’t discover our kinks by reading terrible fanfiction or watching terrible porn!” Sloan said. “I don’t think there’s a place for gatekeeping in the kink world and I don’t think it serves anyone for us to exclude Fifty Shades fans from our ranks.”
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In 2015, 58% of OkCupid users were interested in some form of bondage. Two years later, over 70% of OkCupid members reported some level of interest in kink. It’s not a coincidence that kink’s popularity increased during the second half of the 2010s. As LGBTQ rights gained more public support, American sociocultural values around sex shifted and changed.
As writer Brandon Ambrosino notes, studies show Americans are now more accepting of premarital sex and have more sexual partners within younger generations. We’re becoming more queer, too. Nearly half of millennials do not consider themselves “completely heterosexual.” Indeed, kink itself has a long history in the queer community, and destabilizing heteronormativity destigmatizes both queerness and kinkiness.
“[I]t’s gay culture that has all this time been offering the world new ways to think about sexual ethics—ways that don’t involve procreation or marriage or love or even committed, monogamous relationships,” Ambrosino wrote for the BBC in July. “The ‘traditional’ heterosexual sexual ethic—which was, as historians have long held, invented in the 19th Century—has been tried and found wanting.”
If a new sexual revolution truly is in the works, then we’re figuring it out the only way we know how: by being horny. Our online footprint reflects that. Adult-oriented websites like Pornhub, OnlyFans, ManyVids, Mastodon’s Switter, and FetLife boomed in popularity during the 2010s. Social media networks like Twitter, Patreon, and Tumblr initially opened their doors to sex workers and adult creators in droves, and in turn, these sites became online powerhouses. At least until they started kicking creators out.
Horniness isn’t just about sex, either. The freedom to be horny is an issue of free speech, and Americans have a right to express their sexual desires openly. Steps to curtail sexual material have largely been panned by younger internet users; sex workers’ activism amid SESTA-FOSTA’s emergence arguably kickstarted a mainstream conversation on our rights, especially as Craigslist closed its personals section. And when Tumblr banned NSFW content, the news stretched from BuzzFeed to the New York Times.
With shifts in horny culture online and off, we’re challenged to ask why we think about sex the way we do, how we talk about it, and who benefits from pre-existing sexual norms. And for queers like myself who grew up in a conservative and religious household, being horny is an act of autonomy and reclamation after years of repression, shame, and internalized homophobia.
Horniness isn’t just about sex, either. To be horny is a free speech issue: Americans have a right to express their sexual desires openly. Steps to curtail sexual material has largely been panned by younger internet users; sex workers’ activism amid SESTA-FOSTA’s emergence arguably kickstarted a mainstream conversation on our rights, especially as craigslist closed its personals section. And when Tumblr banned NSFW content, the news reached everywhere from BuzzFeed to the New York Times.
Questioning sexual norms challenges more than just sex. It asks us why we think about sex the way we do, how we talk about it, and who benefits from our pre-existing sexual norms. And for queers like myself who grew up in a conservative and religious household, being horny is an act of autonomy and reclamation after years of repression, shame, and internalized homophobia.
That’s not to say we’re about to enter a sexual utopia in the 2020s. New sexual values are being created as we speak, and they’ll come with some trial and error. Many of us have a lot of work to do on a personal level, too. Sloan argues that sex was more openly talked about during the 2010s via a “more guarded, careful way” as conversations around slut-shaming, kink-shaming, and #MeToo emerged. But she notices that many people still view sex as an “improper or impolite subject, at least in the public sphere.”
“I still see a lot of people who have ‘alt’ Twitter accounts and don’t want to be ‘horny on main,’ though. Even I, as a professional in the sex media industry, have been posting fewer salacious selfies and explicit tweets due to feeling like those behaviors are ‘unprofessional,’” Sloan said.
There are many, many other factors that play into the 2010s’ erotic cocktail. The advent of social media has made sexual contact so much easier, whether through cybering or swiping right on Tinder and Bumble. Millennials, long familiar with explicit sexual material thanks to the ‘net, came of age with Fanfiction.net and Archive of Our Own as their main sexual educators. And in an age of Trump, fascism, and the alt-right, life is more stressful than ever.
Theoretically, that could lead to a much higher sex drive in some: One 2015 study found a link between hypersexuality and heightened stress among men, whereas a Brigham Young University dissertation from that same year argues there’s a “chicken or the egg” relationship between daily life struggles and hypersexuality. I’m inclined to agree with Bustle here: There’s nothing wrong with a high libido, just don’t use your sex life to numb out.
But eroticism can be an act of mindfulness, self-exploration, and self-assertion. For women, queer folks, and trans people, it can be a powerful step toward independence that blossoms in so many different directions, platonic and otherwise. And besides, making sex a core part of our lives encourages us to think for ourselves and find pleasure on our own terms, whether that’s through sex toys or fursuits.
So here’s to embracing sexual desires in the decades to come. Or to paraphrase St. Vincent: I can’t turn off what turns me on, and I don’t turn off what turns me on.
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