We’re entering an age of sex apathy if not outright hostility, and I for one am ready for this revolution. You might find that second part hard to believe, and I understand why: I write about sex all the time. At first glance, my portfolio makes me look like one of those giddy, happily geeky sex advocates who believes everyone should try putting something up their butt. (Just try it! Just once!)
But I write about sex mostly because I get mad. Sex-related misinformation and stigma wreaks havoc in the world, poisoning relationships and hollowing self-esteem, causing useless anguish and physical harm. To combat that, I want everyone to have more access to science and kindness and common sense. I want misinformation thrown out—and that includes ideological propaganda about why women need to work harder at getting off or should endure oral sex regardless of how much they actually like it. I don’t write about sex because I think good sex is the key to a good life or (god forbid) a right. I would never submit that “all sex, as long as it is healthy and explicitly consensual, is a positive thing.” I’m not advocating for the inherent goodness of anything except accuracy, and the day our culture isn’t sexually dysfunctional (lol) is the day I hang up my sex writing pen for good. In other words, I’m not here to sell you a brand new house, I’m just here to fumigate your current one.
Still, it’s not lost on me that sex as a topic, as a selling point, and even as a physical phenomenon, is overexposed, inescapable, exhaustingly mundane. I too see sex-related headlines and automatically feel drained, even when the article in question is written by someone I trust to be insightful and careful. Here sex goes again, my spirit sighs, wearing the one-man-band suit from Mary Poppins, begging for more attention, sucking all the air out of the proverbial room. Sex is relentless and uninspiring, demanding yet boring. Sex is Taylor Swift. We get it already. Now can we please have a break? I believe that in the near future, we will.
Actually, it’s already happening. As a Washington Post article recently declared, “it’s a less sexy time to be young than it used to be.” Studies have shown that both adolescents and young millennials (in the 20-24 age range) are waiting longer to have sex or not having it at all. Experts speculate this can be due to prohibitively high attractiveness standards they perceive others may hold, a lack of face-to-face interaction, or a lack of time to pursue partners. But some of it must also be a plain lack of interest. Many of my friends in their late 20s and early 30s—educated, intelligent people who are sophisticated enough to be blase about fisting and orgies—are also fed the fuck up with fucking. That’s not the result of them supporting sodomy laws or believing in mandatory monogamy or having had bad sex once. (Who’s only had bad sex once?) It’s their way of rejecting the chirpy, lobotomized sex positivity that’s come to dominate mainstream culture. These friends might be regularly sleeping with someone or several someones, but when it comes to obsessing and enthusing about sex, they want to opt out.
Consequently, they joke about being “sex-negative” the way some people joke about misandry: with an undercurrent of seriousness. Outspokenly sex-positive people regularly posit that “embracing sexuality is a very important part of who you are” and that “we should be celebrating…and embracing” sex. (“Embrace” comes up a lot when sex positivity is the topic.) And at first glance, those messages seem unobjectionable. But there’s a lot to challenge in this worldview.
As feminist Jillian Horowitz has explained, “being sex-negative means acknowledging that sex, and kink, have nothing intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘positive’ about them.” In the ways I’ve most recently seen it used online and in person, a sex negative or “sex blahsitivist” stance doesn’t call for a return to shaming or ignorance around sex. Rather, it dismisses sex as a fundamentally interesting, “good,” or necessary lens for understanding and actualizing one’s self.
As self-identified “sex skeptic” Isabel Slone recently wrote, “referring to yourself as ‘sex negative’ is simply one way to eschew the constant pressure to enjoy and experiment with your sexuality.” Because “the performative enjoyment of sex has essentially become a mandatory part of being alive,” sex itself can often feel like “an imposition.” Where’s the space for those who believe many of our qualities, maybe even most of our qualities, are more integral to our selfhood than what type of sex we pursue or prefer? What about asexuals or voluntary celibates? Why do any of us have to make a point of applauding the sexual practices of strangers like we’re bedside Little League coaches? Sex, and a largely uncritical attitude toward it, has been made compulsory. That’s a categorically bad effect of the sexual revolution.
Granted, savvy sex-positive spokespeople add caveats that abstaining from sex is fine, too! But this feels like lip service given that it’s rarely paired with a push to establish personal sexual practices as, well, not actually anyone else’s business—or even more radically, with the notion that sex may not be a hugely important aspect of each human life. Sometimes—and for some people, all the time—sex simply doesn’t matter that much.
Not so long ago, in certain circles, an eager embrace of all things sexual was a sign of sophistication and political enlightenment. Our collective sex mania still holds tremendous social cache and publicly professing your fixation on sex can still serve as shorthand that you’re proud of your body and highly erogenous, experienced and confident, free from shame or other embarrassing anxieties. Or at least, sex obsession when practiced by white able-bodied cis people works that way. (As always, different rules apply for anyone outside the cultural ideal.)
But that conviction is crumbling, and the blooming trend towards sex apathy seems to bridge many of these demographic divides. I’ve seen women of color and trans women, as well as those who are cis and white, express eagerness to move on to other topics of discussion and political engagement. “Sex is bad” is a handy, tongue-in-cheek refrain for anyone who has experimented with casual sex and the pursuit of genital pleasure as a gateway to a better life and found it ineffective, or anyone who finds sex (re)traumatizing or otherwise unappealing. It’s not usually meant as condemnation so much as dismissal, a derisive aside to let everyone involved change the subject. Fucking doesn’t solve many or even any of our problems, and it often creates even more. “Sex might be perilous to a woman’s well-being,” writes Alana Massey, “and often, if we’re honest, a physically substandard experience.” Sorry, straight ladies, but it’s true: men care a lot less about getting a girl off when they’re not in a committed relationship with her.
Mounting sex fatigue isn’t just about ideological differences around feminism or sex positivity. Apps and the internet have notoriously made casual sex easier than ever before. We’re inundated by sex in the media if not sex in our beds—though a lot of us might be getting that, too. From how we should judge a political candidate to how we’re going to relieve headaches, get fitter, and prevent cancer, sex is the go-to answer. Stressed from work? Sex should fix it. Need a raise? Have extra sex. Are you masturbating enough? Are you orgasming in every possible way? It’s a constrictive, neoliberal hellscape, not a permissive pleasure utopia.
As Rachel Hills detailed extensively in last year’s The Sex Myth, this climate produces as many anxieties and untruths as it alleviates, making the sex wars a zero-sum game. That’s why more and more people are removing themselves from the front lines. “I was always sort of ‘sex shrug,’” journalist Melissa Gira Grant said recently on a podcast. “I’m tired. This conversation just keeps happening, and I can exit.” “I’m sex negative in that I don’t think sex is real and I don’t want to talk about it, and it’s boring,” host merritt k replied. “How much can you really say?”
We’re at a sex saturation point. After centuries of denial, we spent a few decades bingeing hard and now we’re dealing with a hangover that won’t quit. Appetites are eliminated when they’re satisfied and if you’re sated for long enough, you might forget you were ever hungry at all. In a world where sex is de rigueur and overabundant, sex forfeits the propulsive pressure associated with the taboo and unknown.
That’s not a bad thing. With sex no longer withheld, we can come by our rejections of it and hesitations around it more honestly. Getting here sucked, no pun intended, but the end is in sight. Soon, sex nonchalance is going to be the norm, and we’ll have a chance to recover from our collective burnout and finally explore what sex could mean, or not mean, for our larger lives. The United States has long seemed embarrassingly juvenile to, say, parts of Europe; maybe we’re finally catching up with them. In the future, sex will finally be like eating: You can obsess over your diet, you can rail at people who do it differently than you, you can build your whole life around your culinary preferences. But most people don’t really care what you do or don’t put in your mouth, and that’s the way it should be.
Charlotte Shane has written for Matter, Pacific Standard, The Verge, and is the author of Prostitute Laundry.