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None so blind

Novara’s analysis of Gen Z “sex negativity” overlooks the obvious

Last week, Novara Media once again decided to engage in extremely vigorous intellectual onanism with the, ahem, release of “Why Is Gen Z So Sex Negative?”. This pseudo-academic piece was so bloviating in its composition that you would be forgiven for thinking the Novara offices had ordered an excess of hot air for Aaron Bastani’s inflatable biceps, and needed to get rid of it by pumping it into an article instead.

Novara has run out of ways to answer questions that nobody was asking

For those feeling masochistic enough to read the piece, it is perhaps worth noting the rather misleading headline that accompanies it. First and foremost, the author Asa Seresin makes very little effort to actually answer why Gen Z is apparently “so sex negative”. Presumably this can be put down to the fact that Novara had run out of ways to answer questions that nobody was asking (or indeed, wanted to know the answer to at all), so instead decided to introduce the creative editorial edict of not answering questions that were being asked.

This is a shame, because false “sex positive/negative” dichotomies aside, the question is a culturally pertinent one, and one that is certainly deserving of further investigation. Alas, instead of tackling head on issues such as the rise in sexual violence in otherwise “normal” relationships, or the growing number of young women speaking out about their negative experiences of using websites such as OnlyFans (and their links to a growing backlash against the normalisation of such phenomena), the article pivots to a discussion about whether Gen Z are the first generation to vocalise such objections.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the article goes on to tautologically confirm its own premise by listing all the reasons why Gen Z aren’t the first generation to consciousness-raise on the common ground of being “sex negative”. Instead the germination of this strand of feminist activism is laid squarely at the door of “20th century sex-negative feminists”. All the while, it’s not entirely clear that anybody has suggested that this isn’t the case, and further, there is very little said about the cultural differences that would and do drive the backlash against “sex positivity” from a Gen Z perspective compared to that of earlier 20th century feminists.

Two possible rationales are briefly alluded to: “Their concerns closely mirror those of second-wave feminists about the way that (heterosexual) sex inherently objectified and degraded women”. This almost certainly refers to the apocryphal “all (heterosexual) sex is rape” idea often ascribed to the late Andrea Dworkin.

Our culture is saturated with accessible, violent and exploitative pornography

Aside from the fact that Dworkin expressly disavowed this interpretation of her work, there seems to be little recognition that in a culture utterly saturated with a deluge of immediately-accessible, violent and exploitative pornography, this has in fact conditioned men and boys to “objectify and degrade” women during sex. Further, this has cultivated a prima facie expectation amongst women and girls that all sex does “objectify and degrade” them, as well as other negative self-perceptions. If women’s only experiences of sex involve being routinely treated in the way Seresin writes off as archaic second wave feminist theory, then why wouldn’t they think this is the norm?

A second point that Seresin briefly raises does refer to “anti-porn and anti-sex work feminism” and its possible impact on cultivating these mindsets amongst younger generations — specifically within the rarefied circles of Oxbridge students. The weight that the article ascribes to this is, frankly, laughable. Seresin starts by stating: “Oxford undergraduates are largely white, middle- or upper-class, and from the UK.” No one would disagree.

But then: “Among this demographic, anti-porn and anti-sex work feminism remains mainstream.”

Notwithstanding that this claim is not backed up by any data, this directly contradicts Seresin’s underlying thesis that anti-porn feminism was largely restricted to, and rooted in, the confines of second wave feminism. It’s also telling that the use of the wholly sanitising phrase “sex work” — and its increasing popularity — does itself lend credence to the idea that the “anti” positionality is no longer mainstream, given that those of us who oppose the commercialised sexual exploitation of women and children go to great lengths to avoid using such euphemistic terminology.

Seresin concludes by stating: “One need only glance at the (Oxbridge-dominated) British media to find swathes of articles expressing horror at lads’ mags, OnlyFans, choking during sex and the provision of resources for student sex workers.”

Seresin glosses over why such ‘horror’ is being expressed

Aside from the fact that the number of Oxbridge graduates working in the media has actually decreased in recent years, and in any case, they are outnumbered by us plebeian non-Oxbridge graduates, there is something egregiously distasteful about Seresin’s glossing over why such “horror” is being expressed at the issues she lists. Take the “choking during sex” example. The author actually links to an article about women who have been killed during sex as a result of violent and hateful strangulation by the men they were sleeping with. Call me old fashioned, but if there’s one thing we should all be collectively “expressing horror” at, it’s the death of women as a result of male sexual violence.

This reductive approach to boiling down anything to do with sexuality discourse as either “sex positive” or “sex negative” is wholly indicative of a wider identarian politics that has taken root amongst much of the commentariat who pride themselves on being bastions of left-wing politics.

There is no effort taken to engage with why young women and girls — and some men — may be feeling disillusioned with a society and culture that is increasingly commodifying every aspect of their physical being and sexuality into a product to be bought and sold on a grotesque free market comprised of human bodies. Instead of analysing why the anti-exploitation politics of second wave feminism might be having a resurgence because of a new political and social order, the immediate reaction is to sneeringly dismiss this backlash as a renewed form of small-c conservatism.

As Seresin points out: “They [Gen Z] allied with conservatives in order to introduce anti-trafficking legislation.” The banally pejorative implication that allying with anybody slightly to the right of Marx to effect positive change (combatting human trafficking!) is somehow a class betrayal, highlights just how little this brand of tedious sound bite politics has to offer anybody.

If the inference to be taken is that Gen Z are having to look to the history books for a revolutionary and inspiring politics — while there is little evidence to believe that this is actually the case — is it at all surprising? Much of the current discourse around sexuality offer little more than vapid slogans about “sex positivity” being a route to gaining political and social empowerment. The truth is that discussions around the perpetual societal presence of male sexual violence against women and girls have been reaching a fever pitch in recent months. We shouldn’t wonder if the younger generation has noticed.

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