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The next age of prude

Could Billie Eilish lead a mainstream pushback against the excesses of 2010s “choice feminism”?

Artillery Row

Billie Eilish — the record breaking, multi-Grammy winning, twenty year old singer — made waves last week when she spoke on the Howard Stern show about her experience with pornography, which she says she began watching when she was just eleven. She doesn’t mince her words: “As a woman, I think porn is a disgrace,” she said. “I think it really destroyed my brain, and I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn.” She explained that she became desensitised to anything other than “abusive BDSM”, and that she believes she suffered “sleep paralysis and night terrors” as a result.

Eilish’s 18th birthday prompted a wave of gleefully cruel jokes from male internet users

Eilish’s experience is not as unusual as we might naively hope. A report published by the NSPCC in 2016 found that roughly half of children aged eleven to sixteen had viewed online pornography, including almost a third of those aged eleven and twelve. First porn exposures were mostly unintentional, via ads on other sites or being shown it by peers, and left children feeling primarily “curious”, but also “shocked”, “confused” and “disgusted”. One girl in year seven is quoted as saying, “It looked like the man was hurting her […] I know about sex but it didn’t look nice.”

Billie Eilish’s comments are brave, especially when you consider her experience of being in the public eye since her early teens. Her eighteenth birthday prompted a predictable wave of gleefully cruel jokes from male internet users. Search her name on popular porn sites today and you’ll find videos made with Eilish lookalikes, non-explicit clips pilfered from her social media and (apologies to sensitive readers) “tribute” videos in which men film themselves ejaculating on pictures of her.

In 2019, when she was seventeen years old, Eilish revealed that her signature look of baggy clothing and curtains of luridly dyed hair was designed to avoid public scrutiny of her body: “Nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath.” In 2020, a paparazzi photo of her wearing a form-fitting tank top went viral, under a caption stating, “Billie Eilish has developed a mid-30s wine mom body.” Ahead of the release of her latest album this summer, Eilish underwent a transformation, appearing stockinged and corseted on the cover of Vogue. “If you want to show your skin, you’re easy and you’re a slut and a whore,” she said. “If I am, then I’m proud […] Let’s turn it around and be empowered in that.”

A conflicted attitude to objectification is common in young female celebrities

This kind of conflicted attitude to objectification is common in young female celebrities. Perhaps nobody is a better example of this than model and actress Emily Ratajkowski, whose new memoir My Body makes a 180 degree turn on some of her previous public statements.

Ratajkowski was emblematic of the shallow, oversexed feminism that became popular in the 2010s, in which everything from brazilian waxes to stripping was uncritically embraced under the banner of empowerment and personal choice. When she shot to fame as one of the topless dancers in the controversial music video Blurred Lines, Ratajkowski was quick to tell interviewers that it wasn’t objectifying — it was actually about “celebrating women and their bodies”. A lingerie photoshoot in which she writhes in spaghetti and tomato sauce was a feminist act because “personal choice is the core ideal in my concept of feminism” and because “being sexy is fun and I like it”.

In My Body, Ratajkowski takes a much more ambivalent view. Though she doesn’t go as far as saying she wouldn’t take the same path again, she presents the modelling world in a highly unflattering light, and gives a nuanced, post #MeToo re-evaluation of the power relations between desirable women and the men who desire them.

Billie Eilish and Emily Ratajkowski are both household names among younger millennial and Gen Z women. They are admired, they are attractive and combined they have over a hundred million Instagram followers. Could the views expressed by both in the last month represent the early stages of a mainstream feminist pushback against the excesses of 2010s “choice feminism”?

Young women find themselves in a culture that derides “vanilla” sex

Today’s young women have come of age in an era where they are fed guides to anal sex by teen magazines and watch their peers share hardcore kinks on TikTok before they have any real world sexual experience. If they go to university, they find themselves in a culture that exalts casual hookups and derides “vanilla” sex. At some, including Durham and Leicester, they may even be offered official training courses on selling sex as a way to financially support their education. When they have sex, they face being slapped, strangled or spat on by young men raised on a diet of internet pornography.

It is no surprise that as they reach adulthood, some of these women look back with disillusionment, and perhaps even a feeling of having been groomed. It seems likely that we will see more public figures with a following of young women expressing views that are critical of porn, hookup culture and female objectification.

Criticism of pornography has already become more mainstream. Last year, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wrote a blistering account of the unscrupulous business model of large site Pornhub, which appears to have knowingly profited from sex crimes.

Within days of the article’s publication, legislation was introduced that would allow victims to sue websites that hosted videos of their abuse; Visa and Mastercard protected themselves by blocking their services from being used to pay for content on Pornhub; and the site was forced to respond by deleting nine million unverified videos, which had made up half their content.

Paradoxically, we end up having less sex than previous generations

Other criticisms come from a different angle. “NoFap” is a steadily growing online community of mostly heterosexual, mostly non-religious men, who advocate giving up porn, and in some cases also masturbation, on the grounds that it is overstimulating, addictive and damaging to genuine sexual relationships. A range of apps now allow users to block porn sites, offer motivation and track days since the last “relapse”.

Attitudes to sexual expression have been growing more and more liberal, with fewer aspects of sexuality remaining taboo each passing year. BDSM, once a niche subculture, has now reached such mainstream platforms as the German version of Great British Bake Off. The 2015 season of Das Grosse Backen saw contestants baking cakes themed on Fifty Shades of Grey, complete with miniature whips, handcuffs and ball gags formed from royal icing — no hints of transgression remaining, merely a source of puerile humour. Feminist writer Louise Perry calls this phenomenon “cultural death grip syndrome” — the logical endpoint of the principle that “sex sells” being a culture so saturated in sexual imagery that we have become inured to it, and, paradoxically, end up having less sex than previous generations.

For someone alive today, it is easy to assume that the dropping of taboos on sexual behaviour is an inevitable aspect of some moral arc towards progress. A look at history, however, tells us that these attitudes come in waves, with times of permissiveness alternating with times of greater repression. Perhaps the effect of lockdowns, recessions and increasing anxiety about being able to settle down and reproduce, combined with a growing well of sexual disillusionment in many women and some men, will be enough to tip the pendulum in the other direction and usher in the next age of the prude.

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