Opinion: No, NYT Columnist — Young People Are Not Turning Into Puritans

LOS ANGELES — Didn’t you hear? Young people are turning away from “sex positivity.”

Or maybe it is “young women” who are turning away from it. Or feminists, and does that include SWERFs and TERFs? Or maybe it’s Generation Z, which can also be defined as “digital natives” — but wait, that also includes Millennials, some of whome are now in their 40s and doing Peloton to LCD Soundsystem. Or maybe it’s TikTokkers, though Dolly Parton is now on TikTok and she’s not a young person and could very well be “sex-positive.”

In any case, people are talking about generation-size numbers of people turning away from “sex positivity” towards… “Sex neutrality”? “Sex negativity”? (The Sex Singularity? The Void?)

You will not get much more clarity from the latest source of anti-“sex positivity” discourse: this past weekend’s New York Times opinion piece, “Why Sex-Positive Feminism Is Falling Out of Fashion,” by professional NYT opinionator Michelle Goldberg.

The piece oozes with Goldberg’s joy at delivering the news that hordes of humans are turning away from unfashionable, gross El Sexo. She is thrilled to report a number of developments illustrating this theory:

  • “Sex positivity now seems to be fading from fashion among younger people, failing to speak to their longings and frustrations just as anti-porn feminism failed to speak to those of an earlier generation.”
  • “There have been growing signs of young women rebelling against a culture that prizes erotic license over empathy and responsibility.”
  • “An aversion to casual sex has become a bona fide sexual orientation [i.e., demisexuality].”
  • “Young, presumably progressive women (for the most part)” on TikTok denouncing “Liberal feminism” for “telling young girls that hookup culture is liberating, conditioning them to think that if you don’t have extreme kinks at a young age then they’re boring and vanilla, and encouraging them to get into sex work the minute they turn 18.”
  • “Sex-positive feminism” today “seems less relevant to women who feel brutalized by the expectation that they’ll be open to anything.”

Of course, Goldberg’s observations might surprise anyone actually observing a sexually diverse range of people, young or otherwise. Let’s examine her research technique.

Cherry-Picking Anecdotes (From Dubious Sources)

To demonstrate this alleged “turn against sex positivity” — an imaginary trend which anyone who has spoken frankly with actual sex-having humans might be very tempted to identify as her own wish fulfillment fantasy — Goldberg cherry-picks three secondhand, anecdotal examples.

There must be a turn against sex positivity, Goldberg posits, because she read: a) something in a book by an Oxford professor who spoke to some of her elite students; b) a Vox article by someone who has been spending time looking at TikToks; and c) a BuzzFeed article — no, really — headlined “These Gen Z Women Think Sex Positivity Is Overrated” for maximum clickbait appeal.

That’s it. Sure, “three’s a trend” could charitably apply if you are out and about and spot three people wearing flare jeans. But you might expect the “newspaper of record,” routinely quoted and misquoted by judges and lawmakers trying to justify all kinds of social policies, to require more than some half-hearted Googling before declaring a major shift in the prevailing social winds.

Two of Goldberg’s three sources are a BuzzFeed article and a TikTok trend piece, blatant examples of the current “Let me pitch a TED-Talky, Gladwell/Lehrer, ‘You may think x, but actually y’-type story I can do while doomscrolling” school of online “journalism.”

But even if we ignore her citing of those sources, there’s still Goldberg’s deployment of the yarn about the Oxford professor and her supposedly “non-sex-positive” tutorial group. This anecdote, which starts her New York Times piece and in a sense authorizes it, is a more interesting move — and one potentially harmful to the lives and livelihoods of real-life sex workers. Because that section, and sizable chunks of Goldberg’s short essay, do not really concern “sex positivity” in particular or even sexuality in general. Instead, they concern porn.

Specifically, Goldberg buys into the usual “straw person” version of “pornography” peddled by pro-censorship groups and activists for decades, one that indicates no knowledge of, or curiosity about, the diverse reality of professional and amateur sexual expression in the 21st Century.

The Big Fancy Smart Appeal to Anti-Porn Authority

Goldberg starts her opinion piece with a classic appeal to someone else’s authority, which she’s hoping to acquire by proximity: “In her new book, ‘The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century,’ the philosopher Amia Srinivasan…” Then Goldberg can’t resist the overkill and adds, “who is quickly becoming one of the most high-profile feminist thinkers in the English-speaking world.”

There you have all you need to know: Goldberg’s own notion about a supposed “turn away from sex positivity” is endorsed by a big fancy smart person from big fancy smart school overseas. Oxford University! Doesn’t get more big fancy smart than that! Or any more patriarchal and colonial, but that’s a complication Goldberg doesn’t seem to notice or care about.

After smothering us with her idol’s credentials, at this point you may expect Goldberg to cite something deep, or meaningful, or well researched, or even eloquently argued by this super-spiffy “rock star” (no, really — this is how academics actually refer to people like Srinivasan) thought leader.

That’s not what she does, though.

“In her new book, ‘The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century,’ the philosopher Amia Srinivasan, who is quickly becoming one of the most high-profile feminist thinkers in the English-speaking world, describes teaching Oxford students about second-wave anti-porn activism. She assumes her students, for whom porn is ubiquitous, will ‘find the anti-porn position prudish and passé.’ They do not. Rather, they’re in complete agreement with assertions that could come straight from Andrea Dworkin.”

Yup, Goldberg’s entire “the kids hate sex and porn LOL” conceit is underpinned by a brief anecdote about a handful of incredibly privileged people, the 1% of the 1% if you will, in a situation where it is clearly in their self-interest to agree with their elite professor.

‘Yes, They Said, Yes to All of It.”

What follows is a series of leading questions to which you can almost hear the self-reported “Yes, ma’am” answers delivered in unison, where these anonymous precious young minds of Oxford appear to confirm everything professor Srinivasan — and Michelle Goldberg — want to hear about the Big Bad Porn of their nightmares.

“Could it be that pornography doesn’t merely depict the subordination of women, but actually makes it real? I asked. ‘Yes,’ they said,” Goldberg quotes Srinivasan.

“Does porn bear responsibility for the objectification of women, for the marginalization of women, for sexual violence against women? ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘yes’ to all of it.”

By which we are meant to understand, of course, “Porn? ‘No,’ they said, ‘no’ to all of it!”

The next paragraph is straight out of a digital pamphlet by NCOSE, formerly Morality in Media: 

“Porn, the students say, provides the script for their sex lives, one that leaves them insecure and alienated. A man in Srinivasan’s class was unsure if sex that was ‘loving and mutual’ was even possible. The women wondered if there was a connection between the lack of attention to female pleasure in so much porn and the lack of pleasure in their lives. ‘The warnings of the anti-porn feminists seem to have been belatedly realized: Sex for my students is what porn says it is,’ writes Srinivasan.”

Never mind the entirety of gay porn, or the existence of trans and nonbinary people in porn, or various fetishes, or realities like the notable consumption of cis male gay porn by cis women of any orientation, or the complicated deployment of cultural and social taboos in content production and promotion, or gender and sex work, or class and sex work, or any number of topics that Michelle Goldberg could have informed herself about by, I don’t know, speaking to an actual person who works in porn or sex work or knows anything about it.

Instead what we get — besides the TikTok trend piece and the BuzzFeed article — is a secondhand anecdote from Amia Srinivasan. And who is Amia Srinivasan? Goldberg only identifies her by her job and her “academic rock star” status, but that’s not the entire picture.

The Surfing Brahmin

The one constant factor through Srinivasan’s life and advancement has been a heightened level of privilege that the vast majority of people have never experienced and would find difficult to fathom. Every capital-letter name in her saga is the epitome of access to conservative, patriarchal institutions for whom she plays — sort of — the progressive. For instance, in January 2020 the 37-year-old Srinivasan lent herself to a gloating full profile by the Financial Times:

“Born in Bahrain to an Indian banker father and a mother, also from India, who is a classical dancer, she had a peripatetic childhood, living in Singapore, London and New York,” the Financial Times profile describes, leaving out the crucial detail for someone raised among the incredibly discriminatory Indian diaspora social system that the Srinivasans are notable members of the highest echelon, the Brahmins.

Amia Srinivasan spent formative time in America and “was active in local Democratic politics in New Haven, Connecticut, and wrote ‘philosophically themed’ plays, some of which had been performed at Yale,” the article continued, quoting from a 2007 profile written when she was in her 20s and was about to relocate to the U.K. on a Rhodes scholarship. That year she graduated summa cum laude from Yale, “where a profile in the student newspaper described her as a ‘philosophy major with a truly cosmopolitan background.’”

She has been, the Financial Times’ profile reveals, at Oxford ever since, although according to her London Review of Books bio, Srinivasan “teaches at Oxford but surfs in L.A.”

Srinivasan’s staggeringly simplistic formulations about all “porn” would seem ignorant enough coming from someone else, but it is rather more nefarious coming from a 37-year-old person in 2021 who “surfs in L.A.” part-time and moves in the hyper-rich academic-financial coteries where anything goes in terms of moral relativism and impunity.

In a Social Galaxy Far, Far Away

The point is, you couldn’t get much further away from the reality of sex workers and most people in the adult industry. Srinivasan is, literally, a high-caste cosmopolitan sophisticate. Goldberg, who quotes her, is a 46-year-old in an affluent cis heterosexual “power couple” with the Executive Creative Director of Blue State Digital, “a digital agency that specializes in fundraising for nonprofits, advocacy, social networking, political campaigns, and constituency development.” He also served as a principal design leader for the Obama presidential campaigns.

This is a small, tightly-woven coterie of people who see sex workers exclusively as victims — almost exclusively cis female victims — to be saved. They notably never choose to interact with them. Well, at least not in a public setting; many clients of sex workers come from their social circle.

The barrage of “sex positivity/porn positivity is bad” think pieces does not stop. Today, as we were drafting this opinion piece, Utah’s Deseret News published a companion piece to Goldberg’s weekend editorial attacking, you guessed it, not sexuality but porn.

“Perspective: This generation is confronting the realities of porn. They don’t like what they see,” is writer Bethany Mandel’s version of the usual clickbaity headline. The article goes on to amply the same section from Srinivasan’s book quoted by Goldberg, but Mandel gets it from another recent, similarly slanted article by Helen Lewis for The Atlantic instead. The clickbait headline here? “The Problem With Being Cool About Sex.”

In her book, Srinivasan “confesses her reluctance to cover second-wave criticisms of porn in the feminist-theory course she teaches at Oxford,” Mandel quotes Lewis. “Yet her class was ‘riveted,’ she observes in ‘Talking to My Students About Porn,’ the longest essay in her collection. Their enthusiasm was so great that it made her reconsider her own diffidence.”

Like Nicholas Kristof, these people are too smart and too well-connected not to know that their simplistic attacks on all “porn,” and Goldberg’s amorphous call for censorship — “new taboos” is the Orwellian term she prefers — will eventually be quoted in the real world by policymakers as “The New York Times reported” or “The Atlantic revealed” or “The Guardian stated.” 

There is a straight line from their writing, to laws passed and legal decisions made quoting their writing — FOSTA comes to mind — to banks and credit cards depriving sex workers of their livelihoods, as in the OnlyFans debacle.

Perhaps Amia Srinivasan should re-reconsider her own diffidence?

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