Go To Horny Jail

The pro-sex case for not talking about sex

Lately I’ve been reflecting on two decades being Very Online , and have written a few things on the cumulative impact digital life is having on, well, everything.

On this theme I wrote about the Sarah Everard protests, and the wider phenomenon they illuminate, which I call ‘phatic protest’: a form of political action that feels like it’s doing something but is ultimately focused not on policy change but emotional expression I also looked at how a combination of online public life and Covid policies that seem calculated to destroy all peer-to-peer IRL interaction have rolled out internet-like power laws through all of offline life.

And I had a Britpopper moment reminiscing about Noughties anti-Starbucks protests and the creepy, placeless fake localism quintessential to the Starbucks brand to argue: what we were protesting wasn’t Starbucks, it was the de-territorialised politics of the internet itself. Which is an ironic thing to do via the internet, and that’s probably why it failed, and I’m here writing to you now via the internet.

In other news, last week saw the launch of the New Social Covenant Unit, of which I am an advisory board member. Its 12 propositions for a new social covenant are worth a read. I wrote a shortish personal piece for its blog about why marriage should be treated as a starting-point for life, not an end goal.

Go To Horny Jail

Woman: “I used to be such a nerd, and now these guys invite me to orgies.”

Man: “Wow, congratulations, strange men want to fuck you in the dark.”

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard someone say ‘We need to abolish the stigma around talking about sex’ I’d be a rich woman. The implicit assumption is that more openness will result in more sex, which will be nice, and the sex will be better - also nice. What’s not to like?

But some six decades on from the sexual revolution, that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. Kate Julian in The Atlantic marvels at this:

With the exception of perhaps incest and bestiality—and of course nonconsensual sex more generally—our culture has never been more tolerant of sex in just about every permutation.

But despite all this, American teenagers and young adults are having less sex.

This passage makes two propositions that bear examining. Proposition 1 is that we’re tolerant of sex in every permutation. Implicitly, we’re to assume this is a good thing, because sentence 2 notes that ‘despite all this’ young people are having less sex. That is, it’s taken as read that tolerance - or encouragement - of sex in all its variations (including anal sex, now known as ‘fifth base’) should result in more sex, and presumably also better sex.

Many of my favourite critics of modern sexual culture are anonymous denizens of the Weird Right, and the short exchange at the top of this essay came from one such person. Apparently it got the man in question into trouble with female friends for being too blunt, a fact that points to an assumption very like the one in the Atlantic: that is, sexual ‘openness’ is cool: being invited to orgies is better than not being invited to orgies. If you question this, and especially if you say anything that suggests you might think sexual openness should carry any shame, you are a Bad Person.

But such Bad People are legion, and growing more so. The always insightful Default Friend recently published a set of predictions about ‘The Coming Wave of Sex Negativity’, in which she detailed an emerging critique of just such ‘openness’. She predicts that this will drive phenomena such as a re-emergence of sex roles, younger childbearing, and a wave of neo-trad Gen Z women offering advice on how to be good wives and mothers.

I’ve seen and heard enough mutterings in the memeplex to think she’s right. Taking a step back, my hunch is we’re seeing an oncoming reaction against not just the sexual revolution but the whole worldview that produced it, and centrally the valorisation of boundless desire. That is, the idea that freedom, happiness and utopia are to be attained by liberating whatever anyone wanted from the cruel strictures of crusty old social norms.

Some six decades on from the start of that revolution, younger millennials and Gen Z people are looking around at what unchained desire and unbounded self-fashioning produces. For every embracer of transhumanist self-fashioning, many more are unconvinced. The pushback is already happening, on every imaginable terrain where self-restraint obviously produces healthier results. Obvious ones include eating, exercise and regular sleep hygiene but there are many more - including sexual self-restraint.

And this will be powerful because sexual self-restraint is an accelerant: that is, being open about sex doesn’t necessarily result in better sex, but being less open about it quite often does.

Take the ‘sexual openness’ of free-access porn, for example, which now routinely results in teenage girls enduring acts they don’t enjoy, in exchange of the barest signs of affection. Among adults, a recent BBC Scotland survey suggested over two-thirds of men under 40 have spat at, slapped or choked their partner during consensual sex. Do we really believe two-thirds of women under 40 enjoy this kind of violence? I very much doubt it.

Meanwhile, the reported ‘sex recession’ suggests that as well as resulting in some terrible sex, our culture of openness is not even replacing quality with quantity.

In contrast, studies show an inverse correlation between number of sexual partners and the likelihood of a marriage being happy and stable. And this is even more pronounced for women than for men. The counter-argument suggests ‘maybe these losers just weren’t getting any, and don’t think they can do any better so settled quickly’. That is, the greater marriage stability and happiness might obtain because the kind of person who marries their first sexual partner was always going to be a more loyal spouse.

But it’s just possible that the inverse correlation between sexual promiscuity and long-term relationship success is in part because it reflects the experience of people who have exercised self-restraint in the interests of keeping sex special, and - having chosen a partner - are having better sex than the people who embraced ‘openness’. It’s certainly plausible that a young woman whose first sexual experience is with someone who has already vowed in a public ceremony to spend the rest of his life with her just might enjoy that experience more than a teenage girl who finds anal sex painful and degrading but submits to it as the cost of getting a boy to hold her hand.

Even if you don’t want to follow me all the way to ‘no sex before marriage is a feminist position’ (which I believe, and will argue in full another time), even a few steps back from that radioactively reactionary feminism lies a case for self-restraint as a way of intensifying erotic energy. Which is likely to be hotter: a drunken hookup, or a kiss after allowing sexual tension to build over weeks or even months? Which delivers more of a charge: a conversation with carefully half-hidden sexual subtext, or a photo of someone’s genitals?

When we imagine those uptight eighteenth or nineteenth-century couples exchanging meaningful glances, do we seriously imagine they were any less libidinal than us? It’s far more likely that they were simply more restrained - and that when the floodgates burst, those supposedly uptight people who came before our theoretically liberated time had some volcanically hot encounters whose intensity was powered by a far more well-developed ability to keep erotic energy from dissipating into the culture as a whole.

As for us, we’ve grown used to being collectively ‘horny on main’. For decades we’ve acted as though this is going to result in more and better sex. The evidence is mounting, though, to suggest that this is mistaken.

Pointing this out isn’t an argument for sex-negativity, though. Rather, it’s a call to reclaim ‘sex-positive’ from the proponents of ubiquitous, porny titillation, and use it instead to describe a sexual culture that practices repression and self-restraint, in the name of hotness.

The cumulative effect of our collective assent to ‘horny on main’ is erotic numbness, relational apathy, and a diminishing capacity to form and sustain emotional and sexual connection with others. In other words, it’s the proponents of sexual saturation - the ‘sex-positive’ embracers of prostitution, porn, hookup culture and polymorphous perversities of all kinds - whose net effect is sex-negativity.

The real reason for not being ‘horny on main’ is not grossing your friends out. It’s intensifying the joy of horny when unleashed in its proper place. In summary, then: if we want to end the sex recession, we all need to go to horny jail.