Sex is a normal, healthy part of adult life, right? A pinnacle of connection, if you will. And how do we increasingly connect in the 21st century? Through the websites, mobile apps, and platforms we call social media.
Social media are cast, variously, as tools, spaces or ways of being social, connecting with other people and maintaining relationships. (On the flipside they’re also cast as having way too much power over our connections, sociality, sociability, and societies). Nearly four billion people globally use social media. Yet, at the intersection of these two connective, social things—sex and social media—an abundance of confusion lies. Sex on social media is complex, contested, and controversial.
Katrin Tiidenberg and I have spent years researching people’s sexual social media practices—we spoke with people about nudes, porn, cybersex, erotica, sexting, private accounts, and having sexy selfies deleted from Instagram. Our book, Sex and Social Media, gives a feminist, sex-positive, academically-informed perspective on people, platforms, and practices—and what all this means for your sex life.
Here are five key takeaways from our research about how social media has been affecting our sex lives and the way we perform them online without us even realizing it.
It's reassuring us.
Most of the experiences shared by most of our research participants were positive. Sharing nudes on social media helped people express themselves, appreciate their bodies, explore their sexual identities, and overcome harmful obsessions. Finding other people who were into BDSM, or interested in ethical non-monogamy, reassured our participants that they weren’t "weird" or "bad." Reading about other people’s lived experiences with pregnancy, menopause, or illness helped people and couples to overcome anxieties and find pleasure and joy in sex. That being said, social media is a space built for socializing, but in ways that make being sexual difficult.
It could be making us (and the way we share our private sex life info) less emotionally intelligent.
Many of us choose to keep our sex life private by confining it to the bedroom or by not informing our colleagues about the clubs or parties we go to. We avoid mixing our social settings and the people populating them. This is not dishonest, it is what emotionally intelligent people do—they present themselves in ways suitable for particular audiences. In other words, they behave in context-specific ways. On platforms like Facebook or Twitter, this is much harder.
Facebook, for example, has spent 16 years convincing us to use one real-name account and gather everyone we’ve ever known into our network. When our high school friends, netball team, younger cousin, boss, and parents are all called Friends on Facebook, context collapse happens. But it gets worse.
Deplatforming is harming the normalization of our sex lives.
Heard of FOSTA/SESTA? These twin bills were passed in the US in 2018, and they’ve made it harder to get sexy on social media. The bills were designed to stop sex trafficking. While this is a worthy cause, the wording was so vague it incentivised platforms to overreach and overregulate in fear of penalties. FOSTA/SESTA makes social media platforms responsible for the NSFW content people post, interpreting all of it as potentially complicit in trafficking.
Many platforms have since "deplatformed" sex. A poignant example is Tumblr. Previously known as a NSFW haven, the platform banned all adult content in the end of 2018, effectively evicting a huge amount of queer, sex worker, and artist communities, tossing out people interested in including sexual topics in everyday conversations. Banning adult content, and setting up reporting systems to flag and delete it, sends the message that sex doesn’t belong on social media, and by proxy, that it is not part of normal, healthy, everyday life. But it is! Of course, people find ways to bend the rules.
It's changing the way we share.
There are two good ways people can get sexy on social media while avoiding context collapse and deplatforming, as well as a host of personal problems associated with reputational harm (which tends to be unequally distributed, with women bearing the brunt of it). One: Use direct messages or group chats instead of posting to the wall or feed. Two: Create a separate, preferably pseudonymous account, set it to private or locked, and only invite in people who are into what you’re sharing.
Even by taking these precautions, your nudes or memes or screenshots might get deleted. If they are diary-like documents of transformation or creative expressions, make sure you have back-ups. Even on a private Instagram account, showing too much butt or boob could mean your post disappears, or your account gets suspended.
So people are getting clever to avoid this. Put a sparkle emoji over your nipple, send your butt selfie over the DMs, or if you want to go all-out, consider a different platform.
It's driving us to new corners of the internet.
The great thing about sex on social media is that, once you get past the five-kilometer radius you set on Tinder, you can connect to a whole world of sexy, kinky possibilities.
Want to see others’ sexy selfies? There are exhibitionist forums on Reddit for that. Into bondage? You might want a profile on FetLife. Have friends who love to share their body positive nude selfies? You could all post them together, and add supportive comments, from your Twitter alt accounts.
And while the global pandemic is on, take full advantage of the prophylactic of the screen. You can’t get pregnant, catch a sexually transmitted disease, or come down with COVID from a sexy video chat.
If you’re looking, there’s a sexy social media encounter out there for you. Just don’t send a nude without making sure it’s wanted. Yes dudes and people with penises, that applies to you too, no unsolicited dick picks. Trust us—nobody’s into that. Social media sex, like all sex, works best when it involves consent, communication, and respect.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.