Words by Alice Graham
Growing up online and being exposed to explicit material at a young age has scarred many members of Gen Z. Unrestricted access to platforms such as Tumblr, Kik and Omegle meant that a lot of us saw and engaged in material that was far from age-appropriate — and probably damaged us in the long-term. As a result, you may have noticed that some members of Gen Z have curated a virtual subculture based on the hypervigilance of adult content on the internet.
Being exposed to explicit material at too young of anage has understandably made many of us watchful of what is available to younger social media users. However, this suspicious approach has, for some members of Gen Z, evolved into a prudent and condemnatory attitude towards NSFW artists and sex workers in online spaces. These Gen Z-ers have essentially come full circle and entered into an unwitting reproduction of neopuritanism.
The resurgence of puritanism incited by social discrimination against sex workers is especially relevant to the group identified by the acronym SWERF. SWERF stands for ‘Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist’, as these people claim to be aligned with mainstream radical feminism but to simultaneously oppose sex work. This performative ‘feminist’ ideology clashes with the intersectionality basis of third-wave feminism, as the exclusion of any group perpetuates patriarchal rhetoric and stigma. Nonetheless, the principles of SWERF theory are supposedly built around the danger of the sex industry, and the prospect of female creators being exploited and violated within it. This fundamentally fails to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary sex work, and, of course, incites a narrative that sex workers cannot be valuable to feminism or to society.
Many feminists and womanists have come to deplore the disjointed prejudice of SWERF ideology, but puritanical Gen Z-ers are coming dangerously close to affiliation with it. Gen Z-led internet discourse around sex workers is becoming increasingly negative and censorious, evident in the parroted comment “there are kids on this app” which you can now trust that you will be able to find in the comment section of almost any post made by a NSFW artist.
Of course, the target demographic of online sex workers is 18+ internet users, not minors, but they cannot entirely control who gains access to their profiles. Most NSFW creators use specialised websites such as OnlyFans and Patreon which minors cannot access, but it is well established by now that social media is an invaluable tool for advertisement. So of course NSFW creators will market their paid services on social media apps like Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, as any other business owner would. Many twitter accounts run by NSFW artists even include pleas such as “please don’t follow me if you’re under 18” (@hawkhatesyou) or warnings such as “minors will be blocked” (@demonspiit) in their bios.
Arguably, the internet is a much more tightly controlled place than it once was. Instagram posts are flagged and taken down at the mere sight of a nipple. TikToks showing just about anything between falling, swearing, smoking, to again, nipples; are automatically removed for ‘violation of community guidelines.’Even Tumblr, the source of so much internet trauma, infamously banned all adult content in December 2018. Yet the distrustful attitude of hypercritical Gen Z-ers commands the general internet discourse around these sex workers and NSFW creators.
The argument of Gen Z as sex-negative should, of course, take into consideration the fact that many of Gen Z are still minors themselves. But that does not explain away the problem, as Gen Z-ers can be up to 24 years old. Chances are, most of Lippy’s readers are Gen Z. And chances are, many of the people hating on sex workers fit that bracket (18-24) that makes up the adult portion of Gen Z.
As well as a prudent and derogative attitude to online sex work, Gen Z’s reimagined puritanism has manifested itself in quickness to condemn each other for ‘fetishization’. Queer cultural production has emerged as a particularly controversial territory within the ‘fetishization’ dialogue. For instance, recently a conversation about the fetishization of gay pornography developed on TikTok. Some Gen Z creators reprimanded cishet women for admitting to watching gay porn and denounced them as fetishists.
This echoes the conversation had a few years ago surrounding the Oscar-winning film Call Me by Your Name. Directed by Luca Guadagnino and based on André Aciman’s novel of the same title, this film was and remains immensely popular amongst young people. Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for the word fetishization to crop up. Gen Z keenly accused fans of the film of fetishism and dismissed the film as fetishistic of real MLMexperience. However, this argument feels less like a response, and more like a retaliation to the popularity of a queer romance narrative. After all, director Guadagnino is openly gay, and his nuanced portrayal of gay men renounces sexual fetishism. So why are Gen Z—the generation in which 1 in 6 adults identify as LGBTQA+ —so uncomfortable with mainstream queer cultural production?
The answer is simple. Cancel Culture. Gen Z’s fear of being ‘canceled’, or in other words being denounced as innately bad, has overwhelmed the way we think and operate. The appetite for hedonism which tends to characterise generations in their youth has been replaced by a preoccupation with morality.
Cancel culture—which frequently earns Gen Z the title of ‘snowflakes’—has developed as a culturally collective armour against the undying fear of being outed as a bad person. We don’t want to become the adult creators that traumatised us when we were exposed to their content at a young age, so we scorn NSFW creators on social media. We don’t want to be vilified as fetishists, so we dismiss popular queer cultural production (such as Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name) as fetishistic. As a result of this hypercritical social philosophy, the line has become very thin for Gen Z between what is actually productive representation, and what is dismissed as sick ‘fetishization’, appropriation, etc.
Could it be that we are so scared to do or say the wrong thing in response to sex work and queer artistic production that we try not to see it at all? It’s possible that cancel culture is effectively turning Gen Z, supposedly the most progressive and tolerant generation so far, into prudent neopuritans.