Illustration by Lauren Marriott.
Last year was the year of the naked selfies. We saw more boobs than at a 70s feminist rally.
And, boy, did we lose our shit. Whenever we saw, heard or talked about naked selfies, we never failed to be appalled. How could young women be so stupid to send these? They were going to ruin their career prospects faster than writing WHORE at the top of their CV.
And the shame! Were there no depths young people would not sink to? What kind of role models were they? Would someone please think of the children!
But it was the children who were taking them. Naked selfies are a staple of the sex lives of teenagers.
“Practically everyone who’s got Snapchat will have taken them,” says Karen, a sophisticated 17-year-old. But despite their popularity among teens, we’ll cry, “Jesus! How could they send these?”
The panic seems silly to someone my age. Naked selfies are the public face of a rapidly shifting sexual culture among young people. They’re the bits you see. Most of it you’ll never catch a glimpse of. And trust me, it’s not selfies that should worry you.
If you were born before 1991, you wouldn’t recognise today’s teenage sexual landscape. It demands more from young people. And we give more because we’ve got so much liberation we’re suffocating under it.
For a while now, I’ve had a feeling that sex for people my age is getting so demanding. And not only that, but it has uncomfortably coercive touches. So when a friend asked me why I’d stopped sleeping with younger men, I said instantly, “Older guys expect less.”
You can see it in the conversations teens have about anal sex. According to Psychology Today, 20-something couples have the highest rate of anal sex. In 2014, a study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine investigated anal sex among heterosexual teenage couples. It found “Women being badgered for anal sex appears to be considered normal.”
Not only that, but, “The idea that women would generally not wish to engage in anal sex, and so would need to be either persuaded or coerced, seemed to be taken for granted by many participants.”
It mirrors what I found among guys my age. Whenever the talk is about anal sex, the conversation is always about winning their girlfriends over to the idea. No isn’t seen as no. It’s a challenge.
Why? Well, the main reason these teenage guys offered when they were asked was that they wanted to copy what they saw in porn. Oh, and, “It’s tighter.”
Our generation grew up with hardcore online porn. RedTube and Youporn are as familiar to us as Wikipedia or Google. You can watch anal porn there as easily as shopping on Asos.
“Any parent who thinks their young teen is not looking at porn is quite deluded,” says Mary Hodson, sex therapist and specialist in emotional and sexual intimacy.
Porn has reshaped our sex education, what we think sex looks like, and what we ask for. Anal, oral, cum shots… they’ve all become expected parts of our sex lives (and that’s the vanilla stuff). I realised how normal it had become when I totted up everyone I know who lost their virginity through anal sex.
There’s a moment, once every few weeks, when you’ll pull your most trusted girlfriend aside and say, “Um, are you being asked for this too…?”
Of course, we have no reference point for normal sex to temper our expectations. We have no idea how anyone over 30 gets it on. But no parent is going to explain to their teenager that sex doesn’t have to involve runny honey and 15 plastic implements. So we have no idea if our tastes are abnormal.
And we’re certainly not going to learn that from sex education. The only thing it taught me was how to put on a condom. Not very useful now so many guys refuse to wear them.
Porn has also redefined what “fun sex” is. So now our idea of fun demands the weird, wacky and fucked up.
On their own, the sexual demands made of us could be manageable. If someone crosses the line, we tell them where to get off. Right? Well, no. Our great age of sexual liberation has made it difficult to actually say no.
First, we’ve dropped moral categories for sex. It used to be that some practices would only be performed by “bad girls”. Good girls didn’t go in for that sort of thing. Sex acts were graded on a scale from proper to improper, and girls would not do some things they considered morally beneath them. Now, girls are supposed to shrug, “Whatever turns you on, babe.”
I don’t necessarily miss being branded prudish or a whore. But the problem with our determinedly neutral attitude is that it got rid of any unemotional justification to say no. Before, if you said, “I’m not the sort of girl who would do that,” it could be, grudgingly, accepted.
Now, a sex act is just a thing. And you can’t react morally or emotionally to a thing. Your only choice is to say, “Uh, sorry, that freaks me out.” And as we’ve seen, that’s not taken as “stop”, that’s taken as “start negotiations”.
You can also get a defensive sniff of, “Well, it turns me on — are you judging that?” Well, are you? Because you definitely feel like you can’t look like you are. So much so that you’ll acquiesce enthusiastically, just not to look judgmental.
Another reason we can’t say no is teenagers need to feel they’re good at sex. And porn tells us that for girls to be good fucks, they basically just need to be up for everything. And make noises like they’re cattle while they’re at it.
It’s not helping that our mental Modern Woman is up for anything. Every girl knows that in the old days, women didn’t enjoy sex. They liked jam and cardigans. So the modern woman has to be the opposite: daring, adventurous, and flexible as cooked spaghetti. Every time you want to say no, you remember that modern women are supposed to say yes.
What happens when you get a demand and an inability to say no? You get our fucked-up sexual landscape.
Anal sex is just one example of what teenagers deal with. A similar culture exists around oral sex, except that fight has been almost totally lost. If you won’t give blowjobs, you’ll end up crying to your girlfriends, feel guilty, and give in. And don’t get me started on cum shots. Teenage girls should never be in a situation where they feel guilty for not letting a guy ejaculate over their body. But they are.
So naked selfies are really the nicest part of this new culture of demand and supply.
“We are beginning to get evidence that teens are under a huge amount of pressure at school to seek and provide sexualised photos of themselves,” says Mary Hodson. She reminds me of Mrs Tiggywinkle, but a Mrs Tiggywinkle who chats about sexual dysfunction like it’s boysenberry jam.
She refers me to a 2014 study, conducted among 12–15-year-olds in London schools. “Girls are bombarded, absolutely bombarded, with requests from boys to provide sexualised pictures.”
And do they? Yes. Last year, a poll of Cosmopolitan readers (who had an average age of 21) found nearly nine in 10 had taken naked selfies.
Now, don’t assume these are all girls getting off on how gorgeous they are. Some are, but they’re not most young women. This isn’t about over-confidence; it’s quite the opposite, and it’s also the final reason we can’t say no.
According to Hodson, the overwhelming majority of people who send selfies are “those girls who don’t grow up with a good level of self-esteem… their need to be accepted is high.”
“I don’t think a selfie is a sign of confidence,” says Violet, a willowy 19-year-old. “It’s about selling yourself… how many people take hot selfies and look the same in real life?… Do you know how much time, and how many edits and how much make up went into that selfie?” It’s packaging — even when you’re naked.
“You’re taking a lot of shots, from a lot of different angles and you make sure the light is right,” says Karen. “You can’t be as sexy as that in person.”
Girls need the reassurance that taking selfies gives. It’s a similar reassurance that comes from being told you give good blow jobs, or praised as the girl who’s up for everything.
“I think what people forget is that people who haven’t had sex yet are much more obsessed with sex… and proving they’re worth it,” says Karen. “So you need reassurance. If someone’s going to reply saying, “You look hot,” you’re gonna be like, ‘Yesss!’”
Of course you need reassurance. Of course you take naked selfies. Of course you feel you have to do a lot of weird, wild shit.
Adults will say you need to be braver, trust your feelings and trust your desires. And, for Christ’s sake, stop trying so hard to be wanted.
That’s what should happen.
Is it going to? No.