Sex in the 2010s — A Decade Debrief

Staring down the barrel of 2020, I’ll go ahead and say it: this was a decade that seemed to last (at least, culturally, spiritually and emotionally) a thousand years. And, when it comes to the ways we think and talk about sex, the 2010s were crowded, chaotic, existentially exhausting a lot.

There were highs, lows and countless complicated situations landing somewhere in between as we, more connected than ever (and not sure what to make of those connections) had to make sense of sex, pleasure, power and pain. And, like all things in the realm of intimacy, it was messy, it required a bit more emotional intelligence and nuance to navigate than we were necessarily equipped to handle at the start. And, if we’re being real, it probably would’ve been better to tweet less and listen more.

Here’s a (far from exhaustive) look back at the mixed bag last ten years in the realm of sex, intimacy and sexual politics: 

Sex Positive Foreplay & Remembering Sex is Fun

We kicked into the 2010s in what felt like a millennial pink haze of sex positivity. As mainstream feminism relaxed into the main mood of the moment, we saw more and more conversations crop up about what it means to enjoy sex in our society. This a pretty massive umbrella that includes interrogating our cultural ideas about what kind of bodies have cultural permission to enjoy sex, who they’re allowed to enjoy it with and whose sex lives are erased because they don’t involve the right genders, sexes, organs or aesthetics.

There was a healthy push to stop assuming heterosexuality as a default (after all, we did see major policy wins for LGBT folks and a growing mainstream support for queer people to live freely and authentically) and to stop assuming penis-in-vagina penetration was the end-all, be-all of sex. But it also became a (much deserved) joke when someone didn’t know or didn’t care to learn how to bring pleasure to their partners and the gap in pleasure (especially for femme folks sleeping with straight men) was easier to discuss as a feminist issue. 

All of this meant we had a less reductive landscape to work with in the last ten years and more room for all the different things sex can be and mean for different people. We took necessary steps to remove the prudish stigma of talking about sex as a fun and worthwhile way to spend your time and money. 

Once relegated to bedside drawers and underbed toy boxes — sex toys began to get some public love after years of being unsung heroes of the bedroom. The market for sex toys saw major growth in the last decade, becoming nearly a $30 Billion industry — and it’s predicted to continue growing by nearly another 10 Billion in the next few years.

“The global adult toys market is growing at a steady pace due to various factors such as an increase in openness, drive for excitement and adventure, passion for quirky products and heightened desire for experimentation, which are driving the market growth globally,” Amber Chourasia, lead analyst for health and wellness research at Technavio said in 2016. 

Swiping Right & Re-imagining Relationships

Meanwhile, swiping dating apps and a real renaissance online dating swept the game of conscious coupling. The marketplace of suitors (and the rules surrounding modern courtship) became Not Your Parents’ Dating Lives real quick with the sheer saturation of apps promising to help you meet someone you could stand to be with. With the rise of Tinder, OkCupid, Zoosh, Plenty of Fish, Bumble, Hinge, CoffeeMeetsBagel, JDate, FarmersMeet, et al., there was never a shortage of places to try and meet a partner.

While stats show that the weirdness and stigma that followed people meeting online (i.e. that it wasn’t a “normal” way to meet a partner) have started to disappear, we haven’t really gotten to the point where it’s stigma-free and easy to find someone (and Americans still report being increasingly lonely and that they’re having less sex than previous generations.)

But, when we get down to it, we took major steps to just relax about what our culture dictates sexual relationships should be and where they should come from. We were generally unclenching around the idea of people (especially femme-identifying people) approaching their sex lives in a way that centers pleasure and the things each individual desires. It became clearer in the mainstream that, as long as it was comprised of consenting adults pursuing the connections they want, relationships didn’t have to be monogamist, vanilla or heteronormative. And we didn’t need to be discreet about it — unless we wanted to be. 

The strides we made toward being open and shame-free about sex (and how fun and joyful it can and should be); the movement of being infinitely more candid about how all people can safely and happily pursue the sex that will make them feel good and communicate their wants and needs with their partners  — regardless of the parts they or their partners do or don’t have. 

But this mug-friendly, T-shirt slogan-y world of “Consent is sexy” merch and bland, meme-friendly feminism wasn’t one that, on its own, could make it through all that the decade was going to throw at it. Because what the late-2010s demanded was nuance and a bit more urgency. If we wanted a world of shame-free, consesual and satisfying sex lives, we had to be ready to fight for it. 

#MeToo & the Talking About the Centuries Old Trauma in the Room

When I first started talking to friends about what their big takeaways about sex (whatever they thought that meant) over the last 10 years, the things that floated to the top, over and over again were the heavy ones — or most conversations led back to that point eventually. 

(One person I spoke with over text had a solid minute of “this-person-is-typing” dots before replying: “Woof. What a profoundly unsexy decade.”)

Even the positive spins — “conversations about enthusiastic consent became a mainstream thing that felt so much more real” or “we seemed to better identify the things we find unacceptable” or “there were a lot more conversations around female pleasure, about how we own our bodies” — had the understanding that the decade, in so many ways, was about figuring out how to reclaim sex, intimacy and all the joyful, fun parts that come with it from the toxic culture we were born into.

The 2010s were a decade where we had to unpack rape culture (from high schools to college campuses to our highest political offices) and the ways sexual assault and sexual violence intersects with other systemic problems. It called on us to consider that sex itself was political — how power and money and privilege play into who can use it to do violence and who is more likely to be protected from that violence. And we had to do it together, as we got used to being so overwhelmingly connected via social media and the Internet — where 250 characters, less than accurate news sources and limited time for processing made nuanced, empathetic communication a challenge.

These ideas representing the decade in our minds also point to to the shared trauma of coming of age in a society that doesn’t wholly value shame-free, comprehensive, medically and scientifically accurate sex education (or policy, for that matter), one that hasn’t grappled with the history (and present) of sexually abusive behavior and one that has yet to crack the code on how to make our sexual society a more equitable place regardless of gender, identity, race or ability. 

And, to be clear, these are also issues that are far older, far more entrenched in our cultural sexual politics than just the last decade. Given the patriarchy-of-it-all, these are inherited problems from our mothers and their mothers and their mothers before them and they’re issues that we have been fighting and naming for just as long. It’s this inheritance that made the boiling point, this primal scream of a response to some of the more prominent #MeToo moments of this decade — from Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood Tape, Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and Brett Kavanaugh’s eventual confirmation — feel all the more desperate and all the more necessary. It was about flushing out the toxicity from generations before, if we’re to have any hope of establishing something better. 

Ultimately, as we opened up our hearts, minds and bodies to a new (or new to the mainstream) definition of what healthy, happy sex lives can look like, we had to find ways to make sense of the messy, imperfect and often heartbreakingly complicated parts of human sexuality to take the necessary steps of living up to all that potential.

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