Sexual politics online makes for strange bedfellows

A report from the field

For reasons I’m not entirely clear on, I happen to be someone who often finds himself in wildly different social circles through Facebook groups, email lists, and IRL gatherings. And when I say “wildly different,” I mean woke media and academic types, so-called TERFs and third-wave feminists, anarchists, MAGA, new right, tradcaths, rationalists, postrats, classical liberals, and more. If you have thoughts on some fringe, I’ve probably been in its group chat or at an event in the past two years. (Except tankies — I draw the line there.)

Why it is that I somehow end up circulating in all these niches is a weird topic for another day, but the point of this piece is not to brag about my network but to report on a phenomenon I’ve observed at work in many of these groups: People are turning on each other over sex.

Honestly, I’ll just go ahead and say it: “ladypenis is not actually real” is a profoundly weird confession for a group to come together over.

This is so wild to me that it has taken me a long time to come around to admitting that every group everywhere on the political and social map seems to be crisscrossed by the same set of unstable fault lines around sex and related issues of gender, porn, prostitution, stripping, drag, and the rest of the rainbow.

I’ve seen groups on the left and the right turn on each other over the exact same handful of issues — mostly around porn and sex, especially with regard to minors.

That infamous
New York Post story on the high school “porn literacy” class? I’ve found Jacobin types and Reason types on both sides of the following question: Is that class an appropriate, mature society’s response to the present ubiquity of smartphone porn, or is it an offense against man and God that should probably see some folks go to prison?

Feelings about sex are a spectrum

I wish I could give more color on the various lefty and righty versions of the Big Sex Split I’ve seen play out over and over again in the past two or three years, but I can’t because I wasn’t in those venues to report on them and those aren’t my stories to tell. But you’ve all seen this kind of thing by now, no doubt, so you know how it goes.

What I can do, however, is characterize the way I’ve seen this split play out more generally — and especially on what’s now being called “the new right.” (I guess I’m now on the new right? I know a lot of people who are in that category, myself included now, but none of us seem to know what “the new right” is.)

In my experience, which, as I said above, is quite varied, I’ve seen the reactions to what we might call “pride-coded,” sexualized practices involving kids fall along the following spectrum:

  1. It’s compulsory. To not involve your kids in this is to teach them to hate.
  2. It’s good, actually.
  3. Eh, it’s fine. Whatever. Why do you care?
  4. It’s gross, but people should be able to decide for their own kids.
  5. It’s gross, and theoretically, we’d like it to stop, but we don’t see a viable strategy for shutting it down that doesn’t also violate other principles we care about. So what can you do?
  6. It’s gross, and we will stop it ASAP by any means necessary, leaving no power or capability or method on the table out of some misguided commitment to principle. The only principle at work here is: You don’t get to do whatever the hell this is.

In my time in varied lefty and righty circles, I have absolutely seen all six of these points of view articulated and affirmed. I’ve even seen #6 crop up in extremely woke circles around straight-coded sexualized practices involving kids (child beauty pageants, purity balls, conversion therapy).

My thesis is that where you fall on the above spectrum of sex reactions is now far more important for sorting you into a tribe than any other issue in any other sphere (politics, economics, religion, etc.). People are
asking if we’re post-liberal, but the sex controversies have me wondering if we’re not almost post-ideological. In the age of outrage, we’re all the way back to drawing our primary identity lines around animal basics.

Take this quiz!

So where exactly do
you fall? I’ve found that you can take any sexy or sexualized practice, event, or spectacle, run it through the above sex reaction spectrum, and which bucket you end up in will determine who your people are and which members of your own scene you’re willing to tolerate vs. which members you want to purge.

Here’s a sample list of scissors to run through the above list and see where you land:

  • Drag Queen Story Hour
  • Drag Brunch for kids
  • Kids putting dollar bills into strippers’ thongs, doing pole dancing with strippers, or some other sex-work-related activity
  • Schoolbooks that present sex work to kids as just another kind of work
  • Pride parades with kink on full display and kids present and even participating
  • Drag kids
  • Child beauty pageants
  • Evangelical purity balls
  • Gay conversion therapy
  • Porn use by teens (especially 16 and up, since 16 is where I’ve seen some lefties drawing the porn age line lately)

(I threw a few right-wing ones there just to mix it up. But you get the idea.)

For any given scene you’re in, no matter what it’s nominally centered on or what its professed norms and commitments are, you can reliably toss out one of the items in the list above and watch people turn on each other like Greek gods over a golden apple.

You know I’m telling the truth because you’ve seen it too, haven’t you?

Indeed, nowadays, whenever I find someone I really vibe with, I’m always mildly terrified I’m going to find out they’re on a part of the sex-reactions spectrum on one of these issues that I simply cannot tolerate or that
I’m on a part of it they can’t tolerate. Even more terrifying for me as a parent is the thought that one or more of my kids will end up on the opposite side of some schism from me.

These splits are happening so often that I now believe there is no existing coalition, polity, scene, or tribe of any size or level of diversity that has not or will not eventually shatter into subgroups based on the spectrum.

  • Feminists have split over whether biological sex matters for women’s oppression.
  • New Atheists have split over biological sex’s reality.
  • Christians have long been divided into “affirming” and non-affirming camps on gay marriage.
  • Classical liberals are often bitterly divided over whether restrictions on internet porn are an unacceptable infringement on liberty (resulting from an ’80s-style “moral panic”) or regrettably necessary to the continued functioning of civilization.
  • The evangelical right is split over whether Drag Queen Story Hour should be permitted by law on pluralist grounds or should be outlawed on “holy cow, David French, are you for real with this?!” grounds.

Whenever I find myself in a new scene, I immediately start trying to sniff out where on the spectrum different clusters of members fall, because those are the splinter groups that will form when the whole thing inevitably blows up over some sex scissor.

Strange bedfellows

One of the more bizarre effects of this shattering and fracturing is how these schisms bring former enemies together into social formations that are so surreal they have to be experienced IRL to be believed.

You can walk into some “based” or “new right” events nowadays and encounter an incredible variety of ethnicities, religions, classes, and economic ideologies, but they’re all united in the following deeply held conviction: There is absolutely no such thing as “ladypenis,” and if you’re telling kids there is, then you should definitely not be allowed to do that and you should probably also be on some kind of watch list.

Honestly, I’ll just go ahead and say it: “Ladypenis is not actually real” is a profoundly weird confession for a group to come together over. It’s pretty gonzo, right? Yet here we are … and, honestly, here I am. I fit right in.

You can feel the weirdness, too, when you’re at some gathering and you’re like, “Wow, look at this crowd … surely there has to be something that brings these folks together besides their willingness to publicly confess that ladypenis is a lie?” But right now, that’s often enough.

A ray of hope?

The beast is coming for all of us eventually. As long as the social graph is powered by advertising, it will continue to rage, and all of us will eventually run into one of two camps: “it is compulsory” or “it is illegal.” The center cannot hold, and if you think it can … well, have you
seen the center lately?

If there’s a ray of hope out there, I look for it in Musk’s subscription model. I think Musk correctly apprehends a dynamic I’ve covered in detail in
my newsletter: The social media advertising machine feeds on engagement, and the best way to drum up engagement is to stimulate outrage. If he can move the revenue base away from the spiritually corrosive ad model to a model where users are paying for the value they get from the network, he has a shot at turning Twitter into a net benefit for society.

Obviously, the incumbent class of successful outrage merchants hate this plan and have pilloried it since it was announced. That’s a good, crowd-sourced signal that what he’s doing might work. Because in any world where being a human scissor is a losing strategy, they’ll all fade back into well-deserved obscurity.

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