Look At Us Now: Nellie Eden Writes About Sex And Social Media
“Sometimes I think she’s fit. Sometimes I think she’s a bit of a slag.” My ears tingle at the word “slag”. Two young men, about my age, dressed in tight tracksuits and baseball caps, are taking it in turns to show each other girls on their mobile phones. I’m currently sitting in a blue-grey terminal at Heathrow, waiting for a delayed flight to Berlin.
“She’s filtered that picture so much, it’s cringe.” I lean forward to try to make eye con- tact with one of them. My cheeks burn. I’m 28 years old. I’m a journalist. I live in south London. I’m sort of, kind of, where I thought I’d be socially, financially, romantically, except I spend half my life on my phone. My career, if it’s been shaped by anything, has been about supporting women.
It’s been a while since I’ve heard the word “slag” roll off a man’s tongue. Some of my friends have repurposed the word as a compliment, but I still don’t love its particular clang.
As a millennial, I stand on a cultural-sexual fault line. I am nostalgic for the sex symbols of my youth, such as Kate Moss, and also admonishing of the beauty and fashion industries (of which I’m part) that still encourage those untenable ideals that we all absorb and normalise. My relationship to sex, like most other people my age, has been shaped by the media. I remember the first time people had sex on TV. I used to secretly watch Eurotrash on Channel 4. My friends and I shuffled around Ann Summers when it first opened at our local shopping centre. As a teenager I was fuelled by the Spice Girls, Moesha, Buffy, Xena and Sabrina. I knew sex would be fun, and I was sure I could use my sexuality to my advantage, like my heroes did on TV.
Then the ladettes of the early 2000s happened. It was raucous. I wanted to be Denise van Outen in a football shirt. Ginger Spice looked pretty liberated to me. Zoë Ball seemed beyond cool. Overnight, the pantheon collapsed. The tabloids took them down. They were mocked and not lauded. It wasn’t funny any more just to pretend to be one of the guys if you weren’t privy to the same rights. Their seeming sexual liberation had been co-opted by bloke- media, who viewed this new wave of women as “up for it” and nothing more complicated. I’ve now become a woman under “fifth-wave feminism”, #metoo, #freethenipple and Trump. Consent has become a buzzword of my age group. Our attitudes towards sex are in flux. In 2019, I’m still encouraged to behave like one of the lads on a surface level. We’re told to “lean in” and ask for that pay rise! To eat fry-ups because Kim Kardashian exists, so “curvy” is in! To try ghosting men before they ghost us! Have sex with whoever you like – kind of… vive la résistance! Caveat: we must still be prepared that our “sexy” underwear may be used in court against us if we happen to fall victim to rape. We must still brace for being “grabbed by the pussy”. My sexuality is a yardstick by which I’m measured, daily.
Even if I exist in a liberal, elitist bubble where people are constantly discussing progress, call-out culture is rife, “fake woke” is an affliction many of my male peers suffer from, and “trolling” is now part of our lexicon. It’s a difficult time to be young and female and thriving, and maybe the most difficult time yet to feel sexy. It turns out rewiring centuries of misogyny is a bigger task than we could have foreseen.
In January last year the Australian feminist and writer Germaine Greer criticised the “whingeing” women of the #MeToo movement and the French actress Catherine Deneuve accused #MeToo of creating a “new puritanism”. While they don’t stand for all older women, my generation of feminists gawped. I decided to talk to my mum about this cross-generational fracture. She grew up in Bolton before attending Oxford University and has worked in the advertising industry since the 1980s. “Let me tell you, Mad Men was a documentary,” she deadpans. “In hindsight, sexism was endemic, but the redeeming factor was that advertising was also a great meritocracy. Being a woman wasn’t a barrier, as long as you were tough. I remember older men referring to me as ‘young lady’, or by a sharp-tongued reply – senior client, ‘Where did a little girl like you learn a long word like that?’ Me, ‘Oxford.’”
My mum’s tales of a bacchanalian media-luvvie London have always entertained me. Were they all shagging all the time? “I think this is going to be a very Ab Fab answer,” she says, “in that I was probably – shockingly – much more promiscuous than you, but then, everybody was. It was London in the 1980s, the pill had been around for a couple of decades and was freely available, and sex was pretty much a recreational sport, until, and it’s a very big until, the Aids crisis hit in 1986. Suddenly we were seeing TV ads with tombstones and dire warnings of literally deadly consequences, and that slowed everyone up a lot. I’m glad I had the carefree fun first.”
For my first job out of university I worked as an editorial assistant. I was dating multiple people at the same time, but was happy. I was in a supportive, female-dominated workspace. We sat not too far away from the Nuts magazine team. I was there when it folded in 2014. As sad as it was to see another title close its doors, I think my mostly female team felt a sense of comeuppance. Now, in 2019, post-porn, Nuts looks like a utopian vision of sex. In fact, maybe bring back Nuts. The soft-tummied Home Counties girls tucked away on the top shelf feel a whole lot more normal than the pornographic silhouettes that flood our social feeds. I’m glad I’m not 14 and comparing my thigh gap to Bella Hadid’s but neither am I totally free from those benchmarks either. I, too, feel pressure to “keep up” both online and in real life, and that can really eat away at the soul.
Partly we’re more conscious of how we look because how we represent ourselves online can actually have an impact on your dating and sex life. Whereas first-date dressing for my mum was straightforward, my girlfriends and I will WhatsApp each other’s outfits for approval – knowing full well the date probably has a good sense of what we look like and our interests already, from stalking us online. That becomes even more complicated when you add filters and apps into the mix (see my two mates at the airport). Where once my mum and her friends might have stuffed their bras with socks, Facetune and the like have meant we’re able to make ourselves look like the models in magazines. Some might call it false advertising. I’d ask why any woman owes anyone her “natural” self any more. There is one thing my mum and I share that has stood the test of mobile dating, however – clothes. They make me feel sexy without having to touch anyone. “I remember the sheer thrill of buying a skin-tight black dress with a Ziggy Stardust pink flash, Wolford ‘nearly black’ stockings, 5-inch stilettos and chandelier, diamanté earrings from Butler & Wilson on the King’s Road,” she tells me. “I can’t remember the guy now, but I can still picture the outfit.” I nod in agreement. I have Prada knee-high calfskin boots that make me want to date myself. I am untouchable in my red Max Mara suit. For me, that is freedom to dress how I want, and that freedom, if fleeting, still feels sexy.
For my mother, sex started and ended with her icon Liz Taylor. Despite her classmates obsessing over Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, she preferred “old-school bombshells”. This, to me, sounds quaint. Now we can compare ourselves to millions of other bodies all day long, and the benchmarks of what’s “hot” shift minutely. Otherworldly Hollywood beauty and money still has influence, sure – but my timeline also offers up lots of diverse body and face types that I curate. I follow curvy and disabled models; women who show off their stretchmarks, rolls, acne, pubic hair, gappy teeth and cellulite. I’m exposed to much more variation. That feels like progress and that feels good – even if those women still embody idealised versions of beauty, they’re presenting a more inclusive view of what it is to be sexy, and it’s filtering down into a more sex-positive outlook that marks my cohort. Contrary to what you might read in any left-leaning mainstream papers, my generation still parties – hard. We take drugs, drink, have lots of sex (sometimes group sex) and we enjoy it. I’ve had lots of casual sex, and enjoying my sex life remains a huge priority. I have gay, bi, transgender, straight, not-sure, you name-it friends who are all very sexually active. We’re not all sitting at home, wanking off to Pornhub on our mobile phones, even if we’re using our phones to connect with other like-minded people to party with, or maybe even fuck!
Whenever I read those articles, or Greer’s tweets, I ask myself, have they spoken to any young people about what sex means to them? I used to write a lot about sex. Mainly because I love talking about sex, and having sex (who doesn’t?). I knew, at times, it made people uncomfortable or nervous and often people would trivialise that word. For a short while I wrote a column where I posed as a version of myself on Tinder and lured unsuspecting guys into conversations about politics. I became known online as the “Tinder girl”. The title I was writing for used a particularly provocative picture of me and I didn’t like feeling overly sexualised online, even if I felt like it IRL. I started getting unsolicited, mostly sexual direct messages on Instagram. It didn’t make me want to stop sleeping around, but I did set my account to private for a while and would occasionally Google myself to see what prospective dates might be seeing.
The common denominator, when my mum and I discuss what’s changed, is mobile phones. As my mum puts it, “Sex doesn’t shock me.” What shocks her is “the sheer amount of violence against women on screen, or social media. It’s pretty horrifying how inured we’ve become to portrayals of rape or violent murder of women, and don’t get me going on misogynistic trolls. That feels like a pretty recent phenomenon, and a very unwelcome one.”
We agree that social media is where sex, consumerism and a culture of judgment have collided. Posts by those masquerading as “friends” or “influencers” (read as: real people) mean commercialised ideas of what women should look and behave like are invading our personal space and ruining our intimacy. Thanks to social media, female desire is policed, measured, weighed and marketed in newfangled ways we couldn’t have predicted. There is a paradox here, too, because social media has done so much dot-connecting for body positivity and sex-positive conversations. “Now we understand how diverse sexuality can be, looking back, goodness knows how many of my peers led secret and repressed lives,” my mum ponders. But as we uninhibitedly share our sexual preferences and experiences on social media, total strangers feel equally free to let opinions rain down on us. Good sex requires pleasure, and a prerequisite of experiencing pleasure is feeling safe and free from judgment. Until that’s reflected in the way we frame and support female sexuality, there’s progress to be made.
Illustration by Anna Bu Kliewer. The feature was taken from Issue 62 of 10 Magazine. PRO-CHOICE, UNCENSORED, CODES is on newsstands now.