By Emily Osborn
Trigger Warning: This article contains discussions of sexual violence and r*pe.
In 2019, Pornhub released a list of the most commonly searched terms on their platform. The list was dominated by terms such as ‘teen’, ‘step mom’, ‘gangbang’, and bondage proved to be one of the most popular categories on the website. Meanwhile, on TikTok, #kinktok was in full swing, with videos ranging from cringeworthy images of tv characters, to how-to videos on tying your lover to your bedpost. The public interest in kink, fetish, and rough sex has exploded into the cultural forefront in recent years. Society is becoming more sex positive daily, and people no longer shy away from discussing sex outside of the bedroom. Fifty Shades of Grey, often attributed with bringing BDSM to mainstream media, sold over 15 million copies since it was first launched. A range of sex toys can now be bought in stores like Urban Outfitters, and even some pound stores, as opposed to in shady stores strictly under the counter. Pornography, and even hardcore pornography, is now easier and cheaper to access than ever before. All of this means that people are able to explore their sex lives in ways that they never could before, but this oversaturation of sex in the media also has destructive effects on people’s image of sex, sexual interests, and the kind of sex that people deem as ‘normal’.
When the brain sees the same thing over and over again, it begins to assume that it is normal. People now have unbridled access to the internet, and pornography for many young people, fills in the gaps left by subpar sex education. This can lead some to believe that pornography is an entirely accurate depiction of sex, when in reality, the opposite is true. Porn is manufactured to look as real as possible, and this can cause people to forget that what they’re viewing on their computer screens is nothing more than fantasy. In many porn features depicting rough sex, all parties involved are shown to be really enjoying themselves. It’s hard to find a porn video where at least one person isn’t screaming in pleasure for the duration. This understandably leads people to assume that these acts are always enjoyable, to everyone. Young people accessing pornography who haven’t had sex yet can easily be lead to assume that rough sex is the standard, and entirely expected of them. People can often feel pressured by the media or by the people around them into performing rough or kinky sex, when ordinarily this would be out of their comfort zone. The normalisation of rough sex also leads to a large amount of people performing sexual acts associated with kink on their partner without seeking explicit consent first. A BBC survey from the UK found that nearly 40% of young people they interviewed had experienced unwanted hitting, spitting, or choking during sex. It seems a lot of young people feel extremely pressured into performing more extreme sexual acts just to fit in with the crowd.
TikTok is a platform entirely overflowing with explicit content, with trends such as “things girls want but don’t ask for” and #365days being popular throughout 2019/2020. This content, and the comment sections below them, also unfortunately has a theme of shaming users for not having an interest in rough sex or kink. One article by i-D quotes a young person, saying ‘vanilla is the new frigid’. Vanilla is a term used to describe sex without kink or fetish. Many discussions about kink on the internet generally praise rough sex, while at the same time putting down most other forms of sexual activity, thus, leading the term ‘vanilla’ to become synonymous with being boring, prude, and conservative. The rise of this form of shaming, and all of its online defenders, is a good indicator that kink and BDSM are becoming extremely commonplace in society.
BDSM, as a concept, is not the issue. The mainstream media representation of BDSM and kink solely as violence and aggression, while a distorted representation of the community, is the main reason why kinks are misunderstood online. The new idea is that in order to be sexually liberated, or in any way sex positive, the sex you engage in must be on the more extreme side. When kink is discussed online, and on TikTok specifically, sexual violence and non-consensual acts can become almost glorified. One video under the #freaktok even states “if you gotta consent to it it’s not a proper punishment”. Aside from being a disgusting comment, this doesn’t even align with the views of people who enjoy rough or kinky sex on the regular. The BDSM community is a group that values respect, consent, and safety above all else, and videos and sentiments such as these are extremely harmful, not only for communities that engage in kink, but also for young people who may be lead to believe that this is the norm, and that non-consensual acts and sexual assault somehow equate to sex.
But why do many people often stray to rough and kinky sex and away from so called ‘vanilla’ activities? Free porn online is so abundant that suggestions for the next video to watch are plastered everywhere. Even if you didn’t search for it in the first place, videos with varying levels of kink will be lurking in the search results. The human brain is naturally curious, and this curiosity kicks off a release of endorphins. Suddenly, with all the other content out there, its harder to become excited to more ‘vanilla’ pornography. Over time, this desensitisation to porn leads people to seek out material that is more and more rough, in order to get the same feeling as before. This is a major reason as to why rough sex has become so mainstream, with pornography being such an oversaturated market, people have access to whatever, whenever, and it becomes very easy to fall down a rabbit hole of fetish and kink. In the days before the explosion of the free pornography market, ‘specialised’ videos with more kinky content were a rare commodity for those who wanted them. In addition to this, you would have to physically walk into a pornography shop and talk to the cashier to buy these items. The anonymity of internet porn sites allows people to search for whatever they desire, without anybody knowing so long as they delete their search history.
This is what leads to search terms like ‘barely legal’ rising to the top of the popularity list; people are more likely to view this content when they are the only person who knows about it. This has a knock-on effect in the sex work industry, where sex workers are no longer getting paid properly for the work they do. This major new interest in fetish porn creates a supply and demand chain, with new porn actors now having to agree to rougher shoots in order to secure themselves a job. One ex-pornstar interviewed for the documentary Hot Girls Wanted noted that she felt traumatised after her ‘rough sex’ scene, as she felt like her idea of rough sex was very different from what she was asked to do during the scene. When she brought this up with her boss, she was told “our buyers enjoy this”. She also described how most pornstars describe scenes they didn’t enjoy shooting as ‘rough’ drawing a parallel between unenjoyable and kink.
To tie it all together, rough sex and kink can be great ways for people to explore their sex lives and enjoy themselves. While there are seemingly many negatives to the normalisation of kink and rough sex, there are ways to make it a positive force in society. Sex education plays a massive role in making the normalisation of kink a safe, consensual, and fun thing, rather than a bad thing. People who want to engage in kink and rough sex need to be educated these activities; without education and knowledge of informed consent and safety, rough sex isn’t sex, it’s violence. Porn literacy is another major facet of sex education which often isn’t touched upon; and being more mindful about the type of porn that is out there and that is being consumed can be a great way to recognise what we are into, bedroom-wise. Being more porn literate is also a great way to support and protect sex workers, and ensure they are being treated and paid fairly for their work. Sexual interests and preferences are different for everyone- it’s important to realise that kink isn’t normal for everyone, and that what seems like rough sex for one person, might just seem like a regular Thursday night for someone else. Whatever your preferences, ‘vanilla’ sex, as well as kinky sex, can be a real bonding experience. With the right education and resources on the topic, rough sex and kink becoming mainstream will hopefully lead to a more sex positive future.