[Book Review] Sex and Social Media by Katrin Tiidenberg & Emily van der Nagel

I read a lot of academic books for my PhD, and I read a lot of popular sexuality books. I often find academic texts too dry, and general texts under-researched or poorly argued. So finding something that is an accessible read but with rigorous research and a clear methodology behind it is rare and welcome. Sex and Social Media by Katrin Tiidenberg and Emily van der Nagel is one such book.

The cover of Sex and Social Media by Katrin Tiidenberg and Emily van der Nagel

Sex and Social Media

In Sex and Social Media, which was published by Emerald Publishing on Friday, Tiidenberg and Van der Nagel do a deep-dive into the sexual subcultures of social media, examining how our hyper-online modern lives and our sexualities inform one another.

Sex and Social Media explores not just the what and the how, but the why as well. The two authors spent many, many hours interviewing participants and immersing themselves in online sexuality spaces (most notably r/Gonewild on Reddit and the dearly departed NSFW Tumblr.)

A sex-positive approach

Tiidenberg and Van der Nagel resist falling into the all-too-easy trap of handwringing about social media and public, digital sexuality. They eloquently deconstruct the “moral panic” phenomena that have plagued social media since its inception, and sexuality for much longer. Moral panics, they argue, are designed to cast certain people (most often women, young people, and minority groups) as “victims and/or perpetrators of deviant behaviour” (p.30). These panics deliberately play upon fear and other intense emotions as means of control:

“Sex panics are [therefore] always political, and often utilized in battles for moral, social, and political leverage.”

The authors conceptualize sexuality as a fundamentally positive thing. Thanks to this approach, they don’t skirt around the positive or potentially-positive impact of digital sexuality. Their approach is consistently open-minded and begins from the premise that there is nothing wrong or shameful about any form of consensual sexuality.

Tiidenberg and Van der Nagel present compelling evidence as to the benefits of online sexuality. Connection, pleasure, reduced loneliness, increased sexual confidence, increased body-positivity towards oneself and others, and a broadening of what is seen as “sexy” are just a few of them.

They also argue against the deplatforming of sex on many mainstream social media accounts, advocating instead for an opt-in/opt-out approach, where “NSFW” content is clearly marked so minors and adults who don’t want to see sexual material can avoid it.

Sex on social media is made up of more than strictly positive or negative experiences.”

Placing blame where it belongs

When Tiidenberg and Van der Nagel do examine the negative impacts (actual or feared) of the meeting of sexuality and social media, they do not victim blame. They approach issues like leaked nudes, doxxing, “cyberflashing” (unsolicited dick pics), and “gendered shame” (p.127) from the perspective that the wrong is not in the presence of sexuality, but in the absence of consent.

This book is a welcome change from the seemingly endless parade of “if girls don’t want people to leak their nudes, they shouldn’t take them.”

Refreshingly inclusive

Tiidenberg and Van der Nagel avoid making heteronormative, cisnormative, mononormative assumptions. They explicitly include LGBTQ people, and approach consensual non-monogamy and kinky sex practices from a value-neutral point of view. They also acknowledge the ways that our experiences of sexuality, both on and offline, are impacted by “raced, gendered, sexually oriented, classed, differently able-bodied” (p.167) axes of privilege and oppression.

Identity and Community

By far the most interesting chapters in this book, from my perspective, were those that dealt with identity creation and community building through sexuality on social media.

As a pseudonymous sex blogger, the Identities chapter puts words and concepts to long-held feelings. In particular, Van der Nagel and Tiidenberg believe that “compartmentalizing different aspects of the self” (p.124) – that is, showing a sexual self on one platform and a sanitised, family-friendly version on another – is not a form of lying or deception:

“Although a common story about social media doubts the authenticity and sincerity of people’s self-presentation because they present themselves differently on different platforms, none of our profiles are necessarily fake.”
(p. 116)

The Communities chapter examines the notion of online sexuality spaces as “communities” and what precisely it is that makes something a community. The authors argue that online communities are valid and real, and that online sexuality spaces (including anonymous or pseudonymous spaces) reduce shame, destigmatize many kinds of sex, and “challenge assumptions about who has or desires what kinds of sex” (p.146.)

Belonging to a sexual community is beneficial for people’s wellbeing and self-confidence, while also helping combat isolation.”
p. 137)

Final thoughts

If you’re interested in the intersection of sexuality and technology, you’ll enjoy Sex and Social Media. There’s a lot of information in its 170 pages, yet it’s an accessible and engaging read. The case studies and quotes from research participants are particularly interesting.

It’s notoriously hard to get approval and funding for sexuality based research, so it’s vital we support academics and writers who are out there doing this work.

Ask your local independent bookstore to get it for you. (Fuck Amazon, amirite?)

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