From every angle, and through every psychic hole, the wellness industry continually finds new ways to re-insert itself into the private lives of individuals. To achieve its aim, it hides inside the discursive Trojan Condom of ‘personal satisfaction’, ‘personal liberation’, or ‘personal safety’—whatever it takes, in essence, to instate a techno-gynecological regime of permanent enjoyment upon its subjects. Wherever we look, Books, Sex Toys, Sex Studies, and Sex Therapists are there to help us both define ever-narrower categories of subcultural trauma and participate in good, healthy, optimized sexuality.
Sexual liberation today is marketed above all to the professional-managerial class, which is neurotically obsessed with its own self-importance such that much of its leisure time is spent inventing new ways with which to publicly pledge allegiance to its own ideology. The rise of the pop-sexologist is directly proportional to the increasing cultural influence of the PMC. As hopes for social transformation in the twentieth century were eroded by neoliberal market forces, the political project of the soixante huitarde’s was redirected inwards towards a politics of self-actualization. As Christopher Lasch describes, “Since the society has no future, it makes sense to live only for the present moment, to fix our eyes on our own “private performance”, to become connoisseurs of our own decadence.”
According to the Australian Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine (AISSM), “A sexologist is someone who studies the science of sexual health and how it makes you feel.” The sexologist is ubiquitous. She appears on radio programs, news stations, talk-show panels and social media feeds. She assumes the middle-management role of doling out the encouragement needed for good subjects to enjoy their capacities to consume, obfuscated behind the well-endowed ideological member of scientific neutrality. The sexologist claims that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to have sex. There is no shame in how you choose to express your sexual identity. The sexologist is not there to ‘yuck your yums’ but to provide, as Kassandra Mourikis describes, a pleasure-positive, person-centred, trauma informed, anti-oppressive, LGBTQIA+ affirming, sex worker inclusive, kink aware space for people of all relationship formations to air their grievances and ask questions.
We are led to believe that sexologists are the pioneers of a neo-bacchanalian age of sexual rediscovery. In reality, the outward facing liberal tolerance of the modern-day sexologist conceals an asceticism of micromanaged desires: the policing, no longer of taboos, transgressions, or of imperatives to repress, but rather of the imperative to express, to explore, to be scientifically curious. The “sexual sermon,” as Foucault calls it, is something to be administered for the public good. Some sexologists will even attend your dinner party to facilitate discussions on sexuality. What better fun is to be had than role-playing psychological breakthroughs with the help of credentialed experts?
Chantelle Otten, a self-described psycho-sexologist, sexpert and sexual wellness educator, and author of the new book, The Sex Ed You Never Had: The Fun, Empowering and Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Your Body, expresses surprise over how many people never learnt the basics of sex or of their internal and external anatomy. Sex education, she claims, should be about maximizing pleasure and optimizing sexual performance by transforming every explicit detail, every private articulation into a moment of scientific discovery. The sexual revolution, as Catherine Liu describes in Virtue Hoarders, “was a revolution that made orgasm and pleasure objects of PMC moral and pedagogical refinement.” A good PMC subject knows that her clitoris is actually shaped like a wish-bone and that the orgasm is scientifically proven to be good for her health.
But of course, it is not so much what she knows, or even what she does. It is how she express her willingness to learn, to speak openly and to participate in the balkanization of sexual identity, that distinguishes the PMC feminist from the heteronormative, toxically masculine, working-class hoards and their deregulated forms of un-safe enjoyment.
Foreplay has been replaced by a safety debriefing. Erotic encounters are to be informed by the bureaucratic management systems of occupational health and safety. Sexual partners are encouraged to consistently check-in with each other as though they were marshalling an aircraft rather than their genitals. They are told to obtain enthusiastic, verbal ‘yeses’ throughout all stages of the act for it to be considered consensual. The illusion that you are participating in a form of bedroom activism must at all times be maintained.
In the promotion of her book Welcome to Consent: How to say no, when to say yes and everything in between, Yumi Stynes encourages parents to tell their children that they are the CEOs of their own bodies. The traditional signifiers of cultural aristocracy have been replaced by an imperative to cultivate a vocabulary of therapy-speak, to be hyper-articulate about your inner experience, to distinguish which moments are opportune for capitalizing on the spectacle of your own suffering and, in the age of social media, an understanding that communication engenders control.
According to Alain Badiou, “love cannot be a gift given on the basis of a complete lack of risk… safety-first love, like everything governed by the norm of safety, implies the absence of risks for people who have a good insurance policy, a good army, a good police force, a good psychological take on personal hedonism, and all risks for those on the opposite side.” The safety-first approach and its concomitant moral panics around consent, coercion and micro-aggressions are indicative of a broader tendency for the PMC feminist to incorporate trauma as a defining aspect of her personal brand. Preferring to submit herself to a regimen of institutionalized patienthood rather than to endure the reality of her own existence, the PMC feminist pursues what can be called a project of “sexual cartography”: the more detailed her psychic map, the more readily she is able to colonize its territories and extract the resources needed to fuel her self-commodification. Even mediocre sexual encounters afford her the satisfaction of victimhood and reaffirm her narcissistic belief that the external world is continually thwarting her attempts to achieve pleasure, such that every concerted effort to do so can be reimagined as a brave and significant act of transgression.
The pop-sexologist and the sex-toy industry are co-conspirators of the same enterprise. The former affirms and acknowledges psycho-sexual trauma and the latter sells the tools with which she can overcome it. Purchasing vibrators, anal beads and artisanal lube become acts of resistance. Meanwhile, a micro-industry of elevated and aesthetically pleasing sex toys and accessories are produced to meet the evolving demands of liberal elites. Sex toy manufacturers of the 80s and 90s were preoccupied with creating siliconized reproductions of the male member, from trying to approximate the hand-feel to trying to capture the quality of vein networks. Dildos today no longer seek to approximate the physiognomy of the penis because to do so would be to run the risk of reminding the PMC girl-boss of the tragedy of its felt absence. Instead, sex toys are trending towards looking more and more like alien life forms. Their shapes are blob-like, and their reflections are metallic. The vibrator has become helveticized.
My LBDO, for example, “creates sexual wellness products that elevate your bedroom essentials.” Their typography and brand packaging is equal parts Glossier and Aesop, tapping into an anxiety about always needing to “elevate.” Their “essensual vibe” encases its battery in a biomorphic silicon raindrop so that it’s possible to have sex with the disembodied spirit of technology. Every orgasm can be a private affirmation of one’s technophilia.
My LBDO strategically collaborates with in-group style icons on Instagram, pictured coquettishly holding their masturbation aids with captions about “de-stigmatizing” and “normalizing the conversation,” effectively manufacturing their own taboos so as to be seen as the ones who are bravely breaking them. Every aspect of My LBDO is suffused with what Liu describes as a “smug sense of sub-cultural superiority” and its bourgeois interpellation to “feel good about feeling good.” In their advertising campaigns, the male is always a pale and sinister prop, projecting an aura of mock-serenity while also appearing to be deeply afraid of sex.
For the PMC, the apotheosis of female freedom is one wherein every problem related to pleasure has found its technocratic solution. The ideal environment for sex has stone-tumbled, french linen sheets, a hand-poured Le Labo candle, an Akari table lamp, and a bottle of high-end lube on a bauhaus-era side table. While studies suggest that young women are entering into sexual relationships less frequently than ever before, the PMC feminist is told that she does not need to compromise. Masturbation has become another exercise—like squats or meditation—allocated a specific time to be completed throughout the day, lest her legs, her spirit or her genitals atrophy from disuse. The vibrator has become just one of many technological caretakers, manufactured to clinically stimulate her genitals the way a bedchamber maid flips over her geriatric master to avoid developing bed-sores.
My LBDO even offers a “guided self-pleasure session for vulva-owners,” adopting the cadence of a meditation podcast in which the narrator handholds the listener through a pleasure session by continually reaffirming her right to “sink into the depths of her pleasure.” Ordering UberEats, watching Netflix, flicking the bean with an ergonomically designed, six-inch rose-quartz pleasure wand, and then, most importantly, posting about the experience as “empowering”—these are ends in themselves rather than pit stops toward less narcissistic destinations. That women feel sufficiently empowered by the infantile and culturally engineered performance of ‘self-play’ is indicative of the sclerotic decadence of modern feminism and its failure to envision anything beyond its own immediate impulse gratification. To paraphrase Abraham Maslow, if all you have is a dildo, everything begins to look like a clit.
For Adorno, “a true, instinctually erotic life, the relations that generate pleasure, is by no means that healthy sex life that in the most advanced industrial countries today is encouraged by all sectors of the economy, from the cosmetics industry to psychotherapy.” In their obsession to integrate sex into the machinery of cultural production, the PMC sanitizes sex of everything that does not fall within the bounds of socially sanctioned kink. The PMC is governed both by an injunction to enjoy (because she deserves it!) and by an inability to do so with any of the generative potential that makes interpersonal enjoyment truly meaningful. The possibility of experiencing the world from the perspective of difference remains foreclosed to those who dwell within the cloistered diplomatic compounds of their own self-fascination.
The professional class subject continually reasserts that sex has historically been repressed so as to entrust herself with the emancipatory task of rediscovering it. All the while, she optimimizes herself into subjective immiseration by evacuating sex of its sacred and profane elements and substituting instead a pre-masticated, biometrically surveilled, subscription streaming, hydrolyzed soy variety of sexual experience.
Kasumi Borczyk is a writer based in Australia.