This article is based on the main session presentation ‘Social Media: How Did We Get Here?’ delivered at the second annual LGB Alliance Conference in October 2022 by Hannah Berrelli and Shay Woulahan.
Gender ideology has spread rapidly throughout the Western world in the last decade, becoming embedded inside the third sector, within corporate HR departments, and across Higher Education institutions. How did this ideology gain such popularity in such a short period of time, particularly as it disrupts once commonly acknowledged truths such as “women are female” and “men can’t get pregnant”?
Many will acknowledge contemporary gender ideology has roots in post-modern Queer Theory. While true, the ideas promoted in foundational texts such as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble are complex and have existed in postmodern departments at universities for decades. The ideas promoted by modern day gender ideologues only partly resemble the arguments outlined by Queer theorists. In the 2010s, the ideology not only exploded, but mutated and expanded.
Where did these ideas evolve? For that we must look to social media.
A major factor in the growth and proliferation of concepts and frameworks from Queer Theory is how young people on social media were influenced by these ideas and ran with them. Young people, through the education system and online world, became immersed in a liberal culture of newly circulating ideas about how gender is a series of identity claims related to personal feelings about oneself. Many of these ideas are recognisable in gender ideology today. One of the first platforms that became a hub of these circulating ideas was Tumblr. Tumblr emerged in 2007 as a microblogging platform, originally used by creatives in order to share visual content, or writing, and it quickly became a popular space for teenage girls to express themselves through images and text. Tumblr appealed to teen girls due to its emphasis on fan culture, art, and alternative fashion styles. While platforms like Instagram and Facebook promoted rigid femininity and high beauty standards, Tumblr was a space that allowed girls to anonymously express themselves outside of this rigid mold.
At the same time, many online spaces in the 2010s were becoming increasingly right-wing, particularly before and around the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The alt-right (a term used to categorise the ‘edgy’ and meme-obsessed online far-right) was gaining popularity on platforms such as 4chan, 8chan and Reddit, and popular alt-right influencers such as Milo Yiannopoulos were reaching huge audiences. The alt-right promoted vicious misogyny, and other online platforms grew increasingly hostile to women, leading more girls and young women to congregate on Tumblr.
Anti-feminist, masculinitist politics became a cornerstone of the alt-right. The alt-right was distinct from mainstream conservatives and right-wing politics in their view of women. The older conservative right-wing promoted traditionalism, presenting itself as a system of male protection for women within the traditional family. The alt-right did not pretend to have respect for women even within their roles of wives and mothers.
The anti-feminist section of the alt-right has been referred to as the ‘manosphere’, and had many different tendencies, such as ‘incels’ or involuntary celibates, MGTOW or Men Going Their Own Way (a male separatist group), and woman-hating ‘pick-up artist’ groups like Return of The Kings. Pick-up artists would write viral blogs entitled “5 Reasons to Date a Girl with An Eating Disorder” and “7 Ways Women are just like Abandoned Dogs’.
4chan, an image board website originally created to discuss anime, was a centre for this sort of irreverent alt-right misogyny. Women in public life who criticised anti-feminist politics, or called for regulating the internet, were singled out for attack. 4chan and Twitter became the epicentre of what would become known as ‘Gamer Gate’, a series of attacks on women involved in the online gaming world. For example, Kathy Sierra, a video game developer, called for moderation of reader comments on gaming blogs. Sierra was doxxed, her image was photoshopped onto pornography, and she was inundated with death and rape threats.
This notion of ‘edgy’ humour or politics was central to 4chan and the wider ‘manosphere’. This involved writing the most extreme thing with the highest shock value, no matter how sexist, racist, or homophobic, was considered cool and laudable. It was a consequence free way for right-wing men to expel their aggression towards women, their hatred of multiculturalism, and their disdain for homosexuality and gender nonconformity. 4chan’s dominant style of humour, being shocking and using several layers of irony or multiple meme references, began making its way into mainstream platforms such as Twitter, Reddit and Facebook. While other platforms were deluged with 4chan’s shock-jock style of misogynistic humour, Tumblr became one of the few ‘safe spaces’ for teenage girls online to not experience insults or verbal abuse aimed their way.
Tumblr, transformed from its initial use as a platform that teenage girls used to share their fan art and journaling, quickly became a centre of a kind of liberal identitarianism. As many young men became increasingly interested in alt right politics, young women and girls were exploring intersectionality, disability, and ‘gender fluidity’ on Tumblr. Angela Nagle in her 2017 book Kill All Normies wrote that Tumblr was a reverse mirror image of platforms such as 4chan. Tumblr users were not concerned with economic inequality, trade unionism, or class, like the ‘old left’. A ‘new left’, a much more liberal one, was emerging. Its chief concerns were identity, the deconstruction of these traditional identities, their replacement with multiform fluidity, plurality, and how these new fluid identities intersected and interacted with each other. In short: navel-gazing and astrology-style personality dissection was taking place amongst teenage girls on Tumblr. Ever increasing lists and taxonomies of identity became almost competitive and understanding oneself through listicles of these identities was a way to signal to others on Tumblr who you were, who you desired, etc.
This is a significant turn away from the politics of gay liberation struggle thus far. Sexual orientation was considered unchangeable and unchosen. Whereas gay people had fought for things in the real world, such as employment rights, gay marriage, and access to adoption, teenagers on Tumblr, both gay and straight, were concerned instead with with identity and label creation, image-based curation of their individual lives, and escaping into a double life online. The public world of doing politics in real life, of struggle and protest, could not be further from these small-scale, hyper-individualised forms of expression, and contact between people who never actually met.
An important theme on Tumblr during this era was disembodiment. Teenage girls are already prone to disembodiment due to the immediate sexualisation the second they hit puberty. Their bodies become a site of anxiety as they experience cat-calling and other forms of sexualisation for the first time. The political ideology that emerged through Tumblr was a response to this. Girls on Tumblr developed ideas that were intended to alleviate anxiety around the sexed-body by attempting to separate the sexed body from the intense amount of anxiety imposed on teen girls around sex and sexuality.
These girls were also the first generation to grow up with immediate access to hardcore online pornography, which only added to their feelings of disembodiment, and also contributed to their feelings of internalised misogyny. According to a 2020 study, women receive 97% of the violence portrayed in pornography. Porn was most of these girls first exposure to sex. Under these conditions, young girls on Tumblr became extremely fixated on sexuality, developing or popularising labels to explain their lack of desire for sex (dubbed ‘asexuality’) and even labels to describe needing to develop feelings for someone before becoming sexually attracted to them (‘demisexual’). These newer sexuality labels became a way for young girls to establish sexual boundaries. On Tumblr, not respecting a person’s identity label was a significant faux pas. Therefore, these girls adopted labels for every preference and personality trait as a way for their boundaries to be respected and to get to know one another in an online context.
Young people on tumblr proposed the “split attraction model” which differentiated between sexual orientation and romantic orientation. Under this model, they proposed that you can have a sexual orientation and no romantic orientation. This normalised the idea that young people can have sexual relationships with no potential of romantic feelings, much like what is portrayed in pornography. Mass consumption of online pornography has normalised for a generation depersonalised and dehumanised sexual interactions. It was in this context that young people could view sexual attraction as wholly separate from romantic attraction.
It was not only sexual identity categories that were created and popularised on Tumblr during this period. Young women on Tumblr also developed new gender identities. Tumblr gave young women anonymity, allowing them to recreate themselves. This is extremely appealing to young girls going through puberty, who feel distressed about their bodies, appearance and social status. Recreating identity online did not have to limit itself to the two material biological sexes. These girls could create their own gender labels, pronouns, and sexual identities as they were not limited to what is possible in physical reality.
These girls were also motivated to identify as anything other than female due to the hatred felt about their female bodies and the intense amount of internalised misogyny developed due to consuming hardcore pornography that often depicts extreme violence against women. They developed new genders and popularised obscure gender categories such as non-binary, genderqueer and agender. Often when asked why they identify as non-binary, young women will say “I don’t want to be seen as a woman, I want to be seen as a person”.
Tumblr was fundamental in the growth of gender ideology amongst young people in the 2010s and the sudden increase in girls in particular seeking transition treatment which skyrocketed towards the end of the decade.
A 2016 study, Scrolling Beyond Binaries, surveyed 1300 young people who identify as ‘LGBTQ’ found that Tumblr was the most popular social media platform amongst this demographic. The study also outlined the role Tumblr played in educating young people on these various identities. Some direct quotes from participants include:
“I actually learnt about agender and all the other genders from Tumblr.”
(20, agender, bisexual, rural)
“I came out as Pan on Tumblr a few years ago, when being Pan was seen as just a fancy way of saying Bi. I felt very alone for a long time, but found other Pan people to talk to.”
(22, non-binary, pansexual, urban)
Tumblr also had a self-harm subculture where young people, primarily girls, shared photos, gifs, and writing glorifying self harm and glamourising and romanticising depression. Female self-injury hospitalisations were stagnant until 2008 then they suddenly began increasing. This was one year after Tumblr launched and young women and girls began to spend more time online than ever before. Another example of a dark Tumblr subculture was the pro-ana or pro-anorexia subculture which motivated young women to aim to be as thin as possible and provided unhealthy tips on how to do so. With millions of girls on Tumblr these tendencies became more than just fads, but sub-cultures.
Self harm, eating disorders and gender dysphoria diagnosis all increased in the 2010s corresponding with their promotion on social media platforms such Tumblr (and later TikTok). All of these mental health issues revolve around the hatred of the body and the desire to harm the body, particularly young female bodies. One theory of anorexia is that girls starve themselves as a result of the panic they feel about their developing adult female bodies and it is clear Transgenderism has offered another harmful route away from femaleness. The only major difference between these issues is how we as a society react. With self-harm and eating disorders, both phenomena overrepresented amongst teenage girls, doctors and psychologists aim to change how the person feels about themselves, hoping to reduce or eliminate these negative feelings. They do not offer liposuction to anorexics or cutesy self-harm kits to habbitual ‘cutters’. With ‘gender dysphoria’ (body hatred), we are expected to change the body through irreversible medical intervention.
The political ideology developed on Tumblr began making its way onto the broader internet towards the mid-late 2010s. Some of the novel identities became legitimised and widespread, such as non-binary, transfemme and transmasc. As the internet began to accept the validity of these identity labels, so did broader life, with organisations such as Stonewall lobbying for legal recognition of non-binary identities and Mermaids encouraging young children in school to be taught about gender identity. Some of the most celebrated identities by organisations like Stonewall are ‘asexual’, ‘aromantic’, ‘greysexual’ (occasional and mild sexual feelings that do not need to be realised), and ‘Fraysexual’ (feeling sexual attraction, but not after getting to know the person). These obscure sexual categories, that originated on Tumblr in the early 2010s, are now championed and considered as important as actual sexual orientations, as much as being homosexual. Stonewall and similar charities no longer think in terms of sexual orientation, but instead serve identity and enclaves of the internet that produce more and more micro identities (Tumblr in the 2010s, TikTok today) that are, in actuality, often aspects of most people’s sexuality (it is a common experience to feel sexual attraction towards someone and for it to be suddenly thwarted once getting to know them better… what is uncommon is to fixate on it and turn it into an identity). Why within a movement that is supposedly about sexual liberation, and sexual life and expression, is the sexed body, and embodied sexuality itself so diminished?
This has implications for homosexuality as a form of exclusive same-sex attraction. For example, it renders lesbianism an attraction to anyone who claims the identity ‘woman’, regardless of sex, rather than an embodied experience of sexual arousal towards another female (what lesbian same-sex romantic desire and sexual attraction actually is). The attempt to diminish female homosexuality, to uncouple it from the usual understandings of sexual desire, has a long history. Its historical reduction to mere female friendship, the reconceptualising of lesbians as simply women who don’t have sex with men by ‘political lesbianism’, and other forms of lesbophobia, all obfuscate that some women – lesbians – really do exclusively sexually desire other women. These are part a wider trend of lesbian erasure that has existed for centuries. The new context facing young lesbians who are part of Gen-Z is that of the cultural space of the internet, itself a disembodied space, that has fermented the disconnect many young people feel with their body and therefore their sexuality.
Our argument is that the stale economic prospects that leaves many young adults unable to leave the parental home, combined with the sexual repercussions of young people’s mass consumption of hardcore pornography online, has created the conditions that motivated young people to identify with internet subcultures. Particularly ones around sexuality, whether fleeing sexuality altogether (as with many of the identities above indicate) or separating sexuality out from any sense of an embodied romantic relationship. Given that today things like buying a home, or finding secure long-term work, are increasingly unattainable for young people, many do not view prospects like getting married, settling down with a partner, or having a child with someone, as viable options. More and more young people have their formative experiences online; first boyfriend / girlfriend, first heartbreak, friendships increasingly exist online, and subcultures then naturally begin to take place within the online world. Real life experiences, learning from experience and being taught worldly lessons, are increasingly few and far between. This failure to launch into the real world holts and delays adult development. We believe this accounts for the perpetual state of adolescence some young people into their mid-twenties and thirties can appear stuck in.
In the recent past, young people would often get involved in music scenes and subcultures like goths, or punks, or rockers. Homosexual youth would spend time on the ‘gay scene’ by going to ‘gay nights’, or attending gay friendly venues. There was once a slew of lesbian and gay bars in different cities. People would go to the pub after work regularly. Those habits have dramatically changed. Today, given the cost-of-living crisis, and before that the explosion in rent prices since the 2008 economic crash that sent the UK economy into recession and the American economy into a depression, has meant young people do not have money to spend at pubs, or attend gigs, in the way they did during the early 2000s, 1990s, or 1980s. Unaffordability and the option of the online sphere has meant social scenes can be interacted with from ones own bedroom. This too has created an individualising effect, both through the individual experience of the internet (everyone on their own personal devices) and individual online interactions across social media, on forums, having to choose personal avatars, or usernames, etc. The once collective experience of scenes and subcultures has been replaced with a fragmented, individualistic, disembodied experience. Crucially, most interaction online is completely anonymous, particularly during the tumblr era. This anonymised interaction meant that one was not restricted by one’s “real life” identity. Who we are online and who we are in real life can be a chasm, if who we are and get to be in real life is not preferred.
Contemporary LGBTQ+ politics has emerged as a cult of misogyny, full of anxiety around sex and sexuality. There is nothing erotic, liberatory, or embodied about the modern LGBTQ+ scene. It is sterile, corporate, and often juvenile at times. The hatred of the female body and the abject fear of sex and sexuality experienced by teenage girls has transmitted its way into the third sector by way of internet fascination, academia’s long romance with Queer Theory, and the liberalisation of politics more widely. A generation of girls raised on hardcore, violent pornography has created a new need to escape their female bodies, whether through online identities that offer a way of identifying out or under the surgeon’s knife. Simultaneously, within the wider context of a world where few young people can subjectively recreate themselves by becoming full adults (owning a home, or starting a family), with celibacy rates rising to similar levels as in the middle ages, it is not surprising that a sexual politics characterised by hatred of the sexed body, and a hatred for loving and intimate sex, is so widely popular. The fact that these politics were created by isolated, anxious teenage girls in the early 2010s, puts into context the hatred of the female body and fear of sexuality at the centre of contemporary LGBTQ+ sexual politics.