On TikTok, vanilla-shaming is the new kink-shaming

Knife play, choking and rough sex have found a home on FreakTok, but the line between sex positivity and sexual violence is becoming blurred.

by Lucy Robinson
03 February 2021, 12:34pm

Imagery via TikTok

“When he claims he’s freaky but won’t drag a knife across your skin… it’s funny how people have become pussies all of a sudden”.

Welcome to #freaktok, one of the darker corners in TikTok’s labyrinth maze of subcultures and alternative communities. Where #thriftflipping clothes or #astralprojecting into an alternative dimension doesn’t cut it, users instead like to brag about rejecting 'normal' sex.

And it doesn’t seem to be niche. At the time of writing, #Freak has over 1.2 billion views. #ChokeMe has 45.3 million. While a lot of this content is innocent, it is easy to find far more sinister videos. One, of a girl encouraging her reluctant boyfriend to choke her, has 1.1 million views. Another, of a user mocking viewers for being quote-unquote vanilla has 78,000 likes.

“Vanilla is the new frigid,” says 19-year-old Lily from Buckinghamshire. After leaving a comment on a video of a boy mocking his girlfriend for not being into choking, Lily came under fire. “I wrote something like ‘not wanting to be choked doesn’t mean you’re boring’ and I ended up being called out for it,” she says. “People kept saying that I didn’t know how to have a good time and that I obviously wasn’t comfortable with my sexuality.”

As a result, Lily began to question her own preferences. “I started wondering whether this was what sex-positive people did and that maybe I just didn’t understand what ‘good’ sex looked like,” she says. “I found myself defending my own preferences because people weren’t open to the idea that I actually liked ‘normal’ sex.” In the end, Lily deleted her comment because the replies were becoming increasingly personal.

17-year-old Mina from Arkansas had a similar experience. After sharing another user’s TikTok referring to the problem of glamorising rough sex, Mina was met with accusations of kink-shaming; calling her a prude and a snowflake. “There were a lot of negative responses,” she says, but none of them were a huge surprise, with her peers now deeming choking and strangulation as being more acceptable than vanilla sex. “I’ve seen people I know push themselves to seem like they enjoy really extreme things just to be part of the in-crowd. The type of sex you have has become this huge competition,” she says.

For Fiona MacKenzie, founder of campaign group We Can’t Consent To This — a group formed in response to the increasing violence exhibited against women during sex — the trend is worrying. “Young people are being told that everyone is doing this,” she says. The social pressure means that women in their teens and twenties now are being told that not enjoying being slapped or choked is abnormal. “It’s a default expectation now.”

In the process of shaming people, the boundaries between consensual sex and sexual violence risk being blurred. “People’s negative experiences are being diminished because people dismiss them as simply having vanilla preferences,” Fiona says. Lily agrees, arguing that the difference between being empowered to have the sex you want and being the victim of violence is ignored. “Somebody even messaged me saying that ‘women deserve to be hurt’.”

Alarmingly, videos that glorify sexual violence are also extremely popular on TikTok. There’s videos romanticising domestic abuse, the ‘psychotic boyfriend’ trope and even the ‘things girls want but won’t ask for’. Last summer TikTok was forced to remove some content under the #365days hashtag after users used it to display bruises obtained during sex or footage of grabbing their partners by the throat.

Given that a recent survey of UK women between 18-39 found that 38% have experienced unwanted spitting, choking or slapping during consensual sex, it is concerning that the normalisation of these behaviours is being confused with consent. With uses of the “rough sex defence” in homicide cases increasing 90% in a decade, it is clear that we need to address how sexual violence is increasingly being mistaken with sexual liberation.

After viewing some of the videos in question, a spokesperson for TikTok said, "Keeping our community safe is our top priority. Our Community Guidelines make clear what is not acceptable on our platform, and that includes content which depicts, solicits, promotes, normalises or glorifies non-consensual sexual acts or sexual violence. We use a combination of technologies and moderation teams to review, identify and remove any content or account that is in violation of these rules. Of the videos that have been brought to our attention, seven have been removed for violating our guidelines.”

Dr Gail Dines, President of Culture Reframed — an organisation that addresses the effects of hypersexualised media on young people — blames porn for the problem. “Pornography is the biggest form of sex education,” she says. And with 88% of the most-watched porn scenes containing acts of physical aggression against a woman, there’s nothing to tell young people that this is not the norm. Mina agrees. “People are watching porn and are becoming desensitised to anything ‘normal’ before they have experienced sex themselves,” she says.

Whilst some of this content has been associated with BDSM, Gillian Myhill, a relationship and sexual health expert, stresses that these videos misrepresent the fetish community. “They are not communicating the governing guidelines that bind the community of BDSM and fetish together,” she says. “Respect, consent and safety are key.”

As a result, just as this content can be found on the app, you can find creators educating viewers on healthy sexual practices. The #KinkTok hashtag is full of videos explaining all things kink, amassing 2.8 billion views. “The emphasis on consent when discussing rough sex online is absolutely vital,” Caitlin, a 20-year-old of KinkTok, says. She is aware that some content on TikTok is distorting people’s perceptions of alternative sexual dynamics. “Boundaries and consent are what distinguishes the positive spaces I’ve come across from the more harmful ones.” In warning people of red flag behaviours, KinkTokers are using their platforms to reflect what healthy relationships really look like.

33-year-old TikToker Carly from New York — known by some as  @makeupandsin — is working to normalise “all sexual practices, so long as they involve consent,” she says. As a pleasure educator and product expert, Carly soon realised the curiosity of the platform’s users and focused on giving everyone an age-appropriate sex education, gaining 33,500 followers and over half a million likes in eight months. “I definitely think people on TikTok are very open to exploring their sexuality.”

Carly says that the danger occurs when people use the app as a sole source of sex education. “You have to be careful about where you receive your information. Not everyone should be giving tips,” she says, recommending users research things they see on TikTok outside of the app. “I want people to explore, but it’s important that they back up what they find.”

Looking to the future, it’s important that young people are taught to be comfortable with their own sexualities and are able to explore that safely, consensually and according to their own means. Besides, whether you’re into vanilla sex, sex with kinks or no sex at all, consent, enjoyment and liberation are key.

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