This spring, the thing all the kids were doing that everyone had something to say about was the #aftersex hashtag, which apparently originated on Instagram. Oh, those wild kids, taking pictures of themselves in bed! The hashtag is a mixture of images, including people who are sweet, sultry, sleepy, and more, sometimes with pets along the edge of the frame, sometimes splayed nude or wearing wisps of clothing. It is a snippet of lives and intimate moments. Many, though not all, of the participants are young, reflecting a deeper social trend among 20 somethings, one that insists on sharing any and all aspects of their lives, creating a shared space where people look deep into the lives of strangers and come away, sometimes, with a deeper understanding of people they’ve never met than their own friends.
The reactions to #aftersex fascinated me, in terms of what they said about society itself, sexuality, and how people interact with the younger generation. While I’m hardly ancient myself, I often feel myself at a disconnect from a generation that has lived not just with high speed internet all their lives, but social, and an internet integrated right into their phones and other devices that they carry with them wherever they go.
To borrow from a troped saying, back in my day…many of us communicated on BBS and basic message boards. Those of us who had ftp access sometimes posted pictures of ourselves, but it was a production; we had to take and develop pictures, scan them, make sure they didn’t look awful, post them. While we often shared immensely intimate details of our lives, it was primarily textually, and it didn’t necessarily take place in a wide open environment where anyone could potentially become a reader; it happened on private message boards, in the ephemeral space of chat rooms, in early email (remember when everyone was on Hotmail?).
Do not mistake this reminiscence as condemnation, though, because that would be a mistake; it’s simply cultural context. As someone who was already an adult when social began to explode, I had to actively come to social, rather than simply growing up with it as an integral part of my life. I was a slow adopter on many services, though today I’m active on Instagram, Twitter, and even, reluctantly, Facebook. I use those communication media not just to interact with friends and readers, but also to share details of my life, sometimes intimate ones; there are pictures of what I’m reading, of my cats, of what I’m eating, yes, but I also talk about living with mental illness, and the day to day events of my life that don’t merit a deep navelgazing post, but might give people insight into who I am and the way I think.
Sometimes I think that creates a false sense of intimacy, because people assume they know things about me on the basis of what they read on social media (I don’t talk about certain things at all on social media or in other public venues, for example, including people I may or may not be dating). But it also creates a deeper sense of humanity, and connection, with the world around me — I see why so many young people use social so richly in their own lives, and embrace all its aspects. I would have been an ardent fan if it had been around when I was a teenager, or in my early twenties, times when I was not just deeply seeking connections, but also trying to find people who looked like me, who lived like me. Social would have spared me a lot of heartache, because I wouldn’t have had to struggle for so long to find out who I was.
#Aftersex is a natural iteration of social and the culture that some people deem oversharing, while others celebrate it as a collective expression of intimacy and shared experiences. What’s intrigued me about the reaction to it is that so many people have mustered deeply prudish arguments against the spread of the hashtag and the people who choose to participate. There is the perennial ‘no one wants to see that,’ of course, but people also argue that participants might regret having these photos online later, or that this is evidence of the further hypersexualisation of our culture.
What I see in the #aftersex hashtag, though, is actually something quite different; I don’t see it as a prideful brag, but as a quiet acknowledgement of reality, and I see it as an affirmation and assertion of autonomy. Yes, the participants say, we have sex. We have sex even if we are tattooed, even if we are gay, even if we are not conventionally attractive, even if we are biracial, even if we are disabled. We are here, and we are out there, and we are having sex, and we’re enjoying it, and here is proof; a brief capture of that unique, powerful moment where we feel almost drugged by our shared experience, and we want to share it with you.
#Aftersex doesn’t force itself upon the viewer; you’ll encounter the images if you deliberately search for the hashtag, or if you happen to be following someone who’s a participant. Presumably people would know their friends and the people they follow well enough to determine if they’re likely to be posting after sex selfies, and they can make an educated decision about whether they’d like to see them. #Aftersex, to me, is about reclaiming nude images, declaring that they don’t have to be formalised art in a gallery to be ‘artistic’ and socially acceptable, illustrating that casual nudes and semi-nudes are not necessarily pornographic in nature, highlighting the fact that all sorts of people and bodies are involved in expressions of sexuality, and that is a beautiful thing.
Will some of the participants in #aftersex potentially wish at some point that those images weren’t out there? Possibly — that’s part of the price of social, and it’s something some very young users don’t necessarily consider because they don’t have the experience that older users do. Does that mean we should condemn the hashtag out of hand, though?
Image: Untitled, Roco Perna, Flickr. Hashtag added by me.