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Cartoon of a Gen Z teenager wearing a pilgrim hat and collar as they type on a laptop with a Tumblr logo on it. Ohni Lisle for Vox

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Puritanism took over online fandom — and then came for the rest of the internet

Puriteens, anti-fans, and the culture war’s most bonkers battleground.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

How did the internet become so puritanical? On social media, outspoken anti-sex advocates increasingly cry “gross” at everything from R-rated rom-coms to fictional characters and queer people having sex to consenting adults with slight age gaps to dating short people. They see oversexualization in just about everything. They often accuse the things they dislike of being coded fronts for pedophilia, and the people who enjoy those things of being sexual predators. These social media users frequently form enclaves that turn as nightmarish and troubling as the things they’re ostensibly trying to police.

This dovetails with what we’re being told right now about Gen Z and sex: They’re having less casual sex, they hate dating, they’re more reserved about relationships in general. It’s easy to pigeonhole online anti-sex police as being teens and young adults, a.k.a. “puriteens.” Because so much of this comes down to carnal horror, you might assume that everyone who’s horrified is a teen who just hasn’t arrived at a mature view of sex and other adult activity. Such anti-sex zeal increasingly forces sex-positive communities back into the internet’s underground. It also aids and abets the larger cultural shift toward regressive attitudes and censorship of sexual minorities and sex-positive content.

Yet overwhelmingly, the common thread among this new generation of “antis” — a broad label for people who are opposed to sexual content in media — isn’t that they are minors who are scared of sex. It’s that none of them distinguish between fictional harm and real-world harm. That is, regardless of their ages, they believe fiction not only can have a real-world impact, but that it always has a real-world impact.

To understand how we got here, we have to look at the wellspring from which much of the internet’s creative impulses flow: online fandom, where superusers gather to celebrate, write fanfiction, and create fan art about the media and characters they love. On Tumblr and Twitter, where so much fandom discourse happens, this conversation about sexual content in media has spawned an entire movement called “anti-fandom.” In the wake of the 2018 passage of the internet child protection bill FOSTA-SESTA in the US, fandom’s proudly sex-positive culture has increasingly become sanitized, homogenized, and erased — which has allowed the puritanical voices of these “anti-fans” to take their place.

This trend would be bad news in any online community, but it’s been especially heady and unwieldy in fandom, an entire culture built around feeling things strongly, not rationally. The result is one of the unlikeliest fronts of the culture war: an internet community, once the bastion of delightful deviance and subversion, being completely overtaken by a new form of purity culture often spearheaded by people who would otherwise describe themselves as politically liberal.

Though this may sound like a niche fandom issue, this modern puritanism has spread far into the wider culture, intersecting with both a broader media illiteracy and a moral panic that crosses the political spectrum.

It’s making it more and more impossible to have a healthy discourse about sex at all.

The weaponization of social justice and the rise of the “anti-fandom”

Above all else, fans are passionate. Fandom is where the internet houses some of its most engaged communities — where fans flock to celebrate their favorite stories, create fan works, carry on intense discussions, and argue over which fictional or celebrity relationships they’re shipping.

During the first half of the 2010s, that passion meant that fans were effectively cultural superspreaders, proselytizing their favorites, from Marvel to K-pop to Netflix, far and wide. Their cultural influence, especially through the Tumblr-to-BuzzFeed pipeline, was outsize. You may not have been on Tumblr then, but its fandom-infused language and culture likely heavily influenced your internet experience just the same.

Part of what Tumblr effortlessly exported, along with its fannish sensibility, was its users’ awareness of social justice concepts and language. The Tumblr culture of the early 2010s rapidly shifted an entire generation of social media users toward the left. That shift started not on Tumblr, but on LiveJournal, thanks to a widespread, year-long conversation about racism in geek culture in 2009 that became known as RaceFail. In 2010, LiveJournal became frequently nonfunctional due to intermittent hacker attacks, which sent thousands of displaced fans to Tumblr. With them, they brought all of their recent conversations about race and social justice. The result was an unexpected culture clash between the fandom teens of still-new Tumblr and the fandom adults of LiveJournal. Many Tumblr users, regardless of age and academic experience, got crash courses in progressive ideology and everything from socialism to structuralism — but that education wasn’t always easy or welcome.

“I was on Tumblr as the migration was happening,” journalist Allegra Rosenberg told me. “I distinctly remember the shift in tenor of doing fandom on Tumblr in late 2010, early 2011 as the LiveJournal adults came over, bringing with them the language of feminism, the language of social justice, intersectionality.”

“I remember feeling almost scared or offended,” Rosenberg said, “because I was like, you guys are trying to make this serious. We’re just making memes. I was just a kid and I felt kind of threatened by what I perceived to be this atmosphere of seriousness, because I don’t think I really understood what had been going on over there.”

The language of social justice may have been revelatory to many fans, but it also became fodder for zealotry and demagoguery. It frequently became a double-edged sword, weaponized by and against the people using it. Members of the alt-right started using the phrase “social justice warrior” to mockingly describe zealous Tumblr users who performed what they saw as shallow, overly aggressive, or inauthentic versions of progressive politics.

Tumblr teens also learned to weaponize this language, often through performativity that became a core part of 2010s fandom culture. This coincided with the rise of “call-out culture.” Blogs such as Your Fave Is Problematic typified what some dubbed Tumblr’s “accountability culture” by simply listing things various beloved celebrities, usually popular within geek culture, had done that were bad or troubling.

Call-out culture predated and existed independently from cancel culture. Its goal was always to raise awareness, not prompt mass harassment or boycotts, but one easily begets the other. Fans of the era adopted an eagerness to label absolutely everything even slightly complicated as “problematic,” and that easily translated into harassment of others who still enjoyed those now-tainted stories and creators.

Once fans had been given the tools of social media harassment and the moral motivation of social justice, they waged war on each other — often for things that only nominally had to do with social justice and were instead about things like fandom shipping and character biases. These fights often obscured or further marginalized actual fans of color and queer fans, all in the name of fighting on their behalf. In contemporary fandom, this fight continues, only now, ironically, it’s often the cavalier use of the “anti” label that gets used to silence fans of color.

Soon, this tendency converged with “antis” in fandom: people who were identified primarily not through their love of a thing but for their hatred of it. Over the back half of the 2010s, the notion of what an “anti” was began to shift away from, say, K-pop stans hating on a specific K-pop star, toward broad opposition to various fandom ideologies and practices. This usually comes down to two things: sexualized content and shipping. Especially shipping.

How ship wars led to a war on shipping, which led to a war on all fictional sex

Few things in fandom are more polarizing than who a character falls in love with or ends up with or who you want them to end up with instead. More has been won and lost in the name of ship wars — fans fighting over which ship is the best — than time could detail. Specifically, in the Voltron fandom in 2016, hatred for a single ship on the animated TV show reportedly led to the creation of an entirely new concept in fandom: the idea of being “pro-ship.” The stated goal of this fight was to call out and oppose alleged pedophiles in fandom. But the actual goal was to wage war against one specific pairing by demonizing as a pedophile anyone who shipped it. (The characters in question, Shiro and Keith, were approximately 25 and 18, respectively, in the show’s first season.)

Fans devoted to this “problematic” ship gradually got shorthanded as being “pro-ship.” The “pro” here has historically meant “in favor of,” but some in the world now claim it’s short for “problematic” — a frustrating point of dispute that shows how slippery these conversations can be. (It’s of course hard to defend or debate being in favor of something inherently problematic.) In other words, if you shipped characters in fandom — which is arguably the dominant reason many people are in fandom — then you were suddenly on notice as being harmful.

To be blunt, this is bonkers. The act of wanting two characters to fall madly in love, and celebrating when they do, is a natural response to fiction. If you were, say, a person who read or watched The Hunger Games and rooted for Peeta and Katniss, this group might brand you as problematic for shipping two teenagers.

Yet shipping is also often explicitly sexual, which makes it prone to distortion by people who want a moral excuse to oppose shipping. Just as with the original Voltron fandom ship war that presaged much of this discourse, people who are “anti-ship” often start out by seeking to attack specific ships based on their personal bias. Rather than acknowledging that bias, however, they instead frame fictional depictions of sex as harmful. This allows them to paint not only the ship they hate, but all ships, and shipping itself, as harmful.

It may sound hard to comprehend that anyone could take this rhetoric seriously, but the deeply emotional and accusatory nature of calling someone a pedophile makes it wildly effective. (Multiple sources I talked to for this article told me of unexpectedly vicious personal encounters with purity culture; everything from online accusations to a real-life friend group considering ostracization over suspicions the source was “pro-ship.”)

Sam Aburime, an artist and independent fan scholar who has dedicated years to tracking anti-fandom examples, argues that the movement is part of the changing generational nature of fandom. Older Gen Z and younger millennials who learned the language of social justice on Tumblr are now teaching younger generations how to wield those concepts for ill. “I think they grew up with faux activism as it was starting online,” Aburime told me, “where it was like, ‘if you like this, or if you don’t do this, you’re a bad person,’ when it’s just cartoons at the end of the day.”

FOSTA-SESTA made this conversation so much worse

It’s not a coincidence that anti-fandom discourse, which has single-handedly reframed decades of sex positivity in fandom, has also coincided with a broader crackdown on sex positivity across the internet.

Originally, Tumblr culture’s nuanced language around politics and accountability coexisted alongside a rampant, thriving, sexually explicit counterculture. Fans and non-fans, many of whom were queer, sex educators, and/or sex workers, enjoyed a healthy relationship to sexual expression during this era. While Tumblr became notorious for hosting porn, the reality was that the permissiveness of Tumblr’s adult content policies made it a safe space for many marginalized communities.

That all changed with the passage of the child protection bill FOSTA-SESTA in 2018. FOSTA heralded a sweeping crackdown on online adult content; as part of the fallout, huge swaths of the sex-positive internet were wiped out in the name of protecting children. Among those decimated communities were sex workers and sex educators on Tumblr, as well as the legions of users, many of whom were queer and genderqueer, who sought self-expression and explored their identities through sexualized content. Overnight, via its infamous ban on porn, Tumblr went from being a notably horny platform to a site full of regressive, paranoid, wary fans who were obsessed with spotting pedophilia and illicit sexual materials everywhere and anywhere — even if the things they deemed immoral and illicit were nowhere close to illegal.

FOSTA seems to have weakened the natural resistance of fandom and internet culture at large to the US’s broader puritanical, anti-sex culture. The purity movement formally began in the ’90s within evangelical culture as a way of normalizing an abstinence-only approach to sex, especially among teens. In the modern era, the language of this movement has converged with that of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), who enact a regressive approach to sex and gender expression.

“If you go into certain radfem forums, you’ll see language mirrored one-to-one,” Aburime told me, describing the way TERF rhetoric overlaps with and sometimes infiltrates fandom spaces. “It’s almost like a game — slipping some ideology secretly” into a fannish experience. “It’s misinformation under the guise of activism.” Like the US’s larger current moral panic over drag shows, LGBTQ people, and “groomers,” fandom’s culture has regressed toward sexual repression, attacks on sexual minorities, and censorship of art made by marginalized people. The shifts happening in fandom and across the internet help exacerbate this larger cultural shift.

“There’s no meaningful difference to me between a right winger who calls me a pedo because I’m trans and an antishipper that calls me a pedo because I read Homestuck,” said Farrah, a 33-year-old fan from North Carolina whose full name has been withheld at their request, referring to the famously weird webcomic. “They’re both putting me and people like me in a dangerous position.”

“It’s hard to say where fandom starts and where everything else begins,” Rosenberg told me. She identifies the root of the shift as a core of “emotion and disgust” in response to various types of sexualized content, but while this response to sexual deviance has always existed, the internet allows fans to express their disgust in new ways, and the rise of anti-fandom allows fans to pathologize all kinds of things — from garden-variety kink to age gaps and sexualized cartoons.

Another major factor in the intensification of all this is Twitter, specifically the mass migration of many fandom cultures to Twitter over the last decade. “When these cultures moved to Twitter and were exposed to literally everybody and everything,” Rosenberg said, “the stakes were higher, in being on the so-called winning team.” Twitter also allowed fans to codify and systematize harassment through the use of platform-specific tools like hashtags and mass-brigading by bots, as we saw with the Depp-Heard trial last year. As Musk-era Twitter’s abuse team has dwindled, multiple sources told me they have been using the platform less, retreating into siloed spaces like private Discord servers and locked mailing lists or Facebook groups. Yet those siloed spaces do little to solve the problems; instead, they typically reinforce and entrench all the niche ideas that led to fandom extremism to begin with.

One positive development is that Tumblr recently brought back, in a limited capacity, the ability to create NSFW content on the site. While this won’t restore the zany porn-for-all days of yesteryear, it might encourage the return of sex-positive communities to drown out the noisy, harassing fringe of haters.

Farrah, who left Twitter due to the harassment there, told me they’re still on Tumblr, and hopeful things are changing.

“I think more people are starting to realize the extremity in the culture and politics around them,” they said, “and that awareness makes them better equipped to recognize the same extremism in fandom. I’ve seen more robust calls for a return to, ‘don’t like don’t read,’ and, ‘your kink is not my kink and that’s okay,’ in the last year or two than I had in a very long time.”

The downside is that the wider crackdown on sexual expression, especially in the United States, is only getting worse. That bodes ill for the internet and all its citizens, especially since media literacy as a whole is also on the decline. As purity culture spreads, the idea of depicting fictional harm as equivalent to real-world harm grows and spreads along with it.

Then again, if anyone can creatively respond to a culture of increasingly absurd attacks on ingenuity and imagination, it’s an army of passionate deviants who’ve historically been vanguards of the weird, the queer, and the subversive. They’re sexual rebels and literary freedom fighters.

If fans can’t kick that nonsense to the curb, who can?

Update, May 24, 11 am: This story was originally published on May 23 and has been updated to include shifting definitions around the term “pro-ship,” as well as how “anti” is used against marginalized fans.


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