The Year Women Got ‘Horny’

Coffee, “Star Wars,” turtlenecks, grief: These four seemingly unrelated things are “horny” — or induce horniness — at least according to many young women online, who are openly asserting their desires with a term long thought of as crass and juvenile.

But now, like vape stores or a broken container of glitter, it’s suddenly everywhere.

Take the last few months, when people called chicken parm, Ariana Grande’s “Christmas and Chill” EP and the obsessions of right-wing conspiracy theorists “horny.” While promoting “Hustlers,” Jennifer Lopez told GQ, “A lot of things make me horny.” It would seem as though people are horny for the word itself.

Phonetically speaking, “horny” is ugly. It lends itself to a nasal sound that’s comically inelegant. “Horny” is the aural equivalent of those Chinese Crested dogs that are so ugly that it’s actually funny — endearing, even. “Horny” has benefited, in part, from that same so-bad-it’s-good rationality.

“I used to hate the word,” Sophia Benoit said. “I used to think it was so disgusting.” Ms. Benoit writes a column for GQ about the sexiest things that men did during the month, called “Horny on Main,” — which on the internet means posting sexually charged content to your main social media account, as opposed to posting on a separate, and likely secret, account that was created for that purpose. (According to Know Your Meme, a website that investigates and documents online phenomena, the first appearance of “horny on main” was in June 2016.)

“But I love it now, because I think we, especially women, have reclaimed it and made it not gross,” Ms. Benoit said.

And it’s true that, before this renaissance, “horny” had been gross for quite a long time. For many, the word has been most closely associated with unbridled adolescent male arousal thanks to conventional teen sex comedies like “Porky’s” or “American Pie.”

It was mischievous, it was socially acceptable, but above all, it was decidedly masculine. It’s a perception that was hundreds of years in the making.

This will probably come as a shock to absolutely no one, but the word “horny” stems from the description of an animal horn. Twenty-five years ago, William Safire wrote about “horny” for his etymology column in The New York Times Magazine, noting that a “horn is hard; it is shaft-shaped; since the 15th century, it has been used as a symbol for the male’s erect sex organ.”

But here we are, half a millennium later, and women are not just aroused, not just sexual beings, but are, indeed, horny, and reclaiming a word that never really applied to them to begin with.

“Horny” first went mainstream about halfway into 2018. That year, The Cut, a female-focused vertical from New York Magazine, dedicated all its content during one week to to “summer horniness.”

Broadly, a female-focused vertical from Vice Media (which I used to edit), published a year-end roundup of “the horniest things that happened.” Teen Vogue explained what horny is and how to spot it to its young readership.

And of course, there was the “horny Beto tweet” that brought horny Twitter to many people’s timelines: Leah McElrath, a middle-aged political analyst, compared the potential Democratic presidential candidates Richard Ojeda, Michael Avenatti and Beto O’Rourke in terms of graphic sexual analogies.

Around the same time, BuzzFeed started “Thirst Aid Kit,” a podcast hosted by Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins. (“Thirst” is a term that can take a few different meanings, including overt eagerness — yes, sexually). The show was canceled, along with several other BuzzFeed podcasts, but was later picked up by Slate in September.

It’s possible that after a solid year of #MeToo, in which women were using social media to publicly share sexual harassment and abuse allegations, asserting what they didn’t want, maybe it felt good to pivot to communicating what they did want. Expressing one’s horniness, as a woman, represents a significant shift from that of sexual object to sexual subject.

Allison P. Davis, a staff writer for New York magazine and The Cut, considers it a form of thwarting the patriarchy.

“It’s being used as a sort of overcorrection to this idea that women can’t be heard when they express their desires,” Ms. Davis said. “It’s a big, bold way of taking up space.”

She would know. Ms. Davis is writing a book called “Horny,” a combination of personal storytelling and cultural reporting on “one of the last great taboos: female horniness.” It is due out next year from Avid Reader Press.

Ms. Benoit also thinks that the substantial contextual difference in this modern form of horniness is rooted in women’s liberation. “I think what is so nice about the reclaiming of ‘horny’ for the people that are using it now is that it’s from people whose horniness hasn’t been harmful to others, historically.”

However, she says that the recent popularization of “horny” predates the sexual harassment scandals of 2017 and 2018, first popping up on Twitter three or four years ago. “I think #MeToo came from women already knowing that they can have sex on their own terms, which is what horny is about,” she said.

The idea that women could at once loathe sexual impropriety and desire dirty sex seems simple and obvious, yet it’s been an agonizingly protracted journey for us to arrive here.

In the early 1980s, “the feminist sex wars” — polarizing debates within the women’s movement around issues like sexual activity and pornography — heralded feminism’s third wave, with sex-positive writers like Susie Bright, Camille Paglia and Annie Sprinkle discussing and advocating women’s sexual desires, a topic that remained a subversive concept for decades to come.

In 1992, Madonna’s artistic exploration of her own horniness was brought to the mainstream with the release of her coffee table book, “Sex,” and her album “Erotica.” Both efforts were, at the time, received with vitriol by critics who believed she had “gone too far,” but are considered today as misunderstood masterpieces.

The market for vibrators is a fast and dirty way to grasp the glacial pace of progress in this matter. Good Vibrations, the pioneering, women-friendly sex-toy retailer, was founded in San Francisco in 1977.

Twenty years later, vibrator shopping was depicted as a healthy and normal element of female sexuality on an episode of “Sex and the City,” and then another 20 years after that, vibrators became available for sale in Walmart. And yet, despite sex toys for women being stocked and sold in the largest retailer in America, there are still plenty of people who still just don’t get it.

“The narrative, that women don’t get as horny as men, is starting, very slowly, to crack,” Ms. Benoit said. “I think it’s going to take a long time because the bedrock of that belief is still there.”

The age-old misperception that men get horny and women don’t was sharply addressed and debunked in a 2017 episode of “Big Mouth,” Netflix’s animated series about a group of seventh graders navigating their way through puberty. The episode is called “Girls Are Horny Too,” and the revelation promised by the title makes several (male) characters’ heads explode.

Female adolescent sexuality was also explored in the first season of the “Pen15,” Hulu’s comedy series about two 13-year-old girls — played by adult women, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle — in “middle school as it really happened.” In the episode “Ojichan,” Ms. Erskine’s character discovers masturbation andit quickly becomes an obsession that dominates her life.

The contemporary, healthy representations of puberty and horniness in these two shows are, in a way, retroactively healing the scars of shame we have brought with us into adulthood.

This hornier shift in pop-cultural depictions of women has certainly played an important part in both advancing horny’s favor and evolving society’s understanding of female sexuality. ”Fleabag,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s critically acclaimed British dramedy, featured a young woman whose strongest character trait — being horny — was decidedly not male.

Mrs. Fletcher,” the HBO mini-series about a middle-aged woman’s sexual reawakening, showcases a horny mom who can’t stop masturbating to pornography.

These episodes of “Big Mouth” and “Pen15” episodes, and “Fleabag,” were all written by women. Every episode, thus far, of “Mrs. Fletcher” has also been directed by a woman.

There’s an unsubtle distinction in arousal: Erections are visible. Women’s genitalia, for the most part, are hidden, helping to shroud female desire in mystery. Truly, the most reliable way to know if a woman is horny is if she says so. These days, women are doing just that.

Source: nytimes.com

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