i learned it on youtube
WHAT ONLINE BEAUTY GURUS CAN— OR CAN’T—TEACH US ABOUT SEX
What online beauty gurus can—and can’t—teach us about sex.
LEXIE LOMBARD IS a bright-eyed 21-year-old from Virginia with a trendy bob, oversize thrifted fur coats, and a cool Manhattan apartment. She just finished an internship with the indie makeup brand Milk Makeup and uploads the occasional “day in my life” vlog onto her Youtube channel, which has more than 430,000 subscribers. Her videos are a collage of interesting, quick-cut clips pieced together to create a brief yet intimate narrative.
IN A VLOG FROM late May 2017, she layers threeto five-second clips: her bright blue nails type at a computer, her professor assigns a write-your-owneulogy project to her class, she rides her bike through NYC. Finally, she shares her outfit of the day (“OOTD,” in Youtube parlance) in her bedroom mirror: Adidas sweatpants, a t-shirt that reads “Powered by Pussy,” and pink fuzzy slides.
Lombard has been making Youtube videos since October 2009. When she first created her channel—and before Google bought the platform and allowed its users to change their display names—lombard went by the handle beautyrush315. One of her earliest videos, which she’s since taken down, was “What Your Mother Doesn’t Tell You About Thongs.” (As a subscriber of hers when I first discovered Youtube, I remember when this video went up.) In it, a 15-year-old Lombard ranted about the horror of panty lines under leggings. In an anecdote about shopping with her mom, she spoke about a truth most girls learn in their early teens: Our bodies always run the risk of being sexualized. Lombard says, “A lot of people think that thongs are kind of controversial. Like, ‘Oh, you wear a thong? You’re a slut!’ So they don’t like to show it off. I don’t know—to me, it’s just a piece of cloth.”
For lots of girls who grew up in the early 2000s, the internet offered an appealing anonymity: Online journals, message boards, and video-hosting sites were places where they could share parts of themselves and their lives that they were instructed not to talk about elsewhere. That silence is implied even in Lombard’s video title: “What Your Mother Doesn’t Tell You….” Lombard was left on her own to figure out why thongs were considered an unacceptable undergarment for girls her age. But thongs are just the beginning. In the past decade, young women have been using Youtube to pass along advice on similarly confounding, “unacceptable” topics: dealing with their periods, choosing birth control, discovering their sexualities. In a current political climate that aims to silence, shame, and control all aspects of young women’s reproductive health and choice through legislation, these intimate one-on-one videos are filling silent, crucial gaps.
Many of the young women alongside Lombard (some of whom are now among her closest friends) got their start during Youtube’s first wave, when vlogs dominated the young platform’s trending lists. Lombard and her friends, stationed all across the nation, juggled the work of moderating two separate channels: a main channel and a vlog channel. Main-channel videos focused primarily on content that cemented their status as “beauty gurus”: outfit-of-the-week videos, clothing hauls, and first impressions of new beauty products. Their second channels were devoted solely to vlogs where they filmed all aspects of their everyday lives: on campus, grocery shopping, out with friends.
As these beauty gurus grew older, their content matured as well. At the height of their main channels becoming empires of brand deals and sponsorships, they began tackling topics such as sex, relationships, and “story time” videos. The latter are characterized by the exaggerated, sometimes over-the-top tone a Youtuber uses to explain an otherwise pretty mundane story. It’s in these where young women push back against dominant cultural narratives around what girls “should” be doing, and in particular the expectation—put forth in Disney princess movies, teen magazines, and Bachelor episodes—that the key to personal fulfillment is a relationship. One of Youtube’s most notorious storytimers is Vanessa Gabriela, or Simplynessa15; in a recent q&a that focused on the topic of relationships, she shared that when it comes to love, she’s taking it easy. “As of right now, I’m not really trying to talk to any boys, I’m not trying to talk to any girls. I’m trying to focus on myself, ʼcause before I try to focus on someone else, I need to try to fix me and really do me right now.”
The world of Youtube sees trends cycle in and out of the creator circuit. For a while, everyone was making diy slime tutorials, and Mukbang, or “eat with me” videos, where Youtubers would literally eat their meals, typically takeout, on camera while “chatting with their viewers.” One of Youtube’s hottest trends at the moment—made popular by rapid-fire, Buzzfeed-style cultural reporting—are period-hack videos. One video, by Aspyn Ovard, is titled “Period LIFE HACKS! Make Your Period EASIER!” In it, Ovard recommends doing yoga to alleviate cramps, staying away from salty foods to avoid bloating, and downloading (cue sponsorship) the Clue period-tracker app on your phone. Ovard’s last hack, however, she presents with hesitation. “This is the number-one thing that is, like, my top life hack, tip, trick—the thing that has helped me the most. And that is going on birth control. I don’t know if that’s bad to say, I’m just sayin’!” Ovard is aware that a majority of her viewers are tween and teen girls, and the messages she’s sending are being consumed instantly through phones and tablets, anywhere, at any time. Her hesitation, like Lombard’s, speaks to the resounding silence around reproductive health, a strange new realm that too many young girls are left to navigate on their own.
And then there are the Youtubers who go further in breaking down this silence. Meghan Hughes, a happy-go-lucky, good-vibes type of gal, has a video titled “THE SEX TALK I WISH I HAD,” in which she addresses masturbation—an activity that has historically been viewed as exclusively the realm of teen boys, and in many ways remains so. “So basically clitoral stimulation is the best thing in the entire world,” says Hughes. She urges her viewers that penetration alone won’t bring them the O, but then clarifies, “Who am I to say that there’s a right or wrong way to masturbate? All I’m trying to say here is that it feels good.” She
also admits to watching porn “from time to time” since being shown her first porn video at the age of 9 by her childhood friend one day, a very typical introduction to the world of porn by curious young girls. This is perhaps an even more taboo subject than young women masturbating; she addresses this controversy by acknowledging that people have all kinds of opinions on porn, but the fact that she didn’t edit that bit out of her video shows that she’s committed to being open about her sexual interests.
Later in the video, she shares the “terrible and just bad” story of her first time having sex, which was utterly unsatisfying and awkward, as many first times tend to be. She urges her viewers to “be picky for a reason” because it’s important to actually like the people you have sexual relationships with. This seems like more realistic advice to be passing on to young women discovering their sexuality and propensity for being sexual with other people, rather than an abstinence-only talk that often yields more shaming language than it does actual information about abstinence.
These days, Youtube is nothing like it once was. Overtaken by the directives of monetization, the platform now intentionally creates celebrities and one-person empires out of regular people making videos in their bedrooms and basements. It’s become a training ground for young women seeking (or inadvertently falling into) careers as entrepreneurs in beauty, fashion, and social media. And for the menstrual-management industry, it’s also become a way to sell and promote products from tampons to apps through the millions of views generated through Youtube. Management agencies like Stylehaul, which represents more than 6,000 “creatives” online, connect ad agencies to their clients and launch advertising campaigns. On its website, Stylehaul promises to “bring the url to irl, uniting brands, creators, and the style obsessed.” And it does: Stylehaul’s audience has a 500-plus-million community reach, sees more than 2.2-plus-billion monthly views, and is 76 percent female and 74 percent millennial. The social reach of these content creators alone is comparable to major tv networks.
A monetized video is easy to spot. It typically has an ad playing before the video begins, or has ads dispersed throughout. Youtubers do have the option to demonetize their videos, which some opt to do when the topic at hand is sensitive (death, mental illness) and might feel inappropriate as a vehicle for ads. A video might also become demonetized if the content is flagged as inappropriate or insensitive, either by users or content moderators at Youtube headquarters.
Youtube began monetizing videos in 2007, when it launched its Partner Program, which involved giving select Youtube pages Adsense units. Adsense units are essentially ads that play while a video runs; the appeal to online advertisers comes in
In the past decade, young women have been using Youtube to pass along advice on confounding, “unacceptable” topics.
how clickable content might be. Case in point: the millions of teen and tween girls scouring Youtube high and low for fashion and beauty advice. Slowly but surely, teenage “beauty gurus” began to make videos announcing their induction into the partners program. While Ovard and Lombard might have very brand-friendly aesthetics and channels, Youtube has the right to remove their content if it’s deemed inappropriate, which it has done to some of their more mature content—including, of course, videos on sex. Youtube is often the main source of income for a lot of its more serious users; and women like these take big career risks by creating authentic content that reflects their lives, knowing that it might cost them the only paycheck they’ll receive that month. Youtube loves content on which it can easily capitalize for views and revenue: beauty hauls, shopping vlogs, anything that has potential to link Youtube itself with an outside company for promotional content. But when it comes to more complex content—which young women discussing sex certainly is—the platform isn’t nearly as interested in their ideas.
Some Youtubers have used this cost-per-click basis of payment to their advantage, and have taken an interesting turn in creating sex-positive content. In Breland Kent’s (Glitterforever17) video, “25 Period Life Hacks For Back to School: Period Phone Case, Tampon Baby Lips, diy Menstrual Cup Rug!” Kent transforms her home studio into a high-school hallway and portrays a nervous freshmen on the first day back to school while on her period. Unlike Ovard and Lombard, her tips are less on the self-soothing side and teeter on shaming the young menstruating person: hiding a tampon in an empty hairspray bottle, keeping an air deodorizer with you after using the bathroom, scenting your pads with lavender oil. In an especially horrendous video titled “10 SMELLY VAGINA HACKS! How to Smell Fresh ‘Down There’!” Kent lists off 20 alternate names for your “down there area”: “conchzilla,” “fermented mermaid tail,” and, probably most disturbing, “rigor-mortis penis coffin.” The juvenile language Kent uses to describe vaginas and their natural processes is reminiscent of the once-ubiquitous “Confessions” pages in teen magazines where girls shared mortifying experiences of bleeding through white pants, accidentally dropping tampons in front of crushes, and other expressions of the idea that girls should be sexy without the embarrassment of actually inhabiting imperfect bodies.
And just as such print stories ran conveniently across from ads for pads, tampons, or pain relievers, Kent’s crude videos are a vehicle for making money. Smack dab in the middle of her video, she quickly drops in a small promotion for her fan merchandise, and lists a link in the description box. With attention-grabbing video titles and a subscriber base of 3 million, Kent is peddling—and profiting from—both misinformation and shaming language.
The power of Youtube is in the numbers. With so many young girls watching thousands of videos a day, and even uploading their own content using iphone cameras, a new avenue of sex education is on the rise. It’s difficult to open up to healthcare practitioners for fear of shame or ostracization, especially if a parent is in the room. Pop culture has produced some of the most regressive and sexist representations of everything surrounding sex, from individual acts to the very concept of desire; often, young women aren’t sure what to expect from their menstrual periods, their first time having sex, and everything in between. When one of your favorite Youtubers—someone you trust for makeup advice and who you follow on all platforms of social media—starts to share her own experiences with you, you feel as if you’re talking to your older sister’s cool friend. Perhaps lawmakers can take a cue from some of the internet’s most famous Youtubers, and start implementing legislation that allows women to experience the fullness of their reproductive health, rather than slamming it down with a fistful of silence.
VANESSA BORJON is Bitch Media’s 2017 Writing Fellow in Reproductive Rights and Justice. She is a teaching artist based in Chicago, Illinois. She received her ba in poetry from Columbia College, and her work has been published in the Corazón Land Review, Quaint Magazine, the Shade Journal, and Nepantla.
With so many young girls watching thousands of videos a day, and even uploading their own content using iphone cameras, a new avenue of sex education is on the rise.
I learned everything I know about being a domme from my experiences with Abdallah. Abdallah is 32, Egyptian, and Muslim. He comes over once a week and stands by my leather couch. He waits for my command. I sit in a big armchair and tell him to take all his clothes off and fold them and put them by the door. Abdallah removes his dress shirt, undershirt, fabric belt, jeans, argyle socks, and boxer briefs, and folds them as instructed. I tell him to sit at my feet, on his knees. He does what I ask. I tell him to lick my boots. He asks if this is hygienic. Abdallah is afraid of germs.
This puts him in a bit of a pickle since he’s also very much a slave. I tell him to shut the fuck up and lick my boots. He does, and then takes them off and holds my feet in his hands. His hands tremble.
I met Abdallah on Tinder. He was looking for a dominant woman to step on his cock. I was looking for a submissive man who would let me step on his cock. He’s here now sitting on the wood floor right across from my chair, on a chain attached to my foot. My foot is on his balls.
Abdallah asks if I want to hear Egyptian music. I say yes. I tell him that earlier that week, I had bumped into a Palestinian man who said that Egyptians are either slaves or pharaohs. The man was a friend’s father-in-law, and he said this not knowing that my mother is Egyptian. He asked me to think of all the Egyptians I knew. “Aren’t they either one or the other?” This question made me uncomfortable, especially since it was asking for an absolute judgment about a specific ethnic background. I tend to feel a sense of superiority from people who make generalizations, and this was no different: By saying that people were either in charge or subservient, he wasn’t taking into account all the subtleties of power dynamics, of how a submissive person can wield control, of how a pharaoh-like person attains and earns authority.
I wanted to warn him about the dangers and laziness of thinking in binaries. About how if you think about everyone you know, they can easily fit into either of the two categories of slave and pharaoh if you wanted them to. About how this isn’t specific to Egyptians. I wished I could talk openly about how complicated something like bdsm can be, about subs and dommes, but was too afraid of speaking about something as socially taboo as bdsm. Eventually, the man came clean and told me he hates Egyptians because of how they treat Palestinians. He doesn’t know how devoted my mother is to my father. That my mother spends her life serving my father.
For years, my father asserted his dominance over my mother, and my mother, a dominant person herself, resisted. But it was in the moments that he was quiet, that he didn’t ask for much, that she served him the most—making him tea, washing his clothes, rubbing his scalp, squeezing him fresh lemons over dishes of meals she had cooked, running a lint brush gently over his shoulders before he headed to work. Whenever I spoke poorly of my father, she came to his defense, saying he was a good man. She saw his complexities, and focused on the good in him. She allowed him to financially support her for decades. And if my friend’s father-in-law knew that, he would just say it proves that Egyptians are either slaves or pharaohs.
I ask Abdallah what he thinks of this theory. He says he only knows what he likes, and cannot speak for all Egyptian men. I like that about him. Not so eager to generalize. Plus, he wants to be special.
And so Abdallah is sitting on my floor, a collar around his neck, a leash hooked onto his collar. He’s got his laptop open, too, and he’s working on a lesson plan for his class tomorrow. It occurs to me to ask him if he wants some tea. But I don’t want to get up and make it. Besides, he’s my sub—he should make my tea. I want to lean in, unhook his collar, and send him into the kitchen to boil water for my tea. If he were white, I’d do it in an instant. But he is Arab, his hair kinky, his skin the color of my mother’s skin, my son’s skin, and it takes more gumption for me to dominate him—to domme him around. He’s told me that his previous dommes were all white. The image of him on a chain at the feet of a white woman infuriates me. Haven’t Arab and Muslim men had enough of being chastised, dominated, humiliated, and incarcerated by white supremacy? I don’t ask him this question because it would make me further upset if he told me he didn’t mind it. Instead, I tell him he’s never allowed to serve anyone else but me, and he lowers his gaze like a good Muslim and says, “Yes, goddess.”
I unhook his collar and tell him to go make me some tea. He walks to the kitchen naked and puts the electric kettle on and comes back. A few minutes later, when the teakettle clicks off, I get up to mix the tea, and he asks if he could learn; if I could teach him how to make tea the way I like it. I lead him by the leash to the kitchen, and show him where the spoons are, where the honey is, and how to measure out my black tea leaves. He does, and then we return to the bedroom, to work. A couple of minutes later, I put him on his hands and knees, place my tea cup on the small of his lower back, and pour myself a cup. Abdallah likes it when I treat him like furniture. I love that in my room, with his consent, I can treat a man like furniture.
The next morning, distracted by the thought of him making me tea, by the thought of his naked body, I fill the electric kettle with water, place it on the gas stove, and light the stove. It takes a moment for me to realize what I have
I wanted to warn him about the dangers and laziness of thinking in binaries. About how if you think about everyone you know, they can easily fit into either of the two categories of slave and pharaoh if you wanted them to.
done, and I turn off the stove and check the bottom of the kettle for damage. There is none. Afterward, the smoke alarm beeps. Like most people, I had always known about bdsm, but had no idea how it worked. Did domme stand for dominatrix? (It doesn’t. It just means a dominant woman.) Did dommes have to wear leather or latex from head to toe and carry whips? (They can, but it’s not required. A good domme can make her submissive do anything she wants, no matter what she is wearing or wielding.) Did subs, or submissives, love being beaten? (Some do. But not every sub is a pain sub.)
My experiences with pain during sex were all negative before bdsm. The pain was never consensual. Men gagged me, thinking I enjoyed it. They bit my nipples, assuming that because my breasts were large, they were stronger and impervious to pain. They choked me, their hands over my throat, because I asked them to, but none of them had done any training to figure out how to do it correctly, responsibly. Until bdsm, a lot of sex felt like assault. With bdsm, limits are discussed; classes on bondage, rope tying, slapping, choking, and anything else are offered at different “dungeons,” clubs, and other spaces. It’s almost the sex education everyone should be able to have. I often wish it was.
My first shopping trip for kinky gear, I was at a small sex shop, perusing the vanilla section—vibrators, beads, lube. But after walking past all that, I arrived at the leather part, with most objects encased behind glass. Instead of the standard whips and floggers, there were leather and metal cages in phallic shapes. I asked the salesperson if I could see one—i was already seeing it, but I wanted to hold the cage in my hands. She complied, using a key to unlock the case, and placed the cock cage in my palm. It looked like a small chastity cage, and I’d never seen one before. The salesperson told me it was for cbt. I pretended to know what that meant, and then frantically Googled the letters on my phone. cbt. Cock and ball torture. This was a thing.
When I was a little girl, around five or six, one of my favorite things to do was to play a game I called “motorcycle.” I would beg my brother, or my cousin, or a neighbor, to lie on his back with his legs stretched straight up. I’d grip his ankles and pretend that the legs were the metal arms of a motorcycle, and then I’d place my foot on his testicles and pretend that they were a gas pedal. I had no idea that I was stepping on testicles, only that they were soft like a small jellyfish and felt funny under my feet.
I told this story to Abdallah when we first met up. His response was, “Lucky boys!” He derives no pleasure at all from his penis being stroked or touched. All he wanted to do, all he wants to do, is please me. His hands quivered when I first allowed him to touch me. I’d never seen or heard a man behave so dutifully, so adoringly. He called me his goddess. I told
him to kiss me from head to toe, and he complied, his breath quickening. He loved pleasing me. It’s all he wanted to do. I penetrated his mouth and his ass, because I wanted to, and he wanted to do anything I wanted to do.
I understood right away that being in charge of him was a huge responsibility. I had to make sure that when he was gagging, he wasn’t really hurt. I had to make sure his breath wasn’t restricted if I smothered him with my breasts. Before we did anything, we had very long discussions over text about what he would and would not consent to. This openness, these clear boundaries, felt nothing like vanilla dating or vanilla sex. It was the vanilla stuff that was scary, I finally understood: often unnegotiated or under-communicated. How many times had I been assaulted in one way or another during vanilla sex? Countless. There was the woman who fisted me against my will; the man who thought my gagging sounds were fun; the guys who thought it was fine to slap my ass without asking permission.
After Abdallah, submissive men began flocking to me. They still do. They tell me exactly what they want me to do for them, and ask me what I like. One sub’s hard limits was that he would not do race play. He was white. Another sub’s hard limit was that he did not want to ever penetrate me, or have his genitals restrained.
With bdsm, nothing “just happened.” Every action, desire, and movement is discussed beforehand. “Please never make me eat my cum,” Abdallah had said. “Please never pierce my skin, or make me bleed, or hit my body. Only my face.”
Kink meant consent, always. It meant a discussion of boundaries, desires, fears. Unlike vanilla hookups, it meant safety. It meant true submission.
Abdallah slowly stopped responding to my texts a few months ago. The silent weeks would be followed by days of ardent messages, begging for my attention. When I gave it, he disappeared again. He was married, it turned out, and I told him that there was no room in our female-dominated relationship for deceit or polytheism. I was a monotheistictype goddess. When I broke things off with him, I felt a deep sadness. Abdallah was the first good, responsive, and devoted lover I had who, like me, also had a Muslim identity. This shared background made me feel safe, healed me of the years I thought my mother was a pushover, the years of internalized Islamophobia, years that I thought Muslim men were too rigid or stubborn or proud to submit to anyone but God.
I believed I would never find another Muslim person to be kinky with.
I met Zahid a year after I met Abdallah, almost to the day. We both serendipitously wore red-and-white striped tops to our first date. I loved this because we looked like a Muslim version of Where’s Waldo? Where’s Habibi? I had often thought.
We talked about everything, including whether kink was in the Quʼran. “When the Quʼran says to beat or whip someone, it never says how hard,” he said, joking. “Maybe it’s soft play.” “Islam means submission,” I responded. “I mean, to say,
‘I am Muslim,’ is to say, ‘I submit.’” He smiled and said, “Or, ‘I’m a sub.’” We talked about how, in one’s devotion to God, one yields completely. To be truly Muslim is to understand that God is the only being anywhere who wields any power. For a believer, her Islam—or her submission—means that she places all her trust in God, and dedicates her life to God’s worship. To be Muslim is to be one who submits.
Zahid told me he was hit by a train when he was 23. When I asked him how that happened, he said it was because he and his friends were playing chicken with the train. I wanted to tell him how stupid that is, but instead, I asked him if it was something he did regularly: play chicken with the train. He said yes. He did it all the time. He said that the time he was hit was the only time he paused to think about the train hitting him. He said he
blames being hit on that pause. The train hit him, and he spun in place, like a dreidel. He spun and spun before he hit the ground. The spinning absorbed a lot of the contact, so that when he hit the ground, he wasn’t too severely head injured. He was airlifted to a hospital. Four years later, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He has one ball. I pull on it gently when he’s in my mouth to help him cum.
Zahid’s Islam is, like mine, more of an identity than a practice. We spent the first day of Ramadan getting stoned and driving 45 miles out of town to attend a larp, or a liveaction role play game, where nerds gather in large spaces and pretend to be vampires. We arrived too early, and I began jerking him off in the car, a mile away from the exit. We ended up fucking in a parking lot for half an hour, him calling me his good girl. At the end of Ramadan, he came over, and we drank Eid champagne. We pretended that the label read, “Halal. Enjoy for Eid!” In the morning, I asked him if he thought the pork chorizo I had in the fridge was bad. He smelled it and said he didn’t know. I told him I didn’t know anything about pork. He said he didn’t either, and we laughed. Two Muslims trying to make eggs and chorizo? It didn’t happen. In the past year, my gear has piled up. I bought a paddle with a muffled side and a leather side; a long flogger; a crop; bondage tape; an under-bed restraint system. Anal plugs. A ball gag. A harness for my dildos. A black face mask that allows subs to breathe. My favorite thing ever is a dick leash: a leather collar that fastens at the base of a penis and hooks onto a metal chain.
I initially used that on Zahid. At first, I dominated him most sessions. But eventually we switched, and I relished in the switch. The first time I asked Zahid to collar me, I was nervous. I didn’t want to be rejected. But I trusted him; we had been playing for five months, and I knew I would be safe if I went into submission with him. He said yes. So I brought out Abdallah’s collar, which is black leather with red floral stitching, and we stood facing each other. I threw a pillow on my wood floors, the floors Abdallah once licked my feet on, and got on my knees. I asked Zahid if I could look at him, and he said, “Yes.” I looked up and he fastened the collar on me, gently, and then hooked the leash onto the metal circle. I breathed deeply. It was a relief to finally be the one taken care of. To not constantly be working to ensure a sub’s safety. It was now someone else’s turn.
With BDSM, limits are discussed; classes on bondage, rope tying, slapping, choking, and anything else are offered at different “dungeons,” clubs, and other spaces. It’s almost the sex education everyone should be able to have.
Vanessa Borjon is Bitch Media’s 2017 Writing Fellow in Reproductive Rights and Justice.