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Sex sells? Not any more

The Victoria’s Secret show in 2013

Adonis himself would be jealous of the “golden skin and barely dressed bodies” we’ve ogled on Love Island, says Finn McRedmond in The Irish Times. For years, the “sexual neuroses” of beautiful people have been a cultural obsession, beamed out on primetime TV. But our enthusiasm for overtly sexual culture seems to be waning. Look at Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie brand built on the principle that “sex sells”. In 2011, more than 10 million viewers tuned in to watch scantily clad supermodels in its world-famous fashion show. But by 2019, viewing numbers had plummeted and the event was axed. The company’s valuation has plunged from $28bn in 2015 to less than $3bn today.

Something “more staid, more traditional, and thoroughly more conservative” is asserting itself in the zeitgeist. Authors like Louise Perry argue the sexual revolution has failed women: we’re surrounded by “exploitative pornography”, unfulfilling hook-up culture and a digital dating marketplace in which we must sell ourselves as commodities. “It is hardly a rosy outlook.” As this discomfort with hyper-sexualisation spreads, a younger generation is finding fulfilment in conservative values. Gen Z’s adoption of Catholicism as a fashion statement, for example, is reflective of a “more deeply held traditional bent”. Our society is remembering that marriage and the nuclear family “are of central importance” to many people’s happiness, and that female empowerment “comes in forms far more complex than simple sexual liberation”.