Taimi Vilkko is a second year International Relations student. She is particularly interested in intersectionality and feminist perspectives on security.
[Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown Source]
On TikTok, we have seen it all being romanticized. Emotional abuse, unhealthy relationship dynamics, sexual violence, to name a few. Most recently, the “vanilla-shaming” phenomenon on the platform has gotten attention due to its dangerous normalization of violence against women and for blurring the distinction between sex positivity and outright sexual violence on the platform. An increasing amount of videos is being published glamourizing violent sex, while deeming ‘normal’ or ‘vanilla’ sex as somehow unacceptable .
I have seen this being discussed on social media and I have had conversations about this with my friends, alarmed by how this trend may influence any person of any age coming across the content on the For You -page. In many ways though, TikTok has also proliferated (healthy) sex positivity discourse and broken taboos around women’s sexuality, raising awareness of abuse, as well as opened up new ways of spreading sex education, erasing stigma and shame . However, the ‘dark side’ of some of these TikTok trends – the seemingly ridiculous and dangerous glorification of grave phenomena, which adversely affect especially young women, trans people and women of color – should be worthy of more critical attention.
The devastating abduction and murder of Sarah Everard revived the much-needed but yet seemingly never-ending discussion around the dreadful realities of sexual harassment and gender-based violence. A disturbing reminder of the violence women and gender minorities are faced with everyday, the subsequent resurgence of gender-based violence discourse on social media makes locating the reproduction of oppressive, patriarchal structures yet again topical and dire.
TikTok is one of the sites of such regeneration of structural problems. Though all social media is in many of the same ways complicit in reproducing sexist, racist, and overall harmful discourses, TikTok adds another layer to this due to its distinctive format of content. Although trends have been a feature of social media since its emergence, TikTok operates on a more accelerated basis. The app is constructed around the infinite circulation and repetition of topics, images, and ‘trends’, generating models for everyone else to adopt and repeat. What might be the impact of creating engagement via non-stop circulation of videoclips, each mocking the other, at the mercy of an algorithm? How do these trends mould reality? In this case, what can this mean for the reality of sexual and gender-based violence?
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard illustrated in his Simulacra and Simulation how, in post-modernity, the hyperreal overtakes the real, because reality itself begins being produced in accordance with models and frames; reality itself becomes a simulation. In this condition, nothing we consider real is longer an original or a tangible reality, but a ‘simulacrum’, a representation or a copy. In the postmodern society, all originals have faded and are substituted by infinite copies, blurring the line between the real and non-real .
Along these lines, social media is another form of the hyperreal, which becomes the precedent of reality. For Baudrillard, the simulacrum represents a situation in which an image precedes a tangible, material reality – in social media, the representation produces the real . A simulacrum, according to Baudrillard, is a copy of a copy – or a copy with no original – and the concept of TikTok ‘trends’ embodies this perfectly. The consumer of this content cannot tell if the images reflect any signifying reality, and reality becomes produced as copies of copies. TikTok is therefore in many ways the perfect simulacrum.
In this way, TikTok then makes gender-based sexual violence a reality, and this violence is free to masquerade as sexual liberation. As the basic line of argument goes, on social media, we no longer project ourselves and our identities onto the platform – the virtual reality starts interpreting our very selves for us. And as Baudrillard framed it, the media image starts preceding the reality, and we begin approaching each other through the lens of the reality these images present to us, be they TV, magazines or the Internet. Media and images, here TikTok videos glorifying sexual violence, perpetuate sexist discourses and regenerate reality in their terms. This is connected to how Judith Butler conceived of gender performativity; The act is taken for the real, and images and performative acts shape the world around us .
Thus, TikTok, as other social media platforms generally as well, has a normalizing and legitimizing power, as the copied images with no original lose their real meaning and context. So what, if some of these trends reproduce sexist phenomena, as long as they get to be presented as sexually liberating content, and something that everybody should be doing, the underlying structural issues can go unnoticed. At the same time, young people become subjected to the content, and the outcome of this is the perpetual circulation and reproduction of heterosexist, patriarchal structures.
This theoretical argument about the capacity of simulacra to redefine reality, and induce and mould existing socio-political phenomena has been previously applied to for instance the impact violent pornography when it comes to increasing levels of sexual violence experienced by women and gender minorities. Young people have long been subjected to a media environment where gender-based violence is made a norm – a study found that almost 90% of most watched pornographic content included physical aggression . Accordingly, a survey of UK-based women recently found that almost 40% has experienced unwanted aggression during consensual sex, such as hitting, spitting, or choking .
The ‘vanilla-shaming’ discourse proliferating on TikTok both ridicules consent, as well as mocks viewers for being ‘vanilla’ and not understanding what good sex is about. According to some users, a word of criticism under some of these videos can lead to being called a prude and accusations of kink-shaming. These trends are creating the norm – the simulacrum tells young people that everyone does this and the problematization of this discourse is in fact constraining sexual liberation. As one user pointed out, the vanilla-shaming discourse is hypersexualizing young girls to the extent that they feel they must allow men to beat them up, in order not to be accused of being a prude . Hence, as sexual violence experienced by women continues to increase, it is of paramount importance to address this development of violence being mistaken for liberation on TikTok – especially taking into account that this is a development that hits hardest marginalized communities; almost 50% of polled US-based trans and non-binary persons had experienced sexual violence .
In light of the recent discussion on social media about the reality of harassment and gender-based violence, sparked by yet another disturbing and tragic crime, next we need to divert attention to where these realities are enabled that perpetuate the vulnerability of women and gender minorities to acts of violence. On TikTok, the normalizing and legitimizing capacity of the never-ending circulation of copies of copies contributes to the upholding of the system which continues to produce gender-based violence. We should all push for inverting this development, and promote a discourse of distinguishing comfortability, boundaries, and consent from unhealthy dynamics, shaming and the normalization of violence.
 Lucy Robinson, “On TikTok, vanilla-shaming is the new kink-shaming”, i-D, 2021
For an example of such content: This TikTok has 1.4M views https://www.tiktok.com/@yngphantxm/video/6905183384213998853?referer_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.yourtango.com%2F2021340199%2Fwhy-tiktok-vanilla-shaming-trend-perpetuates-dangerous-non-consensual-relationships&referer_video_id=6905183384213998853&is_copy_url=1&is_from_webapp=v3
 Bethany Dawson, “The TikTok Sex Ed Revolution”, Glamour, 2020
 Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
 Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1988), pp.166-184.
 Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.”, 1988.
 Ana J. Bridges, Robert Wosnitzer, Erica Scharrer, Chyng Sun, and Rachael Liberman, “Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update”, 2010. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1077801210382866
 Alys Harte, ‘A man tried to choke me during sex without warning’, BBC 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-50546184
 oatmilk623 on TikTok
 Sexual Violence & Transgender/ Non-binary Communities, National Sexual Violence Resource Center https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications/2019-02/Transgender_infographic_508_0.pdf