On 13th January 2021, the team behind the Zoella website posted a new blog post titled ‘The Best Sex Toys to Spice Up Your Life in 2021’. The Zoella brand name is based on the YouTube channel and digital career of British influencer, Zoe Sugg. Zoe has been producing digital content since 2007, and over the years has accumulated a large following, with 11.1 million subscribers, just on her main YouTube account. Sugg has run an online blog for many years, as well as producing video content, and as her following has grown, so has her team of people. She now has a group of people working for her under all elements of the Zoella brand, from marketing, products and writing blog posts.

The blog post mentioned above, included recommendations on sex toys that would be guaranteed to enhance the user’s masturbation during the third national lockdown. The blog post is well written, featuring some up-to-date modern language, and written in a way that is not formal enough to be a news article, but in a form of familiarity that makes the reader feel welcome. The opening paragraph of the blog post reads:

“Since we’ve recently renewed our membership to the stay-at-home club, albeit for a rolling, cancel at any time contract (we hope), we’re going to do a few things differently this time round, starting with self-care. And by self-care, we mean drastically increasing our chances of having an orgasm by touching ourselves regularly or having a beloved partner do it for us.”

This immediately opens up the conversation about masturbation, in particular female masturbation, as being a form of self-care, which us into a giant step for breaking the stigma around touching ourselves.

The article then moves onto giving the reader recommendations on the different toys and gadgets that would enhance the sexual experiences of anyone who would be interested. The post has everything from pictures, the price of the item and even a link on where you can purchase them from. There is a description below, that explains more about the product and what it can do. Seemingly, these deteriorate in formality as you read through the blog post. The descriptions start off like “You’re about to reach a whole new level of introspection. The thumb-sized bullet is great for gentle and discreet solo play. Complete with three speed settings, a tapered tip for targeted clitoral stimulation and a beautiful, if a little cunning, exterior that could easily pass for a lipstick, it’s one smooth operator.”. Before turning into “best for: a hands-free wank. The revolutionary design of Eva II gets you there without the bastardly hand cramp. The wings tuck under the labia while the rest of the toy tends to your clitoris. We stan lazy orgasms”. The formality of the second quote, allows the reader to feel more comfortable about the discussion of sex toys, almost as if they are easing the reader into the article with the language used. The incorporation of modern language here, also reflects the forward-thinking approach to the way that the article was written.

In terms of the products featured, there is everything from external to internal items, priced at largely different price points. The most affordable item on this list is priced at £5, and the most expensive item on this list, which would set you back £180. The collection in this list really does cater to something for everyone, no matter what their preferences or their anatomy; something that this blog post does something without fault. The language used in the original blog post is inclusive to the point of breaking the gender binary. Nowhere in the article does it refer to certain items as ‘male’ or ‘female’ sex toys, instead referring to them as suitable for “penis owners” or “clitoris owners” which is a huge step in breaking out of the gender binary.

Despite the positives that I have outlined above, this did not stop Zoe Sugg receiving criticism from the media after news emerged that the GCSE exam board AQA were dropping her digital content from the syllabus. The exam board were using some of her content in their media studies GCSE course, which of course involved Year 10 and Year 11 students consuming the content that she was producing with her team. Some people had issues with the fact that Zoella was producing content of an adult nature, but promoting masturbation and the use of sex toys.

From this point onwards, I will be referring to an article that was published in the UK newspaper Metro. This article was published in the afternoon of the 29th January 2021, written by Louise Griffin.

The Metro article, which featured the headline “Zoe Sugg dropped from AQA GCSE syllabus due to ‘adult content’ following vibrator round-up’, outlines more of the situation that arose from the original Zoella blog post. My immediate thoughts on the headline are that it is misleading. The headline demeans the original blog post to being just a vibrator review, when it was actually much more than that. Not only were the sex toys included, not all vibrators, but the blog post went into detail about the normality of masturbation and female masturbation, which leads to the normalisation of such taboo issues. In this article, however, Griffin explains that the YouTube star has been part of the GCSE syllabus since 2017, but has now been removed due to some of her content being aimed at an adult-only audience. I feel that the keyword in this sentence is ‘some’. The adult-only content that is being mentioned here, is one blog post which did not sit right with some people, but somehow, we are lead to believe that Zoella has transitioned into only making adult content.

Sandra Allan, the Head of Curriculum for Creative Arts, for AQA said in a statement: “GCSE Media Studies includes the analysis of online and social media and we added Zoella in 2017 … At the time, all her content was appropriate for teaching, but some of Zoella’s recent content is aimed specifically at an adult audience and isn’t suitable for GCSE students”.

Griffin then continues the article, mentioning the Zoella lifestyle brand, and the number of followers that Zoe has. She then goes on to randomly mention that Zoe Sugg had received criticism in 2020 for putting her office manager on furlough amid the coronavirus pandemic and that she has shared various vlogs and campaigns aiming to combat stigmas surrounding health. My main issue with this section of the article is how it has been formatted on the Metro website. “Putting her office manager on furlough” is in bold, orange text, which is what immediately catches the readers eye when they are reading through the article. In my opinion, this further leads to the demonisation of Zoella as it draws attention to past criticism that she has received, when it bears no relevance to the current topic of debate. Perhaps, the thing that should have been in bold, should have been the fact that she has been creating and sharing digital content that aims to end the stigma around health. Below this statement, there is one of Zoe’s videos embedded into the article, providing the reader with an example about what she has created, regarding health content on YouTube, and in particular, women’s health.

On the 30th August 2019, a video was uploaded on Zoe Sugg’s YouTube channel titled "Live Smear Test, Q&A with the Nurse & Office Group Discussion”, in which Zoe gets a cervical screening smear test, and the video has open and honest conversations about cervical screenings and cervical cancer. With nearly 4 million views, it begs the question: is this not an example of Zoe Sugg creating content that empowers people and influences social change to help break the stigma around these issues?

However, another article in Metro was written by Griffin the day after the last-mentioned article, talking more about how Zoella had reacted to the backlash that she had received. The article features screenshots of Zoe’s Instagram account as she addresses the situation regarding the sex positive blog post.

She begins by saying “Apparently the @zoella website got picked for a GCSE syllabus? Nothing I was aware of or asked to be a part of”. She goes onto address the situation further, firstly by providing her viewers with information about Team Zoella, and the target audience for her blog:

“For those of you who aren’t aware, the @zoella website is not just me reviewing things. It’s a passionate team of women (WOMEN) writing about things that women are interested in & we’ve worked hard to include more women’s health, conversational articles & basically just more grown up content as our main demographic is 25-35 year old females. NOT 16 year olds.”

She then criticises AQA for assuming that Zoe’s content was made for teens and that they should have done their research and realised that there are countless posts on Zoella regarding periods, masturbation, sex, fertility as well as the sex toy review post that they are concerned with.

Zoe then goes onto say that she disagrees that teens shouldn’t be learning about ‘this stuff’, and that ‘how else are teenage girls going to find out more about being a woman? I WISH I had a website like @zoella when I was growing up”. This clearly portrays her feelings on the matter, and the fact that she is making an attempt to educate young people on those kinds of issues.

For me, I believe that education is the key to preventing unhappy moments. If schools are not providing young people with education on masturbation, female masturbation and self-care, then who is?  Our education system is leaving these conversations for people to discover on their own, or through online content such as porn. It is so important that social media influencers like Zoella, make posts that normalise masturbation, and in particular, female masturbation, as for me, female masturbation was not talked about once during our sex ed classes, for boys or girls. Zoella concludes her social media story by saying:

“It’s reasons like this that we feel it’s important to write about these things on the website! And we will continue to do so. But just to clear up the narrative. No. I did not review vibrators. As a team we wrote about the popular ones. And guess what? It was our most clicked on article, most swiped up & most ordered items through links EVER! BECAUSE WOMEN MASTURBATE! And if that makes you uncomfortable, that’s society for you!”

This, for me, was the perfect way to sum up her address of the backlash, and media coverage that she had received as a result of the original blog post. Her response reflects the way that many feminists feel, in that society seems to dismiss any female positive content if it crosses the line of being ‘too sexual’. In terms of Zoella’s demographic, she stated that her target audience was over 25. However, I don’t believe that this is a necessary piece of information. As a content created, Zoe has the ability to create content on whatever she deems relevant and popular to her viewers, this does not mean that she has to base her content on her current demographic, although this would help her relationship with the press. I personally don’t see anything wrong with creating digital content that has the power to empower young people and open up the conversation about traditionally taboo topics.

To conclude, the Zoella sex toy scandal is one that is unsurprising in today’s society. We have a habit of shutting down the ideas and voices of powerful women in the public eye, only allowing some the right to speak, which we then criticise when they do. I wonder if a male YouTuber had posted a sex toy-based blog post, whether he would get the same amount of backlash as the female equivalent. Or whether he would be help up in praise for starting a conversation about sex. It is examples like this that further solidify the idea of the default male in the media that we see on a daily basis. That somehow, male voices are taken more seriously than female voices, which builds on our societies default male thinking.

The Zoella Sex Toy Scandal

An article on Gender Representation in the Media by Huntley McBride