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The Not-Very-Nice Saga of How 69 Became the Nicest Number of All Time

What started out as a dumb joke became a kinda, sorta, not-really referendum on gender politics and oral sex

In January 2018, Christopher J. Hale embarrassed himself on the internet. The former congressional candidate and political pundit quote-tweeted a breaking news story by the Associated Press, alerting users that President Donald Trump had ended the 69-hour government shutdown that took place that month. “Why is everyone responding ‘nice’ to this?” he inquired earnestly, revealing in one fell swoop that he wasn’t in on a joke almost everyone else online understood: Whenever the number 69 is printed or spoken in a non-sexual context, one replies with the single word: “nice.”

For Hale to not have understood this was, evidently, a faux pas of significant proportions. His flub was documented on GQ’s website in an article titled “Political Commentator Flummoxed by ‘Nice’ Replies to the End of the 69-Hour Government Shutdown,” and Hale was roasted mercilessly on Twitter for his ignorance. How embarrassing, to be so far beyond the margins of the internet’s largest in-group! All Hale had to do, for Christ’s sake, is understand two facts most of us have carried with us since puberty: 69 is the sex number, and sex is funny.

In fairness to Hale and any similarly confused readers, the joke is so base that sophisticates could be forgiven for missing it. Most people who misunderstand the “nice” reply gag do so not because they aren’t aware that “69” describes (and represents visually) the sex position in which two people perform simultaneous oral sex, but because they don’t feel the need to chuckle about the reference like hormonal teenagers; nor do they spend every waking hour of their lives on Twitter, absorbing and obeying its unique codes of conduct and ritualized, lowbrow humor. Bully for them, but for the hopelessly online among us, it’s obvious why you would reply “nice” to the number 69: because it’s dumb, funny and quite simply how things are done.

Things haven’t always been this way. According to a comprehensive cultural history of the “69-nice” meme authored by David Covucci on the Daily Dot, it wasn’t until the early 2010s that the practice of replying “nice” to any stray mention of the number 69 became widespread. Prior to this, users could write the number innocently, without fearing the rote response of the irony-poisoned hordes. By 2016, the ritual had become so common that when President Obama tweeted an image of the number 69 in bright yellow text — referring to the percentage of Americans who wanted a Senate vote on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland — hundreds of users replied “nice” in unison.

That the joke is base and juvenile is, of course, the whole point. Participants understand that it’s the comic equivalent of a whoopee cushion, which is why it lands particularly well in otherwise serious contexts, such as an earnest political message issued by the country’s Head of State. Its simplicity and lack of pretension is what unites people around it: To be in on the joke, one need only commit to the task of pointing out the funny sex number whenever it comes up.

However, all of this only explains why participants would reply to 69 with something: ”haha,” maybe, or “LOL.” But it doesn’t explain why they would reply en masse with the word “nice.” Where did that come from?

The obvious answer is that the act of 69ing is, well, nice. As Covucci points out, we tend to imagine it spoken like the police in the South Park episode “Miss Teacher Bangs a Boy” or the trademark ad lib of the rapper Fabolous: with slightly drawn-out vowel sounds — “niiice” — and pervy inflections. The implication is that 69 isn’t only funny by virtue of being related to sex, but also kind of hot, and that “achieving” a 69 is praiseworthy for this reason. As one Reddit user said when asked to explain the meme, “Dunno why ‘nice,’ I assume just because ‘oh you got a 69, nice.’” And it’s this latter point, more than any other, that makes the ubiquity of the “69-nice” meme surprising, given that the enjoyability of 69ing has been strongly contested online — most notably during the 69 wars of the early 2010s.

The 69 Wars Come to a Head

Yes, the 69 wars. If you weren’t there, you won’t remember them, but they occurred around the same time that the “69-nice” meme was picking up steam and in the same digital location (Twitter). The fighting came to a head in 2013 and was waged largely on Feminist Twitter and Sex Work Twitter, between camps of people who otherwise agreed on most things. You were either for or against 69ing, and you took your side stridently, although with tongue firmly in cheek. Much like the meme, the fight was an extended bit, a faux-serious disagreement in which an inherently subjective and trivial debate topic — is 69ing good, or isn’t it? — stoked bitter (not really) rivalries and drew impassioned, sweeping claims.

It’s clear in hindsight that the negative camp was more organized and persuasive than the affirmative. An article in the now-defunct Adult magazine by Charlotte Shane and Susan Elizabeth Shepard, who were something like the lieutenant generals of the negative army, represented the high-water mark of anti-69 sentiment and moved the debate out of the Twitter realm. They characterized proponents of the position as “sexually immature … sensualists” and their enthusiasm for the position as “superficial and ill-conceived, reeking of sexual amateurism and an almost buffoonish blip of an insight.” The argument of the pro-69 camp, as Shane and Shepard saw it, was this: “I like going down on my partner, but I also like it when my partner goes down on me. What if these experiences could be combined?” This, they argued, was as childish and unrefined as “cupcakes made with bacon,” borne of an immature desire to mash two good things together and an assumption, like that of a third grader doing basic arithmetic, that this will result in a better thing.

The arguments against 69 are numerous and persuasive, at least in the hands of these generals. First is perhaps an obvious point: The quality of the head either party receives during the mutual, upside-down session is reduced. As Shane and Shepard put it, “[T]he result of this sexual multitasking is poor on both ends: a lessening of intensity of received sensation and diminished ability to provide it.” In other words, while 69ing, one simply can’t concentrate on giving or receiving enough to really enjoy either.

According to the authors, proponents of 69 are, variously, “gluttons,” would-be “epicures” and the Guy Fieris of the bedroom. Food analogies abound in the essay, and proponents of 69 are even likened to the “entry-level erotic dilettante” who, perhaps after taking too many sealed sections of Cosmopolitan magazine to heart, brings edibles into the bedroom. People who enjoy 69 are, they argue, the same type of people who engage in the whipped-cream blowjobs and candy G-strings that only teenagers who don’t fuck much think are a good idea. The specter of the fumbling teenager, while never explicitly mentioned in the essay, looms as a background image: A key point, stressed several times, is that those who embrace 69 never gained more sexual acumen than adolescents. Like stoned teenagers beginning their fourth consecutive hour of a video game, they’re lazy hedonists, obsessed with sensory pleasure but pursuing only the most base methods of achieving it.

Maybe worst of all, though, they’re also compared to cogs in the capitalist machine. “It is a distinctly capitalistic, efficiency-emphasizing endeavor that erases the unique personhood of each participant,” Shane and Shepard assert, “by relying on a crude approximation of how human bodies fit together if human bodies are conceived of as identical, two-dimensional figures like the numbers of its name.” That is, the position doesn’t allow two people with different-sized bodies to comfortably engage, and one or both parties must contort the neck or spine to accommodate the other.

‘Abolish 69’

The argument goes on: 69 literally silences women. Having to pretend to enjoy the half-hearted head it produces is emotional labor. It’s akin to asking a massage therapist if you can stroke her hair while she works her magic. It echoes the service economy. It’s a form of sexual satisfaction praised only by those who expect nothing better for themselves. It’s work.

As is no doubt apparent, the prose is delightfully bossy, laden with irony and witty to a fault. The essay makes for chastening reading for anyone on team 69, and the latter was poorly represented by a response penned by Giana Ciapponi on feminist website Ravishly shortly after “Abolish 69” was published. In her response, Ciapponi fumbles for a coherent counterargument, clearly misunderstands Shepard and Shane’s argument about bodies fitting together, polls three (3!) individuals who enjoy 69 and makes grating use of collective pronouns and online slang (“feminists insist it’s ‘sexually immature,’ we call bullshit”).

The strongest pro-69 argument Ciapponi musters is weaker than a newborn fawn: “If you’re pregnancy-phobic — and high on a cocktail of condoms, birth control pills and Plan B — this clandestine act is a dream come true,” she muses. “Perhaps most important is the fact that the position’s seeming impracticality is precisely what makes it so awesome,” she adds, asserting that the “challenging choreography and awkward sliding about makes it feel a little dirty and wondrously wrong. And isn’t that why we love sexual experimentation in the first place?”

More painful even than Ciapponi’s misreading of Shane and Shepard’s arguments and her tepid counterargument is watching the joke fly so completely over her head. She appears not to catch a whiff of the authors’ irony and responds with the aching earnestness of a Reply Guy on Twitter arguing with the punchline of a much wittier woman’s joke. “Way harsh, guys!” she exclaims after quoting the section on capitalist efficiency, before issuing her main complaint, spliced with unnecessary hyphens: “And dare-we-say-WAY-over-analytical.”

Ciapponi wasn’t alone either. As is often the case when women engage in humor more subtle than a fart joke, almost everybody missed the comedy in Shane and Shepard’s essay. To Shepard’s delight, the essay landed the pair on conservative essayist Andrew Sullivan’s list of nominees for his “Poseur Alert of the Year” award for 2014, an achievement she tells me generated so much pride that she put it on her resume. Sex advice columnist Dan Savage seemed to understand that “Abolish 69” might be tongue-in-cheek, but even he wasn’t sure. “My money is on parody,” he wrote in a short column about the essay. “But in the era of #CancelColbert… who the fuck knows?”

The general consensus among those who remember the 69 wars is that the negative camp enjoyed a resounding victory. “‘69 is bad’ defeated all enemies as far as the eye could see,” is how one friend of mine puts it, and it’s hard to argue against that historical reading: The positive camp suffered a humiliating defeat when “Abolish 69” was published, and no one rose to the challenge of defending the position with the same wit and levity as Shane and Shepard. Perhaps this is unsurprising: In light of the charges leveled against 69 fans in “Abolish 69,” defending the position would have risked exposing yourself as a sexual rube — it seemed the positive camp had nothing better to say than “I like it because it feels good,” and the authors had already skewered that line of argument.

Shepard explains that the only tenable criticism she saw leveled against “Abolish 69” was that it was heteronormative, but even this criticism is a dead end. It isn’t an argument in favor of the position, only a chastisement of the authors for focusing on straight women, which they never pretended not to do — the second sentence of the essay clarifies that the frame of reference is the “male-female sexual relationship.”

Who Actually Likes 69ing?

The male perspective on 69ing does generally seem to be more positive, although some rank-and-file members of the negative camp were, and still are, male. Frank, a lawyer in New York in his 40s, is opposed to the position because it’s “like a mimosa, two ingredients that are better apart that other people insist they enjoy together” — a food analogy of which Shepard and Shane would surely approve.

However, for queer men and perhaps queer people more generally, the experience may be more positive. “I’ve found it works a little better, at least in my experience, when done with a person with the same genitals,” says Chris, a 28-year-old cinematographer based in Brooklyn, who is non-binary but masculine. “When you’ve got an idea of how the other person’s body will react by default, it requires a little less thinking. It wouldn’t stun me to hear people with vaginas feel similarly.” They add that they’re playing catch up on many years when they missed out on sucking dick from being closeted, and that “recency bias” might explain some of their enjoyment of 69.

MEL staff writer Miles Klee is another proponent of the position, and he challenges the idea that mutual pleasure is at odds with the potential for either partner’s “real” pleasure. “We don’t much question the concept of both people having a simultaneous good time during a non-oral penetrative session, nor the idea that one can enjoy giving head,” he says. “If you can both go down on each other at the same time, I think there’s more than novelty to recommend the experience: You can wind up doubly pleased by the giving and receiving, rather than having either bliss halved.”

There is very little record of the 69 wars online; so little that veterans could drive themselves crazy thinking that they imagined it all. The hyperlinks to “Abolish 69” are all dead, the website having long since shuttered its windows (I was fortunate enough to have been emailed a PDF by Shepard, a relic as precious as a flight lieutenant’s log book). The Twitter search function makes it difficult to piece together the discussion and some participants have long since abandoned their accounts. It was a blip of digital history — a cultural moment of uncertain significance — and it has been poorly preserved.

Droning On in Unison

Websites are more ephemeral than we care to remember. This year alone, Tumblr destroyed great swathes of art created by queer people, women, sex workers and artists when it implemented a swift decision to ban adult content and MySpace announced it had lost 12 years worth of music uploads in a server migration, a loss of approximately 50 million tracks by 14 millions artists. Writer Kate Wagner compared the loss to “a smallish Library of Alexandria [burning] to the ground” and warned that “librarians and archivists have implored us for years to be wary of the impermanence of digital media.” We can lose a wealth of knowledge and culture in an instant, and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.

The lessons of the 69 wars appear to be one such casualty. To the dismay of the negative camp, our mass response to the position’s existence is now mandatory, ritualized positivity: “Nice,” we drone in unison when the number crosses our path. Gone are the stinging comparisons to low-caliber foodstuffs, Marxist analysis of the body’s contortions and rousing exhortations to expect better for ourselves. Now, the undiscerning logic of the horny teen reigns supreme.

With the 69 wars swept from memory, the position now enjoys dull, hegemonic approval, as though rehabilitated by the slickest PR team money can buy. Only the veterans from the negative camp, ever dwindling in number, refuse to forget: There’s nothing nice about it.