The pornification of everything

In today’s dating market, women who would prefer porn practices kept out of their bedrooms have little negotiating power

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Every meme has its day, and “Rule 34” — the observation that on the internet you can find porn featuring every imaginable protagonist and situation — is now so banal that it’s been ages since I’ve seen it mentioned. It is said to have originated 20 years ago with a webzine cartoon of a man staring in horror at a screen. The speech bubble reads “Calvin and Hobbes?”, and it’s captioned “Rule #34: if it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.”

With hindsight, those were innocent times. The intervening decades have seen the arrival of Pornhub, now the world’s largest porn site; smartphones, which put free porn in everyone’s pockets, including children’s; and OnlyFans, which disaggregated and disintermediated live sex work. 

Porn aesthetics have reshaped women’s bodies, with trout pouts and Brazilian waxes now mainstream, and breast and butt implants nearly so. Meanwhile porn tropes have made their way into bedrooms: young women report that spitting, slapping, choking and anal are now normal expectations on the dating scene.

Anti-porn campaigners tend to have three concerns: what porn does to the performers; what it does to the viewers; and what it does to the wider culture. The zeitgeist is uncongenial to thinking seriously about such issues. 

Self-denial and delayed gratification are out of fashion

Self-denial and delayed gratification are out of fashion. The rising identitarian mode of politics conceives of people as bundles of innate characteristics — not just race, sexuality and gender identity, but specific and sometimes outré sexual tastes framed as “kinks”, which supposedly come pre-installed. The main task of teenagers and young adults is thought to be self-discovery, not building character. 

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To this way of thinking, porn cannot teach arousal to distasteful material, only reveal that it is what the viewer was always fated to enjoy. For young people so open-minded that their brains have fallen out, the only sexual no-no is “kink-shaming”. It’s not your fault — or Pornhub’s — if you get off on urinating on people or soiling an adult nappy; indeed self-actualisation means learning that immutable fact about yourself early and acting upon it often. The sole admissible moral consideration concerning sexual encounters is consent.

But as Louise Perry writes in her excellent book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, consent is too shallow a concept to capture what is going on in today’s dating market. The pill, dating apps and porn have shaped it to suit only high-status, commitment-phobic men. Women who would prefer porn practices kept out of their bedrooms have little negotiating power. Is a teenage girl really able to say no to booty calls, choking and anal when she knows any boy she fancies has tastes and expectations shaped by porn? 

Some campaigners put their hope in measures such as parental controls, age verification and blocking online payment and clearing services. I fear, however, that these will do little hold back the tide of filth. Meanwhile porn is once more being reinvented by technology — in ways that may alleviate the impact on performers, but at the cost of speeding up the pornification of everything.

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The latest development is hyper-realistic CGI video of AI-generated characters. These are not “deepfakes”, in which stills or videos of real people are manipulated (often by superimposing female celebrities’ faces on the bodies of porn performers). Rather, they feature original characters created by machine-learning algorithms. 

The result will soon be visually indistinguishable from flesh and blood, except in being impossibly beautiful — or simply impossible, endowed with flexibility and stamina beyond human capacity, and proportions beyond the dreams of plastic surgeons.

The technology still has glitches: an image of four ridiculously lovely blonde, bikini-clad cam-girls that went viral on Twitter earlier this year managed the faces and curves well, but fell down when it came to the hands. Even so, it garnered appreciative comments from men who didn’t spot the flaws — and many predictions that artificial beauties created and directed by men will soon displace performers on OnlyFans and other adult-content sites. 

Some OnlyFans creators pushed back, saying that their subscribers value a personal connection. And indeed some porn viewers may be willing to pay for something they perceive as authentic, just as people still queue to see the Mona Lisa rather than settling for a faithful reproduction. Or they may value the proprietorial feeling of owning a private performance or direct link with a creator. That is, after all, why NFTs (non-fungible tokens, which create verifiable title to the original of digital art) have taken off. 

Female celebrities might still be able to make money from adult performances, should they wish to — though few do now; very beautiful women usually have better options. The market in pretty young nobodies willing to be filmed having sex, however, is surely approaching its expiry date.

How can they compete with artificial women whose expressions, anatomy and every move have been shaped by a man’s insights into other men’s desires? And you’d have to be very naïve to think men who cannot tell or do not care about the difference between faked female orgasms and real ones care much about authenticity and personal connection. 

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Taking the performers out of pornography would do a great deal to increase the sum total of human happiness. The average OnlyFans creator makes just $150 a month, and few porn performers’ careers last for more than a few years. This is an industry that chews up gullible young women and spits them out with mental and physical injuries from PTSD to anal prolapse. 

The shortness of careers in porn is largely because of the “Coolidge effect” — men’s evolutionarily-endowed desire for variety and novelty in sexual partners. It’s named for a possibly apocryphal anecdote about the former American president visiting a farm with his wife. On hearing that a particular rooster mated dozens of times a day, Mrs Coolidge supposedly said, “Tell that to the president.” Later, when he hears the same tale, the president asks “Same hen every time?” and when the answer is no, he says: “Tell that to Mrs Coolidge.”

As for the escalating demands on performers, they are driven in part by an effect common to all media. I don’t think it’s been named, but I think of it as action-filmitis: the repeated one-upmanship in which one film’s car chase is trumped by the next one’s bomb on a bus, and thence in turn by high-speed smash-ups involving helicopters, planes, rockets, satellites and spaceships. 

The porn equivalent is bigger, harder, faster and longer. It’s more partners, more implants, more orifices, more bodily fluids, more violence and degradation. 

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The effect is amplified by the way exposure to any type of content desensitises the audience, and by algorithms that autoplay ever more extreme content. Material that once would have turned viewers’ stomachs becomes ejaculation fodder. AI-generated porn, unconstrained by the need to keep performers at least minimally happy — or even alive — will further accelerate this process.

It remains to be seen just how far AI-driven porn will stray from simulating reality

It remains to be seen just how far AI-driven porn will stray from simulating reality. The female equivalent — written erotica — has always been more ingenious and varied. That is in part because evolution has shaped women to respond to a wider range of sexual cues than men, but also because the written word is less constraining than live-action film. 

Given the chance, might large numbers of men like to watch AI-generated women having sex with the werewolves, vampires, demons and human-animal hybrids who stalk romance novels and fanfic? Might they be aroused by plots involving sex magic, soul bonds and time-travel? 

I fear rather that the backhanded compliment paid by Rule 34 to the range of men’s erotic imagination will turn out to have been too generous. To adapt Orwell, if you want a picture of the future of porn, imagine a freakishly endowed man pounding into an impossibly pneumatic woman — for ever. 

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