Pornography is the great early adopter. From mutoscopes to videotapes, the industry has always been quick to seize upon any potential new smut delivery system. The internet, of course, is no different, but when it comes to its most recent innovation—the ascent of social media—one struggles to imagine how porn might utilise this latest development. We would hardly expect a Facebook app—‘Chris is currently wanking to…’—anytime soon. Nevertheless, spaff finds a way.
Masturbation exists in a liminal space between public and private. Public, because everyone knows that everyone does it, because everyone knows why pornography exists. Private, because its actual occurrence, however enlightened we now are as a society, is still something to provoke titters. Its health benefits are recognised, but versus intercourse it is still mockingly disparaged as the second class citizen of sexual activity: the desperate refuge of the pimply teenager, the obese nerd. ‘Self-abuse’ may not be considered ‘abuse’ anymore, but its selfishness is still an affront: the West praises extroversion, and so inward-orientated onanism will always seem a quaint, faintly-comical stepping stone on the path to ‘real,’ two-player sex; or the sad retreat of those without the balls to make it. The brave new world of bishop-bashing brought about by the internet has not yet changed that, but who’s to say it won’t, in time? Last Sunday, #PornHubTaughtMe was trending on Twitter. It’s a start.
YouTube was not the first video sharing site, but it was the first to really take off, and so define its type in the public imagination. The porn industry, with its insatiable appetite for parody, quickly responded with a slew of sites named accordingly—YouPorn, PornTube—that took YouTube’s principle of free, easy video streaming to its logical conclusion, by replacing all the cats and anime clips with unfiltered hardcore. The establishment of these centralised repositories was liberating, as the everyday pud-puller was no longer limited by the various restrictions of individual studios’ sites: the XHamsters of this world imposed no preview limits, presenting the industry most forcefully with the dilemma that has faced all other media in the internet age, of how precisely to keep making money, when fap-fodder is so readily free.
But these sites also ape other aspects of the YouTube model. Content is organised into channels and categories—though almost always, it’s worth noting, focalised from an implicitly Caucasian, straight, male perspective. All sites feature a ‘Black’ (or the more poetic ‘Ebony’) section, though none I’ve come across (puns always intended) have a ‘White’ one. Many, perhaps in recognition of the Kinsey scale, feature ‘Gay’ as one of the categories. Like YouTube, the sites allow comments (‘Tell us why you fap to this!’), and like YouTube, videos are also sortable by ‘Date Posted,’ ‘Most Viewed,’ and so on. Together, these features have fundamentally changed the way we wank.
By tracking views, comments and ratings—and in the case of PornHub, even foregrounding ‘Videos Being Watched Right Now’—these sites present dynamic ecologies of desire. Early film theory recognised that movement implies life: in the case of online pornography, the movement is more in the frame than the image. The ever-shifting charts of most watched and most favourited constitute a vibrant ecosystem more convincingly alive than any of the dead-eyed cartoons actually on display. ‘The affluent society is a society of voyeurs,’ wrote Raoul Vaneigem, and nowhere is this more apparent than in online porn: in looking into the churning cauldron we are voyeurs not so much to the images within, but to the appetites about them. The democracy of desire promises potential validation for every kink imaginable, however perverted polite society may consider it: one particular piss ‘n’ shit video, for example, consistently hovers near the top of the ‘Most Watched’ list of Tjoob.com.
Sartre wrote of sex as the attempted recognition of mutual subjectivity in the Other, by bringing into harmony body and consciousness, thwarted always at the point of orgasm, when we return most hopelessly to ourselves. When we choke the chicken though we chase something else: there is no Other present, and yanking it will yield no new knowledge. Any intimacy, in fact, comes not with the images, the ciphers flickering over the screen, but rather with the community clustered about them. In something akin to Eve Sedgwick’s ‘homosocial triangle,’ by stroking the salami here, like this, we confuse the basic selfishness of the activity, by bringing ourselves into communion, via videos of sex, with other lone tossers. Further, what we know by this is not anything like a full picture of outside subjectivities, but only the abstracted vicissitudes of disembodied desires. The point of the exercise is ostensibly somatic, but what lingers is mind: these sites present a bubbling palimpsest of ephemeral inclinations, the residue of man as ‘a useless passion.’ When we use these sites we confess our tastes, and that part of us is uploaded forever, as a nub, a statistic, a dot somewhere determining the tides that carry it. #PornHubTaughtMe of knob-polishing what the internet has more generally taught us of everything else: that Donne was right, that no man is an island. Yes, these sites have fundamentally changed the way we wank, because it has never been more a case of ‘we.’
Karl Dando is a freelance writer and author of a new novel, Daniel Delmarva