Online Porn: A Zero-Sum Game

Hannibal Lecter: He covets.  That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice?  Do we seek out things to covet?  Make an effort to answer now.

Clarice Starling:  No. We just…

Hannibal Lecter:  No. We begin by coveting what we see every day.

-Dialogue, Silence of the Lambs

This is an essay about money.  And sex.  How sex is presented and communicated.  And how money and technology determines how sex is presented.  It includes some speculation about the consequences of this interplay between sex, money, and technology.  Finally, it attempts to decode this viciously complicated and inscrutable combination, and how it has altered what it means to be a human being living today.

What this is not is an indictment of women’s sexuality as a commodity.  This is almost invariably where feminist and general liberal criticisms of pornography conclude, and it’s not an adequate analysis.  What online porn is, what it represents, and what assumptions it creates in its audience are each cascading issues that are integral to the others, part of an ongoing dialogue of appetites.  It is a primary touchstone for a new cultural anthropology that has become embedded in every corner of our society, which also means every physical space on the planet with an uncensored internet connection.

All of this started when I discovered a web site called Naked.com.  It’s a sex webcam site with dozens of very pretty young girls stripping, playing with toys, having sex with their boyfriends, all live, all for tips from the online gallery gawking in.  Naked.com is not unusual in any sense; do a search on Google for free webcam sex and you’ll receive 62 million results.  Porn as a category is far and away the most dominant online content as well.  In the first quarter of 2010, according to a report issued by IT security firm Optenet, 37 percent of all content on the internet was pornography.  Shopping (9 percent), travel (5.7), computing (4.2), and sports (4.2) comprised the next most popular content types.

What’s the reason for porn’s ubiquity? Porn is very cheap (or free) to produce.  It’s an eroticized reality show more or less.  Porn requires no thought on the part of its audience, which immediately expands its potential demographic.  Porn requires no skill on the part of its subjects besides certain anatomical endowment and youth.  And porn is above all a visual medium.  Since the advent of high bandwidth internet, it has become impossible to avoid.  There is no other form of “entertainment” that can match its saturation level.

I think of Adam Smith’s interpretation of the free market, and its “invisible hand.”  Is this what he had in mind?  Is pornography an upright citizen (so to speak) for contributing to our society’s wealth and GDP?  Or did something get transposed in our self-adjusting market economy with unforeseen results?

Back to Naked.com.  Outside of the obvious attributes of the so-called “models,” what is most telling to me is the décor of their surroundings, the format of the site, and the audience.

Clicking between models’ portals, you see evidence of everything you would expect in the bedroom of a teenage girl.  A vast majority of the modelling “sessions” take place on an unmade bed.  The surroundings are utterly generic, giving no clue about their location or her interests.  It is the vocational equivalent of an office cubicle, and why not?  What’s going on here is business, and nothing more.

Most of the rooms have a sparseness that also suggests a low-income household.  What furnishings there are – a potted plant, a dresser, stuffed animals, posters, generic artwork – things one might buy at Wal-Mart.  Rich girls quite obviously wouldn’t engage in this flavor of entrepreneurship.  The class component of this scenario is understood.  Her circumstances provide another layer of vulnerability to the model, along with the breach of her immediate intimacy.

The model’s portal provides links to her pictures, videos available for sale, an email link, items on her Amazon.com wish list, and the number of users who have marked her as a Favorite.  This last feature is critical, one presumes, to whether she can make it in the world of cyber-fetish, and determines ultimately what she will do to pay next month’s rent.

Models are displayed by default in the order of their Favorites rankings.  The more you get, the closer to the top of the page you are.  It’s all about pleasing your audience, and having a sufficient work ethic and moxie to do what the other girls will not do.  This is her avenue to climbing the Favorites ladder if she hasn’t the physical tools alone to make her perpetually aroused admirers tip freely.  She can always invite her boyfriend to the proceedings, or lasso enough of the online Johns for a group show where she’ll do things with latex toys, her friends, who knows what else.  It’s the VIP room at Naked.com, and naturally it costs a little more.

Like any money-making proposition, there are the winners and the losers.  Currently as I write this, Pretty Kit Kat is on the top of the tote board, with 14,610 Favorites.  She’s a pretty, exuberant, audaciously endowed teen girl with braces.  And she’s looks quite happy to be where she is.

She’s a Latina, though, so all of her interactions with the groupies are in Spanish.  It matters very little, though, since the conversations are exactly what you would expect them to be.  The only type of articulation going on here is below the belt, which doesn’t translate to words onscreen.

Pretty Kit Kat clearly has a good thing going here.  Good for her.  It’s easy money if you’re a sexy young thing like she undeniably is.  She may live in a rural part of Ecuador or Costa Rica, and is making way more money than she ever possibly could in those places.  The Internet is her liberator.  She’s one of Naked.com’s success stories.

What about the others?

New models’ pictures are marked with banners introducing them that way.  They are consistently, by site standards, more inhibited.  They seem just a little uncertain of what to do, how far they want to go, and if they’re doing the right thing.  One can only wonder how many new models come and go each day.  Or what personal fates brought these young women to stake their claim in this milieu for at least a short time.  And what type of messages does it send to them if they receive no Favorites?  To offer to the world the most private and intimate constituents of your life, and to be thrown back in the pond. Not far below the surface for any of these girls is a subtext of potential humiliation.  Not necessarily physical, but psychological.

Sexual engagement for money is the purest form of our new breed of capitalism.  Its boundaries, thanks to the internet, are truly global.  Its true value, much like the derivatives market, is by perception only.  Its capacity to redefine human beings as objects of profit is consummate.  Its market is assured vis a vie the human male’s open 24 hours sexual drive.  For these reasons and others, it is an attractive business proposition.  And no worries about equipment maintenance or growing markets, either.  The equipment is plug and play, and the number of penises on the planet increase daily, guaranteeing the long-term viability of the product.

Now let’s survey Naked.com’s appreciative audience.

I wonder what these men find satisfying in expressing their carnal responses on screen.  I really do.  The models must think what sub-species they are, since they are required to enter their guttural little vignettes without the benefit of a spell checker.  That’s suicidal for most of the fellas here, as the screenshot illustrates.  What are these guys’ relationships with real women like?  Are they in this perpetual state of desperate horniness, or is Naked.com their little online hacienda?  How many of these guys are 12 years old?  (There is no age verification on Naked.com whatsoever).  How many of these men are psychologically whacked?  How many are actually addicted to porn?

One thing is for sure: each visitor to this site understands the Pavlovian money-for-pleasure proposition.  In this way it’s no different than any strip joint or brothel or blow job in the alley way.  What is distinctive is the all-access display of their longings.  Naked.com is a forum where all communication is mitigated by male sexual appetites, with no pretense of anything else.  The level and type of interaction between the model and her audience is characterized by total anonymity.  It is an anti-community existing solely and completely for sexual mass consumption.  As such, as its existence is based purely on a transaction, it is another form of the “business community.”

Without going into any sociological or psychological gyrations, it’s fair to say that Naked.com is no different than Facebook or Twitter or the myriad other social networking sites that presume a community is formed when people acknowledge each other online.  The demographics are surely different, but there are underpinnings of passivity and alienation that permeates each of these.  It’s the rollover point where people require a mitigating level of abstraction (the technical platform) to even communicate at all.  Next time you ride the train or the bus, look around.  Nobody talks anymore.  People are texting their friends on their smart phones.  Or go to a Starbucks and look at the interactions.  They do not exist.  Expressionless people stare at their iPad or laptop oblivious to others around them. It is the stuff of an Edward Hopper painting.

Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone. – John Maynard Keynes

I believe that the quality of people’s interactions — as friends, as co-workers, as lovers, as rivals, as cohorts – is attributable to the respect they have for the other.  From respect comes kindness, empathy, common objectives, intimacy, compassion, purpose above one’s self interests.  These are also characteristics that define a true community.

The pornographic impulse, and Naked.com is simply a handy snapshot, reinvents the social relations between participants to make the intimate the anonymous, to capsize sexuality for the benefit of a third-party.  It is the privatization of our most human qualities.  It is the total abrogation of our most fragile and most defining characteristics to a system eager to swallow them whole and spit out a profit.

Ours is a time of counterfeit intimacy.  Each image we consume, each desire we allow to be abstracted, each solitary appetite we sate with a transaction brings us further and further apart.  Our civilization is predicated upon exactly the opposite occurring, but we proceed in a way that makes us more and more indifferent to a common understanding or to an outreach that doesn’t serve us directly.

The internet, as with pornography, is a peerless vehicle for housing the alienated, and for convincing them that’s the place to be.  It’s not.  The mindset of distance, in which all relations are presented through images and validated through a consumer gesture, effectively kills the common weal of society.  A pornographic web site is just the most obvious manifestation of this.

When a society itself becomes a commodity, and its raison d’être is to solely accommodate a transaction, it ceases to be a functioning society.  It reveals itself only through anecdotal evidence, however.  Whether the evidence is mass shootings, the correlation between violence and wealth, the rise of an internet surveillance infrastructure, the disappearance of an objective mass media, or the unconstitutional suppression of dissent, they are all symptoms of a unified condition.  They are all screams from the dungeons.  The screams are indeed getting louder, and our collective cognitive dissonance becomes less and less reconcilable.

Chris Hedges, perhaps the most important journalist alive, wrote that the transition from a print-based culture, based on reflection, to a visually-based culture, based on emotional response, has been hastened by the internet. I agree with him.  What is greatly underestimated is the decay of our collective abilities to discern and to critically examine the world around us.  If and when we do awake to our new structural reality, only then can we act.

What to do?

This certainly didn’t begin as any call to arms about the vexing state of our disintegration as a society.  And perhaps this topic is way too ambitious to begin with.  What I’m hopeful this does is to dovetail some seemingly disparate elements of our world within some larger framework, those that rely upon certain reactions and responses for them to imprint, to brand, to live another day in our turbulent economic maelstrom.

After all, it’s all about the money.  Just ask Pretty Kit Kat.

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