In order to deal with the stress, boredom, alienation, and loneliness of the Covid-19 pandemic, a significant portion of the global population has turned to porn. According to Pornhub Insights, Pornhub’s website traffic increased as much as 24% after social distancing and shelter-in-place orders were implemented around the world.1 This was helped along by the fact that the video sharing platform offered a free premium service ‘in an effort to encourage the importance of staying at home and practicing social distancing.’2
As hundreds of millions of workers were laid off, furloughed, or forced to work from home, adult webcam sites and content subscription accounts exploded in new model sign-ups, with sites like ManyVids reporting a 69% increase, and OnlyFans announcing a 75% increase.3 Webcams have been out of stock due to the influx of new cam models, in addition to all the office workers now telecommuting.4 The webcam, a tool considered to be the engine of the porn industry, is now a workplace staple.
In a gross exaggeration of what came before, the vast majority of our lives now occur in the digital-virtual realm, toggling back and forth between Zoom calls and cam sessions, emails and Netflix, caught in an endless feedback loop between coronavirus news and coronavirus porn. During this interval of social-distancing and self-quarantine (some voluntary and some enforced), our dependency on platforms has reached a new intensity. Previous anxieties about the potentiality of a no-touch future have now been realised. Instagram and Pornhub capitalise on our need for connection and intimacy, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, exploiting our subjectivity and sexuality.
Pornography both directly and indirectly impacts nearly every aspect of our everyday lives: from sex and relationships to social media, pop culture, fashion, art, advertising and entertainment. This phenomena, known as ‘pornification’,5 variously refers to the increasing accessibility of porn due to technological developments, the decline in sex and corresponding rise in masturbation,6 and the integration of pornographic iconography into popular culture. For some socially-conservative leftists, pornification is used synonymously with neoliberalism and consumerism, as a glib condemnation of a culture defined by hedonism, excess, superficiality, and hyperindividualism.7 The subject of pornography is unweildly and polarising because it is evidence of the fact that capitalism’s strength is derived from its tendency toward the simultaneous emancipation and commodification of desire.8
Pornography’s informal status can at times disguise the fact that it plays a leading role in the production of desire and subjectivity, rendering it a highly efficient economic model that other industries learn from. Paul B. Preciado argues in the book Testo Junkie (2013) that the porn industry has become the paradigm for all work under post-Fordism. Preciado’s concept of the ‘pornification of labor’, which he describes as ‘the capture of sex and sexuality by economy’, underscores how the production and manipulation of affects are central to the biopolitical regime of late capitalism.9
The pornification of labour can be observed in all of the online platforms used by internet vendors and content creators. The Instagram account used to promote an artist’s hand thrown pots could just as easily sell that person’s used, unwashed butt plug. In both instances, the purchaser is motivated to buy more than just a discrete object—they are buying the fantasy of the seller’s personality and lifestyle, which in turn they assume as their own.
Of course, there are many ways in which porn work—and sex work more broadly—cannot be likened to work in other industries, specifically with regards to the social stigmatisation, criminalisation, as well as the informal anti-sex worker codes that render workers especially vulnerable to both state and employer abuse.10 By accurately identifying porn as work, it can then be framed as a model for re-thinking labour and production in the twenty-first century. The aim is not to minimise the distinct form of precarity and exploitation that porn workers face, nor is this comparison intended to victimise porn workers and render them as passive or helpless. Rather, by examining the conditions of labour through the lens of pornification, we can begin to shift the narrative around the perceived encroachment of porn into popular and public spheres toward a critique of the market logic that has invaded our libidinal livelihoods. In thinking about porn as the rule rather than the exception, we might reconsider our own relationship to work and begin to mount a pro-porn anti-work discourse.11
GIGIFICATION / PRECARISATION
Among the many crises brought into sharp relief during the pandemic fallout is the increasing precarity of work and the triumph of capital over labour, owing to the rise of the new gig economy, the offshoring of production, and the deterioration of worker bargaining power. To be sure, worker precarity is not a new phenomena, but is set against a unique mid-twentieth century phenomena where the state interfered in capitalism on behalf of labourers. Rather, the inherent brutality of labour relations under deregulated capitalism has re-emerged and taken on a distinct post-industrial, techno-libidinal, bio-political—in short pornographic—form.12
Labour in the twenty-first century is characterised by working conditions that have long been associated with the porn industry, namely, its reliance on a flexible, part-time, deskilled workforce.13 These are conditions that also underpin the rapidly growing gig economy, in which companies hire independent contractors and freelancers rather than full-time employees in order to avoid providing workers with job security, benefits, office space, or any other workplace resources to the spectacular enrichment of a handful of tech executives. In this sense, porn work can be thought about as the ultimate expression of the gig economy.
The shut down of porn production sites to prevent viral spread has only accelerated a trend in the industry that increasingly de-centers the old studio system in favour of tube sites, camming sites, and premium follower content. In the mid-2000s, the studio system began to decline due to the growing amount of free and amateur content available on video aggregator sites (much of it pirated), which drastically undercut consumers’ willingness to pay. Since then, San Fernando Valley (‘Silicone Valley’), the former porn capital of the world, has become peripheral to Silicon Valley and the information technology monopolies such as Mindgeek that own the platforms controlling the flow of pornographic materials.
Since porn workers can no longer rely on studios to provide them with regular contracts, they have had to pursue diversified income streams to get by while their presence in porn films functions as more of an advertisement.14 Porn workers now make use of a combination of different digital platforms and sell a number of different services including camming, self-produced videos, subscriptions from monetised social media platforms, escorting, phone sex, and sexting. Concomitantly, pornopreneurs maximise their incomes by mirroring the attention economy of the social media influencer, creatively monetising quotidian moments of their lives: selling their used underwear, using time spent in traffic to have a phone session with a client, using a shower as a photo-op, or having fans buy them items on their Amazon wish list.15 Although these are instances in which porn workers brilliantly negotiate precarity, it is also demonstrative of the market’s encroachment into even the most intimate spaces of workers’ lives and how the lines between labour and leisure are increasingly blurred. For both the porn worker and the influencer, the maintenance of a personal brand online extends into other aspects of their personal lives, influencing decisions from friendships to surgeries. In this sense, the pursuit of monetised attention is more than merely a job, it is a lifestyle.
In the new porn gig economy, workers may have more flexibility over scheduling and work environment and more creative agency in that they produce much of their own content, but they are ultimately working for exploitative online platforms.16 Some video platforms such as ManyVids have relatively conscientious business models—whereby consumers purchase videos directly from performers who retain full copyright to their work—especially when compared to controversial free tube sites such as PornHub, YouPorn and Xvideos that profit off of pirated materials, routinely circulate videos of assault and abuse, and make it nearly impossible for performers and victims to remove this content.17
Although not all platforms exercise the same degree of ruthless profiteering as PornHub, we should not lose sight of the fact that all platforms are exploitative and profit-driven by design. For example, the content subscription site OnlyFans retains 20% of creators’ earnings, while most cam sites keep anywhere from 40–60% of models’ tips. Moreover, these platforms prove to be highly competitive environments for content creators and models for the simple fact that more content creators results in more money for these platforms. MyFreeCams is well-known amongst workers for its cam score, which ranks models higher or lower on the website’s homepage based on their performance (although MyFreeCams does not disclose information about how their cam score is calculated, some models have ascertained that it is the result of total tokens earned divided by the amount of time spent online in the last 60 days). In order to gain more followers or earn a higher ranking on these platforms, all workers with personal brands are incentivised to work longer hours and post a high quantity of ‘quality’ content.18
ATTENTION AND THE REGIME OF IMAGES
In the pornographic era, the object of work—and our social lives—is to arouse the emotional experiences of others, to capture attention and direct cyber traffic toward one’s profiles, personal brands, services, and products. From art to advertising to politics, excitation is the aim, and nothing accomplishes this more efficiently than the pornographic.19
At the core of porn work—and indeed all work that involves social media and digital content creation—is the strategic marketing of a carefully curated personal brand. A personal brand is an online persona constructed through the regular posting or exchange of aesthetically consistent images and texts, which serve to provide audiences with various glimpses into the everyday life of the human behind the machine. Whether on Instagram, Snapchat, FanCentro, or OnlyFans, this persona, frequently expressed via selfie, is the fantasy that both porn workers and social media influencers wield to sell other goods and services. Or in the case of porn, images of the body are used to sell more ‘exclusive’ images of the body.
In this pornified hyperreality, image production replaces material production as the organising principle of political economy. Whether in static or audiovisual form, the image is both the medium and the commodity that makes possible an entire digital economy of signs through the capture of desire and subjectivity, and their conversion into a matrix of pixels. The image is the desiring-machine par excellence.
Paul B. Preciado writes that ‘we are working at the porn factory: a technosomatic industry fueled by sperm, blood, urine, adrenalin, testosterone, insulin, silicone, psychostimulants, and estrogens, but also the digitized signs that can be transmitted at high speed, whether number, text, sound, or image.’20
In porn, nothing discrete is produced or consumed, but a sign is circulated, triggering a neurological response, a rush of endorphins and dopamine. Unlike the assembly lines characteristic of the Fordist model of production, the gears of the attention economy are churned by clicks, ‘likes’, and shares as well as by urges, throbs, and pulses.
Pornification troubles the Italian workerist concepts of ‘immaterial’ or ‘cognitive’ labour by emphasising the critical role that the body—mediated through audio visual technology—plays in the dissemination of signs, affects, and capital.21 Beyond merely interfacing, porn is where meatspace and cyberspace collapse into one another; the body becomes information and information is embodied.
If we are to focus exclusively on the end product of labour, what is the difference really between a porn worker and a social media influencer? Or between a porn worker and an artist? By putting sexuality and subjectivity to work, porn makes explicit what other work disguises: how our lives are primarily organised around self-representation and self-promotion; that there is no separation between labour and leisure; that our cunts and cocks are always serving some economic function. Pornification not only shines a softbox light on the fact that social reproduction is work, but demonstrates the extent to which all work is porn work.
- ‘Coronavirus Update – April 30’, Pornhub Insights, April 30, 2020, accessed May 5, 2020
- Pornhub Offers Free Pornhub Premium to Users Worldwide for 30 Days During COVID-19 Pandemic’, Pornhub, March 24, 2020, accessed May 5, 2020
- Jesselyn Cook, ‘Jobless and Quarantined, Thousands Turn to OnlyFans to Make Ends Meet’, Huffpost, April 9, 2020, accessed April 12, 2020
- Rachel Lerman, ‘The hunt for a work-from-home webcam: A story of broken supply chains, ‘sold-out’ messages and refreshing online carts’, Washington Post, May 21, 2020, accessed May 23, 2020
- Susanna Paasonen, Kaarina Nikunen, & Laura Saarenmaa, Pornification: Sex and Sexuality in Media Culture (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2007)
- Kate Julian, ‘Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?’ The Atlantic, December 2018, Accessed May 6, 2020
- For more on socially-conservative leftist critiques of pornography, see Alain Badiou, The Pornographic Age, trans. and ed. by A.J. Bartlett and Justin Clemens (London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2020); Byung-Chul Han, The Agony of Eros (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017); Chris Hedges, America: The Farewell Tour (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018)
- For more on the relationship between capitalism and desire see Rosemary Hennesy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism (New York: Routledge, 2000); Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983)
- Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, (New York: Feminist Press, 2013), p. 274
- Porn workers face all kinds of exclusion from public and economic domains. To use a recent example, as programs such as the Small Business Association’s Economic Injury Disaster Program were established in order to help certain Americans whose work was affected by the pandemic, those who earn money from ‘live performances of a prurient sexual nature’ are explicitly excluded from disaster relief. See ‘COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan Application’, U.S. Small Business Administration.
- For more about sex workers against work see Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Revolting Prositutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (Londong; New York: Verso, 2018); Melissa Gira Grant, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (London; New York: Verso, 2014); Lorelei Lee, ‘Cash/Consent: The War on Sex Work’ n+1 Issue 35, Fall 2019, accessed July 6, 2020
- Franco Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-alpha Generation, (London; Minor Compositions; Brooklyn, NY: Distributed by Autonomedia, 2009)
- Heather Berg and Constance Penley, ‘Creative Precarity in the Adult Film Industry’, from Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor, eds. Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2016)
- Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism, (Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017)
- During Covid-19, PornHub has received multiple allegations of enabling and profiting from the distribution and promotion of videos showcasing real assault. In response, various petitions have circulated demanding that PornHub remove the content, yielding mixed results. A petition to remove Ryan Madison & PornFidelity videos from PornHub, RedTube, and YouPorn proved successful, though difficult. More recently, efforts to remove videos of Mia Khalifa and return her domain names has yet to be heeded by the porn giant. Galvanised by this recent wave of abuses in the industry, the anti-porn and anti–sex work organisation Exodus Cry has led the Trafficking Hub campaign to shut down PornHub, a move that would negatively impact those who rely on the platform for income. These anti-trafficking organisations continue the work of SESTA/FOSTA, a piece of legislation passed in 2018 that made it illegal for online services to knowingly assist, facilitate or support sex trafficking on their platforms. The law has been an abject failure in that it only makes sex work harder and more dangerous as well as silences and criminalises the organising and advocacy efforts that helps sex workers stay safe and fight persecution.
- ‘Quality’ in this case typically means that workers have to conform to algorithmically-reinforced heteronormative and racist prescriptions of attractiveness.
- For more about the ‘excitation-frustration circuit’ of capitalism see Preciado, Testo Junkie.
- Preciado, p. 274
- See Preciado on ‘Übermaterial Labor’, p. 292; for more on the concepts of ‘immaterial’ and ‘cognitive’ labour see the writings of Yan Moulier Boutang, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri.