My book, Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play, with Goldsmiths Press, has the due-date of October 1. Hardcover, yet pretty affordable thanks to the publisher’s policy of avoiding “the exploitation of authors as well as readers, creators as well as users“. I remain in awe of the cover design and since this is a pet project if there ever was one, it’s all much more exciting than academic publishing tends to be.
Category Archives: cultural studies
For most of the past week spent at the MAGIS FilmForum Spring School (section: Porn Studies – Pornography. Margins and Extremes) I have, besides learning new things and meeting excellent people, spent marvelling at this cover design for my book, Many Splendored Things, forthcoming from Goldsmiths Press next Autumn. The final subtitle is Thinking Sex and Play, I am doing the very last fixes and this, indeed, is the cover. A friend said that it looks like subspace feels, which I figure is the highest of compliments to pay a designer asked to translate some of the intensity and fleshy pleasure of sexual play into visual format. As someone who all too keenly judges books by their covers, I find this very gratifying.
Anyone around in Toronto in March? If so, I’m lucky enough to contribute to the MsUnderstanding Media: The Extensions of Woman talk series at University of Toronto’s McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology on Monday the 19th. And what’s more, it’s a double feature with the fabulous Wendy Chun discussing sexuality, gendered online shaming and much more, under the title, “Shame, shame, shame (refresh)”. The series sets out to “foreground how a feminist focus on ‘the extensions of woman’ renews McLuhan’s concern with the politics of pace, pattern and scale in our everyday technological objects”. Faithful to the theme, my contribution explores dick pics as extensions of man, building on the #NSFW book project I’m currently finishing together with Kylie Jarrett and Ben Light for MIT Press.
Happy day! The Academy of Finland just gave us funding for a four-year research project, “Sexuality and Play in Media Culture”. Focused on how theories of play can advance feminist and queer research on sexuality and open up novel ways of understanding the formation of pleasures and identifications in media culture, the project spans from activism to pop and smut. Very exciting.
My short text, “Learning to Play,” for the Screening Sex blog run by Darren Kerr and Donna Peberdy is just out this very minute. Looking at one scene in Jan Soldat’s short documentary film, Coming of Age (2016), the text makes some proposals toward thinking about sex through the notion of play. This would be my current pet project, so more is to follow.
CFP is now out for the Affective Politics of Social Media Symposium held at University of Turku, Finland, October 12-13 2017. Welcome, you all!
Confirmed keynote speakers: Crystal Abidin (Jönköping University / Curtin University), Kath Albury (Swinburne University of Technology), Nancy Baym (Microsoft Research New England), Ken Hillis (UNC Chapel Hill), Ben Light (University of Salford) and Jenny Sundén (Södertörn University).
From clickbaits to fake news, heated Facebook exchanges, viral Twitter messages and Tinder swipes, the landscape of social media is rife with affective intensities of varying speeds and lengths. Affect, as the capacity to relate, impress and be impressed, creates dynamic connections between human and nonhuman bodies. Zooming in on these connections, their intensities, rhythms, and trajectories in the context of networked communications, Affective Politics of Social Media asks how affect circulates, generates value, fuels political action, feeds conflict and reconfigures the categories of gender, sexuality and race through and across social media platforms.
Multiple analytical avenues have already been laid out for doing this, from Jodi Dean’s examination of affect and drive to Tarleton Gillespie’s analysis of the politics of platforms, Adi Kuntsman’s examination of “webs of hate” and Zizi Papacharissi’s discussion of affective publics as contagious articulations of feeling that bring forth more or less temporary sense of community and connection. Building on a growing body of work on “networked affect”, this two-day symposium features keynotes exploring the affective labour of social media influencers, the automation and quantification of the intimate, the netiquette of hook-up apps and the dynamics of music stardom and fandom, and invites contributions connected to affect and social media in relation to
• collective action and political activism
• sexual cultures and practices
• harassment, hate and resistance
• affective rhythms, intensities and investments
• popular culture and everyday life
In order to facilitate participation, the symposium has no registration fee but pre-registrations are required. To propose a paper, please send a 300-word abstract and short bio (max. 100 words) to email@example.com by June 9, 2017. Registrations will be made available in August 2017.
Organized by Department of Media Studies, IIPC, the International Institute for Popular Culture & DIGIN, Research Network on Digital Interaction at University of Turku and the Department of Gender Studies at Åbo Akademi University
Conference website: https://affectivesome.wordpress.com/
Organizing group: Susanna Paasonen, Kaisu Hynnä, Katariina Kyrölä, Mari Lehto, Mari Pajala & Valo Vähäpassi
Late spring turns out to be full of interesting conferences, from The Public Spheres of Resonance: Constellations of Affect and Language in Berlin, April 27-29 to The Digital Everyday: Exploration or Alienation? in London, May 6 and Sexualities and Digital Culture in Europe in Athens, May 26-27. See you there, there and there, perhaps, plus at the Click Festival in Elsinore, May 20.
People teaching porn tend to write about teaching porn, as I have. Now I also seem to write about writing on porn. What next? This short article, here in its non-proofread form, is forthcoming in Porn Studies:
Elusive intensities, fleeting seductions, affective voices
Scholarship on pornography involves gradations of proximity and distance towards the phenomena studied. Underpinned by disciplinary notions of appropriate expression, language is the medium through which these labours are crafted and played out. Even if this may not always be obvious to readers struggling with convoluted sentence structures and densely layered ideas, scholarly writing is basically a communicative act. Consequently, most guidelines on good academic writing emphasize clarity and precision of expression over stylistic experimentation with the general intention of communicating one’s argument as lucidly as possible. The notion of good writing is nevertheless slippery while the criteria used for evaluating it go well beyond aspects such as grammar and syntax toward affective and aesthetic characteristics such as the flow, feel and pleasure of text. Writing may aim to seduce the reader or to firmly hold her at an arm’s length; it may strive to evoke sharp affective shivers or manage to bore its readers into distraction. The author’s voice in all this may be markedly present or seemingly effaced.
In what follows, I explore the affective and political underpinnings of the modes of writing about pornography in the framework of feminist cultural studies. More specifically, I examine the role and function of proximities where the intensities of text set the bodies of readers and writers into motion. Such proximities may be painstakingly designed or emerge as fleeting and unintended seductions. Through that which Melissa Gregg (2006) identifies as the writer’s affective voice, such encounters break against the norm of sober, detached reader engagement with scholarly prose.
The matter of writing
Writing is under constant scrutiny during peer-review and editorial processes, from corrections to remove all sorts of grammatical slips and slides to propositions for a different tone or style of expression. Given the political passions connected to the pornography in institutional and activist settings, the appropriateness of the stylistic decisions can be more acute a concern in porn studies than in other fields of cultural inquiry. Suggestions for the preferred feel, touch and distance of text propose desirable points of entrance to the topic examined, preferred modes for articulating one’s arguments, views and experiences, as well as the promotion of certain forms of reader engagement over others.
To illustrate the issue with examples from my own work on pornography, some peer reviewers have proposed the use of humorous turns of phrases for a lighter feel. An ample reservoir of puns and innuendos – from the diverse uses of the verb ‘penetrate’ to all kinds of play with the stiffness or lubrication of things – is certainly available for such an enterprise, yet resorting to them implies degrees of discomfort with the topic at hand that require ironic detachment and distancing laughter. Other reviewers have found my exercises in personal writing and accounts of bodily affectations involved in the research process unnecessary in the proximities they address, and something best removed. While this latter critique is methodological in its focus, its key point concerns the manner of writing. As different as these responses are in their proposals for textual release and distance, they both point to the affective weight of writing and reading about porn.
The gradations of proximity involved or allowed vis-à-vis the materials studied vary according to publishing platforms and their preferred, discipline-based styles of communication. Stylistic preferences, or indeed norms of writing are firmly rooted in scholarly traditions and their respective notions of objectivity and authorial agency. While an art studies scholar may be encouraged to develop poetic expression in aesthetic analyses of pornography, experimental styles of writing are less likely to be fostered in behavioural sciences. The matter of writing therefore broadens into epistemological concerns over the role and performative force of language in knowledge creation. Language can be perceived as an instrumental medium for unpacking the research process, analysing the data and presenting the findings, and authors may even wish to distance their investigation from the very notion of pornography – for example, by resorting to euphemisms such as ‘sexually explicit materials’ (SEMs) or ‘sexual stimuli’ (SS), instead (e.g. Hald et al. 2015; Tseng et al. 2016; Prause and Pfaus 2015). In stark contrast, other strands of academic prose may aim to move the reader and, by doing so, to communicate how the author herself has been moved by that which she studies (Gregg 2006, 13). Here, language plays a key role in conveying the specific textures, rhythms and hues of the materials examined and the sensations they evoke.
Gregg (2006, 6) situates the particularity of cultural studies inquiry in its ‘distinctive combination of an affective address and critical rigour’. By breaking against the conventions of disengaged academic prose, cultural studies has created ‘the possibility of a mobilising and contagious discourse, one which sustains existing intellectual peers but also spreads the insights of scholarly work to new audiences’ (Gregg 2006, 6). All this revolves around what Gregg identifies as the affective voice, namely a particularly located, identifiable performative authorial style. Following the literary scholar Roland Barthes, affective voice can be understood as a specific grain, ‘the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue’ (Barthes 1977, 182). In the grain of a textual voice, the author’s characteristic style of writing meets the dynamics and intensities of the phenomena studied and facilitates affective encounters with readers. Textual voices may have less immediacy than spoken ones, yet they are no less material in their reverberations.
Affective voice then entails ‘a distinct manner in the tone’ of the writer; an inflection to voice that lends urgency to her vocation and ‘aspires to touch the reader with words’ (Gregg 2006, 7, 8); ‘the particular timbre and cadence of a writer’s voice’ that can ‘stimulate, arouse and thrill’ (Gregg 2006, 11). This is a question of the craft of writing but equally one of political and intellectual investments. In foregrounding the formations and conjunctures of gender, race, class and sexuality, cultural studies aims at social engagement – and social justice – through mobilizing and contagious forms of address. In the context of pornography, the political investments have long revolved around the material dynamics of gender and sexuality, the norms, hierarchies and relations of power and forms of labour that they tap into and fuel. Authorial voice, always resonating from a particularly located speaking body, can be a means of making evident the different avenues and implications that encounters with and experiences of pornography entail. If pornography involves depictions of bodies moving the bodies of its audiences, then it matters as to which are the bodies moving and being moved, and in what kinds of ways (see Paasonen 2011, 2–3; 193).
In order to account for such affectations, cultural theory, and feminist scholarship in particular, has experimented with forms of personal writing that aim to remain open to surprises and uncertainties in processes of knowledge creation (e.g. Miller 1991, Sedgwick 1999; also Gregg 2006, 23–25). Rather than resorting to positions of objective exteriority, such approaches call for inventiveness and enjoyment in academic writing (also Massumi 2002, 12–13). Feminist scholarship informed by the epistemological stances of ‘thinking through the body’ (Rich 1995; Gallop 1988) and ‘situated knowledges’ (Haraway 1988) involves sensing, self-reflexive and autobiographical authorial bodies. It builds on an understanding of the performativity of academic language and acts of writing: how to write ‘is to make oneself the center of the action of the speech, it is to effect writing by affecting oneself, to make action and affection coincide’ (Barthes 1989, 18). While refuted in some disciplines, the first person emerges as a strategic position where the agent of writing is accountable for the knowledge she generates and the arguments she poses.
Getting up close
For Barthes, reading and criticism are animated by different dynamics of desire: ‘to read is to desire the work, to want to be the work, to refuse to echo the work using any discourse other than that of the work’ (Barthes 2007, 40). Reading, for Barthes, is an intimate relationship where the reader attaches herself to the text and surrenders to its rhythms and styles. In the case of pornography, close forms of reading, watching and listening would be oriented by a desire for bodily affectation. Doing scholarship within such modes of affectation means carefully describing and mediating the particularities of the materials studied: the textual outcome may even approximate their style and feel. Writing on pornography with close proximity is therefore to agree also an act of writing pornography, no matter how modest the end results may be in the titillations they have to offer.
Following Barthes (2007, 40), pastiche is the only response that a so-called ‘pure reader’ might produce, being too embedded in the text’s reverberations to take distance from them. In criticism, the writer is not in love with the texts she studies – in fact she can be notably disenchanted – inasmuch as attached to the pleasures that surface in acts of writing. As tends to be the case with academic work, it is the latter of the two, namely the critic’s point of entry that tends to dominate in porn studies. The reader’s approach, animated by the specific dynamics of text, may involve disturbing closeness that threatens to suture the sense of distance deemed necessary for critical practice. It should nevertheless be noted that even stronger hues of viscera do not foreclose conceptualisation or critique, and that careful analysis of representational forms need not efface a sense of their fleshy force, should the platform of publication so allow. In practice, the two approaches, or interests of writing identified by Barthes can be uncoupled only with difficulty in work closely examining images, sounds, texts or combinations thereof. In other words, they are far from mutually exclusive.
Extensive close analysis that tries to capture and mediate the essential of that which it describes by no means necessitates love or desire for the object. The contrary can well be the case, as in anti-pornography writing detailing pornographic representation and women’s experiences of sexual violence in painstaking detail. This has been an influential strategy of writing ever since Andrea Dworkin’s multi-page summaries of pornographic images and texts in Pornography (see Dworkin 1989). Dworkin’s affective voice is blunt, passionate and angry. By zooming in on the violence and discomfort of pornographic imageries, it aims to account for and verify their harmful social impact. Her affective voice amplifies some of the materials’ affective register in order to animate the readers into disgust, alarm, fury, rage and feminist activism.
Scholarly projects addressing the affective underpinnings of porn vary greatly in their aims and stakes, from hermeneutic tendencies to strident critique. Despite their possibly mutually opposing motivations, such projects are united precisely in their attempts to mediate some of the contagious affective intensity that the genre entails. My own investigations into pornography have been driven by an interest in how its images, sounds and texts work in and through bodies and media technologies and, by doing so, to theorize its carnal force and appeal. Rather than aiming to engage the reader for general arguments either for or against the genre, my key pursuit has been to unpack some of its intensities, as registered in my own body, in order to conceptualize pornography in more general terms.
Bodily intensities do not generally prosper in academic prose, yet grasping some of their hue is elementary in unpacking the embodied forms of address through which pornography operates. Since studies of image and sound unfold through language, they involve translations between the modes and modalities of expression connected to the five senses. A gap always remains between different forms of sensing and making sense, one that is further amplified by attempts to capture some of the intensity of pornographic scenes in order to convey them to the reader. Close description aims to retain some of the pornography’s resonance, yet textual production unavoidably transforms the objects it addresses: that which emerges is a different sort of beast.
Individual research projects may involve movement closer to and further away from the materials examined in ways that correspond with analytical attempts to retain a tangibly somatic sense of pornographic images and sounds, as well as to contextualise them in broader frameworks of genre, cultures of production, distribution and consumption, local and global flows of technologies and capital (Paasonen 2011; Schaschek 2013). Such ‘discomforting commute’ (Pearce 1997, 23) between positions and strategies of interpretation involves acknowledging the particularities of different forms of knowledge production, yet it does not necessitate foregrounding one form or position over another. With different approaches come different affordances, different forms of writing and, hopefully, different insights into the phenomena studied.
Independent of the specific project’s agenda or stylistic choices, there are no guarantees as to how the readers will grasp, interpret and apply its outcomes. As readers, we are unruly creatures and the reverberations that the texts evoke are impossible for those composing them to control, master or foresee. This became evident when a reader responded to a report summarising the findings of our porn memory-work project with a dick pic accompanied by a note on his sexual arousal. I found this form of feedback surprising, given the matter-of-fact descriptive tone of the report that made markedly little effort to affectively engage the reader. Considering the issue more closely, it should not have been too surprising as in the memory work-material reported, people reported being turned on by select passages from the Bible, narrative fiction and feminist literature available through the public library (Paasonen et al. 2015). As one respondent further explained: ‘These books weren’t porn but my way of reading was that of a porn consumer. I was looking for sexual arousal’ (female, born 1975).
Readers orient themselves towards texts with certain interests in mind while shifts in the orientations and modes of reading invite varying somatic intensities, ways of sensing and making sense. Readers set out to discover sources of sexual arousal in texts coined with clearly distinct purposes in mind, and the one and the same reader can engage with the same text for the goals of critique, diversion and masturbation alike. In addition to intentional reading oriented by libidinal intensities, affectations of the sexual kind occur unsuspected as something resonates and possibly grabs us. Images, texts and sounds can seduce us in passing but we may also position ourselves as willing to be seduced. As readers, we touch texts but are also touched by them in return – in ways that can be titillating, disturbing, surprising and ambivalent.
Constantly evaluated and uncertain in its outcomes and resonances, scholarly writing is regularly an awkward practice – and hardly only for those of us practicing it in other languages than our first. The affective voice or grain through which an author aims to mediate some of the intensities felt may just as well come across as pretentious or precious: scholarly communication, after all, does not necessarily work. The centrality of finding one’s voice as scholar, as highlighted in career mentoring workshops, should not be understood as a form of academic self-branding but as arriving at a style of expression that fits and, optimally, renders the labour of writing an occasional source of enjoyment. The appeal that an affective voice holds, or fails to hold, bears no direct relationship to the processes of writing, with their joys and pains: an effortless, compelling flow may well emerge from weeks of intricate crafting. But if a text fails to communicate any interest or passion, it may not hold much fascination for its readers. An affectless voice sets the stage for encounters void of intensity. While these may at times be desirable and necessary, scholarly detachment comes with a certain cost.
Writing, as the means of mediating political investments, intellectual discoveries and processes of thought, involves its own pleasures and passions that are much too seldom acknowledged in academic life. An affective voice, or textual grain, communicates such investments, animates processes of knowledge production and exchange. Writing on and with affect means being invested in and infected by the worlds studied. It aims to infect the readers towards engaging with these worlds in productive ways.
Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image Music Text. Edited and translated by Stephen Heath. London: Fontana.
Barthes, Roland. 1989. The Rustle of Language. Translated by Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Barthes, Roland. 2007. Criticism and Truth. Translated and edited by Katrine Pilcher Keuneman. London: Continuum.
Dworkin. Andrea. 1989. Pornography: Men Possessing Women. With new introduction. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Gallop, Jane. 1988. Thinking Through the Body. New York: Columbia University Press.
Gregg, Melissa. 2006. Cultural Studies’ Affective Voices. Houndmills: Palgrave.
Hald, Gert Martin, Lisette Kuyper, Philippe C.G. Adam and John B.F. Wit. 2013. ‘Does Viewing Explain Doing? Assessing the Association between Sexually Explicit Materials Use and Sexual Behaviors in a Large Sample of Dutch Adolescents and Young Adults.’ The Journal of Sexual Medicine 10 (12): 2986–2995.
Haraway, Donna J. 1988. ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.’ Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–599.
Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press.
Miller, Nancy K. 1991. Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts. New York: Routledge.
Paasonen, Susanna. 2011. Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Paasonen, Susanna, Kyrölä Katariina, Nikunen, Kaarina, Saarenmaa, Laura ja Välimäki, Teo. 2015. “Siinä oli hämähäkki väärinpäin” – tutkimusraportti pornografiaa koskevan muistitietoaineiston keruuhankkeesta. Mediatutkimus, Turun yliopisto, http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-29-6043-9.
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Prause, Nicole and James Pfaus. 2015. ‘Viewing Sexual Stimuli Associated with Greater Sexual Responsiveness, Not Erectile Dysfunction.’ Sexual Medicine 3 (2): 90–98.
Rich, Adrienne. 1976/1995. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Norton.
Schaschek, Sarah. 2013. Pornography and Seriality: The Culture of Producing Pleasure. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1999. A Dialogue on Love. New York: Beacon Press.
Tseng, Ying-Hua, Noreen Esposito, Shih-Hsien Kuo, Fan-Hao Chou and Mei-Li Cheng. 2016. ‘Push and Pull: Exposure of Young Taiwanese Women to Sexually Explicit Materials.’ Women & Health. Published online before print, doi: 10.1080/03630242.2016.1222326.
I’ll be briefly in the UK the next couple of weeks. Coming up, talks on what may emerge when framing sex through play at University of Sunderland, Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, 20 March and University of Kent, School of Art, March 29. The latter also involves a discussion of Jan Soldat’s documentary films.
This spring, I’m mainly working on the #NSFW book with Kylie Jarrett and Ben Light, which is due out in 2018. Both exploring the uses of the tag and considering the intersections of sexuality, social media, labour, risk and safety from multiple perspectives, the book also focuses on the role and position of porn in social media. Below is a brief excerpt addressing Pornhub’s publicity campaigns, with less of the scholarly debates and some of the links included.
Branding porn SFW
In February 2015, Pornhub announced that they were developing a wearable device titled Wankband that lets users charge their smart devices with the kinetic energy generated through the up and down motions of male masturbation:
“Every day, millions of hours of adult content are consumed online, wasting energy in the process and hurting the environment. At Pornhub we decided to do something about it. Introducing the Wankband: The First wearable tech that allows you to love the planet by loving yourself.”
Producing of 100% renewable “guilt-free electricity,” Wankband is part of a longer chain of publicity campaigns through which Pornhub has been profiling its brand and services as fun, user-friendly, socially responsible, and risk-free. The general mode of these PR campaigns might, in British English, be defined as “cheeky,” namely witty bordering on the rude and the irreverent. These campaigns can be divided roughly into three categories: publicity stunts, social and environmental causes contributed to under the rubric “Pornhub Cares,” and “Pornhub Insights” which, similarly to “Google Trends,” consist of statistics and infographics detailing site traffic and user trends.
Pornhub’s publicity stunts have included the 2013 SFW television advert featuring a senior couple sitting on a park bench accompanied by an R&B tune. According to the company, it was intended for Super Bowl but got rejected by CBS, yet this seems highly doubtable on the basis of the advert’s low production values alone. In 2014, Pornhub announced an open SFW advertising contest encapsulating its brand. The crowdsourcing call attracted some 3,000 submissions and the winning entry, along with the shortlisted proposals, were widely covered in online news forums and clickbaits well beyond platforms considered pornographic. The winning ad poster, designed by the Turkish copywriter, Nuri Gulver, and titled “All You Need is Hand,” was briefly erected on the iconic location of Times Square to the backing vocals of Gotham Rock Choir’s rendition of the Beatles classic, All You Need is Love. The same year also involved a contest for Pornhub theme song and the offer of free premium memberships on Valentine’s Day.
In 2015, the company announced its plans for shooting the first pornographic film in space, provided it would be able to collect the necessary $3.4 million budget through crowdfunding: these plans were report in The Huffington Post, The Express, Times of India, The Mirror, and on CBNC, among other mainstream news outlets. News of these stunts, some of which are more fake than others, travel quickly in social media by virtue of their easy combination of humor, pornography, and user engagement. The stunts invite users as participants not only in porn consumption and masturbation but equally in Pornhub brand building and the funding of its productions.
Pornhub’s social causes and charitable campaigns have ranged from the “Save the Boobs” campaigns collecting money for breast cancer research on the basis of the videos viewed in its “big tit” and “small tit” categories to the 2014 campaign, “Pornhub Gives America Wood,” which involved planting trees for every 100 videos watched in its “Big Dick” category, and the 2015 “Save the Balls” testicular cancer awareness campaign. In 2015, the company gave out its first $25,000 scholarship for academic studies on the basis of the candidates’ videos detailing how they strive to make others happy. The following year, the scholarship was given for women studying science, technology, engineering, or math, with the aim of advancing women’s careers in the tech industry. In addition, Pornhub has joined in a campaign for saving sperm whales and, together with porn star and intimate partner violence victim Christy Mack, has set out to fight domestic violence.
Information on these campaigns, with their more or less tangential connections with pornography, travels through news hubs, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. The stunts also circulate in these forms but fundamentally revolve around the relation between Pornhub and its users and serves in the construction, management, and maintenance of a brand community. The social causes, on the other hand, are additionally focused on constructing Pornhub as a socially responsible—and in this sense, respectable—corporate brand that contributes to making the world a better place, even if the sums involved in its charitable campaigns are on the modest side.
In Feburary 2017, Pornhub launched their “Sexual Wellness Center,” a sex education site with information on reproductive health, STDs, and relationships. The role of pornography as a form of sex education has long been a topic of debate among educators, journalists, academics, and concerned adults: in most instances, porn is firmly seen as bad in its pedagogical output and the false, exaggerated, and generic sexual scenarios that it reiterates. By inserting the professional angle of sex education into their palette of free service, Pornhub aims to further bolster its image of public responsibility. At the same time, news of the sex education site’s launch gained the company ample free—and largely positive—publicity across the platforms of social media.
Probably the most successful form of the company’s PR campaigns nevertheless involves “Pornhub Insights,” its widely circulated and diverse user statistics and infographics, most notably those published in its annual “Year in Review.” From these data, news media pick up on the sheer volume of traffic on just this site: in 2016, there were a reported 23 billion visits resulting in 4,6 billion hours spent watching 92 billion videos. The annual reviews summarize web site traffic, search behaviors and trends, use patterns, devices used, and breaks down this data according to search terms and lengths of visits in different countries. In its stickiness, such data is understandably attractive to international online news sites and blogs wishing to catch the fleeting attention of users and its already digested, easily understandable forms further fuel its spreadability. Given the general, and notorious, shortage of any reliable data on the patterns of online porn consumption, Pornhub statistics are, despite their specificities, shared and referenced broadly as evidence of porn trends on a global scale.
The width and depth of the user data analyzed and visualized in the Pornhub’s annual review and their multiple monthly thematic reports makes evident—and in fact notably graphic—the flows of user data that are automatically generated and stored when accessing video aggregator sites or virtually any other website. Sites collect data on the devices and operating systems used, clicks, searches, comments, and connections made, archive, mine, and analyze this data for the purposes of targeted advertising. Pornhub’s manner of re-circulating and feeding back this data to consumers may be exceptional in its degree of detail, yet, there is nothing exceptional in their access to, or uses of the data as such.
Cutting through Pornhub’s PR efforts is the aim of overcoming the boundary between things deemed suitable for mainstream social media platforms, and those not. The campaigns afford Pornhub broad, positive international publicity in news sites and social media platforms for virtually no expense. Facebook, for example, allows sharing of news items on Pornhub but no links to the site itself. It would be highly unlikely for most news sites covering their PR stunts to accept the company’s advertisements should these ever be proposed but they cover the company’s stunts and projects with glee in search for clicks, reactions, and shares that function as indicators of attention. Pornhub’s PR stunts are, in sum, perfectly attuned to the click economy of social media: they feed clickbaits that again feed (and feed on) Facebook traffic in particular. This translates as added value to all parties involved.
By publishing the volume and trends of porn use on the site, Pornhub also makes claim for these practices being ubiquitous enough to form a quintessential part of the mundane rhythms and flows of media use across national boundaries during both working hours and leisure. This is a firm gesture of mainstreaming, of moving porn consumption from the so-called “dark” or marginal side of Internet use towards its central traffic and reframing it as a fun, recreational activity. Pornography has been part and parcel of the mainstream Web since its very early days, considering its perennial popularity among users and its centrality in terms of online economies, but has nevertheless retained a conceptual status as a marginal and somehow illegitimate of the medium. In this sense, Pornhub’s campaigns can be seen as contributing to a reframing of porn use by rendering explicit its mainstream and thus socially safe status. In a 2014 Adweek interview, Pornhub Vice President, Corey Price, explained that
“We want to push the conversation into the general public as something that’s acceptable to talk about, while letting people know that watching porn shouldn’t be an underground activity that’s to be seen as shameful. Everyone does it, why not just bring that out in the open? The reason it causes a stir is due to an already accepted set of social norms.”
The overall aim of the PR campaigns is to build up Pornhub as an entertainment brand among others. This again implies a process of domestication whereby media contents deemed unsavory, inappropriate, and off the mainstream are rendered familiar, acceptable, routine, and ordinary. Such processes have during the past decade or so, been diagnosed through concepts such as the sexualization and pornification of culture with the aim of accounting for how pornography has grown mundane in its accessibility, how people of different ages and genders are routinely consuming it, and the role that the flirtation with both the sexually suggestive and the sexually explicit plays media culture. Such diagnoses describe the mainstreaming of pornography in terms of its sheer popularity (bearing in mind the annual volume of Pornhub traffic alone), as well as the general visibility of pornographic codes, aesthetics, and themes across different fields of culture. As a long-standing media cultural trend, flirtation with pornography is telling of the perpetual—albeit also regularly uncomfortable—public presence of materials deemed obscene, the simultaneous fascination and aversion that they entail, as well as the constant labor involved in maintaining some kind of a boundary between pornography and the mainstream, the NSFW and SFW.
The mainstreaming and domestication of Pornhub through its SFW public relations campaigns interferes with the scent of forbidden fruit on which the cultural status, and central attraction, of pornography has been dependent throughout its history and which has rendered it the content that necessitates specific policing, censorship, and acts of regulation. Their PR campaigns increase the brand’s visibility in a range of SFW within the online attention economy of clicks, links, and shares, but similar cross-platform circulation cannot apply to the NSFW videos that the site hosts.