Category Archives: porn studies

briefly on Pornhub’s PR campaigns

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

k7r9bunIn 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.

fd9c5c33ee952f71ff2bc91785968d4fPornhub’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.

pornhub-insights-2016-year-in-review-infographic-moonProbably 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.

 

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interview with Colby Keller

Late last year I did an interview with the one and only Colby Keller for a forthcoming new magazine called PHILE where it’s to accompany his photoshoot. And here’s the draft:

colby-eatsThe collective body of Colby Keller

Colby Keller requires little introduction for those acquainted with contemporary gay male porn. Since his debut with Sean Cody in 2004, Keller has become a key performer whose versatile star image spans from hardcore porn to fashion modeling and collaborative art projects, such as Colby Does America, which has been realized through crowd funding and edited on collective, volunteer basis.

 During these dozen years, the porn industry has gone through major economical and technological transformations fuelled by video aggregator sites, P2P sharing, amateur porn distribution and the end of the DVD era. Sean Cody itself was bought up by Men.com, which again was bought up by Mindgeek, the company running the majority of aggregator sites. This centralization is unprecedented and there isn’t much transparency to how the business as a whole operates. In what sense is the contemporary porn industry an industry?

CK: I actually feel the industrialization of porn more now than when I started. There are these monopolies that are forming. There’s more consolidation: many companies have disappeared, fallen off the map, or been bought up.

The way that Mindgeek works with Men.com is that they have a team of producers and the producer gets a deal, a certain amount of money, and they are responsible for finding models and budgeting it. That’s how they typically work, which is very different than a lot of the older companies. But there isn’t a lot of transparency to it and even negotiating pay can be very stressful.

The old model was, here’s a new guy and we use him for five or six scenes, or maybe we sign him exclusively for ten and then he’s done. In that old system, which I caught the very end tail of when I started and which was beginning to disappear largely due to online stuff, they would sign you for an exclusive, you might get paid slightly more money every video that you made, and they would be in charge of your image. They would own your image and your name and their job was to promote you. But after that exclusive period, the models have been kind of on their own. The studio might help to set up a website or something for models they like or they make a lot of money from but the models still have a lot of personal responsibility to manage their own image. And of course that’s going to be the case since the companies are there to make money. In the end of the day it’s capitalism and anyway the company can have the performers perform free labour, they’re going to have them do.

How does a self-identified communist with an education in fine art and anthropology manage his labor and porn persona in all this?

CK: All the horrible stories you can imagine in a porn company, I’ve experienced. But I also used to work at Neiman Marcus doing their visual displays for two years, 70 hours a week. I got paid minimum wages because I was a temporary worker, they didn’t want to pay my healthcare and I was really a slave to everyone else. I worked as a news cameraman too for a company that contracted with every major news outlet, and they paid me ten dollars per hour. Those experiences were a lot more traumatic and I got treated a lot worse than I probably have in the most of my porn encounters.

There is a politics of having a profession and certain things you can talk about and certain things you can’t. And you talk in a certain way particularly when that business is about selling you as this sex object. I’m in the business of turning people on and part of that should be about embracing who that person is and all the complex ways in which we people exist in the world. And that’s what desire is: it’s a complicated thing, not just a flat image that you can access for twenty seconds and then disappear and walk away from it. So I try to be as transparent as I can and I think that’s an ethical duty that I have.

That’s where politics for me enters into this. I’m not resistant to talking about problems I’ve encountered in porn, or the experiences I’ve had because it’s important for people consuming this product to know what it is. I try not to produce propaganda for the industry, or propaganda for myself.

From your perspective, what makes a good porn scene? What is a job well done for you as a professional and what are you looking for in a scene in the porn that you watch?

CK: A good scene is where we have really good chemistry and which is done really quickly: everything goes smoothly, everybody has hard-ons, we come right away and get out of there. I mean, it’s a job. I’m paid by scene and the shorter the hard day is, the better.

So that’s one kind of a good scene. Hopefully it will translate into something that an audience might appreciate but that aspect I really have no control over. It’s weird: sometimes scenes I thought were really awful turn out to be really popular, and scenes I thought were really amazing nobody pays attention to. I’ve always been curious about why that happens and when that happens. That’s another type of a good scene, one that the audience decides.

I prefer bareback porn and like scenes where there was a lot of intensity and energy and connection between people. Have to love a good internal cumshot! With Colby Does America, I tried not to qualify anything as good or bad. That always wasn’t possible because I had bad experiences with people or sex wouldn’t happen, or it didn’t happen in a way that I wanted it to happen. I found myself really loving it if there was good sex, I got good angles and images of everything and I was thinking about it as a typical porn scene. I felt confident in the content I was able to deliver when I had that secured in the bag.

There were a lot of cases where people agreed to film but we’d just end up having a conversation about sex: in one case it got to a big argument. I tried to limit that since I knew it provided a problem for those who volunteered to edit: they’re not going to want to sit and watch a 60-minute conversation. I tend to be visually oriented and think about aesthetics, so being able to set up a shot and have sex and evaluate that content was interesting for me personally, but I tried not to make a value judgment.

You’ve earlier talked about Colby Keller as a collective body of sorts, one encompassing fans and their participation as this sort of an embodied, living brand. What kind of an identity position is then Colby Keller?

CK: I used to think there was more of a pronounced separation between Colby Keller the porn performer and me who is not, and I feel less of a distance now. As my career gets bigger the two become necessarily less separated from one another.

Colby Keller is definitely a collective person and there are a lot of people who shape that. Some aspects of that person I have nothing to do with. There’s a way in which we perceive ourselves as these individuals that’s more mythological than it is factual – not in just biological terms and all the other organisms that contribute to our body mass – but also in the way we’re socially conceived, and replicate. This mythology serves a certain purpose but it’s not one that benefits human beings and it’s definitely putting us in the position globally that’s detrimental to our success in the long term as a species.

I am a collective person, like I think everyone is and we need to start thinking ourselves more in that respect. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t advocate for privacy or the agency of individual organisms but we need to think in a broader sense about how we conceive of ourselves, and there is no other place to start that kind of a project than with oneself. So I think Colby, which is an extension of myself, is one way in which I can do that.

It’s difficult because I get recognition and obviously it’s my personal voice and body that’s the one doing the talking, and I’m privileged that way. If there’s something positive that comes out from what Colby Keller does, I’m usually the one who benefits from that. I try to share as much as I can with the other people who are part of this project, but that’s an interesting ethical problem. And these other people aren’t getting any monetary rewards from what we’re doing – well, rarely am I.

But I try not to dwell on the things about living a life that make me think as this myopic little, individual organism, and I try to think of myself in a more expansive sense since it’s helpful. It’s helpful to aid others in that process too, and working collaboratively is a way to manage that for each other.

This collective sense of self is something of an assemblage obviously detached from notions of individual identities as clearly bound and separable from one another. It also pushes us to think about sexual identity as this contingent thing. While sexual identities are routinely defined through binary, mutually exclusive and seemingly coherent categories – such as gay vs. straight – they keep on taking new twists and turns as we live, encounter people, places, desires and palates. In most instances, what or who one prefers at the age of 20 is a different thing that what one goes for three decades later. To what degree is sexual identity a productive concept to think and live with?

CK: It’s really a question of how we think about history. We definitely should give ourselves as much permission as possible to conceive of new ways of thinking of ourselves as sexual beings, and as beings in general. We’re always doing that, it’s probably the only thing that makes us human: we create a lot of culture that radically shapes our environment. Sometimes we do that more successfully than other times.

But in order to do that we really have to have some kind of appreciation for history and where we come from and how we got to those points. That would mean full appreciation of what those categories might entail, however they’re practiced or validated, and an understanding of them. That’s inevitably how we operate, along with a good deal of obfuscation from certain parts of our community. People benefit from certain things staying the same and they’ll try as hard as they can to prevent that process from working itself out – even though it usually does in some way.

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sexualities and digital culture in Europe

The Gender and Communication and Digital Culture Sections of ECREA are jointly organising a symposium in Athens, May 26-27, on Sexualities and digital culture in Europe. With a focus on sexual experiences, practices and digital culture; intimate/sexual citizenship and the digital and online sexual content and representations, the event sets out to explore the “sexual politics, challenges, opportunities and continuities surrounding the digital, with a specific focus on European contexts:”

“We particularly welcome contributions on topical matters in European societies and politics, among which: the regulation of online pornographic content in discussions on sexuality, children and the internet, LGBTQ challenges and opportunities related to the digital, the rise of conservative grass-roots movements in Europe that protest against what is called ‘gender ideology’ (such movements question and protest pro-gender equality legislations, abortion laws, same-sex marriage laws and transgender laws, while advocating for traditional family values and ‘restoring’ the naturalness of male and female bodies).”

Proposal deadline is February 2. As keynote, I’m honoured, flattered and frankly anxious to be speaking to the range of issues raised.

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pornification, galore

An entry I wrote on “Pornification and the Mainstreaming of Sex” for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Criminology – subject, crime, media and popular culture – is freshly out just here. It’s an encyclopedia entry and hence pretty straightforward, but does some cover some ground when it comes to debates on the pornification and sexualisation of culture, hopefully in productive ways. This is the abstract:

The changing cultural role, visibility, and meaning of pornography, particularly its increased accessibility and the sociocultural reverberations that this is seen to cause, have been lively topics of public debate in most Western countries throughout the new millennium. Concerns are routinely yet passionately voiced, especially over the ubiquity of sexual representations flirting with the codes of pornography in different fields of popular media, as well as children’s exposure to hardcore materials that are seen to grow increasingly extreme and violent. At the same time, the production, distribution, and consumption have undergone notable transformations with the ubiquity of digital cameras and online platforms. Not only is pornography accessible on an unprecedented scale, but also it is available in more diverse shapes and forms than ever. All this has given rise to diverse journalistic and academic diagnoses on the pornification and sexualization of culture, which, despite their notable differences, aim to conceptualize transformations in the visibility of sexually explicit media content and its broader sociocultural resonances.

 

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porn pedagogy

So yes, I’ve finally done an article on the P-word. “Visceral pedagogies: Pornography, affect, and safety in the university classroom” is very freshly out with The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studiesa manuscript version is available here.

And here’s the abstract:

With the ubiquitous presence and accessibility of online pornography and the gradual yet drastic rise of porn studies as an interdisciplinary field of investigation, pornography has become a recurrent theme in media studies, gender studies, sociology, and cultural studies curricula. Existing literature on pornography and university pedagogy nevertheless makes it evident that this is not simply a topic among others but a potential source of tension in the classroom, within the university, with the media and public opinion. Drawing on my own experiences of teaching pornography in Finnish universities since 2005, this article examines the reasons for including pornography in the curriculum (the basic question as to “why”) and the different ways of doing this (the questions as to “how” and “what”). This pedagogical focus is tied to exploration of both the ethical concerns and affective dynamics involved in bringing porn to the classroom, namely the questions of how the affective dynamics of pornographic materials may be handled and how this translates as, or connects to academic teaching as affective labor.

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monster toons

For a couple of years now, I’ve been looking into the fascinating tentacled landscape of monster toon porn. Here’s a proto version of a longer text on “The affective and affectless bodies of monster toon porn,” which is forthcoming some time in the future.

***

monsterMonster (car)toon porn is a genre of 3D computer-generated pornography that focuses on depictions of sexual encounters of the impossible and improbable kind. Its imageries are characteristically fantastic in their displays of spectacularly incompatible bodies engaging in penetrative sex, in its exaggerated scenarios of control and submission and in its displays of lust and disgust seemingly knowing no bounds. Here, demons, zombies and hulk-like creatures copulate with elves, Hollywood starlet lookalikes and female game characters; huge bodies penetrate tiny ones and human-like bodies sprout novel sexual organs. Broadly building on the combined traditions of Western cartoon porn, Japanese hentai and ero-manga (pornographic anime and comics) and machinima (3D videos generated in real time with game engines), monster toon porn is often classified as hentai, independent of its factual geographical origins. Its images and videos originate from the efforts of amateur fans, commercial studios and non-profit enterprises alike.

Zooming in on this landscape of tentacles, ogres and maidens, this chapter contextualises monster toon porn in the historical framework of graphic and animated pornography and explores it in terms of its irregular embodiments, uncanny lack of affect and the dynamics of its nonhuman sexual imagery. While it may be tempting to position monster toons as a specifically novel development specific to digital culture, the issue is – predictably – on of both continuity and change. Consequently, I open with some historical vignettes.

Animated excess

The histories of modern pornography preceding photographic technologies linger back to the traditions of erotic literary fiction, engravings, graphic prints, drawings and paintings that gained broader circulation with the introduction of inexpensive printing presses in the late 18th century. In visual pornography, penises, vaginas and various other body parts have set off on adventures, detached themselves from bodies, floated about, changed shape and copulated creatively for a number of centuries. In the early 20th century, this visual tradition expanded to sexually explicit comics such as the 1930s “Tijuana Bibles” featuring pornographic variations of popular mainstream comic strips and celebrities (Pilcher, 2008; Adelman, 1997; Uidhir & Pratt, 2012). In animated film – a then emergent art form characterised by visual simplification, surface, rhythm and repetition (Klein, 1998) – graphic pornography met the possibilities of moving image. Constance Penley (2004) identifies ribald humour, wanton penises, “hyperbolically exaggerated body parts and wildly impossible sexual positions” as equally standard elements of early animated pornography (p. 318).

hqdefaultThe six-minute long Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure (1928–1929) was among the very first animated porn films. The main character’s expansive penis escapes his body, hides behind rocks, functions as a third leg, gets attacked by a plate-sized crab louse during penetration, gets stuck in a man’s anus, bents, is hurt by cacti and licked by a cow. The film is rife with puns, bodily metamorphoses and hyperbole while the boundaries of the animate and the inanimate, human and animal, are in constant flux. As José B. Capino (2004) points out, “just as animals, plants and humans communicate and play with each other in mainstream animation, so also do the figures in animated pornography speak the same language of polysexual desire and perform more sexual roles than conventional human morality can tolerate” (p. 59).

A series of German, undated Super 8 film loops dating back to the early 1970s revisited classic fairytales and cartoons – from the Western adventures of Puffalo Bill to Robert Keller und Dieter Hahn where Max and Moritz play out some of their more adult tricks, Rammel der Hase featuring an amply endowed Bugs Bunny of sorts, Schneeflittchen und die 7 Zwerge where Snow White engages in group sex with the seven dwarfs and shoots pickles from her vagina and Schwänzel und Gretel (also known in English as Dickzel and Gretel and Hans and Gretel in the Magic Forest), where penises grow from the ground and people, squirrels, owls and pigs all engage in continuous orgies (Capino, 2004, p. 57). The films’ pornographic fantasylands are ones of excessive, even compulsive sexuality where ejaculate oozes from unsuspected outlets and lubricates the narrative action. All these cartoons aim to titillate through their sexual explicitness but much more centrally to entertain through their surprising twists and unequivocally smutty forms of humour.

Animated porn has since taken virtually endless shapes and forms, from parody versions of popular children’s animation gone wild to fan-made machinima created out of The Sims and the 3D, high-resolution bodies approximating photorealistic aesthetics and representing the higher end in production values. Alongside these, all kinds of pornographic comics and still images abound in resolutions high and low, in genres more and much less mainstream and in aesthetics ranging from the cartoonish to the photorealistic. The pleasures involved in the processes of modelling bodies and acts, as figures of fantasy, is key motivation for the often unpaid, voluntary and hobbyist labour that the crafting of monster cartoon porn requires. In Tiziana Terranova’s (2004) terms, “they witness an investment of desire into production of the kind cultural theorists have mainly theorized in relation to consumption” (p. 84).

Digital image manipulation and animation tools have grown increasingly accessible, and the outcomes ever more available on online video sharing platforms. Aggregator sites enable the uploading, and hence the public archiving, of clips that were previously in much narrower circulation through screenings, VHS and DVD compilations. The “affective processing” of “digital ephemera” (Gehl, 2011) on tube sites gives rise to heterogeneous archives of varying copyright statuses. Individual clips are detached from their original contexts of production and distribution, titled, described and tagged as users see fit (Gehl, 2009, p. 46–47). In these horizontal archives, one may move from Pokémon hentai featuring some of Pikachu’s more raunchy moments to the pornographic variations of Family Guy, Simpsons and Futurama where family members get it one with one another and the boundaries of species, as well as those of humans and machines, are overcome with gusto.

The tentacled dynamics of hentai

In Japanese, the term hentai refers only to sexual materials deemed unusual, extreme or abnormal. Such scenarios might involve “number of partners as in gang rape, or bizarre partners as in aliens or monsters or illicit partners as in children” (McLelland, 2006). Yet, despite referring to sexual depictions of the more extraordinary and unlikely kind, hentai lacks pejorative connotations similar to those of abnormality and perversion in Western countries (McLelland, 2006). It should also be noted that Japanese pornographic anime also more broadly involves streaks of “the fantastic, the occult, or science fiction” and privileges “the female body in pain” in scenes of sexual torture and mutilation (Napier, 2005, p. 64). This also applies to eroge, hentai computer games with their perennial – and perennially controversial – themes of incest and sexual violence (Martinez & Manolovitz, 2010).

While hentai was considered too extreme or plain bizarre for Western pornographic DVD markets of the 1990s, it quickly gained ubiquitous recognizability on online platforms, followed by broad, multi-platform distribution (Dahlqvist & Vigilant, 2004). Mariana Ortega-Bena (2009) defines hentai through characteristics such as “substandard animation, ample dwelling on unconventional erotic practices, a fixation on rape and nonconsensual sexual violence, and often preposterous scenarios” (p. 20), but also associates it with the grotesque and carnivalesque features of Japanese erotic fiction. Building on the tradition of shunga, erotic woodblock prints, which peaked during the Edo period (1603–1868), hentai richly features many of its themes, such as “Massive genitalia, ingenious sexual aids, couplings of all kinds, a wide array of fetishes, bizarre viewpoints, physical anomalies, bawdy comedy, and satirical vignettes” (Ortega-Bena, 2009, p. 20). The influences of shunga remain evident in hentai, from exaggerated physical characteristics to humour and elaborate scenarios of tentacle rape (Screech, 2009; Buckland, 2010; Gerstle & Clark, 2013; Kazutaka, 2013; Napier, 2005, p. 21).

The uses of tentacles and other non-human phallic shapes owes partly to Japanese legislation banning the showing of genitalia without pixelation (Hambleton, 2015; Napier, 2005, p. 79). The landscape of monster toon porn is similarly populated by tentacle 680px-Tako_to_ama_retouchedcreatures owing to Hokusai’s classic woodcut, The Pearl Diver (aka. The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, 1814) – as well as a vast range of giant worm-like creatures, demons, centaurs, elves, ogres, dragons, zombies and amalgamations of humans and bugs. Like hentai, monster toons are rife with “demonic phallus incarnate”: demonic characters that are “preternaturally huge, covered with rippling muscles, and inevitably equipped with an enormous penis (and often with phallic tentacles as well)” (Napier, 2005, p. 65, 79). Be these monsters insects, spiders, fishes, slugs, extra-terrestrial creatures or demons, action focuses firmly on vaginal, oral and anal penetrative sex that climaxes in money shots as monsters of all kinds sport highly anthropomorphic penises.

The sexual scenarios are overwhelmingly ones of domination and submission, often of the non-consensual sort. Monsters three times the size of elves slip excessively sized penises into mouths, anuses and vaginas while human-like bodies bend, flex and accommodate. It is generally female bodies – young, fit, beautiful and firmly humanlike as they tend to be – that are pushed to their boundaries of physical endurance by the sheer size of the penises, tentacles or objects inserted in their cavities.

A search for “monster toon” on Pornhub, world’s leading porn aggregator site, result in 5–6 minute clips with titles such as “Giant Monsters Take Hot Chick” and “Monster Sex on Space Station”. In these, sex acts consist of the same motions repeated over and over again, accompanied by the same facial expressions and sounds, or the lack thereof. The bodies of monster toon porn move back and forth in their penetrative acts with notably little variation in gesture or motion. On the one hand, these scenarios are markedly affective in their visceral attention to (more or less fantastic) bodily detail and in the dynamics of disgust, amusement and sexual arousal that they aim to evoke. On the other hand, the monsters and their more or less human partners are regularly affectless in their machinic bodily movements.

In terms of aesthetics, monster toon porn ranges from high-resolution visuals aiming at full photorealism to examples of much lower technical execution. In most instances, female characters tend to resemble the Realdoll brand of sex dolls in their plastic, ultra-feminine human likeness and functional purpose. In still images, the details of bodies are carefully crafted towards a paradoxical sense of verisimilitude, from the pores of the skin to the gradations of the soft, hard and the liquid while the bodies of machinima videos tend to remain much more sketch-like.

As is the case with Realdolls, the animated characters’ facial expressions are vacuous. Verbal output remains limited to the repetitive loops of grunts, sighs, squeals and whimpers that are largely detached from the motion of bodies, mouths and faces. Human voice functions as both an extension and displacement of the animated body (Capino, 2004, p. 64) and yields both distance and grains of proximity. According to Ortega-Bena (2009), hentai follows the more general trend of emotional inexpression and visual blankness in Japanese arts and film in that there is little explicit or outward expression of emotion. All this results in layers of spectacle and excess, blankness and impassiveness that are deployed in conveying the markedly fantastic and out-of-the-ordinary (Ortega-Bena, 2009, p. 20–21). Ortega-Bena sees the bodies of hentai as constantly moving “between dichotomies of male, female; potent, impotent; demonic, human; oppressive, submissive; possessive, possessed; attacker, attacked; sadist, masochist” that are nevertheless “ultimately fluid, can be shuffled around and are combined in a variety of ways” (p. 27).

Like hentai,  monster toon porn is posthuman in its hybrid protagonists that often metamorphose from one shape to another, in their computer-generated origins resulting from algorithmic functions and in their affectless bodies engaging in mechanical sexual acts. Although the boundaries of species are routinely crossed, bodies metamorphose from one form to another and novel incarnations are common, gendered lines of control nevertheless remain much more tenuous. Despite the unlimited possibilities that animation affords in imagining characters engaging in acts impossible for actual human bodies to accomplish, or even survive, the fantastic scenes of monster toon porn are regularly bound up with highly predictable ways of imagining both sexual scenarios and gendered power dynamics.

Machinima is primarily amateur-made and a rough, “a bit ugly” (Douglas, 2014, p. 333) aesthetic is part of its charm. While machinima is predominantly shared on YouTube, sexually explicit clips circulate on porn tubes – both ones specialize in cartoon porn, hentai and machinima and “general purpose” aggregator sites such as Pornhub and XVideos. On these, videos of drastically varying technical execution compete for viewer attention: from rough-edged characters with repetitive, bouncy and jerky movements more suggestive of photorealism than conforming to its dictates to extensively worked fantasy scenarios dwelling in visual detail.

Shared online, 3D monster toon porn machinima is part of a broader ecology of DIY fan videos, mashups, remixes and parodies that results from both fan engagement with popular culture and the accessibility and increasing performance of digital production tools (see Ito, 2011, p. 51). Independent of the specific forms it takes, machinima filmmaking is centrally derivative: “audiences look forward to familiar game locations, quests, items, and game-generated characters being reinterpreted” (Falkenstein, 2011, p. 87). Machinima involves a resampling and reimagining of game characters and events, and this is also where a central part of its attraction lies. In the sexually explicit extensions of in-game events, female characters, from Lara Croft to the female cast of Final Fantasy, appear in elaborate scenarios with nonhuman or semi-human partners both originating from the game world and not.

Given that monster toon porn involves predominantly scenes of non-consent, it can be easily associated with toxic game culture, its patterns of male privilege and violent exclusion of women (see Consalvo, 2012; Apperley, 2015). These misogynistic overtones have been rendered particularly explicit since the 2014 Gamergate controversy, which involved extensive harassment, shaming, threatening and silencing of women and minorities in game journalism, industry and scholarship (see Chess & Shaw, 2015; Massanari, 2015). Examined in this framework, the appropriation of female game characters in monster porn, no matter how strong and proactive they may be in their respective game worlds, is an extension of the broader gendered dynamics of game culture.

Fantastic bodies

Monster toon porn is basically the work of algorithms and a means of exploring sexual scenarios impossible to physically act out without censure or bodily harm (also Hernandez, 2005). In the realm of computer-generated still images, comics and videos, impossible embodiments and brutal scenarios abound. A Google image search for 3D porn comics generates top hits on incest fantasies where minors sport massive genitalia and taboos function as key incentive for action. As in literary pornography (Marcus, 1964), bodily capacities and desires know no bounds: this is a realm of unlimited and unbridled sexual opulence that no mundane routines or chores disturb.

Animation allows for constant metamorphoses of its “unreal, imaginary, fabricated, virtual” bodies (Capino, 2004, p. 53–54) that are unburdened by gravity, causality or the limits of what physical human bodies can do, or be. In addition to bodies fantastically bulging without tearing, bursting or bleeding, their insides can be rendered visible. The motions of penises seen through a woman’s body are a specific focus of interest in hentai. These are visualized through small vignettes revealing the motions of the penis inside the body, under the woman skin, flesh and muscle. Alternatively, bodies suddenly grow transparent in order to illuminate the action within. Here, the horizons of expressive and imaginary possibility of animation, such as exaggerated gestures, hypertrophied bodies and extreme doses of violence (Capino, 2004, p. 56), meet the excessive and hyperbolic features of pornography.

“Of the many tongues through which pornography speaks the unspeakable, animation is arguably the most articulate and audaciously vulgar. Within the vast corpus of pornographic cartoons, animated bodies can perform every desire and fantasy that the human body cannot utter. Relentlessly and with impunity, the animated bodyʼs plastic genitalia and invulnerable orifices grow and multiply, mutate and mutilate, probe or are penetrated by every imaginable object and animal. Sexual boundaries assume the solubility of water colors.” (Capino, 2004, p. 54.)

In hentai and ero manga (adult comics), the human body is regularly pushed to the extremes, even to “the point at which it can be no longer recognized as human” (Shamoon, 2004, p. 87). As Capino (2004, p. 58, 67) points out, there is a limitlessness of fantasy to animated pornography that often meets excessive punitive violence as bodies are mutilated or even annihilated. At the same time, these hyperbolic scenarios of excessive penetration, climax and lust involve plentiful instances of humour that is easily downplayed or even ignored when considering their gendered dynamics of submission and domination. Such instances may vary from the overall absurdity of the settings to the details of the action: winged creatures pounding tiny female bodies with their rainbow-hued penises that, impossibly, fit into the orifices where they are thrust.

The members-only website, Hellywood: Evil Invasion, specializes in glossy, carefully rendered and hyperbolic 3D still images of female celebrities – from Jessica Alba to Lindsey Lohan, Jennifer Aniston and Kate Perry – engaging in elaborate sexual acts with monsters of all kinds. Characterised as celebrity mansion where “a total fucking madness gets a whole new meaning”, Hellywood envisions:

“Shocking action-packed 3D hentai scenes of evil creatures from Hell fucking you (sic) favourite award-winning celebrities! Watch hottest women on Earth power-fucked my merciless invaders and gets (sic) orgasm from ugly cock fucking jaw-dropping hentai 3D fantasy scenes right now!”

hellyThe female celebrities’ faces have been appropriated from mainstream media images – film shots, magazine poses and music video stills – and their expressions range from surprise to disgust, enthusiasm, startle, dismay, joy and panache. The heads often fail to match the bodies modelled for them, many of which come with hyperbolically tiny waists and huge breasts. A legion of computer-generated demons, aliens and other monstrous creatures in greys, greens, blues, blacks and browns is seen probing the celebrities with their perpetually hard penises.

It does not take a huge stretch of analytical imagination to associate the gaping cavities, phallic shapes and metamorphosing bodies of monster toon porn, or the tentacled glossy parallel universe of Hellywood more specifically, with the notion of the grotesque, as introduced by literary scholar Mihail Bahtin in his study of Rabelais. For Bahtin (1984, p. 30–31, 317), grotesque represents the opposite of classic body ideas as limitlessness where the insides and outsides of bodies refuse to be confined within their regular boundaries. The aesthetics of the grotesque intermeshes with and immerses in bodily orifices, exaggerates and in resistant to moderation (Bahtin, 1984, p. 303–304), hence breaking against any conventional notions of proper taste or appropriate demeanour. While carnevalesque excess and unruly laughter are, with Rabelais, connected to the undoing of cultural hierarchies and positions of power, such a symbolic reading is less readily achieved with monster toon porn. Grotesque aesthetics are in broad use and moments of dirty humour abound yet these do not add up as symbolic subversion of social hierarchies of power. All in all, monster toon porn – like pornography more broadly – remains resistant to most readings aiming to pin it neatly down as a cultural symbol or symptom (see Paasonen, 2011).

Humour has been key elementary to the traditions of graphic pornography preceding film, pornographic animated film, comics as well as shunga and hentai that monster toon porn builds on. For her part, Ortega-Bena (2009) highlights the role of humour as adding to the pleasures of hentai and the sense of distance that its emotionally vacuous and expressionless characters create. Much of this applies to Hellywood where facial expressions are frozen in still motion, recombined with computer-generated bodies, smoothed over and set in elaborate scenes of monster orgies. These images are colourful and high-definition, and a great deal of attention has been paid to detail. The resulting effect of follows Capino’s (2004, p. 56) more general account of animated porn’s impossible, hyperbolic sexual activity as “multiplied in volume, exaggerated in magnitude”.

The Hellywood effect is literally too much: tongue-in-cheek inasmuch as sexually explicit. The site is richly garnished with invitations to see “Goblins, walking dead and disgusting creatures of ancient saga invade the Earth to nail every fuckable celeb in the area!”; “Gape on tight celebrity pussies getting ripped by dreadful cocks and filled to the brim with hot infernal seed!” and “Watch hell-born vile creatures fuck hot celebrity chicks into complete prostration!” Such enthusiasm towards evil creatures ripping and nailing hot chicks follows the vocabulary of hardcore porn that attaches unequivocally positive value to the dreadful, vile and disgusting as markers of no holds barred action (Paasonen, 2011, p. 57–59, 207–209). The huge monsters and tiny elves of monster porn further follow the guiding pornographic principles of spectacularly binary depiction of embodied differences, submission and control. The rhetoric of hardcore porn draws firmly on the juxtaposition of the tiny and the colossal, the degenerate and the sweet while firmly amplifying differences in gender, age and ethnicity for the ultimate effect. (Paasonen, 2011, p. 126–128, 157; Capino, 2004, p. 56.) In monster toon porn, this hyperbolic modality grows highly literal as the tiny is truly miniscule and the colossal simply gargantuan.

The dramatic, exaggerated and markedly unrealistic scenes and bodies of monster toon porn seem to provide antitheses for amateur pornography, the popularity of which has been a megatrend in for the last decade. If amateur porn draws its appeal from a sense of realness, recognisability, familiarity and authenticity, monster toons provide unreal, fantastic and alien scenarios. Meanwhile, its mechanical and machinic motions of bodies pushing back and forth without a great deal of expression, affective nuance or modulations in intensity come across as hyperbolic version of repetition central to pornography as a popular genre. All in all, monster toon porn remains notably resistant to literal interpretations based on the premises of realistic representation.

The heightened sense of fantastic, impossible unrealness, combined with the applications of photorealism, explains much of the appeal of 3D monster toon porn: its phallic excessiveness is simply impossible to ignore. While immersion in its imageries is undoubtedly possible, a more literal identification with its emotionally vacuous characters is more unlikely. Violent scenarios of submission and control are played out to the fullest, often on overdrive, yet as void of affective intensity. The resonances that they afford are distinct from those of live-action pornography where the effects of bodies whipped, asphyxiated and stretched are bound up with a visceral sense of indexicality – be this experienced as titillating, disturbing or both. In contrast, fantastic computer-generated bodies are endlessly pliable and resilient, perfectly symmetrical, smooth and fine-tuned. They stretch, bounce right back and never fail.

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childhood porn memories

It’s been fun working on the memory-work materials on Finnish people’s experiences and memories of porn, collected in 2012, but that project is now done. My last actual research article on this, titled Bad education? Childhood recollections of pornography, sexual exploration, learning and agency in Finland, written together with the marvellous Sanna Spišák, is just out with the journal Childhood. Many nostalgic memories there, and notably few mentions of trauma. Read it here if the mood strikes you. And here’s the abstract:

“This article draws on a memory-work project on the childhood experiences and memories of pornography in Finland to argue that the autobiographical younger self used in these reminiscences is a creature distinct from the cultural figure of a child at risk, and that the forms of learning connected to pornography are more diverse and complex than those limited to sexual acts alone. The notion of an asexual child susceptible to media effects remains detached from people’s accounts of their childhood activities, experiences and competences. By analyzing these, it is possible to critically reexamine the hyperbolic concerns over the pornification and sexualization of culture.”

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