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.
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:
The 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.
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.
Should you be in Hamburg next week, please join us at the conference Loose connections: Modes of un-relating on January 12 and 13, organised by the PhD program, ‘Loose Connections: Collectivity in Digital and Urban Space.’ Talks include Michael Liegl on the meandering collectivity of Grindr, Ben Anderson on neoliberal structures of feeling and Graham Harman on loose relations. My thing on “Lagging proximities, ambivalent intimacies” draws on my recent work on the role that networked media, as infrastructures of everyday life, play in the formation and maintenance of intimacies.
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.
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 Studies: a 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.