Tag Archives: embodiment

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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disquieting, unfit social bodies

Our book project, #NSFW, is moving more into the writing phase with Kylie Jarrett and Ben Light, which is exciting indeed. So here’s a little something towards for a section on nudity and social media.



On February 9, 2016, visual artist Illma Gore published a pastel pencil painting of Donald Trump in the nude, titled “Make American Great Again,” on her Facebook page with the accompanying slogan, “Because no matter what is in your pants, you can still be a big prick.”

Inspired by the highly public, and broadly discussed, allusions to Trump’s penis size during the Republican presidential primary debates, the drawing featured the candidate with genitalia of markedly modest size. The image soon began circulating on other social media platforms from Instagram to Tumblr, Twitter, and Snapchat. By February 11, it was featured with NSFW warnings in media outlets such as The Huffington Post (“Artist Imagines What Donald Trump Looks Like Naked And It Ain’t Pretty (NSFW)”) and The Daily Dot (“Realistic nude painting of Donald Trump will make you gouge your eyes out”), with many other stories to follow.

Very quickly after posting the initial image, Gore’s Facebook account was temporarily suspended for violating the service’s community standards, and it has been blocked numerous times since. According to these standards:

“We remove photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing in on fully exposed buttocks. We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple, but we always allow photos of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures and other art that depicts nude figures. Restrictions on the display of both nudity and sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless the content is posted for educational, humorous or satirical purposes. Explicit images of sexual intercourse are prohibited. Descriptions of sexual acts that go into vivid detail may also be removed.” (https://m.facebook.com/communitystandards/?section=1)


Illma Gore’s portrait of Trump in the nude did not in fact violate these terms as she had covered Trump’s genital area with a black block (Hoffman 2016). On March 3, she published an eBay listing for the piece, only to have it taken down a few days later due to violating the service’s policy on images of nudity, according to which “frontal nudity is allowed in Art categories when the item is considered fine art, such as Michelangelo’s David, vintage pin-up art, Renaissance-style paintings, and nude cherubs.” Works not fitting these parameters should be listed in the Adult Only Category. (http://pages.ebay.com/help/policies/adult-only.html.) Within a week, Gore had been threatened by lawsuits from Trump’s team and risked having her Facebook account permanently blocked. (Voon 2016.)

The image itself is well suited in terms of both news outlets and click sites in its visceral display of folding naked celebrity flesh. News items on the acts of blocking, banning, and potential censorship connected to it—and ones related to Facebook in particular—invested the incident with a different kind of sticky attention value. In the course of this all, the image gained notable virality as people shared news items, most of them featuring an uncensored version of the portrait (as seen above) that consequently found its way to extensive distribution on Facebook. In order to further fuel its dispersion, Gore put a high-resolution image file on her website for free downloading. By April 2016, the portrait was on display at the Maddox gallery in London, priced at £1m (http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/17/nude-donald-trump-painting-illma-gore-lawsuits). All this witnesses to the intermeshing of attention value and monetary value through and within the fast speeds of social media platforms, online news outlets, links, and clicks, as debated in the context of attention economy, even if this is not the key issue right here.

The image in question, situated in the realm of arts and politics alike, is one in a long, constantly accumulating stream of incidents testing and challenging the community standards of Facebook. At the same time, the incident is also somewhat exceptional in that it focused on the nude male body of a celebrity politician. Other controversies to date have predominantly focused on images of female bodies, as in the context of breastfeeding and breast cancer. In 2012, a group of women gathered in front of Facebook headquarters in a collective breastfeeding protest opposing their policy of flagging and removing images of nursing. In a 2013 controversy, over 20,000 people signed a Change.org petition protesting the removal of images of mastectomy as obscene (and hence as comparable to pornographic content). Facebook community standards have since undergone revisions. According to the March 2016 version,

“We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple, but we always allow photos of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures and other art that depicts nude figures. Restrictions on the display of both nudity and sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless the content is posted for educational, humorous or satirical purposes.”


Nudity occupies a tricky terrain in the borderlines between the SFW and the NSFW, especially since the criteria regulating obscenity are, due to the largest social media platforms’ country of origin, overwhelmingly defined according to standards particular to U.S. culture. Art remains a space where nudity fails to be automatically conflated with obscenity, yet terms of service routinely map out its confines and discontents in notably conservative terms. On eBay, this involves fencing off the obscene in contrast to Renaissance-style aesthetics and cherubs even while the normative boundaries of art are transgressed by including vintage pin-ups within the category. For its part, Facebook recognizes painting and sculptures but not digitally generated images as art, hence articulating the boundaries of art in highly medium-specific means.

Image recognition software has been developed since the 1990s for automatically filtering out pornographic images (e.g. Ries and Lienhart 2014; Iqbal et al. 2016), yet Gore’s blocked Facebook access most likely owes to other users reporting the image as offensive, and company representatives screening the content agreeing on the issue (cf. Summers 2009). As a mechanism for reporting offensive content, flagging, as “technical rendition of ‘I object,’” is based on user participation in the reification of social media sites’ community norms (Crawford and Gillespie 2014, 2, 5).

Kate Crawford and Tarleton Gillespie (2014, 2) show how flagging has become a ubiquitous mechanism of governance with a somewhat complex relation to community sentiment, consisting as it does of interactions between “users, platforms, humans, and algorithms, as well as broader political and regulatory forces.” These are themselves inseparable from moral concerns and corporate strategies, and routinely result in opaque decisions detached from broader negotiations or articulations of concern over what is acceptable, offensive, or controversial (Crawford and Gillespie 2014, 4, 10).

In another March 2016 incident, Mari Corry’s photo showing her breastfeeding in a park was flagged as offensive. In protest, she uploaded a breastfeeding photo where the baby’s head was covered with a print featuring a Victoria’s Secret Model, hence commenting on double standards concerning women’s breasts and the multiple purposes of their public visibility (Wallwork 2016). The previous month, Rowena Kincaid, terminally ill with breast cancer, uploaded a picture of her symptoms in order to help other women self-diagnose. Since the image included her nipple, it was soon flagged for violating community standards. She then reposted the image with a smiley drawn over the nipple. As was the case with Corry and Gore’s images, news of flagging fuelled the images’ social circulation across diverse platforms. Flagging is a sign of objection but it also involves more complex social dynamics and exchanges, many of which are inseparable from increases in attention value:

“Flags get pulled as a playful prank between friends, as part of a skirmish between professional competitors, as retribution for a social offense that happened elsewhere, or as part of a campaign of bullying or harassment—and it is often impossible to tell the difference. Flagging is also used to generate interest and publicity, as in the cases where YouTube put a racy music video behind an age barrier and promoters decried the “censorship” with mock outrage. The fact that flagging can be a tactic not only undercuts its value as a “genuine” expression of offense, it fundamentally undercuts its legibility as a sign of the community’s moral temperature.” (Crawford and Gillespie 2014, 11.)


The persistent hunt for offensive areolas and micro-penises in the incidents discussed above is connected to broader boundary maintenance between SFW and NSFW platforms. While Twitter, and Tumblr in particular, broadly accommodate sexually explicit content, most social media platforms undergo considerable effort to remove it. This, combined with the increased centralization of ownership to dominant actors (such as Google and Facebook), has drastically reframed the operating possibilities of companies trading in specifcially pornographic content. In his coverage of the adult app store, Mikandi, Wired reporter Cade Metz notes that

“with the rising power of companies like Apple and Google and Facebook, the adult industry doesn’t drive new technology. In many respects, it doesn’t even have access to new technology. The big tech companies behind the big platforms control not only the gateway services (the iPhone app store, Google Search, the Facebook social network) but the gateway devices (the iPhone, Android phones, Google Chromecast, the Amazon Fire TV, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset). And for the most part, they’ve shut porn out. Besides, these giants now drive new technology faster than services like Mikandi or Pornhub ever could.” (Metz 2015.)


Porn sites—the market leader Pornhub being here an obvious example—are currently much more likely to emulate the technical solutions and revenue models of social media platforms than the other way around. Pornographic aggregator sites from RedTube to YouPorn and XTube have all copied their design and operating principles from YouTube. Meanwhile, those modelled after other social outlets, such as Fuckbook and Snatchly, “the Pinterest of Porn,” have not similarly picked up.

All this is in stark contrast to the situation some two decades ago, given the degree to which the needs of the porn industry drove the development of Web solutions. Gaming and online shopping only picked up towards the end of the 1990s, and for quite a while pornography remained one of the few forms of content that users would pay for. Consequently, safe credit card processing systems, streaming video technologies, and hosting services, as well as practices such as banner advertisement and pop-ups, were first developed for and used on porn sites. The role of porn as a driving force in dot.com enterprise has clearly since passed. While pornographic content still quickly migrates to new technical platforms and media formats, its position is crucially different in the context of social media than in the Web cultures of the 1990s.

Pornographic content, or even less sexually explicit nudity, is weeded out from platforms such as YouTube or Facebook through flagging and automated blocking alike : it is not possible to share links directly to pornographic content. Adult entertainment companies have public social media presence, yet this mainly involves sticking to the non-explicit and hence failing to represent the brands’ core features in order to accommodate diverse terms of service. In addition to key social media companies warding off pornography, Google, YouTube’s owner, also bans pornography from its advertisements:

“The AdWords policies on adult sexual services (…) will be updated in late June 2014 to reflect a new policy on sexually explicit content. Under this policy, sexually explicit content will be prohibited, and guidelines will be clarified regarding promotion of other adult content. The change will affect all countries. We made this decision as an effort to continually improve users’ experiences with AdWords.” (https://support.google.com/adwordspolicy/answer/4271759?hl=en&ref_topic=29265)


Search engines have long filtered our pornography from their freely published listings of most popular search terms, hence adding to the position of porn as a public secret of sorts. Search engines also filter out sexually explicit content in diverse ways, which, in practice, makes it difficult for users to find that which they are searching for. While this could, for evident reasons, be considered as deliberate design of a poorer service, such measures are articulated and motivated as improvements in user experience (as in the AdWords policy statement above).

Google has long provided a “SafeSearch” option that filters out all, or at least most, hits to adult content. As that which SafeSearch filters out, sexually explicit content becomes framed as unsafe and risky. Should the user choose to disable SafeSearch, Google will “provide the most relevant results for your search and may include explicit content when you search for it.” Searches on pornography can be openly tracked through Google Trends, witness to their perennial and even increasing popularity, yet without breaking down these trends into actual numbers of searches. All in all, the uneasy visibility of nudity and pornographic content in Web searches and on social media platforms speaks of a gap between the ideal, normative figure of a user—in accordance to which the services’ “community standards” are crafted—and the diverse interests, inappropriate interests, and unruly titillations of empirical, actual people that routinely veer towards the NSFW.


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Porn memories

The outcomes of our porn memory work project are finally materializing. In 2012, we asked together with the Folklore archives of the Finnish Literature Society for Finns of different ages to write to us about what they understand with porn and what kinds of materials, encounters with and experiences of porn they remember. Since the project never got funded, writing it up has not been speedy. But now! ‘We hid porn magazines in the nearby woods’: Memory-work and pornography consumption in Finland, written with Katariina Kyrölä, Kaarina Nikunen and Laura Saarenmaa and looking at the general methodology and findings, is available online before print with Sexualities. And that is not all: Glimmers of the forbidden fruit: Reminiscing pornography, conceptualizing the archive, written with the wonderful Katariina and exploring the different possibilities of archive as a concept in studies of porn use, is freshly accessible with the International Journal of Cultural Studies.

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affective encounters

Digging into my hard drive, there was the PDF of the proceedings for Affective Encounters: Rethinking Embodiment in Feminist Media Studies conference, held in University of Turku on 2001, coedited with Anu Koivunen. These went offline as the university once more redesigned their site – but are back now, here: proceedings.pdf.


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