Sex Positivism

Trying to read the “truth” from porn search data misconstrues sexual desire

It’s common to hear it claimed that pornography consumption has been shaping the habits, expectations, and perhaps ultimately the desires of an entire generation. As The Wire creator David Simon put it in an interview for his new show The Deuce, about prostitution in 1970s New York, today “a 12-year-old with a couple of keystrokes can access the entire construct of human sexuality right down to every misogynist fantasy.” While this gets at an important point — pornography is a cultural library, created through the power of information, institutions, and individuals to affect one another’s thought and behavior — it also situates it within a kind of moral panic.

Implicit in this is the idea that pornography is at best a representation of real sex(uality), and what people really desire must be off screen, in the world beyond (or before) the internet. Primed by the abundance of immediately accessible porn, this story goes, people — especially younger people — become “trapped” by the screen’s empty and isolating pleasures, choosing what is readily available and relatively hassle-free over “real” encounters in the physical world. In turn, these consumers are presumed to carry over the image-driven standards of porn into the realm of offscreen sex, expecting it to be on-demand, photogenic, and involving a variety of fetishized practices.

Viewing search habits through the lens of sex positivism can mean mistaking an artifact of media culture for an underlying pattern of sexual desire. Desire doesn’t simply map onto images

Others have taken a less pessimistic view on this porn profusion, seeing the new capabilities to access, share, make, and distribute pornography as allowing people to experiment with and understand different aspects of their sexuality. Emily Witt, the author of Future Sex, proposed that the internet was a new kind of sexuality in itself — a world in which “the distinct purposes of porn, sex work, casual sex, internet dating, and social networking start to blur.” In a July article for New York magazine, Maureen O’Connor argues that “pornography is more than a mere causal agent in the way we screw. It has also become a laboratory of the sexual imagination — and as such, it offers insight into a collective sexual consciousness that is in a state of high-speed evolution.”

In her article, O’Connor refers to search patterns published by Pornhub Insights, the online porn company’s “research and analysis” team, describing the site’s infographics as “granting us an unusual peek into the internet’s collective id” — chart porn for porn data. But what does such data on people’s search terms and porn consumption habits actually have to tell us about the nature of modern sexual desire? What secrets of contemporary sexuality lie inside web browsers, hidden (sometimes) from those closest to the user but open to those controlling the data? What are the ethics of using such data to make such extrapolations?

The perceived privacy of porn consumption could be taken as allowing individuals to express their “true” sexual desires. Rather than pretend to desires that meet normative expectations or their intimate partners’ expectations, they can search for and consume for what they want on their own. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of Everybody Lies, purports to read the “truth” about personal desires and attitudes out of the “revelatory data” from search engines, including about “sexuality and online porn.” In this Vox interview, he espouses the behaviorist premise that “people lie on sensitive topics” so covert or indirect means must be found to uncover what they really think. Thus, search data, as the interview’s headline proclaims, offers “proof that Americans are lying about their sexual desires.” For example, he notes that searches for gay porn “are about the same everywhere” despite survey responses that suggest regional variation. The implication is that search behavior reveals people’s real desires and a search query is inherently a “true” expression of curiosity.

This is less sex positivity than sex positivism. While the first aims to affirm people’s choices through an open and non-judgmental attitude to sexuality, the second seeks to classify behavior into a taxonomy of desires divorced from analysis of social context, relying on aggregated data on individuals to straightforwardly reveal “truths” about populations. This same spirit animated OkCupid’s trends blog, which company president Christian Rudder turned into the 2014 book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One Is Watching).

Underneath the cloak of internet libertinism, a social surveillance of pleasure continues to operate and attempts to narrate the ethics of how we interact. But rather than police the contours of sexual desire and enforce one single, straight model, the new data-driven surveillance suggests sexual diversity is tolerated only if the desires are perceived to be “true” or “authentic” — that is, innate and largely unchanging, exercised individually and traceable through individualized data. People are allowed to be who they really are out of a presumed respect for this inner truth, but a fluid sexuality is rendered suspect if not impossible. If the media interpretations of the Pornhub data are any indication, society is less ready to accept the idea that sexual desires may represent only who we are at a given time or that we may not have a coherent and definite sexual “self” at all. Perhaps we are getting used to the idea that someone searching for videos of homosexual acts would not necessarily regard themselves as homosexual, but there is still pressure to translate porn categories back into a fixed category of person.

It’s not as if the dominant players in the online porn industry merely reflect user demand in what they provide. In an article for the Nation about the nomenclature of porn categories, Natasha Lennard points out that any “suggestion that mainstream porn is simply a reflection of what ‘people’ want is undermined by the fact that people are being steered by near-hegemonic content spewers” — namely the company MindGeek, owner of the big three “tube sites,” YouPorn, Pornhub, and RedTube. Its “consumers develop viewing habits and a search language based on what is offered and available. The feedback loop produces what we have come to see as natural desires.” The problem with viewing people’s search habits through the lens of sex positivism is that it can mistake an artifact of media culture for an underlying pattern of sexual desire. Desire doesn’t simply map onto the consumption of certain sorts of images; it reflects a more complex sense of interplay.

How we discuss the way pornography depicts or shapes desire often neglects how it feeds off the power dynamics of society at large. This is most obvious with BDSM scenarios that explicitly explore relations of power rather than the satisfaction of bodily impulses. Yet all sexual desire, “vanilla” or not, exists within a social context. Desire cannot simply be an individual truth if it is also partly constitutive of the social relations surrounding it.

Confession is no longer a conscious act, but a subtle and solitary speech into a little white box, through which our collective desires are gathered, analyzed, and delivered back to us as our truths

Consuming porn online is not solitary but inherently networked, often collective and collaborative and participatory in a variety of ways, even if it doesn’t involve direct, reciprocal interaction. The same data that’s used to taxonomize individuals also makes porn sites dynamically reactive to the behavior of many users at once.

An alternative is to explore how language can free us to express different desires. Instead of grounding sexuality in an idea of “true” desire revealed in data — and the positivist classification schema that follow — we should be open to an ethics of pleasure that recognizes how our desires are consciously and not so consciously produced in society. By being true to ourselves, we should also recognize that we become responsible to others.

Categorizing sexuality is not the only way to understand or experience it. In The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge, Michel Foucault contrasts the treatment of “sexuality” as an objective study of desire, concerned with establishing the truth of how and what people desire, with the older practice of pleasure for its own ends. Unlike Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, Foucault champions the “empty” concept of pleasure, expressing an almost nostalgic yearning for what it represented before the advent of modern scientific sexuality. In the 18th and early 19th century, he suggests in a 1978 interview, “people experienced their relation to their bodies, to others, they experienced their freedom more as a libertinism than as a kind of precise categorization of a sexual behavior linked to psychology, linked to a desire.”

But since at least the early Christian era, Foucault argues, desire and identity have been linked through the practice of confession, constructing the subject through the categorization of their sexuality. The separation of the soul from the pleasures of the flesh, and its “conversion” toward God, required the examination of the self in the form of one’s desires and temptations. Rather than sex merely being a behavior undertaken within broad social codes, desire becomes the core of an individualized identity, to be exposed and purified.

Though we appear to have lost the habit of censorious puritanism, we have retained the idea that the self (and consequently, “sexuality”) lies within, ready to be revealed and liberated by knowledge so that it may be “expressed” (as opposed to being constructed within a given situation or generated by opportunity, which the potential for mediated sexual behavior online has greatly expanded). In a 1978 interview, Foucault claims that the scientific view of sexuality demands a self-avowal: “Tell me what your desire is, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Even as the understood possibilities (gay, straight, bi, asexual, and more) have appeared to multiply, identity is still bound up with desire, and the idea of sexual orientation as an identity marker persists. At the same time, the internet and social media have both encouraged the spread of confessionalism and enabled the silent gathering of data through search queries and browsing patterns. Tell me what you search for, and I will tell you who you are…

In “Technologies of the Self,” Foucault remarked that “sexual interdictions are constantly connected with the obligation to tell the truth about oneself.” As data collection about sexuality has become more intensive as more of our behavior has become trackable, confession may seem superfluous. “Objective” positivist monitoring of our behavior supposedly reveals the “truth” about us regardless of what we admit. But our knowledge of this tracking may encourage us to see the internet itself as confessor, encouraging us to “express” — that is, identify — ourselves in recorded clicks and search phrases. Confession is no longer a conscious act delivered towards a visible (or half-visible) other, but a subtle and solitary speech into a little white box, through which our collective desires are gathered, analyzed, and delivered back to us as our truths.

Curiosity can become an end in itself in the pursuit of sexual pleasures as well as consumer goods, with each reinforcing the other as insatiable

Do we reveal ourselves in our actions, mediated as they are by the taxonomies created for us, or does identity-grounding confession require a more deliberate articulation, a reflexive regard of the self? In either case, sexual desire is bound up with individuation rather than the potential dissolution of boundaries that Foucault saw in pleasure. In the same interview, he talks of the “strategic importance” of sexual encounters that occur without names, “without being imprisoned or pinned in your own identity,” situations where one can meet people as “nothing more than bodies, with whom the most unexpected combinations and fabrications of pleasure are possible.”

There are, of course, still opportunities for “counter-conduct,” behavior that allows us, at least temporarily, to escape from the often-suffocating confines of Foucault’s webs of power. Many of these arise from the tensions between what people “want” (or, more to the point, enjoy) and what they are provided by the libidinal-culture industry, represented not only by “adult entertainment” but also, more broadly, commercial entertainment and advertising. Take the anime genre of Yaoi, which, as this New Yorker essay details, is geared toward female audiences that depicts romantic or erotic relationships between male characters.” One fan explains her attraction: “I’m straight, but I love experiencing the purity of love between boys.” (Which is in itself admittedly a fetishistic view of gay relationships.) Or consider the Tumblr meme that attaches the phrase “My kink is…” to some ostensibly non-sexual desire for emotional security or availability: “My kink is holding hands,” or “neck kisses,” or some other intersection of the banal and life-affirming.

These subvert the ways exploratory sexuality is refined into specific discrete “kinks” and fetishes that can be commodified and sold as high-value porn. Capitalism is happy to encourage kinks. True perversion, it turns out, lies in asking more of patriarchal capitalism than it is capable of providing. Yet the inability to be satisfied with such kinks at the same time feeds into a modern and flexible species of desire, in which we seek pleasure but never really find it because there is always another desire to pursue, another identity to refine, another generation of iPhone to lust after, another new status to post, and so on. Curiosity can become an end in itself in the pursuit of sexual pleasures as well as consumer goods, with each reinforcing the other as insatiable.

So a demand for a more fluid approach to sexuality, on its face a challenge to how sex is commodified and reified, can also be recuperated by capitalism. In 1978, Foucault spoke of a “compensated economy of pleasures” in which sexual liberation was tolerated on the assumption that its joys would be ultimately short-lived, that unhappiness follows escapism. The internet may only have accelerated this cycle. Even as we become more acutely aware of the shortfalls of capitalism’s libidinal experience, it encourages us to constantly update the world on our (stylized, meme-ified) dissatisfaction. Our feeds are saturated confessionalism, as we declare our identities through our (unmet) desires.

In “The Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde writes that “our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence.” However, for Lorde, pornography and “the erotic” are “two diametrically opposed uses of the sexual.” Pornography is the “suppression” or “abuse” of feeling, it “emphasizes sensation without feeling.” The erotic is an openness to others, suggesting a kind of recognition theory of ethics whereby in “seeing” the other as a desiring being like ourselves we come to understand our own desires and act on them respectfully, seeing others as ends in themselves rather than as a means to our pleasure.

Lorde’s ethical point is apt. But can “sensation” and “feeling” really be so neatly divided? The actual experience of the pornographic suggests that, for some at least, the two are blurred. Lennard offers the indie porn site TrenchcoatX as an example of trying to circumvent the traditional porn industry’s relentless categorization of taboos, fetishes, and sexual acts. The site allowed users to define their own “squees” and “squicks” to filter their viewing. The larger taxonomy is broken down and repurposed for the individual, but this falls short of a porn website designed with fluidity rather than taxonomy in mind. Desire remains individuated and individuating, missing the potential for different forms of intimacies through images, and the “unexpected combinations and fabrications of pleasure” that Foucault theorized. It remains “pornographic” in Lorde’s sense. The alternative is not a more personalized and responsive taxonomy, but erotics as an ethic of care, and pleasure as the truth of the other.

Robert Astermann is a former political science academic and blogger who doesn’t want the internet to know too much about them.