Today’s economy revolves around the circulation of desires. Our bodies, more than ever before, are now libidinal fantasy objects for consumption and exchange. You can see that in gym culture and plastic surgery culture; on Instagram, despite all its restrictions and censorship; on TikTok and Tinder and Grindr; and in pornography, too. In her 2017 essay “Pornhub Is the Kinsey Report of Our Time”, Maureen O’Connor writes,“We are living in a golden age of sexual creativity—an erotic renaissance that is, I believe, unprecedented in human history.” There’s just so much pornography and in such innovative forms. But what’s coming next? Where are our desires leading us, and what’s shaping them?
In 2015, British sex toy merchants Bondara commissioned a futurologist, Dr. Ian Pearson, to gaze into the future and write down what he saw for them. The Future of Sex: The Rise of the Robosexuals is his report’s title. “Vibrators have been around for over a century but now,” Pearson notes, “the vibrant sex toy industry doesn’t just make stand-alone devices but teledildonic devices that bring all the fun and functionality of computing and networks to sex too.” Maybe, one worries while reading this, tech companies will fuck up sex like everything else. Maybe they already have.
Walter Benjamin wrote that the advent of photography would destroy the aura of the work of art and he was probably right. But how is technological innovation going to affect the eroticism of the human body, and our desires? In Toronto, a brothel recently opened where clients can pay by the hour to have sex with a RealDoll (a lifesize silicon simulacrum of a person). Aura Dolls, it’s called. Doll sex workers have arrived; the newest profession. Plans to open a similar establishment in Houston, Texas, however, had to be abandoned after the city amended its laws so that paying for sex with inanimate objects was forbidden.
In Japan, a great falling away of sexual activity involving more than one person has been met by a new blooming of disembodied pleasure objects: sex toys designed only for masturbation, and no longer made to resemble the human form or orifice in any way. This has long been true of countless vibrators, which are now joined by more recent inventions like the single-use silicon egg. No big deal perhaps. But given that technology is already fetishized to an ominous extent (think of all those unboxing videos, all those faces in the cafés and metros hypnotized by glowing screens), we might think twice about fucking it. We live in a cult of technology, and cults are often derailed by sex.
The Bondara report describes a coming “internet of bodies” comprising contact lenses that beam fantasy images directly into our eyes with LEDs (or lasers), voices that speak in our ears, and “active skin” that can record the signals passing along our nerves and also play those, or any, signals back to us to magic up sensations of pleasure. This could be the future of sex tapes: influencers, models, porn stars, and amateurs recording their sexual experiences and selling those feelings in the cloud. If you and a lover are really having a great time together you might think, “Oh this is good, we have to record it.” This could be us. Great news for exhibitionists and voyeurs alike; but hopefully real sex won’t be replaced by virtual sex or, worse still, the push-notification oxytocin gratification of having others following and liking your recordings.
In an internet of bodies, the whole person becomes an augmented erogenous zone. Sexual arousal won’t only be psychically linked to the presence of fetish objects and particular body parts, but also physically powered by technology and cyborg enhancements; before long, Dr. Pearson writes in his report, we’ll be able to “directly stimulate the septal area [of the brain] to create an orgasm at the touch of a button.” The recent popularity of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response)—the YouTube video that leaves you tingling, the sloshing of the wine below the fry along the podcast—is but the first wave of pleasures on demand. A few steps on from emojis comes messaging someone an orgasm. A possible future of Tinder is no longer needing to meet up, not needing to leave the app to have sex. And maybe this will render the orgasm meaningless, or collapse society. But so much of today’s culture is already, essentially, about replacing real experiences with simulations of those experiences.
The bulk of our online interactions with others have already been flattened down to a sort of fetish. We communicate with pictures of ourselves and our activity. Our bodies live in the cloud now, from which misty heights we broadcast them around the world as magical images to be worshipped or craved. While reporting on China’s selfie obsession for the New Yorker, Jiayang Fan meets a young Chinese influencer who shows her his workflow of photoediting apps and explains that “a regular camera can’t capture the whole of a person. It has no way of expressing the entirety of your beauty.” Your authentic self, he believes, resides in the portrait you craft. Much the same sentiment is expressed in Sophie’s song “Faceshopping,” in which she chants: “My face is the real shop front…I’m real when I shop my face.” So many people wish to make themselves into jpegs now. And what is an e-boy or e-girl really but a flattened fetish object designed for mass consumption? What is a dick pic, maybe, possibly, but a disavowal of the child’s horror at the mother’s castration?
Our descent into the virtual world has contributed to the making of a new aesthetic of lifelessness and void: that’s how Hollywood blockbusters look now. How pop sounds. How influencers look, and how we visualize ourselves. Might this very quality of artificiality be the thing we’ve come to fetishize the most? Could that be what we’re most attracted to? Not long ago I saw a banner ad on Pornhub: a tired rendering of a father, a decrepit old CGI Boomer, kneels before a flawless virtual teen who looks up at him with disgust. The tagline reads, “Build your stepdaughter. Fuck her!” Freud, I feel, would have a lot to say about this; although quite what I’m unsure of.
Videos have grown complicated also. On British journalist Jon Ronson’s 2018 podcast series The Butterfly Effect, he interviews a couple veteran pornography producers about how the industry has been transformed by the internet. In order to perform well online, they tell him, a scene should encompass as many distinct categories as possible: she’s a yoga instructor, but she’s also Czech, and half Japanese, and a fashion model—with an anal fixation, and this is her first time, and she’s your stepmom, etc. “You’re trying to kill many birds with one stone now,” says one producer. “You’d be surprised sometimes when a title in six words covers five different niches,” says the other. Dirty movies used to have vaguely theatrical titles, but now they’re just strings of keywords and fetishes. Twenty-first century pornography is compound and search engine optimized; either that or incredibly niche.
Sites like Pornhub, Ronson learns, also put their category thumbnails and names and so forth through continuous A/B testing to determine what makes visitors click through. And so, taken as a whole, they function as a sort of networked artificial consciousness: one that maps the world’s desires and responds to them and in turn helps shape them. Sometimes it finds that we respond to the most unusual things. And as computer animation makes it possible for anybody to construct their own perverse fantasies, things will only get weirder and weirder.
The massive worldwide popularity of hentai (animated porn, often from Japan) and the growing popularity of CGI erotica today isn’t just down to its cartoon unreality, but also what such unreality makes possible: the depiction of new kinks and fetishes that wouldn’t be possible in the real world. In the coming decade the adult industry is going to show us kinks that we haven’t yet imagined and didn’t even realize we had. Like painters breaking free of the real more than a century ago, pornography may be about to go through its own modernist moment, its own processes of abstraction and surreality. A flight from the real to the grotesque digital uncanny. “I’ve never seen so many legs spreading as I saw in Cats,” comedian Steven Phillips-Horst recently observed. “It’s a movie about scissoring, but more importantly it’s a movie about the future of sex. Lots of fur and few visible genitals. Everyone at peace with their castration.” Which is a joke, only, maybe…it’s also kind of true? Who knows where we’re going, or what we’ll make ourselves into.
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