Shopping for porn

During the tech boom of the late nineties, a friend of mine who was a programmer used to insist that pornography drove innovations in efficency and technology on the Web, since it constituted an enoromous percentage of Internet traffic and proved to be one of sure-fire ways to use the Internet to make money. He suggested that it was one of the main reasons people wanted in-home Internet access. There may have been some self-justification in his claim, since he was working in IT, assuring server space and secure connections for a huge porn conglomerate, but it seemed believable enough to me. The history of book publishing shows a similar phenomena, as racy material helped publishers secure profits early on. Many of the early successes in book publishing were works known for their licentiousness, and it was received wisdom in the eighteenth century that the market for novels was mad eup of women looking for masturbatory material. Reading privately (as opposed to aloud), was a bourgeois innovation, and was typically likened to masturbation — you do it alone, in private, in order to have your feelings aroused, and you enter into a fictional intimate relation with people who don’t really exist.

Pornography is sex as consumption, it’s sex as convenience and possession. Pornography turns sexual desire into something serviceable by goods rather than people. It helps transform libido into a desire to own rather than to share or connect. Porn, which is a commodity that exists in space can be collected, taxonomized, autonomously manipulated the way real sex, an experience that exists in time, cannot. All the pleasures that capitalism relies upon — collecting mania, individualization, ownership, making shopping choices — are exemplified in pornography while being culturally proscribed in real life. As sex between people becomes more and more complicated, more and more idealized and freighted with more and more psychological weight, masturbation (capitalism’s preferred mode of sexuality, since it is explicitly commodified) becomes a more and more viable option. In the Internet-ready universe, masturbation via pronography has less to do with sex and more to do with shopping — one can troll around the dark side of the web, looking at hundreds and hundreds of naked women, searching for just the right one to choose to get off. The moment of choice, the autonomous nature of that choice (no bargain must be made with the woman in the photo, none of her needs have to be considered, there is nothing social or reciprocal in the pleasure, there is no respect or love in it), the picking itself, is what ultimately provides the pleasure. It is what capitalism offers as the sweetest of pleasures, the exercising of free choice in a market rich with diverse options. And no pornographic niche market exists that is not being readily and lustily exploited.

I’ve been making this argument for a while now, that convenience for its own sake is what we experience as pleasure in a capitalist world driven by growth and novelty and a hedonistic/vulgar utilitarian/quantitative notion of satisfaction. And masturbation with pornography makes sex amenable to the convenience model, allowing for a series of novel moments of passive, purely individual, totally uncircumscribed choices amongst an inexhaustible wealth of options. Sexual pleasure ceases to be a spontaneous possibility created by and between people, it becomes something that can be manipulated to create scarcity, it becomes subjecet to supply and demand of images.

Masturbation to visual pronography is merely an extension of the animating principle of most contemporary advertsing — “sex sells.” Each extends the efficacy of the other — masturbation to porn reinforces the payoff implied in sexualized ads, reinforces the idea that sexual satisfaction can be bought and can be manipulated like a commodity. Pornogrpahy then is the prototype übercommodity, the commodity that enables all other commodities to be granted an aura of sexual appeal.

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