Saturday, January 08, 2011

Sexual desire, authenticity, and Internet business models

Among the many errors in N. Vargas-Cooper's Atlantic article this month on Internet porn, one stands out as the major fallacy. The article's entire argument seems to rest on the assumption that Internet porn reflects a more authentic view of human desire than other forms of cultural production. But the prevalence of low-budget amateur porn on the Internet reflects less on the sexual stimulation that people most fervently desire than on the economic reality that it's vastly easier to build an Internet business on crowdsourced amateur porn than on any other kind of porn.*

To conclude, from the consumption of bad porn, that everyone prefers bad porn when better porn can ostensibly be had if one looks harder, is roughly like deducing from the success of McDonald's that everybody prefers Big Macs to every other type of food. Again this is a question of costs, not authenticity. Sexual desire, like hunger, is an extraordinarily robust urge and can be stimulated (and even, to some extent, satisfied) by relatively low-quality fare. Therefore, people settle. If I offered you a free dinner at McDonald's or a free dinner at French Laundry, you know which you'd pick. And yet McDonald's is a much larger business, for reasons that have nothing to do with McDonald's satisfying a more authentic or deeper hunger.

If you think I'm comparing apples and oranges with McDonald's and French Laundry, substitute In-N-Out for the latter and the answer remains the same. Even when you want a burger, you want a good one; but sometimes you settle for less, because it's cheaper or more convenient.

The analogy becomes even better if you imagine that hamburgers were culturally marginalized and frequently outlawed, such that many people were embarrassed to admit in public that they liked a good burger. Such a social and legal environment would make it hard to build a business around providing high-quality burgers, and In-N-Out or other good burger places would not exist. And cultural critics would conclude that there was some inherent property of human hunger that led us to prefer crappy burgers.

Which is why Vargas-Cooper leaps from a particular configuration of economic incentives, in a particular technological and social context, to a ridiculously broad claim about the ultimate nature of human desire.

*The proliferation of highly specialized niche porn is also a consequence of Internet economics, albeit for different reasons, which I leave as an exercise to the reader.


  1. Is your argument that professionally produced porn with professional porn stars is like fine food and low-cost amateur porn is like McDonald's? If so, I would say you have it completely backwards. McDonald's is bland mass-produced crap that is the same everywhere. Pretty much all "professional" porn is McDonald's fare. People are drawn to amateur porn exactly because it is amateur. It is more authentic and thus much easier to relate to. It simply tastes better.

  2. Great title. Terrible article. Smug footnote.

  3. I would agree with this rebuttal article insofar as the Atlantic article does not mention or acknowledge market forces as having anything to do with why internet porn looks the way it does. However, there is truth to the article in the Atlantic. It is an ugly truth, and by no means a universal truth.

  4. The most important and interesting question raised by Vargas' article is the assertion:

    "Porn is actually being encoded into a boy’s sexual identity so that an authentic sexuality—one that develops organically out of life experiences, one’s peer group, personality traits, family and community affiliations—is replaced by a generic porn sexuality limited in creativity and lacking any sense of love, respect or connection to another human being."

    Though I agree that there is, inherent in many, perhaps most, men, a fantasy life that includes domination of and even cruelty toward women, I do not believe that these fantasies necessarily translate into domination and cruelty in real sexual interactions. Specifically, I do not believe that the domination and cruelty in Internet porn leads boys to become dominating and cruel in real sexual interactions or women to become slaves subservient to men's desires.

    The causes, purposes of, and effects of fantasies are complex, and even violent fantasies may be beneficial and are not only the province of men. Rape fantasies, for example, are common in both genders. However, let me be clear. To quote myself: "[real] rape is men's greatest failing and humanities greatest injustice."

    Though I freely admit to indulging in politically incorrect fantasies, I have found that in real interactions with women my desires are only to touch, to pleasure, to care for, and to love even if not with a capital L.