In this paper we seek to perform a dialectical analysis of the recent popular phenomenon of OnlyFans.com. OnlyFans is a website on which content creators, typically behind a paywall, post exclusive content for their “fans.” However, OnlyFans is most notably known for revolutionizing the pornography industry. A quick google search will verify that the primary commodity produced on OnlyFans is pornography. However, this direct link between pornographic performers and their pornographic products is functionally novel to mainstream society. While previous to this point things like webcamming have already enjoyed immense popularity, the seemingly inescapable phenomenon of OnlyFans has presented a genuine shift of power in the porn industry. That is not to say that OnlyFans is not exploitative of sex workers—of course it is. The company takes a cut from every subscription and generates massive revenue. But how are we, as philosophers (do not fret here dear reader—anyone reading this I hereby deem a philosopher!), to view this problem?
We will approach the issue of OnlyFans by first examining the ontology of pornography. Next, we will discuss the relationship of what is really occurring when a person is engaging in the consumption of pornography. Once we have established the nature of the relationship between pornography as a purely mental “object” and the relationship of the viewer to this “object,” we will discuss the moral implications of this relationship. However, we needn’t commit ourselves to a strict deontology or consequentialism.
After we address the moral relationship between the phenomenon of pornography to the viewer, we will address the moral relationship between the act of creating pornography to the creator. I hope to show that even if we remove the consideration of specifically industrial pornographic exploitation—viz., in imagining a phenomenon like OnlyFans in which the “company” would serve as essentially a free posting service for the creator and consumer— there still exists exploitation, and, thus, alienation, for both the creator and consumer of pornography. We will end with some considerations of what we might want to do about this exploitation, or if we even want to do anything at all.
Is Pornography Real?
Offhand this may seem like an absurd question. Surely pornography is real? I can pull up a video, or a picture, and see the pornography. But is it really the pornography itself that is being interpreted by my visual sense? Of course not—all that is actually interacting with my eyes in that moment are photons (either produced digitally, or reflecting off of a printed image, or what have you). It only becomes pornography after the photons have been sensed. This would seem to hold true for any given viewer of pornography. Thus, any given pornographic material only is, or only exists, in the mind of a person whose eyes are processing the photons. That is to say, the statement “This piece of pornography X exists” can only be true insofar as a mind constructs the pornography out of the varied sense-perception presented to it by the visual sense. Absent a mind to construct pornography out of the photons, it cannot be said that “on screen Y there exists some piece of pornography X,” or that “in magazine V there exists some piece of pornography W.” All that will exist in such cases are the photons, either produced by pixels or reflecting off of a configuration of ink and paper molecules, for pornography can only exist as a mental object.
So as to not scare away anyone not fully committed to a materialist metaphysic we will speak as if mental objects themselves can exist. The strict materialist, myself included, deny that they exist independently from a direct physical correlate in the brain (or perhaps elsewhere in the nervous system, depending on the sense of “mental object”). For the purposes of clarity, we shall treat mental objects as real enough for our discussion.
Now it seems we are in a position to say that a pornographic product can only exist as a pornographic product within the minds of the viewers of that product (whatever the implications of “to exist” might turn out to be). It is useful to point out that this is also true for the creator of the pornography--properly speaking, the pornography they create doesn’t exist as pornography until their mind constructs it as such. Up until that point, the creator was simply performing sex acts in front of a camera, but we must be clear that all that is actually real in their act of “creating pornography” are the physical motions which they performed while filming, the molecules composing the camera itself, the photons, etc.
Let us now give an answer to our question, “Is pornography real?” The materialist answer is no—so long as “real” is understood to mean “real independent of experience” or “physically real.” If one is comfortable with the idea of subjective “realities,” then one might quite be comfortable calling pornography “real.” I do not share this comfort, but even to such a thinker I would respond that even if mental objects are fully real--that is, even if the apparent dichotomy of the terms “objective reality” and “subjective reality” is an illusion of sorts— mental objects nonetheless still only exist when they are constructed by minds. So even for one who wants to call pornography “real,” it seems they cannot deny that its supposed reality nonetheless only is obtained within the confines of individual minds.
I hope the reader will forgive me for using the term “masturbation”—it is not a word I favor, but it is necessary here. We will define “masturbation” here as sexual self-stimulation. To be clear, what we are talking about here is physical sexual self-stimulation. While in some sense something like imagining a sexual scenario without physically stimulating oneself is certainly self-stimulation, that is not the sense in which we will use the term here. Additionally, we know the obvious ways in which sexual self-stimulation occurs, but our broad definition here could include innocuous, even subconscious behaviors. So long as the behavior is self-stimulation of an area of the body which produces the physical sensation of sexual pleasure, the behavior is masturbation on this account.
It seems extraordinarily obvious that the primary purpose for the commodity of pornography is the facilitation of masturbation by its consumers. But as we have seen, a grouping of visual data only becomes pornography in the mind of the viewer. What then is the masturbator masturbating to? What is the object of their sexual desire? What is the cause of their self-stimulation?
The answer is, unavoidably, themself. The masturbator arouses themself, perhaps to the extent of orgasm, with themself as their own object. The supposed relationship with the Other, the creator of the pornography—the unattainable, beautiful whoever—is subsumed within the relationship of the masturbator with their own Self. I capitalize these terms to bring to mind the Hegelian tone with which I mean to use them. The masturbator, unable or unwilling to pursue an actual Other with whom to have sex, settles for the artificial “Other” contained within the pornography. To be clear, by “actual Other” I mean an Other that is perceived by some Self as being self-conscious. In Hegel’s final analysis, of course, even that distinction dissipates through the dialectical development of consciousness, but that is somewhat beside the point. By the “artificial ‘Other’” I mean the representation of the particular creator of a given piece of pornography as constructed in the mind of the masturbator. If the masturbator’s own Self is only a construct of their mind, why should the construct of the artificial “Other” be fundamentally different from itself?
It seems to me that every act of masturbation (using pornography or otherwise) is somewhat akin to Narcissus looking in the pool, admiring himself—the main difference, however, is that the viewer of pornography is not admiring the image of their particular self as Narcissus does. But there is a sense in which he is relevant here. If the masturbator is really only self-stimulating with their object of sexual desire as themself, then they are self-stimulating to their own reflection in a similar way. It seems to follow intuitively that the frequent masturbator makes a practice of making their own Self the object of their stimulation. But let us hone back in on masturbation with the use of pornography.
Anyone who knows someone addicted to pornography could confidently say that addiction to pornography certainly seems to cause feelings of alienations in the addicts, and we may not need to get very technical to make sense of how this is alienating. If the enjoyment of pornography is predicated, so to speak, on the perception of the Other as Other, but the phenomenological reality of the enjoyment is actually enjoyment of the “Other” as a construction of the Self, it seems there is an unavoidable cognitive dissonance in the enjoyment of pornography.
We must now draw an important distinction between masturbation without pornography, or M1, and masturbation with pornography, or M2. The essential problem with M2, as stated above, is the cognitive dissonance which necessarily arises in the viewer (either consciously or subconsciously), in causing them to mistake what is really a part of their Self (the phenomenon of pornography) as a part of the Other (the creator of pornography). This tension is alienating simply because it causes the viewer to alienate a part of themself from themself in precisely this fashion. The vital distinction to draw here is that M1 does not in any way present the sexual representations constructed in the mind of the masturbator as external to themself, or as belonging to some Other. We can see, then, that we have no reason to believe that M1 causes any sort of alienation; in fact, I think we can quite plausibly say that M1 allows the masturbator to become more in tune with themself—the precise opposite of alienation. We can say of Narcissus, then, that he isn’t really wrong to admire himself so much, though he may be quite conceited. It seems on any moral analysis of masturbation and pornography; we must draw this sharp line between M1 and M2 as they have clearly different implications.
Enough Hegelian mumbo-jumbo! Where’s the Marxism in all of this?
Now that we have (painstakingly) undertaken our phenomenological analysis of pornography as a mental object let’s bring ourselves back down to earth. We will now ask some more concrete questions: What are the material conditions which may or may not justify or even necessitate the production and/or consumption of pornography? Is the pornographic creator exploiting their viewer? If so, to what extent? Is the statement “one should not view pornography” true? Is the statement “pornography should be illegal” true? We will answer these questions in turn.
Clearly the material conditions which have produced the phenomenon of OnlyFans are precisely the conditions of “late-stage” capitalism; i.e., the conditions of the fully globally imperial United States solidifying after the second world war. The United States has increasingly exploited workers, both domestically and especially abroad, and has caused the most acute disparities in wealth distribution in all of human history. Such a fundamentally unjust distribution of wealth is directly related to the increasing feelings of alienation by workers in the United States and worldwide. It is not surprising that, in a world of ever-increasing hyper-sexuality in mainstream culture (itself largely a development of capitalism —“Sex sells,” as the saying goes), paired with exponentially increasing levels of alienation, both the production and consumption of pornography are incentivized.
The creator (speaking strictly in terms of services like OnlyFans) has an incentive to create pornography as a way to reclaim their labor. Those who end up making a lot of money can tell themselves a narrative of their own life in which they have (somewhat) closed that gap. Clearly in some ways this is pure delusion. Making several hundred thousand dollars a year hardly bridges the gap between making $40,000 a year and the personal wealth of Jeff Bezos, for instance. However, it seems clear that if one’s perception of one’s own alienation is reduced, then one’s own subjective alienation is thereby reduced—regardless of whether or not their objective state of alienation carries much significance in social reality.
The consumer, on the other hand, is incentivized to consume pornography simply because it is a very easy way to make oneself feel good. In a crushing capitalist system that drains us of our energy, time, happiness, love, etc., it makes perfect sense that, as a society, we are becoming increasingly attached to what J.S. Mill would call the “lower pleasures;” i.e., the pleasures in direct connection to sense-perception come to dominate in a capitalist system. The domination of workers’ time is largely responsible for this. The cultivation of the so-called “higher pleasures”—art, music, dance, philosophy, etc.—simply take time to really cultivate. In a go-go-go nonstop capitalist society one is largely forced into the lower pleasures or else give up pleasure entirely! Certainly, I do not want to argue here that asceticism is the reasonable response. We are left then with being often forced into the lower pleasures.
Pornography and masturbation are clearly lower pleasures on this model. Keep in mind that there is not a moral connotation attached to “lower” here—it just means directly connected to the senses. Something like eating a delicious meal is a lower pleasure, but surely is not immoral. Not to say that pornography and masturbation are nearly as innocuous as a delicious meal, but I hope the reader appreciates the emphasis here that any moral considerations of the former phenomena are entirely separate from their classification as lower pleasures.
We hopefully can now see that both the creator and the consumer of pornography are, at least somewhat, forced into their positions as creator and consumer. The former is forced by economic need, or the impulse to the close the gap between themself and the hyper-wealthy. The latter is forced by psychological need, in that having pleasure in life is so clearly important (even on a pluralistic account of value!) that no consumer could be called irrational or immoral for using pornography as a source of pleasure. For the consumer, rather, the concern is the cognitive dissonance which we saw earlier, but it is hardly credible that we, as moral philosophers, can make any moral claims on behalf of someone else trying to rectify their cognitive dissonances.
We are on much less secure footing for the creator. It is implausible that creators of pornography on sites such as OnlyFans are entirely unaware that their work is exploitative. The sale of pornography through OnlyFans is a capitalist act, the success of which is predicated upon the actual or perceived alienation of the consumer (as, again, incapable or unwilling to engage sexually with another actual person). If the creator of pornography is capitalizing on another’s state of and/or feelings of alienation, then the creator is exploiting that person. There really is no way around it.
The question, then, is to what extent is this exploitation justified? Creators have to eat, pay rent, take care of their families, buy prescriptions medications, and all the rest any of us have to do. While the creation of pornography for profit is certainly unethical in a vacuum, given the material conditions of our society, as well as the seemingly permanent popular consumption of pornography, it does not seem fair to call a creator immoral for choosing to engage in this type of work. Sex work is work. At the end of the day, the creator is exploited themself, and if one could aggregate the ways in which people are exploited, it might well be that, in the final analysis, the creator is far more exploited than some given consumer the creator is exploiting in that particular transaction/interaction. It seems fundamentally unfair, then, to say of any individual pornographic creator (again, not speaking of pornographic studios or other such productions, which are almost always, if not actually always, horrendously immoral organizations) that they are irrational or immoral for producing pornography. Given the options people are given, the creation of pornography is far, far, indeed, incredibly far from the potential for exploitation than many other occupations (e.g., corporate executive, career politician, insurance agent, etc).
It seems, then, that, while we should recognize the tensions present in the phenomenon and should not pretend that the whole business is fully morally permissible, there is absolutely no basis for making pornography illegal or even pushing for it to be less accessible. In terms of our earlier question of is the proposition “One should not watch pornography” true? we should see now that the answer seems to be a definitive “no.” In our capitalist world we are constrained so brutally that for many people the cultivation of higher pleasures is not materially and/or consistently possible in their lives, and we will not condemn people for choosing to engage in the consumption of pornography if that is a relatively harmless way for them to find pleasure in a world filled to the brim with pain.
Jared Yackley is an undergraduate student of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. With his primary focuses in epistemology, history, and political philosophy, Yackley hopes to apply the principles of dialectical materialism to contemporary issues both philosophical and political.
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