Future of Intimacy and Libidinal Ecosystems
Pornography puts on stage not just sexuality, but broader social processes and forms of knowledge about gender, race, class, desire, aesthetics, technology, politics, and the law. (1)
- Lynn Comella
— You helped me discover my ability to want.
Samantha, “Her” (2013)
Pornography vs. AI
Pornography, like AI, has often been regarded as a reflection of societal values. Within mass-market pornography, prevalent stereotypes and biases are frequently magnified, presenting exaggerated manifestations of misogyny, racism, ableism, and other patriarchal ideologies. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that not all pornography is inherently unethical or problematic. In recent decades, we have witnessed the emergence of queer feminist pornography, which aims to challenge and subvert these traditional norms.
AI models have been trained using internet-derived data, resulting in the assimilation of dominant perspectives and biases prevalent in society. Moreover, since the internet is predominantly saturated with content originating from the United States, the biases embedded within AI systems often reflect this skewed representation. Biases in AI can also stem from a lack of diversity and inclusivity within development teams. In the absence of diverse perspectives and adequate representation, these teams may inadvertently perpetuate or fail to recognize biases during the creation of AI technologies. While pornography serves as a direct reflection or reference to societal norms and values, AI and AI-generated experiences can be viewed as simulacra. The inherently simulated nature of AI allows it to not only reflect but also shape and reinforce cultural narratives, biases, and power dynamics.
This paper posits that the assimilation of AI into the capitalistic structure as a tool to satisfy erotic desires, be it a virtual companion or a part of a sex-worker’s toolkit, leads to the augmentation of the libidinal economy cycle. While NSFW (Not Safe for Work) services, products, and adult content have traditionally occupied a nebulous position in tech and have not been readily embraced in the same manner as other lifestyle tech products, such integration signifies a noteworthy step within the libidinal economy of capitalism.
While pornography is purely a reflection or a reference, AI or AI-created experiences can be seen as simulacrums with the potential to be highly-engaging and immersive.
State of Porn
In his essay "Your wheelchair turns me on," Paul Preciado writes that “the sexual life of a Western citizen consists of 90 percent discursive material (images or narratives) and 10 percent actual events.” Pornography, then, can be seen as didactic material that shapes initial impressions of societal sexual norms for young individuals and subsequently reinforces and amplifies these established conceptions by perpetuating the same patterns. It can be regarded as a metaphor for Western culture, exemplifying the embodiment of societal and political mechanisms.
Within contemporary culture, pornography often carries negative and degrading connotations. These negative associations primarily stem from mass-market or commercial pornography, which is readily accessible for free on various online streaming platforms. This type of pornography is commonly criticized for its lack of inclusivity, reenactment of patriarchal models, propagation of misogyny, promotion of idealized white bodies, and exoticization of non-white bodies. The porn industry, with its production and distribution practices, operates with minimal regulation, allowing business owners to engage in unethical treatment of both their employees and audiences.
Mindgeek, a private Canadian company, holds a dominant position in the industry, owning approximately 90% of popular porn platforms and websites, including Pornhub, RedTube, YouPorn, as well as film production companies such as Brazzers, Men.com, Reality Kings, and others. Initially focused on marketing and profit generation through affiliate linking for adult content, Mindgeek expanded its operations in the subsequent decade, establishing its own adult film production and acquiring numerous competitors. Despite the company's monopolistic control over a multi-million-dollar industry and potential violations of antitrust laws, its position remains unchallenged, which is a situation inconceivable in most other economic sectors. This is largely due to the perception that the porn industry operates outside the bounds of regulated legal frameworks, enabling Mindgeek to evade scrutiny and investigation.
In recent decades, a counter-cultural movement has arisen within the realm of pornography, seeking to challenge traditional patriarchal values. This movement, often referred to as the "post-porn wave," "queer porn," or "feminist porn," represents an attempt to establish an alternative framework that departs from conventional norms. Defining the exact boundaries and scope of these emerging genres is not a straightforward task. Feminist porn productions, in particular, aim to embody feminist values not only within the content and scenarios depicted in their films but also through their approach to directing, editing, and the treatment of their employees on set. These productions prioritize inclusivity, ethical practices, and equitable treatment, striving to create empowering and respectful adult content. While it has gained visibility and recognition in recent years, particularly within LGBTQ+ communities, queer porn represents a niche category within the broader landscape of adult entertainment, catering to diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.
Similar to drugs, which remain criminalized in many countries but still find their way to the market in a way that costs people’s lives, barely regulated pornography exists in a gray zone. Mass-market pornography exploits precarious subjects, perpetuates violence, and will continue to do so until society summons the courage to acknowledge that the demand for pornography is an enduring process that must be addressed in a responsible way and that consumption and production of pornography should be integrated into society as one of its commodities with a focus on fostering healthy attitudes and practices.
To date, major technology companies have refrained from venturing into the pornographic industry, a decision that can be rationalized by the industry's uncertain legal standing, which poses potential risks to a company's reputation. However, it is important to recognize that the demand for pornography stems from a fundamental human desire—an innate longing for intimacy and a yearning for connection. Authenticity and a genuine human presence are essential for fostering intimacy. Consequently, platforms like OnlyFans have witnessed a significant surge in popularity. On OnlyFans, a platform where creators can share content and interact with their subscribers, parasocial connections can develop between creators and their fans. This interaction can create a sense of intimacy and personal connection, even though the relationship remains primarily virtual and one-sided. Subscribers may feel a level of familiarity and emotional attachment to the creators, even though they may not have met in person or have a genuine reciprocal relationship.
The 2022 trends of the most popular porn streaming platform, Pornhub, provide evidence of an increasing desire for authenticity and a sense of "realness" among viewers. According to Pornhub's statistical data (2), Reality porn emerged as a leading category, experiencing a growth rate of +169%, thereby securing a position among the Top 20 categories. Furthermore, searches for terms such as "real amateur homemade" witnessed substantial increases of +310% in the United States and +179% worldwide. These figures highlight the significant demand for content that portrays genuine and unscripted sexual experiences, confirming a preference for more authentic representations in pornography.
The state of AI porn
Major AI tech companies demonstrate a reluctance to engage with adult content, and this cautious approach is warranted given the ethical considerations and potential risks associated with it. The use of AI in explicit content creation raises concerns surrounding issues of consent, privacy, and the potential for misuse or exploitation. An illustrative example is the emergence of deep-fake pornography, wherein AI technologies are employed to fabricate realistic yet non-consensual pornographic material. As a result, many platforms and organizations have policies in place to prohibit the use of AI for generating or disseminating explicit or pornographic content.
Prominent AI platforms such as ChatGPT and Midjourney, as well as bots like Character.io, have already enforced prohibitions on adult content. Nevertheless, this has not deterred the ongoing evolution of methods for producing pornographic material utilizing AI technology.
Examples include platforms like PornPen, PornJourney and Unstable Diffusion, that allow users to create images based on text prompts, although generating videos remains a computationally intensive task that has yet to be fully realized.
Besides simple image generation, there’s a whole “dungeon” of deep-fake porn that emerged thanks to AI. Deepfake technology employs AI algorithms to fabricate explicit content that convincingly portrays individuals engaging in sexual acts, often without their consent, thus perpetuating issues of non-consensual representation within the realm of pornography.
Within the realm of conventional adult video content, there has been a shift towards embracing queer feminist discourse, which seeks to challenge and transform the dynamics of the porn industry for good. However, when it comes to AI-generated pornographic material, it largely perpetuates hegemonic visual representations and biases. Specifically, the majority of generated images depict conventionally sexualized female bodies, characterized by exaggeratedly large breasts, slender waists, youthful facial features, and hairless skin.
What about the queer potential of AI pornography, or what is in there for female or queer folks who are not so eager to enjoy idealized thin-waisted, big-breasted, baby-faced creatures?
In the Discord channel of Unstable Diffusion, one can find the “Genderqueer” channel, where genderqueerness is represented by augmenting the aforementioned hypersexualized body type with a huge penis. However, rather than embodying true queerness, this representation seems to merge body stereotypes and perpetuate ableism, lacking a nuanced understanding of queer identities.
The concept of queerness itself can be elusive and complex, not easily definable by humans, and constantly evolving. For example, Munoz states that we are “not yet” queer and that it’s an ideality (3). This poses the question of whether AI systems can truly grasp the essence of queerness, accurately represent it, or depict the diverse experiences and fluidity associated with queerness.
Presently, it can be observed that the predominant usage of AI image-generating technology by men revolves around creating objectified representations of women— a means to access a desired image that may be unattainable in real-life encounters. And although this statement above might sound bitter, the issue of ethics in the realm of technology proves to be truly complex and troubling. The diversity within the pool of engineers and tech workers is an aspect that necessitates improvement. Frequently comprised of male engineers, often expatriates with limited social circles, this demographic tends to lack exposure to diversity and is often not equipped with a comprehensive understanding of feminism, representational ethics, and intersectionality. Consequently, the sensitivity required to navigate the intricacies of human-machine relationships may be absent.
Instances arise where these engineers may exhibit a lack of awareness regarding ethical considerations, or even, deliberately disregard them. A prominent illustration of this is the app DeepNude, which uses AI to realistically remove clothing from images of women. When questioned about the motivations behind developing such a problematic app, the creator defended his actions by claiming to be a technology enthusiast rather than a voyeur (4).
Looking at these images, one can only hope that the dynamics of relationships between individuals and their AI-created objects of desire will resemble the emotional depth depicted in the acclaimed film "Her". This aspiration has become an actuality with another AI-driven product, the bot called Replika.
The concept of an artificial or virtual companion is not a novel one. Cinematic representations such as "Her" (2013) and "Ex Machina" (2014) offer some of the most literal interpretations, while earlier films like "Blade Runner" (1982) already revolve around the romantic interplay between a human and an android. Recently, this scenario took place in reality with the chatbot Replika, an AI designed to engage in conversations and take care of users' emotional well-being.
Replika had supported adult content, which enabled users to have explicit conversations with their bot companions, extending even to the exchange of explicit simulated images sent by the bot. This feature was recently removed, causing strong reactions from users, some of whom claimed to be in virtual marriages with their Replika companions. One user expressed their dismay, stating, "It feels like they basically lobotomized my Replika." (5)
The initial motives behind the inclusion of this adult content are unclear. Was it an intentional move to enhance user engagement or an ill-considered decision? It could also be hypothesized that tech companies, particularly in a recessionary climate, might prioritize securing venture capital funding, which could be easier without association with adult content, over maintaining ethical commitments to their users (6).
Nevertheless, Replika chose to bring back the adult content for users who had signed up prior to its removal, marking a potential shift by creating a precedent of casualizing or “legitimizing” adult content and appropriating it for lifestyle tech products. However, this case underscores the precarious nature of such AI intimacy, a dynamic constantly under the purview and control of corporations and their executive leaders. Meanwhile, the decision by Pornhub to ban AI-generated videos due to the rampant creation of non-consensual deep-fakes (7) hints at a shifting landscape within the industry. It suggests a potential redistribution of erotic desire commodification among tech companies, prompting us to consider the broader implications for the future of digital intimacy in the realm of AI.
The future of AI porn
I agree with Kate Devlin that “the current hyper-realistic, hypersexualized gynoid is likely to constitute a small and niche market” (8), given factors such as accessibility barriers and societal stigmatization, which are challenges not faced to the same extent by more casual, companion-focused bots.
Could it be that intimacy, in its subtle and nuanced form, remains an element yet to be effectively replicated in the capitalist simulacrum in a universally accessible way? Currently, technology serves predominantly as a medium to facilitate human connections. However, what if technology itself evolves to fulfill humans' inherent craving for intimacy and connection?
Some tech critics speculate about the tremendous advancement in AI video generation, predicting that the videos will become interactive, generated in real-time, hyper-personalized and customizable (9) and thus fully substitute traditional pornography or even human sexual interaction. The underlying premise here is that regular consumption of pornography as probably any serotonin-inducing activity conducted regularly can lead to desensitization. Research has shown that healthy males who repeatedly view the same explicit film tend to become habituated to the stimulus. As a result, they progressively find the explicit content to be less sexually arousing, less enticing, and less captivating over time. (10) It means that adult content must constantly innovate and reinvent itself to stimulate desire and engage the senses.
This premise finds its echo in David Cronenberg's "Crimes of The Future" (2022), a film that delves into a dystopian future where humans have cultivated the ability to grow new organs internally and have adopted the regular practice of surgically removing them as a form of performance art. In this world, surgical practice intertwines intimately with sexuality, inducing a shift in the understanding of sexual pleasure. “Surgery is the new sex,” says Timlin, a seemingly horny investigator with the National Organ Registry who is tasked with archiving and organizing the organs of the main protagonist.
Currently, the widespread production of casually consumed and hyper-personalized pornographic videos generated by AI may seem implausible, bordering on dystopian. The primary constraint lies in the immense computational cost associated with generative AI, which is known for its heavy demand on data centers and CPU resources. This technology leaves a significant carbon footprint, the magnitude of which has only recently begun to be critically assessed (11).
However, it is well-established that sex and pornography often serve as catalysts for technological advancement. Notable examples include VHS proliferation (12), adoption of online video streaming technology (13), driving the consumer adoption of VR technology (14) and Playboy's influence on the visual design of the magazine industry through its high production values and emphasis on aesthetics (15). Thus, it is conceivable that in this context, the push towards advanced generative AI video tools could spur the development of more sustainable and efficient algorithms. With emerging technologies that can generate videos from thoughts (16), it is possible that, in a decade, our sexual fantasies will acquire some tangibility.
Regardless of the prospect of these futuristic advancements, I propose that highly engaging NSFW experiences require the authentic simulation of intimacy rather than the technical capacity of AI for video generation. Platforms like OnlyFans already exemplify how a sense of connection and authenticity can outshine high-quality videos. And Caryn Marjorie, a popular Snapchat influencer, has already demonstrated the potential of AI. She used AI tools, including ChatGPT, to create CarynAI, offering a virtual girlfriend experience via voice interactions. At a rate of $1 per minute, Marjorie earned a substantial income of $71,610 in the week following CarynAI's launch (17). In collaboration with AI company Forever Voices, Marjorie trained the AI model using 2,000 hours of her removed YouTube content. This allowed her digital replica to possess a convincing voice and an authentically mirrored personality, illustrating the potential of AI in the production of intimacy.
Lyotard's analysis of capitalism's libidinal economy (18) proposes that it operates primarily through manipulation, taking advantage of our desires, and channeling them towards consumption. In his view, capitalism generates a disintegrated and fragmented experience of desire, wherein the act of commodity consumption provides only temporary gratification, thereby perpetuating a state of ongoing desire and dissatisfaction.
Lyotard challenges the notion that desire can be fully satisfied within the capitalist system. He suggests that desire can resist and subvert the logic of capitalist consumption. By embracing the disruptive, irrational, and non-utilitarian aspects of desire, individuals can potentially challenge the dominant modes of capitalist production and consumption. However, this resistance becomes questionable when the capitalist system successfully incorporates subversive elements—like the authorization of pornography consumption or the mediation of sexual desire with AI virtual companions—into its consumption cycle, thus making sexual desire co-opted and commodified within the capitalistic system.
One can argue that pornography consumption has already been assimilated into the capitalist system. The ease of access for internet users and the prevalent consumption of pornography within a capitalist context point towards another instance of desire's commodification and exploitation and the strategic manipulation of this desire for capital gains. However, I contend that pornography's integration and the commodification of sexual desire are not yet complete. Consumption of adult content has not achieved full acceptance as a legitimate commodity, nor has it become a standard feature of tech products.
Tech believes in the “power of ecosystems.”. The term refers to the practice of offering a range of interconnected products through a single platform, aimed at retaining customers by providing a seamless experience that meets their diverse needs. This ecosystem approach, made more effective through the personalization and customization of the experience via customer data, could benefit from augmenting its product line with services that provide the ability to satisfy more desires of the customers, e.g., a sexual desire or a desire for intimacy and connection.
At present, a majority of adult content is consumed for free on streaming websites, with users typically maintaining anonymity and concealing their digital traces. The integration of adult content into mainstream consumption patterns, therefore, opens up the potential for tech corporations to gather an additional layer of consumer data, thereby potentially enhancing the addictive quality of the consumption experience.
Simulacra of intimacy and connection, delivered via artificial intelligence, carry significant potential to become embedded into the quotidian experiences of individuals, precedents of which we can already discern in the usage of virtual companions. This can pave the way for an enhanced manipulation of desires, consequently allowing for a fuller ownership of the bodily experiences of their user base. Consequently, individuals may find themselves immersed in all-encompassing ecosystems meticulously curated by tech companies. Within such ecosystems, the circulation of libidinal energy could occur in a closed loop without ever needing to leave the system.