Several years ago I heard about a device created in Asia which allowed two lovers to ‘make out’ digitally via the internet. Even if they were separated by miles, they could kiss this robotic mouth and it would respond instantaneously with the corresponding device of their partner, as if the two of them were making out together with the others’ disembodied mouth.
Crazy, I thought at the time. Who would be so desperate for human connection that they’d need to make out with a robotic extension of one?
Well, it turns out, millions of people.
The website OnlyFans, for instance, was created in 2016 and is officially referred to as a ‘creative content subscription service,’ but anyone who’s heard of the platform before knows what it’s really used for. It’s telling that in order to sign up for a profile, everyone must be over 18, and that the company’s logo is a keyhole, as if peeping on the creators.
The company claims to host chefs and personal trainers, but the company experienced a MASSIVE growth during the global pandemic and it was not because of recipes and workouts. It was because people by the millions wanted some sort of human connection to remove them from the reality of quarantine and panic.
OF and sites like it promise not just the opportunity to gaze at the bodies of beautiful people, but the opportunity to interact with them. To comment or message them directly, and hear back.
Going are the days where people were satisfied to watch nameless bodies in random videos on the major porn websites—those were far too impersonal. If the pandemic has revealed anything it’s that we are absolutely starved for human connection and (men especially) are willing to pay for that connection.
In looking into it a bit more (accountability software firmly in place lol), I found that this seems to be the direction most pornographic websites are heading. I don’t want to name any more, but every conceivable niche site offers the ability to chat and follow every type of model: tattoos, fetish, exotic, et al.
So I coined the term ‘relational pornography’.
Users have found some sort of connection on these sites which the porn of the past was not able to meet. You can only watch so many videos of random people before feeling dehumanized enough to move on. Now, however, with the perception of some sort of relationship with the person on the screen, the same itch can be satisfied but in a slightly…slightly more personal way. You login and see the same person or people in your feed, not unlike the people you follow on Instagram and are accustomed to their content and style.
“What OnlyFans customers crave,” said Tim Stokely, the founder of OnlyFans, “is a level of interaction and intimacy with the creator that they don’t typically get on Instagram or Twitter, where celebrities tend to share the most manicured version of themselves.”
Add in the fact that the models interact back with you (it boosts their status on the algorithms), and you basically have a real, honest-to-God relationship! Who needs to become one flesh with their beloved when you have OnlyFans? This is, without question, the next step in our progress toward becoming that dude in Japan who married an anime hologram.
I considered titling this post “The Rise of Interactive Pornography,” but then realized that this wasn’t strong enough—that people are not just interacting with the models on the screen, but through paying them and chatting with them, feel an actual relationship with this person, even if, in the back of their mind, they know this is her job.
The explosion of this relational pornography reveals that Covid is not the only pandemic ripping across the world these days:
It shows that we are turning to digital means of satisfying our deep need of connection.
It shows that people want this badly enough to ‘vote with their wallets.’
It shows that the market is heartless enough to profit off of broke people’s broke-ness and insecurities (read: low enough value of their bodies to sell them online).
It shows that we (mostly men) have become timid enough to prefer paying for this relational porn over asking out a real human in person.
It shows that, when the potential for personal connection is removed as in, say, a global plague, we are still willing to pay for digital interaction because it is such a deep need in the human soul, and that many of us are in positions where that need is not being met. I live with great roommates and close to my family, so loneliness has not been THAT bad for me, but I could see how my sanity would quickly devolve without my people.
We can clearly see that there is a real problem here, so the question is, what do we do about it?
The only advice I can offer is this: If you or someone you know seems to be drowning in the suffocating sea of loneliness, reach out. Offer alternatives. Even if it’s just a phone cll or FaceTime, it’s better than the other forms of digital interaction they may be contemplating.
Because I’m painfully extroverted, every single time I get in my car, I think, Who could I call right now? You never know, maybe those calls could be a much-needed lifeline in this age of isolation.
There are dozens of ways we can reach out and connect with people who may be settling for these digital means of connectedness and belonging. Those of us who are Christians especially should feel an urgency to unite and comfort the Body of Christ where it’s hurting, for as Paul put it, we are members of one another. When one of us is in pain, it should affect all of us.
When we are starving for human connection, the church should be the ones to rise and meet that need. We are ‘Little Christs’ with skin on who want to stop the bleeding of the world. That means showing up—in person wherever possible—for the lonely and timid.
May we be the antidote to the growing pandemic of relational pornography.
Three years ago, I covered this phenomenon of modern loneliness much more in-depth in my book The New Lonely. Check it out if you want to dive more into the roots and coping mechanisms of today’s loneliness!