Capitalism Killed Intimacy and Replaced It With PornHub

Article @ Jacobin, published 14 February 2019

When in October 2018, comedian Ryan Creamer decided to start a PornHub channel and publish a series of very wholesome videos onto the infamous adult content website, he did not expect fame to follow.

As the twenty-six-year-old CollegeHumor writer explained to BuzzFeed, videos like ”I Tuck You in After You Have Cum” and “I Blow You a Platonic Kiss” were a bit for his “own amusement.” The point was simply to draw laughs by reversing the usual porn formula that portrays nearly immediate, often hard-core, fucking, but neglects the more real and human elements of sex — the awkward, the affectionate, and the intimate.

Unintentionally, Creamer tapped into something not only funny, but actually yearned for by online porn consumers (which is to say, pretty much everyone) worldwide.

To be clear, Creamer’s videos do exactly what they say on the title. They are shot as if from the viewpoint of someone looking at Creamer, who in turn interacts with the camera as if with the presumed object of his desire. In “I Hug You and Say I Had a Really Good Time Tonight and Then I Go Home,” Creamer — who dresses like a grown up all-boys-school prefect — looks straight into the camera, says “ok, bring it in here,” proceeds to hug the camera, and says with an earnest smile “I had a wonderful time with you tonight, I will call you tomorrow.”

In “POV Forehead Kiss Compilation,” the comedian roleplays a series of scenarios always ending with him sweetly puckering up to the camera, as if laying a kiss on the viewer’s forehead. The twenty-five second-long “I Tuck You In,” sees Creamer wearing his ubiquitous sweater-over-shirt-and-tie with pyjama pants, while spreading a sheet and duvet over the imagined lover. Then, once more, he kisses and smiles for the viewer. PornHub user comments on these videos range from simple amusement to genuine appreciation for the content. In “I Tuck You In” someone thanked the comedian for “the best aftercare, honestly.”

The combination of the subjective camera angle, together with Creamer’s coy smile, at times nearly blushing, makes for footage that is less like a sketch and more akin to a real interaction — especially for a generation used to the aesthetics of the video-call. The fourth wall is no more, and the audience is no longer just observing but an active participant — in fact, the only other participant besides the person filming. The subliminal message is: this could be you — nay! this is you! — being kissed on the forehead by this nice-looking young man. Watching Creamer’s videos, you might feel like PornHub user bored8021 did when they wrote: “Awwww, this video really made me feel better after a bad day.”

Staged affection and performed intimacy are nothing new, from the emotional labor done by sex workers through the ages, to the booming business that renting friends and platonic lovers has become in places like Japan. But what is becoming a clear trend online is the production and avid consumption of content mimicking the intimacy increasingly absent from our atomized lives.

Just look at the other internet phenomenon pointing towards this intimacy-lack — the ever-growing community of ASMR YouTubers. ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, is the alleged pleasure, even possible tingling sensation, triggered by a series of auditory queues, especially the distinct hearing of usually very quiet noises like the light smacking of lips when someone whispers, the scratch of a pencil on paper, or the sound of hair being combed. Sounds, in sum, that we are only used to hearing only when in close proximity to another human being.

It is perhaps no coincidence then, that, much like Creamer’s, the majority of these videos are based on a single actor, performing to the camera as if interacting with the viewer. The jargon of ASMR includes words like “triggers” (which once associated with emotional reactions are now pertaining to getting goose bumps from crackling sounds) and “personal attention” (where the “ASMRtist” comes extremely close to the camera whispering affectionately about the subject’s qualities). Indeed, a 2015 study by researchers at Swansea University found that the most efficient ASMR triggers were whispering (which got 75 percent of the participants tingling) and this so-called personal attention (69 percent tingling efficiency).

Whispering and physical tenderness are uncommon modes of interaction between strangers in our society. Rather, they are key aspects of human intimacy, which we experience for the first time as newborns, when we are often in physical closeness to the adults caring for us, who in turn will often speak softly and tenderly to easily startled infants. You don’t need to be a disciple of Sigmund Freud to understand the Pavlovian connection between the sound of niceties whispered in your ear and a feeling of safety and emotional intimacy.

Besides profit accumulation, capital places great importance on two things: a) the social reproduction of the worker at the smallest cost possible; b) the erosion of infrastructures that might enable a worker to leverage influence over capital. Traditionally, this has meant the election of the nuclear family as the ideal social unit under capitalism. The basic survival of the (mostly male) worker was guaranteed by the unpaid labor of another (mostly female) worker.

Of course, the nuclear family still persists. But in the world of late capitalism, where your food can be procured from twenty different restaurants and delivered to your door within thirty minutes; where there are either machines or service apps to do your dishes, hang your shelves, and mend your clothes; where your next sexual encounter is merely a swipe and a chaser away — we’re increasingly trading one regressive social structure for another.

Moreover, as theorist Mark Fisher so aptly described in Capitalism Realism, “work and life become inseparable.” The gig economy sees you using your own bike to deliver meals, and your watch buzzes 24/7 with emails from a ”client” looking to hire your freelance services. “As production and distribution are reconstructed,” Fisher argues, “so are nervous systems.” Our productivity is higher than ever, our accessibility to the employer too. And with our communities destroyed, our family units eroded, our emotional and even physical proximity to others increasingly nonexistent, we humans of late capitalism are left with a deficit of intimacy and affectionate attention.

Yet rest assured that the perverse inventiveness of the capitalist system will provide. Wholesome asexual videos on porn websites and ASMR YouTubers are just two examples of the commodification of intimacy and its mediated consumption by our starved souls.

Even podcasts are usually friendly conversations that enter your living room when you need company and entertainment — in the way that people used to do when impromptu visits weren’t so frowned upon, perhaps.

Real proximity, real human connection, is becoming anathema to the post-millennial. Our sense of community is being replaced by its generic version, administered via a screen and high-definition speakers.

For me it is disconcerting, this transformation of feeling into a series of hollow ciphers. And I would argue that, much like our Victorian forbears fought for collectivity and togetherness through unionization, so too must we fight for human intimacy that involves real touching, skin on skin, that involves real whispering and certainly real personal attention.

The path to that is now more than ever paved by politics. To fight for intimacy and care is to fight for leisure time and for consent, is to fight for housing and for living wages.

So, let us fight for it. Lest one day, in a not so distant future, we find ourselves in a world where the only reminder of our humanity is the yearning for a video of a wholesome red-haired boy, tucking us in after we’ve cum.

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