Pornhub: A digitalised product of our desire

written by Max Carlisle, November 2018.

Created by Author. 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Pornographic websites are evolving with the intention of expanding user’s experience and interaction through acute tools, which retain attention and build communities. Pornhub was developed in Canada and is one of the largest pornographic websites on the Internet. It has changed the way that people use and share sexual content across the web. In this article I explore how an influential website like Pornhub, is shaped by political and social constructs and how closely these are linked to shaping our own sexual identities.

History of Pornhub

Pornhub was first launched on the 25th of May 2007. Within its first year it reached five million users and since then has become one of the most popular websites for accessing Internet pornography today. Schemes to enhance the community are a key aspect in its expansion. In 2013, they began a promotion of payment to amateur pornography. Specifically, this saw the manifestation of an effort to start a competition to win a $25,000 scholarship for full-time students aged over 18 (Russo, M. 2015). This grant could be used to fund one’s secondary education tuition by simply uploading a 2-5 minute video, along with a 1000 word application. In 2017 they celebrated their 10 year anniversary, and in true Pornhub style, they hosted a competition which encouraged users to think about “what Pornhub has taught us?” #PHtaughtus. Corey Price, Vice President of Pornhub, made a statement for the anniversary,

“It’s a momentous day here at Pornhub, due in large part to the 75 million fans that now flock to the platform daily and have us favourited on their browser,” (Price, C. Extracted from Silver, C. Pornhub celebrates 10 years of Existence.)

Created by Author. 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Pornhub is a variation of a search engine, which is a tool that allows users to scan through the categories that shape and diversify a website. Alex Havalais (2013) foreshadows the negative impact of having access to information to our every whim, “the richer a society is in terms of its production, distribution and consumption of information, the poorer it becomes in terms of human attention.” In 2017, the company Foshan Ltd submitted a DMCA subpoena against Pornhub to identify infringements upon copyright of over a thousand videos on Pornhub that had been uploaded without permission (Pinto, D. 2018). Because Pornhub is such a vast search engine with over ten million links to adult films and stimulating content, it makes it simple for anonymous uploaders to submit videos that can be without full copyright permission, or even to extreme circumstances in the case of ‘revenge porn’. Cyberpulling and non-consensual pornography is defined by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) as the “distribution of sexually graphic images of individuals without their consent” (Levy, M and Zelichenko, R. 2018). Whilst, this is an infringement of copyright law, it is also negatively impactful upon the victim whose body has been subjectified to the whims of publicly displaying an act that would have otherwise been expected to be kept private. Whilst, many employees access the sex industry as a form of empowerment and to advance their career avenues, the sensitive nature of the content means that consent is vital to its safe practice and maintenance of human sensitivity around the content.

Created by Author (2018), All Rights Reserved.


21st Century Foreplay

Pornhub is a specifically designed interface that is primarily structured within a Westernised and Capitalist agenda. The initial desire of the user is defined as the search for the ‘perfect image’ (Tembo, K. D. 2018). The interface is so designed that they will navigate through animated gifs in rows and columns, juxtaposed with a distracting live-action advertisement on the right hand side of the screen. The effect is to draw the viewer’s attention clockwise, beginning with the company’s logo in the upper left-hand corner, across the page to live action advertisement then back to rows of animated gifs (Keilty, P. 2018). Keilty infers that it is a clever process that structures pleasure as the delay and deferral of satisfaction through browsing, incrementally intensifying the elements of surprise; mirroring the development of foreplay in real-life sexual interaction. The inundation of media affronts the user’s visual scape, implying the endless possibilities that Pornhub has to offer to satiate the search for the ‘perfect image’.

Coding our online identities

In Cheney-Lippold’s article A New Algorithmic Identity: Soft Biopolitics and the Modulation of Control he examines the notion of an algorithmic identity, and how websites use code and IP addresses to ascertain Internet traffic, then directing the interface accordingly (Cheney-Lippold, J. 2011). Cheney-Lippold illuminates code as cultural objects embedded and integrated within a social system whose logic, rules and explicit functioning work to determine the new conditions of possibilities in users’ lives (Cheney-Lippold, J. 2011). IP addresses will create an identity of the user based on previous websites in which they have visited, formulating a gender and interest that then caters to the type of exposure that the user is affronted with. The code for the website is advanced in order to meet certain standards, and makes features more usable. Whilst scrolling through Pornhub, an option to hover the mouse over a video enables users’ to see a small slideshow of pictures that flick through the highlights of the video. Therefore, this attention retention tool builds excitement in the user, overloading the possibilities and encouraging the continuation of scrolling, navigation, searching through Pornhub.

Variety is the spice of life

Pornhub is a website designed to provide a seemingly endless opportunity for content that can cater to most sexual needs. This application has the potential to subliminally control how an individual accesses their sexuality. There are 95 types of heterosexual categories and 47 gay ones. Critically, these categories are shaped to satisfy the male majority, with the option for lesbian links placed in the heterosexual category. Recent studies taken from the logistics of Pornhub show that the percentages of women watching male on male pornographic films is the second most popular category for women to access (Neville, L. 2014). There are alternative forums of porn made for women, by women, but these are not as easily accessible as the free websites like Pornhub. Patriarchal domination is evident in the pornographic industry as Cheney affirms,

Cybernetic categorisation provides an elastic relationship to power, one that uses the capacity of suggestion to softly persuade users towards models of normalised behaviour and identity though the constant redefinition of categories of identity. (Cheney-Lippold, J. 2011. Pg.177)

The notion that websites like Pornhub have the capacity to shape, categorise and identify sexual expression is problematic. Tembo implicates that for Pornhub, ‘our desire does not create the database; the database creates our desire (Tembo, K. D. 2018. Pg. 344). The site is designed to promote the interiorisation of accessing one’s sexuality, purely upon the nature of its #nsfw content and that accessing a website like this stays a private action.

What does this mean?

2017 saw 28.5 billion visits on Pornhub in Australia, with a significant increase from 2016 (Maginn, P. J. 2018). This means that a large percentage of Australians are shaping their personal sexual experience upon a website that endeavours to extract as much information about your identity to increase the use of their website. Whilst social media websites like Facebook also use these methods to gain more influence and heavier foot traffic, it is concerning when one’s sexual orientation is ‘the something’ that is being manipulated.

Tziallas raises several important notions about pornography and the use of it via digital media. He affirms that, ‘we have collectively internalised the DIY impulse of digital media culture, becoming our ‘own porn stars’ (Tziallas, E. 2018). Abstracting Michel Foucault’s Panopticism theory, Tziallas explains the Pornopticon. It is,

An apparatus wherein the symbiosis of Biopower and discourse of normality is increasingly fortified by a system of algorithms and expansive data storage.(Tziallas, E. 2018)

The Pornopticon theory positions the viewer in a situation where the subjugation of our own sexual desire is defined by how we interact with websites like Pornhub. Essentially, a channel is created that inherently links the media that is hidden on websites like Pornhub, and the act of viewing this content. Establishing a connection that remains intimately bound to us, and our identities (Tziallas, E. 2018).

Pursuit for ‘realness’

The moment of sexual ecstasy is captured by recording each involuntary spasm and close attention to the detailed minutiae of bodily actions. The ejaculatory ‘money shot’ of the man represents the visible ‘truth’ of sexual pleasure and simultaneously confirms the authenticity of the pornographic texts themselves. (Frith, H. 2015. Pg. 388)

Categories on pornographic websites like Pornhub allude to authenticity through a conglomeration of varied options. In the confinements of privacy and the walls with which we have created, we desire and pursue realness in order to feel like the result of our masturbation has an essence of humanity. Hannah Frith (2015) has distinguished four elements of realness; realness of production, realness of representation, realness of reception, and realness of social context. These four points coincide to shape the foundations for the categories that user’s scroll through on Pornhub. Most notably, the realness of representation and realness of social context guide a further understanding of the conventions that make using a website like Pornhub, more easily accessible. In representing images that appear real due to their visual conventions and the categories in which they are placed (amateur films that show people with ‘real bodies’ or ‘point of view’ shots) (Frith, H. 2015), it gives nuanced authenticity to the experiences of users. The realness of social context is highly applicable to many of the points in which are made in this article. The production of content on Pornhub is shaped by sexual politics and social expectations, creating a feed of materialistic emotions linked to our expectations of satisfaction. Users are aware of the inauthentic nature of watching a staged product with crass aesthetics, which usually results in a fictitious orgasm. The search for ‘realness’ in a digital interface that does not physically exist, is a paradoxical concept which drives our desires to use Pornhub; the user is never fully satisfied.

Voyeurism, sexual expression, or perversion?

Linda Williams’ (1992) argument about pornography is problematic in that she argues that in watching online pornography, it positions the viewer as a “pervert”. She demands that pornography functions as proof that no sexuality is normal, that a “perverse dynamic operates in all forms of sexual fantasy” (Williams, L. 1992). Furthermore, arguing that the idea of perversion allows minorities to gain empowerment over heterosexual norms. By labelling the act of watching pornography as ‘perverted’, it furthers the negative thought process in interiorising one’s sexuality. The American Heritage Dictionary (2018) defines the term ‘pervert’ as,

  1. to cause to turn away from what is right, proper, or good; debase
  2. to corrupt (someone) morally.

The most concerning factor about William’s idea’s relatively recent nature is that even though pornographic websites – like Pornhub – allow access to the encouragement of sexual orientations that have been labeled mad or criminal or both… and incarcerated accordingly (Kelly, M. G. E. 2013), Williams iterates that it is something that must be kept under the umbrella of an extremely harmful and negative term. Considering the definitions of ‘pervert’ above, Williams’ argument is redundant and promotes an imposition that one has to conceal their sexual desire, even from themselves. Watching pornography online usually occurs in a private environment, and internet browsers have options for ‘incognito’ windows that don’t leave a trace of your history on the device. However, one’s sexual identity is not indicative to a perverted category, unless the act of your sexual desire inflicts harm upon the person receiving the action. Therefore, by removing digital traces and associating the act of watching pornography to perversion, pushes an individual to interiorise the avenues in which they express sexual freedom into a realm that is not even accessible to themselves.

In conclusion

Therefore, Pornhub has the capacity to shape our sexual desires by orientating our digital identities towards categorised and algorithmically designed content. The relationship that users make with the website and themselves is this anonymous personality unknown to ourselves in reality. The actors in most pornographic videos on Pornhub are known to ‘fake’ the pleasure, and the viewer knows this when watching, ‘the pornstar’s excessive orgasm has become marked as a parody or inauthentic simulation of the real thing’ (Frith, H. 2015. Pg. 388-389). But, we allow ourselves to be fooled, because if it is fake for them, then it is certainly fake for us. Distinguishing a barrier between ourselves that is publicly acceptable, and the persona that exists only in the confinements of a relationship we have produced with our digital access.





Reference List:

  • The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
  • Cheney-Lippold, J. (2011). A New Algorithmic Identity: Soft Biopolitics and the Modulation of Control. Theory, Culture & Society28(6), 164–181.
  • Frith, H. (2015). Visualising the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’: Emotion work and the representation of orgasm in pornography and everyday sexual interactions.Journal of Gender Studies, 24(4), 386-398. doi:10.1080/09589236.2014.950556
  • Halavais, A. (2013). The engines. In Search engine society (pp. 5–31). Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity.
  • Keilty, P. (2018). Desire by design: Pornography as technology industry.Porn Studies, 5(3), 338-342. doi:10.1080/23268743.2018.1483208
  • Kelly, M. G. E. (2013). Foucault’s ‘history of sexuality volume I, the will to knowledge’. Oxford: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Levy, M., & Zelichenko, R. (2018). Video misuse and the lawVideomaker, Inc.
  • Maginn, P. J. (2018, October 18) True blue picks: a snapshot of Australia’s favourite porn.
  • Neville, L. (2014, 16 July) Male-on-male erotica is hugely popular among women – an epxert on sex work explains why. The Conversation.
  • Pinto, D. (2018) Pornhub Asked to Hand Over Personal Data and History of Users. Techworm.
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  • Silver, C. (2017, May 25). Pornhub Celebrates 10 Years of Existence. Forbes. Quoted from Corey Price VP. Retrieved from
  • Tembo, K. D. (2018). An engine of confession: Pornhub, valentine’s day, and the lure of free usage.Porn Studies, 5(3), 343. doi:10.1080/23268743.2018.1497529
  • Tziallas, E. (2018). The pornopticon.Porn Studies, 5(3), 333-337. doi:10.1080/23268743.2018.1481766
  • Williams, L. (1992) Negotiating Sex and Gender in the aAttorny General’s Commision Report on Pornography. In Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate. Ed. Lynne Segal and Mary McIntosh. London: Virago. Extracted from Grebowicz, M. (2013). Why internet porn matters. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
Max Carlisle
About Max Carlisle 3 Articles
Maxine Carlisle is studying a bachelor of arts degree majoring in English.

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