Despite being a generation overwhelmed with technological means to fulfil their fantasies, today’s youth desire sexual reality. The rapid uptake of OnlyFans embodies a paradoxical desire to escape an increasingly grim sexual reality through indulging in consumption of ‘reality’ pornography. But how realcan pornography ever be, and does it represent an entrenchment of the patriarchal sexualisation of women?

Pornhub’s 2022 annual report demonstrated that the fastest growing trend for 2022 was ‘reality’ – increasing viewership by a total of 169%. Simultaneously, viewership of the ‘amateur’ category declined roughly 20%, leading the researchers to note ‘visitors are still seeking a real homemade porn experience’ – the guise of amateur is not enough. In Australia specifically, the two top trending searches for 2023 were ‘sharing a bed’ (+%600) and ‘therapy’ (+%540), a far cry from what would typically be associated with pornographic content.  

Society’s previous relationship with pornography was one of explicit fantasy; a consumption of unrealistic bodies in improbable scenarios conducting inconceivable acts. Aiding this was explicit acceptance of the disconnect present, lusting for the physical specifically because it was not also attempting to be a fill-in for true connection. In other words, the fantasy being indulged in was the removal of emotional or social connections from sex – it was sex for the sake of sex. 

A national survey recently highlighted that those aged 18-24 age were most likely to experience loneliness, with 22% of this bracket stating they are either constantly or often lonely. Such trends are replicated globally in the general decrease of sexual activity experienced by young people, particularly in Western countries. But it is feasible to broach this deficiency through faux realities? 

OnlyFans is fast becoming a behemoth of pornographic facilitation with users paying more than $5 billion to creators in 2022. Not only is spending up, but content creators have grown by nearly 50% in the past year. OnlyFans’s explosive growth comes from linking creators to consumers in a way porn never did. Individuals are no longer the perverts behind a screen, instead they have become ‘fans’ that are afforded technological involvement with the objects of their sexual desire.   

Here the pornographic trope of ‘the girl next door’, previously relegated to a fantasy, has now become a form of sexualised reality and should be taken literally – the girl next door might exist. This merging of sexual fantasy into the real world suggests that today’s youth want more realistic sexual content, and greater interpersonal connection, due to a lack in real life. Porn actors are no longer 2D figures who appear only as sexualised objects for my fantasy to manipulate, the rise of technology and social media means we connect with adult content creators as holistic beings who can perceive us as a human (or a fan) – not simply as an anonymous click or view.  

Fantasy for sale

While traditional porn inserted fantasy into reality by imagining all the ways certain sexual desires were unattainable, OnlyFans is seeing a reversal by injecting reality into fantasy by imagining all the ways in which sexual desires may be attainable.  

What should be obvious is that escape toward this ‘reality’ is anything but – reality, as a pornographic concept, has now become a commodity. Platforms such as Meta pioneered the sale of ‘reality’ as a commodity, initially through social media which promised global connection and more recently with openly ‘virtual’ realities as places of escape (for a price). 

Just as it was once assumed constant connection through Facebook would alleviate loneliness, which it is now proven to increase, society needs to be careful of establishing a feedback loop in sexual consumption. Here the phenomena of ‘parasocial relationships’, where effort and interaction is one-sided, operates in full effect; while a user can ‘interact’ with their favourite explicit content creator. The purpose of this interaction is only as a profit mechanism, there is no symbiotic social relationship taking place.  

OnlyFans in essence offers a new commodity of sexual ‘reality’ which, just as social media has, proports to sell us connection to reality, while simply creating a new grey space of pseudo-connection.

In turn, the more reliant society is on technology to fulfil our needs, the less-equipped we are to find such things organically – an increasing trend of abstinence being evidence to the point.  

Political-economy of sexual reality

This sexualisation of reality brings with it a major challenge to the sex-positive view of feminism. We should take seriously that the liberalisation of sex and sexuality in the 21st century has positively influenced the lives of women by offering space and safety for progressive practices. Yet, it cannot be ignored that the financial prosperity that OnlyFans affords (largely female) creators comes at the cost of internalising a core patriarchal notion; the sexual objectification of women’s bodies.  

The sex positive view typically argues that patriarchy was a limiting factor on sexuality and is instead in favour of removing societal stigma and shame surrounding pornography. Here the trend of reality-centric porn would be supported to further liberate both men and women from sexual restriction – even if the establishment of unhealthy norms which propagate the sexualisation of patriarchal interests through porn continues. Here issues of subjugation, domination and sexualisation must necessarily be supported, providing an indication as to why younger generations are turning away from the positivist view.  

In OnlyFans’s case, it may establish a sexual panopticon where women perceive self-sexualisation as liberating, not realising that the patriarchal logic of objectifying bodies has now become self-imposed and self-regulating as women free men of this task. The danger being that, if the trend of sexualising reality continues, what was previously relegated to closed-door fantasies is brought into the real world. Tangibly this could mean that women now find themselves more sexualised as pornographic content increasingly blurs lines between public and private thoughts or actions.  

A springboard

As sexual lives become further digitally enmeshed (what will the Metaverse mean for sexting?) there is need to reflect on how our desires are impacted. Desire for reality should reflect an underlying lack thereof as well as the pseudo-reality technology such as OnlyFans sells us as a replacement. In a world of fast fashion, fast food, and fast internet it should be pause for thought that today’s youth don’t want fast sex – they want real sex but will settle for less.    

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