Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A few years ago I read a fascinating report from a journalist who had attended an “Adult Entertainment Convention.” He noted that there were hundreds of male fans waiting in line for high-priced tickets to watch pornographic exhibitions. This was interesting because the convention just happened to take place near a community in which prostitution was legal, and, as the journalist pointed out, almost certainly available for less than what these men were having to pay to watch. Thus the observer was left with a lingering question: Was the convention really selling sex, or was it selling something else? And if it wasn’t sex, what was it?

The answer is suggested by an amusing week in which the website OnlyFans, a crowd-funding platform invented specifically for amateur pornographic entertainers, stunned its membership by announcing a ban on “sexually explicit” material. To put this in perspective, this would be akin to an app like Instagram announcing a ban on selfies, or SoundCloud suddenly forbidding the electric guitar. OnlyFans explained the ban by citing pressure from its banking partners and payment companies. OnlyFans’s patrons and content creators—some of whom insist on being called “sex workers”—were outraged at the betrayal. A few days later, deluged with irate messages from users, OnlyFans reversed course. “OnlyFans stands for inclusion,” the company tweeted, “and we will continue to provide a home for all creators.”

This therapeutically-phrased statement suggests that OnlyFans knows its creators see their exhibitionism not merely as a desperate financial necessity, but as a kind of identity. And this gets to something important about the current status of the sexual revolution. Sixty years after “free love” declared independence from backward parents and irrelevant moral norms, its heirs are gainfully employed in a sexual pyramid scheme, invulnerable to slut-shaming but surprisingly vulnerable to the corporate policies of J. P. Morgan. 

At a time when young Americans are actually having less sex than ever, potentially facilitating a devastating demographic crisis, the online porn industry is trying to overcome market saturation by making smut more personal. Don’t be fooled by the way that many media outlets center the heartrending narratives of single mothers for whom OnlyFans is a vital economic pipeline; the reason sites like OF exist is not needy creators, but bored consumers. Pornography, like other addictive substances, has a law of diminishing return that quickly requires more exotic versions to stay alluring. A pornstar that will read your messages, mention you by name, and (for the right price) follow your commands is quite a respite from the same old stuff.

It’s important to say this out loud when it comes to the porn industry because so much of its success, including its evasion of common-sense regulation, depends on an illusion of authenticity and mutuality. By labeling itself “inclusive,” the company is trying to put itself on the right side of history: on the side of the marginalized, the shamed, the forgotten. When insisting that everyone involved is having a grand time and living their best life now, the sexual revolution is preachier than a fiery fundamentalist. But its vision of an utterly liberated sexual self turns out to be nothing more than an ambition for enslavement to ruthless forms of commercialism. 

You may remember a 2015 scandal involving the social media site Ashley Madison, which helped users have adulterous affairs. Data from the site was leaked, outing various celebrities and politicians as having accounts with the site. But another, perhaps even more important bit of info was leaked as well. It turned out that Ashley Madison did not actually have nearly as many women enrolled in the site as advertised, and was using AI chatbots, posing as real women, to coax men into paying for a membership. What the company claimed was an opportunity for a breathless experience of forbidden pleasure was little more than a deceptive, profitable masturbation machine.

Sexual libertinism often leads to usury. This is a vastly underappreciated aspect of its nature. Someone who saw it clearly was C. S. Lewis. In a 1943 broadcast (which would become part of Mere Christianity), he declared, “There are people who want to keep our sex instinct inflamed in order to make money out of us. Because, of course, a man with an obsession is a man who has very little sales-resistance.” Another was Dante, in whose vision of Hell amorous lovers were punished much less severely than those who exploited and monetized people’s sexual desires. 

If you look carefully, you can see how sobriquets such as “sex worker” give away the game. The contemporary liberated social order is an order of workers: naked bodies laboring round the clock, sacrificing dignity and reputation for the opportunity to nibble the crumbs that fall from Big Tech’s table. Our civilization’s efforts to commodify sexuality cannot deliver what they promise. It is impossible to make sex a product or subscription; the closest thing is human trafficking, which, as it turns out, is a feature and not a bug of the adult content industry.

By contrast, the much maligned Christian vision of sexual chastity, faithfulness, and self-control is a spectacularly pro-human vision. The bodies of a husband and wife do not belong to shareholders but to each other. The fruits of their passion are not customers but children, and the place they build is not an industry but a home, pulsating with the same love that reverberates between the crucified Christ and his redeemed church. 

“Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice,” says Proverbs. It is a lesson the exploited and addicted victims of free love have learned all too well. 

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books and publishes a regular newsletter called Insights.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Photo by Alejandro Forero Cuervo via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds
Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before the clock above hits zero.

First Things is proud to be a reader-supported enterprise, and the Spring Campaign is one of only two major reader giving drives each year. It ends on June 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Your gift will fortify First Things to speak boldly on behalf of religious voices in the public square ahead of a pivotal season for our nation and the church.

Please give now.

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles