Porn and Dating Apps: The ‘Brothel Model’ Approach to Modern Heterosexuality

Social theorists say we are entering a new age. Neoliberalism will soon deliver us, they predict, a neo-feudal age — which they variously call neo-patrimonialism, re-patrimonialism, or the re-feudalization of capitalism. This new age will be one of ‘parceled sovereignty, new lords and peasants, hinterlandization, and catastrophism’, or, more simply, the ‘Reformation into reverse’. In other words, neoliberalism’s dismantling of democratic institutions, state responsibility for social engineering, and obligations of middle-class membership now leaves the Western world at the mercy of violent non-state actors and capitalists with no conscience.

Concerns about women, who social theorists of all political stripes refer to as ‘the family’, drive some of these observations of a coming new age. David Brooks thinks the nuclear family destroyed the working class, and others are concerned about single mothers alone managing American households with children. The sexual revolution drove this outcome, says Mary Eberstadt. Women are not necessarily blamed for it, but neither are men. In fact, men are among its victims in a resulting era of ‘[r]ising inequality, lower mobility, contempt for the poor and widespread celibacy’.

Declines in household creation, heterosexual coupling, and sex act frequency in the rich world are seen as symptoms of the coming new age. Journalist, Ed West, points to the ‘rise of the involuntarily celibate’, which he sees as a feudal throwback rather than any product of contemporary conditions:

Celibacy was common in medieval Europe, where between 15-25% of men and women would have joined holy orders. In the early modern period, with rising incomes and Protestantism, celibacy rates plunged but they have now returned to the medieval level.

Whatever the accuracy of West’s understanding of medieval history, contemporary conditions would seem to be producing the ‘celibacy’ of the current age. These include habitual pornography use among men, especially those young and underage; male neglect and antipathy towards children and family; online dating-fuelled male hostility towards prospective partners; extreme fetishism, and the rise of sexual practices hurtful and humiliating of women. The movement of ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates) is widely recognised, especially now that self-identified members of this group carry out murderous violent acts. Even more widely, though, men are becoming ‘celibate’ through sexual habits that render them uninterested in pairing with women. In some cases, pornography is leaving adult men unable to manage even the basics of work and home life. Never letting a good problem go to waste, they simply take up with sex dolls.

Not all social theorists see the coming new era as one of going back to the future. Ale Hochuli differently thinks that ‘what we are seeing is…not a return of the old’, but, instead, ‘the expression of tendencies immanent to capitalist modernity’. Applied to men and women, this observation can be translated as the dawning of a new age out of the politics that currently underpin relations between the sexes, but not one similar to that of the patriarchy of feudalism or the fraternity of capitalism. In other words, the world has moved on from both the sexual politics of feudalism as well as those of capitalism. It has left behind the arranged marriage model, as well as that of love-match heterosexuality. We are entering an era of fundamentally shifted sexual politics that are different from those of both the feudal and modern periods.

Modernist heterosexuality, based on principles of freely contracted ‘love’ matches between men and women, is a very recent, and very brief, phase in the history of sexual politics. Like the welfare state era, it can be now seen as a golden age to which we will not return. Contemporary heterosexual arrangements brought a sexual politics of, if not egalitarianism, then at least détente (that is, the easing of hostility or strained relations between the two groups). With heterosexuality, women all over the Western world got a glimpse of a form of sexual politics that allowed for limited family life with a chosen partner who could not, at least in formal terms, treat them as chattel. As under feudalism, of course, they did still die at the hands of violent husbands—often after decades of torture in marriage—but under modernist heterosexuality this violence was supposed to be exceptional rather than the iron-fist rule. The new sexual politics saw the old family-transacted, lifelong, progeny-centred model of arranged marriage eclipsed by love-matches, even if briefly, and not universally or perfectly.

The end of modernist heterosexuality as we know it is yet unrecognised, and women worldwide currently wage campaigns to salvage this form of sexual politics. The #MeToo movement—which calls for renovated male sexual behaviour more than its female boycott—attempts to revive heterosexuality in its death throes by appealing for the restoration of baseline standards of decency. These standards never included, though, as Catharine MacKinnon writes, supercharged male sexual entitlements like prostitution, and this historical omission left heterosexuality wide open to encroachments of female sexual exploitation. Today’s #MeToo movement is, nonetheless, an understandable last-gasp attempt at heterosexuality’s salvation, for what its end spells for women is worse than even current conditions in which Western countries abandon efforts to prosecute rape. The end of love-match heterosexuality leaves women facing a new sexual politics as devastating as the ‘neo-feudalism’ that social theorists predict for the economic sphere.

The Neo-Heterosexual Age

We already know what form the neo-heterosexual age takes because tendencies immanent to its emergence’, in Hochuli’s words, have been bubbling up since the sexual revolution. Since the late 1960s, the sexual politics guiding relations between men and women have gradually become less those of ‘heterosexual desire’, leading to institutions like family and parenthood, and more those of commercial desire, leading to the pimping, pornographic filming, and sexual extortion of women and children in households seen today. While these practices of sexual exploitation existed in the twentieth century and before, they were the monopolised commercial activities of prostitution and trafficking enterprises. Husbands did pimp wives, but this was seen as a feudal hangover rather than any feature of modernist heterosexuality. But the commercial motive that drove the creation of businesses and industries profiting from the sexual enslavement of women and children now drives the politics that underpin social relations between men and women.

These relations used to be characterised by ‘love’ and sexual desire, but these old politics of heterosexuality are now at an end, and are replaced by the ‘brothel model’ of politics that Andrea Dworkin foresaw in 1978. Forty years ago, Dworkin described an existing ‘farming model’ of social relations where women were ‘farmed’ for children and domestic labour within marital homes. She contrasted this with an emerging ‘brothel model’ of sexual politics that reflected the new dating practices of the sexual revolution that split sex from sexual reproduction. Newly under the ‘brothel’ model, men romanced women into sex without necessarily intending marriage, commitment, children, or material provision. These had all been ideologically promised under the farming model, even if not always delivered.

More recently, social theorists lament the ‘commodification’ of human relationships, which is how they see markets in things like ‘body parts in the Global South’, ‘intimacy’, and ‘human need’ (but almost never women). These markets supposedly reflect wrongful capitalist encroachment upon rightfully non-commercial spheres like home and family. They show the folly of the principle of capital accumulation, which turns all aspects of private life into tradable goods. But social theorists mischaracterise the shift from heterosexuality to the brothel model when they conceive of it in this way as an escalation of the ‘commodification’ or marketisation of human relations. The shift is not one of capitalists simply coming to turn a profit through hijacking the heterosexual private sphere with money-making ventures like reproductive technologies. The brothel model does not arise from the mere commercialisation of heterosexuality. Dating app companies creating algorithms to addict love-match-seekers might amount to an unfortunate ‘commodification’ of heterosexual relations, but the brothel model enacts these sex-based relations as fundamentally commercial. They are evacuated of any trace of the old heterosexuality: there is nothing left to ‘commodify’ because relations between men and women are no longer underpinned by the sexual politics of either patriarchy or fraternity.

Rather, under the brothel model, women are capital that men, as erstwhile boyfriends, husbands and fathers, invest in ventures like homemade pornography, ‘swingers’ events, home-based pimping, and webcam prostitution, to generate rents. The social relation structuring the sexes becomes one of men as rentiers organising female capital for investment in sexual venture. This female sexual organisation is arranged under the cover of old institutions and rituals of heterosexuality, so households are turned into ventures of female capital investment that take ideological advantage of hangover notions of home and family. Sexual extortion, rather than ‘courtship’, is the means by which female capital is channelled into them, and their male householders are no longer heterosexual partners but rentiers skimming earnings off these domestic ventures of female capital investment.

Male householders are likely to be sex industry customers as well, but, in the case of pornography, this consumption often amounts to market reconnaissance, and, in the case of prostitution, often involves spy-cam footage taken for later trading. As male consumer online spending expands through things like pornography subscriptions, bitcoin investments, and video game streaming, female capital investment in internet-based venture becomes technologically easier, and logically operates in digital parallel to offset overhead expenditures.

Old-time heterosexuality provides cover for ventures of sexual investment that generate rents, moreover, even beyond households with their limited numbers of female internees. So-called ‘scouts’ in Japan’s major cities, who have their counterpart in ‘loverboys’ in countries like Spain, pursue expanded rentier activities of female sexual venture. These men, who start out young and attractive, occupy themselves with initiating and maintaining relationships with young women for the purpose of securing entry of these ‘girlfriends’ into the sex industry. Scouts often operate in regional hometowns to entice female waifs and strays to accompany them back to cities where they continue to masquerade as boyfriends even after installing victims in sex businesses. They maintain ‘relationships’ with multiple young women for the purpose of income generation, which is sourced from sex business owners who award them retainers as long as ‘girlfriends’ remain available for sex trading. In ‘host clubs’, too, so-called hosts prey on young female customers to become ‘girlfriends’ for the purpose of racking up debt in the clubs, which is then used against victims to blackmail them into entering sex businesses (also owned by host club proprietors). These scouts and hosts are sex industry rentiers. Their ability to wangle ‘relationships’ with scores of young women secures them female sexual capital at low cost, which they then invest to generate earnings, both for themselves and traditional sex industry pimps.

For other men, dating apps and social media sites function as ‘social’ and faux-heterosexualist vehicles for securing access to women as capital. The technologies are marketed as facilitating ‘social’ interaction, but, in reality, function to secure sexual capitalists with female ‘capital’ easily and cheaply. They might occasionally facilitate genuine social relationships, but their utility is mainly in their ideological cover. Internet technology supposedly updates heterosexual courting for the times, but, in the guise of participating in ‘online dating’ platforms or ‘social media’, men are now able to secure access to large populations of women in a context void of inconvenient heterosexual obligations and oversights. The social hindrance posed by networks of shared friends, common workplaces, or whispered knowledge of past deeds, is mostly swept away by internet technologies, which allow men to lie about themselves and their intentions. They are able to source female capital for sexual rent-seeking in a socially acceptable and low-risk way.

‘Revenge pornography’ is then used as a means of sexual extortion to keep girlfriends and wives tied to rentiers, and pornographic materials orchestrate the blackmail of large groups of women through social media for purposes of pornography production and prostitution, as in the South Korean Nth-Room case. Large-scale sexual extortion rings organised among groups of young men furnish rentiers with incomes flowing from subscriber webcam and ‘ex-girlfriend’ revenge pornography websites. They generate profits through member-uploaded footage that victims must then pay to have taken down. In both cases, technology-facilitated sexual blackmail can mean that women come under the exploitative control of extortionists, or family members are blackmailed at the threat of release of pornographic materials of daughters. While heterosexuality involved men using various means to stop women leaving relationships, under the brothel model pornographic materials are additionally used for income generation, and for wangling further initiatives of sexual exploitation out of wives and girlfriends.

Aggregator websites like Pornhub became lucrative enterprises through offering monetised uploading of pornographic footage. As a result, household pornography production is now a major endeavour of men paired with women and girls in domestic ‘relationships’. They live off the earnings of footage uploaded to the websites, or through revenues generated by the pimping of female household members via webcams. A myth grew up with the COVID-19 pandemic that women en masse launched themselves into web-based income generating activities, but this story hides the reality of men, spending more time in households in lockdown, having discovered there sexual capital in the form of girlfriends, wives and children. Men all over the Western world capitalised on government-mandated lockdowns to reclaim households as sites of investment. These households, under the old heterosexual politics, were the sphere of women, as Maria Mies noted in 1986. But the pandemic presented an opportunity for their male reclamation, and men worldwide were therefore able to take advantage of new opportunities offered by the emerging brothel model of sexual politics. For the last decade, women have been pimped through large-scale webcam prostitution businesses (offering live-in arrangements) operating in places like Japan and Kyrgyzstan, similar to the ‘web-cam child sex tourism’ industry forged from the turn of the century in countries like the Philippines, but victims individually organised through households and pimped on camera by male householders came to occupy this market in the pandemic. Husbands, boyfriends, and other male householders turned themselves into sexual rentiers in lockdown, and the capital generating their rents came to include not just domestic dwellings but also their female inmates.

Resisting the ‘Brothel Model’ of Sexual Politics

Reviving the sexual politics of heterosexuality is no more possible than reviving those of patriarchal feudalism. Feminism cannot be waged with false consciousness about the form of sexual politics currently generating the gender hierarchy. Heterosexuality is at an end, and we must instead turn our efforts to resisting the brothel model. But, for this form of sexual politics to be resisted on its own terms, women must face the reality of the social relation that establishes their class position relative to men. This relation is one of ‘husbands’ as rentiers and ‘wives’ as sexual capital. In order to weaken these sexual politics, feminist strategising to interrupt the flow of female sexual capital, and hamper male sexual rentierism, are paramount. Escalating regulation—leading to the commercial unviability— of aggregator websites that allow men to skim rents off the pornographic trading of women is an example of feminist resistance suited to the times. Ultimately, though, disabusing women and girls of their belief in the continuing existence of heterosexuality, and dispelling false consciousness about its institutions, ideologies, and rituals, will most effectively cut male supply lines to female sexual capital. The end of heterosexuality spells enormous danger for women, but also offers an unprecedented opportunity of female liberation. The sexual politics of patriarchy and fraternity established social relations of ‘family’ or ‘love’ between men and women, but these ideologically laden relations now, under the brothel model, are swept away, and replaced with nothing but exploitation. If women can quickly enough grasp these new circumstances of their social position, they will have a chance to turn the end of heterosexuality into the beginning of the female departure that will achieve the social revolution needed for women’s true political liberation. 

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