by Dominic Pettman
The internet is notoriously good at supplying porn for a wide variety of fetishes. But why is it so bad at providing the “sonic intimacies” of audio porn—and why should we care?
You are feeling frisky.
You are home alone.
What do you do?
If your blood is pulsing with testosterone, the chances are that you will reach for the laptop and browse around. You will likely click until you find pixels arranged in such a way that an attractive face and body is convincingly simulated on the screen. This digital body is no doubt in a state of nakedness (or near undress) beckoning you with a come-hither expression. It may also be in the midst of being ravished by another two-dimensional body, playing the role of your proxy. Your eyes drink this image in, as you project yourself into the scene. If your system is more infused with estrogen, however, you are more likely to rely on imagination and memory— projecting erotic visions on the insides of your eyelids, even as there is an increasing chance you might succumb to the internet’s infamous capacity to provide “porn on tap.”
We all have different libidinal triggers: olive skin, long eyelashes, bangs, freckles, cleavage, ribbons, stiletto heels, stockings, tattoos, abs, beards, and so on, ad infinitum. But the point is that most of these are visual. Given the modern privileging of sight (“seeing is believing”), we tend to neglect, or even forget altogether, that the ear can be one of our most sensitive erogenous zones.
Indeed, psychoanalysts tell us that the ear is often the primary source of the libido, given that we are likely to hear things as children that excite and stimulate us. Even if we have no idea what these sounds are, they comprise the sonic gateways through which we enter the erotic realm of egoistic fantasy. As grown-ups, we may find particular voices to be “sexy.” And we certainly tend to find the noises produced by lovers to be a crucial element of arousal. But intriguingly, such sounds have slipped further and further away from our collective consciousness in the twenty-first century, as the internet has absorbed and replaced previous media forms. Why is this?
Twenty years ago, phone sex was a booming industry. Even women not blessed with conventional beauty could still earn a paycheck with a husky voice, a filthy mouth, and an instinctive understanding of the contours and limits of male fantasy. Whimpers, moans, sighs, cajolings, teasing, orders, descriptions, plottings, confirmations—all would flow from the mouthpiece to the ear in a collage of sonic elements, both linguistic and not, especially designed to heighten and sustain the onanistic spiral of desire. (After all, the longer the call, the higher the profit.)
Today, phone sex is still an option, of course. But there is no longer the same kind of industry or business models underwriting it, since such whispered conversations are more likely to occur between lovers dealing with the tyranny of distance. True, these are making money for the phone companies in the process. But not for any business that is built on the waning explicit interest in pre-packaged forms of aural sex.
Given the erotic power and potential of sound, why are there so few places online that cater to the ear? Why has this hole in the market reopened, after the 1980s and 1990s filled it with saucy phone chat, and even erotic stories by cassette, delivered by mail?
While conducting research for my new book, Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics, I found very few options for those who may prefer to fantasize via the voice, rather than the usual scopophilic avenues. One promising initiative was called Porn for the Blind, which provides sound recordings for those who, for medical reasons, cannot look at X-rated websites. This turned out to be a kitchen-sink operation, however, and rather than creating original vignettes from scratch, they merely ripped the soundtracks from existing pornographic videos.
More recently, Pornhub—the free Netflix of smut—is trying to expand its consumer base to the blind by making sound recordings of women describing the content of their videos, while also throwing in a moan or an “oh yes” every now and again. But both of these examples, however well meaning, continue to privilege vision, by failing to conceive and create a form of arousal expressly designed to tantalize the imagination via the ear.
There are some DIY communities online pursuing this latter approach by recording their own fantasies as MP3 files, and then uploading them for others to listen to, essentially in the form of grassroots pornographic podcasts. (See especially the subreddit called “Gone Wild Audio.”) Some of these can be remarkably sophisticated, at least technically speaking, with multi-voice layerings, auditory special effects, and tags such as #edging, #creampie, #wetsounds, #older-woman, #sci-fi, #accent, #humor, #L-bomb, #jerk-off-instructions, and #binaural sound editing. And yet, a majority of these tend to reproduce the same kinds of scenarios we see in explicit videos, as if to reinforce the fact that the popular mind has been colonized by the overwhelming cultural desire to see whatever secret it is we try to find in pornography, rather than to hear it. (As French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said, “Pornography tells us: ‘there must be good sex somewhere, since I am its caricature.’”)
The most intriguing new emergence of sonic intimacy (albeit one which stridently—perhaps too stridently—denies its erotic aspect) is the ASMR community. These devotees are dedicated to stimulating the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response: a physiological minigasm that apparently creates a gently lapping wave of pleasure and well-being in a subset of the population. Whether or not you are blessed to be part of this group, if you type “ASMR” into YouTube, you will find hundreds of thousands of videos—some with millions upon millions of hits—of men and women providing sonically soothing experiences, ranging from barely audible whispers, to soft clicks and pops of the tongue, the tapping of long nails on Formica tables, to the scratching of velvet pads, to the delicate crinkling of bubble-wrap. Some of these offerings come with role play scenarios, such as flight attendants, geishas, or professorial office hours. But the emphasis is squarely on acoustic experience, as listener-viewers chase the “low-level euphoria” of a cascade of tingles down the spine and across the skin.
Certainly, we are all susceptible to being seduced through sound. (Even the hearing impaired can enjoy certain vibrations; and scientists are now telling us that we “hear” in certain ways with our skin.) We know instinctively that music, for example, is an inherently erotic phenomenon; as Serge Gainsbourg knew only too well, in his garlicky Gallic way. We need not be those lonely or eccentric souls who develop an infatuation with Siri, or the GPS woman—like Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Spike Jonze’s film Her, who falls in love with the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson—to appreciate the erotic potential of the ear. Yet, in the near future at least, we are unlikely to see any serious challenge to the hegemony of the eye, given how many products and services are aimed at this organ. (Or rather, aimed at another organ, via the eye.)
My own sense is that we would do well to nurture sonic intimacy in as many forms as possible, given the greater freedom this can create to pay a deeper attention to both the cultural and natural environment (if such a distinction still stands). Indeed, the very notion of “attention” stems from the word to attend, or to listen. The voice can be our most personal and intimate signature, even more recognizable than our face in some cases. And yet it can also be recorded and captured without our permission, and edited to say things we never meant to say. Which is simply to point out the uncanny fact that our voice does, and does not, belong to us. It is an enigmatic vibrational phenomenon, suspended between the anonymous biology of our larynx and the singular mirror of our psyche, animated by the breath that we borrow from the trees, and return in turn to the world, stitched with the fleeting sonic imprint of our own aspirations. (The word aspiration, as with inspiration, describes a mode of breathing.)
Where has all the audio porn gone in the age of the internet?
My wager is that such a question, which could be the beginning of a pitch to a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, may—if followed to its conclusion—actually help us rediscover the “impersonal intimacy” of the world’s many different voices, dreams, and desires. And in doing so, it may help us pay a different type of attention to the environment, and each other. Which in turn may just help us desire in less algorithmic, compromised, monetized, and destructive ways.
Dominic Pettman is Professor of Culture & Media at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College, and the author of numerous books on technology, humans, and other animals.