Welcome to the new frontier of anonymized intimacy. Older generations had anonymous AOL chatrooms and Yahoo! Group Mailing lists to explore kinks; younger generations are using gifs, or looping animated images. With the rise of gifs being used on social networks, fans on Tumblr are engaging in a participatory porn culture, swapping erotic gifs with each other in a 21st century gif(t) exchange. The pleasurable goal on- and off-screen is to arouse but rather than the proof of a physical cum shot, online fans see release with an endorsing reblog tagged: #hot or #Icametothis. Media theorists call these fans who mediate their own desires “prosumers”: people who inhabit the “simultaneous role of being a producer of what one consumes.”
These porn gifs are usually ripped from porn sites, so they are de-contextualized from their original meaning. But for porn gif makers, that’s the whole point. They are less concerned with plot and more concerned with zeroing in on fucking. Compressing scenes of desire into the seconds that were most personally affecting allows these “prosumers” to re-center frames of desire towards moments that aroused them, not whatever an ass-man director wanted from a film.
“Passing facial expressions of pleasure get magnified. Penetration is obsessed and lingered over. Orgasms last forever. Surprise is repeated. In a sex gif, it’s always the first time.”
The porn scholars behind “Giffing a fuck: Non-narrative pleasures in participatory porn cultures and female fandom” argue that gifs are uniquely suited for this affective engagement: “microporn facilitates a tighter focus on those gestures or movements most sexually affecting. This affective experience is furthered by the loop aesthetic of GIFs in which a single privileged moment is replayed repeatedly (and perhaps obsessively).” Passing facial expressions of pleasure get magnified. Penetration is obsessed and lingered over. Orgasms last forever. Surprise is repeated. In a sex gif, it’s always the first time.
These sex gif loops create feedback loops. There’s no better example of fandom-facilitated engagement than orgasmictipsforgirls, a Tumblr for “horny girls everywhere” that has over 154,000 followers. The blog orgasmictipsforgirls is run by Holly, a self-described “twenty-something not-entirely-straight girl who loves to gossip about sex stuff.” It’s my favorite sex blog on Tumblr, because it represents my favorite part of fandoms: community.
Holly doesn’t want to call her blog’s goals #sexspo (sex inspiration), but she does see links between fitness blogs and her sex Tumblr. Both promote narratives of self-improvement for readers. One is just doing it through explicit step-by-step gifs on how to give blow jobs: “It’s like when you read about someone who went from not fit at all to running a marathon and you’re like ‘I could totally do that! I COULD TOTALLY DO THAT!’” she wrote in an email to me. “But with the advantage that training for a marathon is hugely exhausting whereas being a bit more sexually confident can be enjoyable all along! (Oh, and that reading about other people’s marathon training doesn’t make you fit, but reading other people’s sex stories can get you off.)”
Holly has created highly-detailed guides on how to help women masturbate filled with supplemental gifs that act as useful, nonjudgmental visual aids. If I had known about all these ways I could hump myself to completion when I was a sexually frustrated teenager, I would’ve had my sexual awakening a lot sooner. And many other fans have been in that same boat based on the frequency readers ask Holly, “what’s an orgasm?”
Holly believes gifs can titillate women in ways that porn videos can’t: “[I]deas often fail at being good or believable or non-skeevy the whole way through (especially for women!) but most anything can be sexy for 2.2 seconds.”
Appreciative fans send Holly audio recordings of themselves masturbating, nude selfies, their sex stories, and the gifs and videos that got them off. Holly curates them all into Tumblr packages to be reblogged. She says opening up her blog to submissions made it possible for everyone to “have the opportunity to be a ‘sex blogger’ for a Warhol-sized fifteen minutes.” Her blog is considered so helpful that a sex therapist once directed a patient towards her site because, according to Holly, the therapist said, “there are pictures that will show you EXACTLY what to do.”
Orgasmictipsforgirls is an example of how the power of porn fandom comes not only from the loops of sex themselves, but also from the loops of feedback created between “prosumers.” It’s this intense, intimate community that fandom is actively fostering through curated loops of desire exchanged between Tumblrs. Citing academic Karen Hellekson’s previous work on fan economies, “Giffing a fuck” says that fandom gifs rely on “giving, receiving and reciprocating” works that reinforce bonds between users: “the gift of artwork or text is repetitively exchanged for the gift of reaction, which is itself exchanged, with the goal of creating and maintaining social solidarity.” Seeing hundreds of notes and reblogs to your gifs isolating that one ass slap is a confirmation that you weren’t the only person to find this hot.
“Reading about other people’s marathon training doesn’t make you fit, but reading other people’s sex stories can get you off.”
But Holly recognizes the limits to using porn gifs is their source material: “The huge weakness is that it’s still made out of ‘Porn From The Porn Industry’ so visually the blog is way, WAY whiter, skinnier, hairless etc. than I’d ever choose it to be.” The all-inclusive, celebratory messages of “Anyone Can Fuck!” and “’People Don’t Give A Shit What You Look Like, Trust Me” that Holly wants to give followers clashes with the limiting spectrum of bodies she’s curating from. It’s a reminder that even when gifs are purposefully taken out of contexts, they are still subject to them through the kinds of bodies the images use.
Gifs create ephemeral moments of pleasure that impact people far beyond their second-long loops. Scrolling through these explicit dashboards, I will sometimes pause between gifs of explicit body-slapping fucking, arrested by a woman’s captured, open expression of lust. On photography, literary theorist Roland Barthes called these arresting moments the “element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces [you].” What pierced this one gif curator and compelled them to make this gif is now, in turn, piercing me. ‘Do I look like that?’ I’ll wonder. It’s still rare enough for me to see women’s pleasure on screens that gifs like these do feel like gifts. In porn, I’d have to rewind. In sex, there’s no replay button. But here I can linger freely.