Christians Are Not Ready for the Age of "Adult AI"
"Whom does this harm" is not sure footing for conservatives in the digital age.
All variables being equal, it is likely that within twenty years, most online pornography will not feature real human beings. Artificial intelligence systems are already sophisticated enough to fabricate entire bodies convincingly. There’s certainly no reason to think the technology will recede or fail to progress. The demand for AI-generated porn already exists; there are apps and codes to generate it. Greater education in automated systems means more people will know how to create it, and software that gives consumers what they want will follow.
Most importantly of all, providers of explicit content will be able to pivot away from paying actors, with all the costs, legal compliance, and problems associated with live action. This is not to say it will happen overnight (neither the home video nor Internet revolutions were able to instantly destroy the adult film industry). But all variables remaining as they are, it will happen. Porn’s future is post-human.
A post-human future for porn presents a challenge to Christians who advocate, personally and publicly, against it. For many years, one of the key arguments anti-porn crusaders have used is that pornography objectifies and degrades women. Theologically speaking, this is absolutely true. Yet it is not been an effective argument, either in convincing lawmakers to put more legal restrictions on porn, or in persuading individuals to resist it. For years, Christians and cultural conservatives have believed that a strong coalition of moralists and feminists was capable of pressing back on the adult entertainment industry. This coalition has never materialized, and the last few years suggest it never will.
OnlyFans, a subscription-based site that allows adult performers to sell their content directly to consumers, earned over $5 billion in 2022. To be sure, there are reasons to doubt that OnlyFans gives a realistic glimpse of just how many woman are willing to sell sex online. Like all social media platforms, OnlyFans is almost certainly dependent on a handful of very popular super-accounts. But three things are undeniable: OnlyFans exists, it hosts at least some odd thousands of women who are creating explicit content, and a solid percentage of those women would not be doing pornography if they weren’t on OnlyFans. This raises an important question: Do most modern women agree that pornography is degrading, and if they don’t, why are many conservatives still centering this idea in their critiques of the porn industry?
Culturally, we inhabit a moment in which elite society is almost uniformly agreed that sex is an industry that women can legitimately enter. There is a reason that activists have anathematized the word “prostitution,” with its negative connotations and historical stigmas, in favor of the neologism “sex work.” “Sex work” captures well the idea that a woman’s relationship to her sexuality need not be any different than her relationship with a profession. Prostitution is for victims; sex work is for girl bosses. Provide the service, get paid, enjoy.
Given this, it is increasingly harder to make a credible case that pornography is wrong because it harms women. Make no mistake: Porn does harm women. It subjects them to terribly destructive experiences, humiliates them publicly, and greatly contributes to a world in which their humanity and well-being are erased.
The problem seems to be that basing an argument against pornography on its harm to women is just unconvincing to most people. Yet anti-porn activists seem oddly beholden to this point. Fight the New Drug, a non-profit dedicated to helping people understand the dangers of porn, features a resource page documenting how porn harms society. Notably, several featured images for these articles depict (clothed) women in vulnerable poses: shielding themselves from a camera, or looking anxiously over their shoulder. Meanwhile, the featured images that depict men look much less vulnerable: a group of young men happily gawking over their phones. The message is clear: Porn makes sleazebags out of men, and victims out of women.
This mentality is reinforced by the emphasis that many anti-porn activists put on sex trafficking. Fight the New Drug offers readers an article title, “How Porn Can Fuel Sex Trafficking., which relays a particularly harrowing story of how several young women were tricked and pressured into performing for a pornographic production company. But while sex trafficking does occur under these pretenses, this is not the norm for the industry (at least in the West), which is powered by women who are willing to do what gets them paid. Western adult entertainment empires are not slave plantations. Yet opponents of pornography frequently talk as if they are.
This misconception leaves anti-porn activists unprepared to address either the boom of websites like OnlyFans, or for the era of AI smut. Arriving at porn’s moral illicitness via its harm to the ones who produce it, Christians and other cultural conservatives are going to be hard up for answers as to how AI-generated porn harms anyone. The next era of pornography will almost certainly feature no humans at all, but lifelike computer-generated images that have no souls, no legal status, and no inhibitions.
Anticipating this, conservatives need to recover a distinctly personal case against pornography. It simply won’t do anymore to try to elicit post-Christian outrage against porn by emphasizing the possibility of sex trafficking or exploitation. In the era of digitally-generated content, the question will no longer be, “Who was hurt in the making of this” (for the practical answer to that question will be, “No one”). Rather, the question will be, “How am I hurt by consuming this,” and, “Why is this objectively wrong for me to enjoy?”
This will be uncomfortable, because it will force Christians to make moral arguments that appear irredeemably at odds with the secular society. The benefits of emphasizing things like exploitation is that such concepts resonate with non-Christian audiences. There’s nothing wrong with seeking this common ground, but the reality is that we’re not going to have that ground at all very soon. The arguments against consuming or licensing pornography that will matter in the age of AI will be moralistic arguments: arguments rooted in the goodness of embodied sexuality in the context of marriage, and the destruction that occurs to hearts and emotions by feasting on a fake version of sex that collapses us inward. “This is somebody’s child” will have to become, “You are somebody’s child.”
Here will be a good stress test for Christian moral theology. Western Christians can articulate a vision of life that makes sense in a radically fractured, technologically isolated context. But that vision requires helping people get beyond the “Does it harm anyone” framework, not simply appropriating the question. So it seems very likely that Christians will have to bring God into the discussion. When there’s no one to exploit, there is still God to offend. When there is no one to be trafficked, there is still God who sees. And when there is no one to stand over your shoulder to intervene or care, there is still God who saves.
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