The trouble with the ‘intellectual porn star’

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It’s commonplace nowadays to observe that globalisation produces winners and losers and that this drives populist politics. Watching Freddie Sayers’ Lockdown TV interview with OnlyFans superstar Aella, it struck me that this individual — a rationalist, self-described ‘moral nihilist’ and happy porn star — is one of the winners in modernity’s moral liquefaction, in much the same way as a hedge fund manager is in the economic sort.

Aella makes repeated references to how her brain is ‘different’ from ordinary brains. She doesn’t elaborate much on this, but uses the phrase ‘high decoupling’, unpacked in these pages by Tom Chivers, which means roughly ‘capable of considering ideas without becoming emotionally overwhelmed by their implications’. “The person I am who has sex on a personal level is different to the person I am who produces sex on a business level”, she explains.

There’s no reason not to believe that, as Aella puts it, “It’s possible to do this and not be dying inside”. Certainly she is well-remunerated, earning over $100,000 in July alone, and seems perfectly content to discuss her pornography work. But where her body language is less relaxed, all jumpy hands and face-touching, is when Freddie probes gently into how ‘consent’ may be complicated by economic pressures or other vulnerabilities.

Her words and body language are visibly more defensive, for example, discussing Nicholas Kristof’s NYT story on Pornhub and child rape. Perhaps it’s a moral panic, she hedges; she doesn’t have enough information to make a judgement. It’s perhaps understandable that she wouldn’t have spent much time gathering more information.

Aella is keen that people who do ‘survival sex work’ should not be judged. A lot of people are so poor, she correctly observes, that even “being on the flat end” of the OnlyFans earning curve “could still be a life-changing amount of money, and it could be they don’t have any other options”. But she seems to see this kind of economic pressure as a phenomenon that just is, like the weather — not something that could itself be critiqued or ameliorated.

From this perspective, individuals’ responses to the economic weather shouldn’t be judged morally, but seen as informed choices. “I still tend to try to stay on the side of: people know what’s best for them individually,” she says, “and it’s not our right to tell them they shouldn’t do this, it hurts them”. Perhaps as a byproduct of her evident intelligence and high-decoupling mindset, she seems unable or unwilling to consider how economic pressure plus the drive to de-stigmatise sex work could produce quite a different experience for someone who is not just poorer but also less intelligent, rational and high-decoupling than she is.

Aella is clearly well-adapted to a culture in which traditions, moral strictures and what Patrick Deneen calls the social ‘guard rails’ are dismantled, leaving individuals increasingly free to set their own moral standards. In this sense, she is one of social hyper-liberalism’s winners. But the question her rubric of choice and individual agency leaves hanging is: what about those who lack her advantages? In a world with liquefying sociocultural ‘guard rails’, how are we to have regard for those less naturally intelligent, those less emotionally self-contained, or those too scarred by emotional neglect or a history of abuse to make a clear-sighted calculation of their own risk of further emotional or psychological harm?

Economic hyper-liberalism produced a populist reaction, that has in turn been responsible for a slow but steady turn toward de-globalisation. As life outcomes continue to diverge between social hyper-liberalism’s winners and losers, we may yet see an equivalent populist moral reaction, with the aim of restoring behaviorale guidelines for those who cannot navigate as effortlessly as Aella without them.

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