The social sex network

By Philip Ellis on January 23rd, 2013

This article contains sexually explicit material that may be NSFW. 

Everyone has an opinion when it comes to pornography. Author, entrepreneur and self-proclaimed Michael Bay of business (“she likes to blow shit up”) Cindy Gallop sure does – and she has managed to leverage her own strident thoughts on the subject into a unique business opportunity.

Gallop’s new venture, MakeLoveNotPorn.tv, is currently undergoing beta testing, but more on that in a moment. First, a trip back in time, to TED in 2009, where the website MakeLoveNotPorn.com made its official debut. In a four-minute presentation that went on to be the talk of the conference, Cindy Gallop introduced herself to the audience as a fifty-something woman who dates (and sleeps with) younger men.

A direct consequence of this proclivity, she went on to explain, was that she soon became aware of the extent to which men in their twenties take their sexual cues from internet porn.

Gallop heralds from what you might call the “different strokes” school of sex. Her concerns come not from a place of judgement but rather a sense of duty. They first raised their heads mid-tryst, when her younger partner broke out what she has since nicknamed “the porn moves”. In the pillow talk that followed, Gallop casually remarked that she hadn’t reached orgasm.

Her partner was floored. “I thought, in that moment, that I have an opportunity,” she told me when we sat down to discuss her start-up. “And more than that, a responsibility. Not just to me, but to him, and to every other woman he would go on to sleep with after me.”

The fact that porn had led her partner to believe he could get a woman to come simply by mirroring what he had seen in online videos struck Gallop as preposterous. But she knew instantly that this was no isolated incident. In a society where open discourse on sex is still a rarity and explicit material is so readily available, more and more young people are having their perception and expectations of sex shaped by pornographic websites.

Gail Dines, often described as the world’s leading anti-pornography campaigner, pinpoints the depiction of women as her primary beef with pornography, citing now-ubiquitous trends such as the Brazilian and Hollywood wax to illustrate the extent to which porn has become normalised.

“Woman today are internalising porn ideology, an ideology that often masquerades as advice on how to be hot, rebellious and cool in order to attract a man,” she says.

So is porn harmless fun and pointless pretence, or something more damaging? As a clear and immediate answer was not forthcoming, I did what I always do with tricky questions, and turned to Twitter for help. One response from a female follower objected to the sheer suspension of disbelief required for the mechanics of porn to work, tweeting: “She’s faking it – you’re not trying to rub Blue-Tack off a wall”.

Gallop’s website, MakeLoveNotPorn.com, was originally devised for this very purpose – to separate the myths perpetuated by hardcore porn from the more commonplace reality. It is massively entertaining, not to mention illuminating for anyone who has ever wondered just how much verisimilitude goes into the porn star’s craft, addressing a broad and comprehensive range of questions such as how female performers always seem so stimulated even when their male co-stars are nowhere near the appropriate erogenous zones (quick answer: they’re not).

For some though, the fakery is all just part of the fun. Writer Danny Baxandall believes that there is a clear distinction between fantasy and reality: “Porn can be a framework for seeing things you might like to try yourself,” he says, “but more than anything, it’s escapism, like any film.” The difference being that while most of us don’t feel particularly inclined to mimic the stunts from the Die Hard films in real life, porn functions almost as an advert for sexual experimentation.

Every moan, grunt and squeal is designed to both indicate and provoke arousal. One only has to look at the spike in sales of S&M toys following the meteoric rise of the Fifty Shades Of Grey trilogy to see that if something excites people, they are likely to try it at home.

And while there is nothing wrong in theory with re-enacting erotic scenarios in one’s own bedroom, complications arise when the participants’ understanding of sex has been largely informed by what they’ve watched. Gallop is keen to challenge the repression and double standards which permeate modern society, where the majority of people refuse to talk openly and honestly about sex, while watching porn in private.

Although far from being anti-porn herself, she maintains that as a de facto sex education tool, it leaves a lot to be desired. And she has a point: how can an industry that is largely managed, funded and directed by men, for men, offer a broad and unbiased view on sex?

Originally, MakeLoveNotPorn.com wasn’t conceived as a start-up. Gallop had her hands full at the time with her other enterprise, IfWeRanTheWorld.com. But it soon became clear that MakeLoveNotPorn.com had struck a chord with people; it regularly received up to 3,000 visits per day with absolutely no promotional activity, and huge boosts to traffic whenever somebody posted a link to Gallop’s by-now-famous TED talk.

The entirely static site found viewers in 120 countries, and Gallop was receiving emails on a daily basis from people both young and old, male and female, straight and gay.

There was no mistaking that there was a market for Gallop’s fun and informal approach to what remains something of a taboo subject, but she had to think long and hard about how to take this concept forward. “Business should be about making money and doing good simultaneously. The central question was how to challenge something as massive, as mainstream and as all pervasive in society as porn?

“My background is in brand building and advertising, so it seemed only natural to embed MakeLoveNotPorn in pop culture. From there, the idea evolved to become the user generated, crowdsourced platform that it is today, with the long term aim of making real world sex as socially acceptable, sharable and discussable as any other meme.”

The solution, Gallop determined, was to devise a platform that went many steps further than the original website. Her new start-up, MakeLoveNotPorn.tv, features videos submitted by its users showing real life, un-simulated sex. While entertainment is as high a priority as education, this is not porn as we know it.

The aim of the project is to normalise sex on its own terms and not as a performance, and to prove that there is a huge spectrum of sexual experience beyond the shaved, oiled up, rehearsed version that comes (if you’ll excuse the pun) with cringeworthy dialogue and tacky soundtracks. MakeLoveNotPorn.tv is a curated initiative, with all “porn-like” submissions checked by Gallop and her team.

So, when making a video of unsimulated sex, where does one draw the line? According to Gallop, the a key criterion is context: “Everyone should contextualise their content. Each video is accompanied by a blurb from the contributor. We encourage content creators to add an introductory video; some couples put together ‘teasers’ with commentary, explaining the nature of the occasion and their personal thoughts.

“When seeding the platform, we were also keen to find total novices, so as to avoid practised or polished performances.

“We recommend users to get used to filming themselves, start the camera running as early as possible and leave it running as long as possible, to capture not just the money shot but the comical moments, like the total nightmare of putting on the condom. Real world sex is funny; people need loo breaks, encounters get derailed.

“We had one fantastic entry wherein a young couple were having such a fantastic time on a chair that the chair actually broke. Sadly, the girlfriend ultimately changed her mind about submitting to us, as she was so embarrassed.”

But what is the difference, then, between MakeLoveNotPorn.tv and amateur porn? “People who haven’t seen the content say ‘Cindy Gallop has not seen Xtube’. But we’re not amateur, we’re real sex. 99 per cent of ‘amateur’ porn is staged. Those dorm rooms aren’t real, you know.”

She points out that the incredibly popular “home video” porn sites give extensive user guidelines on everything from camera angles to categories, and the performers posing as housewives are urged to wince and yelp in faux pain to bolster the pretence that this is, in fact, their first anal experience.

“Besides,” she adds, “I dislike the term “amateur”; it suggests the only people doing it right are the professionals. The core value proposition of MakeLoveNotPorn.tv is that everybody wants to know what everybody else is really doing in bed, and for the first time we’re showing them. We’re pro porn, pro sex, pro knowing the difference.”

One thing Gallop is eager to point out is that MakeLoveNotPorn.tv is not in competition with the porn industry, and the former may actually end up helping the latter.

“The porn industry has fallen prey to collaborative competition. It is homogenising its output, and as a result, homogenising sex. If people are sick of Transformers 4, how do you imagine they feel about Lesbian Gangbang 79? The old world order business models are being destroyed by the proliferation of online porn, and they haven’t created a new model to keep up.

“We want to show the porn sector that it is possible to leverage human sexuality as entertainment in a fresh way. The whole point of user-generated content is putting it out and not knowing what you’re going to get back. I’m also interested in providing a platform to celebrate that last area of coupledom (the bedroom) just like engagement announcements on Facebook.”

The notion of destigmatising sex entirely has consequences beyond the bedroom. I comment that if Gallop succeeds in her quest to take shame out of the equation, then she will also spoil the fun for tabloids during the next inevitable scandal involving a public figure: “Very much so,” she replies. “The ultimate corollary of what we’re doing is that nobody should ever feel embarrassed to have a sex tape or naked photo out there on the internet.”

It was that same stigma which made Gallop’s job even more difficult in the beginning, as she had a hard time finding banks and software companies that were willing to work with her due to the fact that the company had “porn” in its name. But she never considered softening her approach.

“Every start-up encounters obstacles. Now imagine one whose business model is based on sex, and then triple those problems. Everything is a nightmare; it’s enormously difficult, demoralising and demotivating. Along the way, a number of well-meaning people suggested taking “porn” out of the name. I flat out refused to do that.

“When you concept around society’s prejudices and biases, all you’re doing is obeying them. I want to blow them away, and I intend to do that by attacking them head on.”

When I speak to Gallop, she has just come back from a speaking gig in Dublin. Ireland is a country which she has used in previous interviews to exemplify the puritanical double standards that she is working to overcome. So how did MakeLoveNotPorn go down over there? “I recently took part in a debate at Trinity College where the motion was that the legalisation of prostitution will empower women. I spoke about MakeLoveNotPorn.tv at the Dublin Web Summit and the talk was picked up by a number of Irish newspapers, and I was invited to appear on The Saturday Night Show with Brendan O’Connor – it doesn’t get much more mainstream than that.

“Ireland is now the fourth-highest source of traffic to MakeLoveNotPorn.tv. I think the more repressed the country, the greater the need. Plenty of young people from Ireland, girls especially, have written to me, saying ‘Yes! This is exactly what we need.’ Porn does men a huge disservice in not showing men how to show women a good time, and it leads men to belive all sex is dick-centric.

“MakeLoveNotPorn.com is straightforward, down to earth and non-judgemental. That’s why people have responded so well to it.”

Gallop has become something of a folk hero in the business world, particularly among women. When I ask her if she thinks that Make Love Not Porn would ever have occurred to a man, she answers: “Things that are happening in porn are happening in every other industry. This is a venture that was conceived and founded by a woman, and built by a mostly male tech and design team. It has to appeal to both men and women.

“I am a firm believer that if we have a more gender-equal world where everything is built equally between men and women, men will enjoy living in it. Every different business is a product of a different kind of vision. Innovation is driven by diversity. The misconception is that women only create for women, and vice versa.”

With MakeLoveNotPorn.tv having acquired quite the international following already, I ask if she is hoping that diversity will also strike innovation among the site’s user base. Gallop responds by telling me about a letter she received when she first started promoting MakeLoveNotPorn.tv. It was from a man named Thomas, saying “Greece needs this”.

The Greek porn industry used to create films that were emotional and romantic. About five years ago, Thomas began to notice the influence of the American industry. Today, Greek porn replicates American porn, and plenty of other countries are doing the same, including the UK.

“Anyone who has shagged their way around the world can attest that different nationalities fuck differently,” Gallop says, “but porn is homogenising that as well. I’ve lined up people all over the world as on-the-ground market ambassadors to help every country reclaim its sexual identity. I want to instil people with a sense of national pride, not to mention competition. I would absolutely love for the Sexual Olympics to play out on MakeLoveNotPorn.tv!”

Considering the events of last year and the extent to which London 2012 united the world through a love of sport, the notion of an international fucking competition suddenly doesn’t seem all that outrageous. After all, I venture, surely more people enjoy sex than sport.

“Absolutely. And I want MakeLoveNotPorn.tv to be as all-inclusive as possible, whether that be through solo submissions or threesomes. We recently got a great submission from two attractive gay men; the clip was very loving, with lots of kissing and slow undressing. I think this could change a lot of views of what gay sex is. This also links into a personal bugbear of mine; I’d like to see some boy on boy action in straight porn, as there is girl on girl everywhere you look.”

And it’s not just the nature of the content that Gallop has been concerning herself with; the functionality of the site itself is also great fun. Users will have the ability to put together their own MakeLoveNotPorn playlists, like Spotify or iTunes. They can curate and compile a playlist, then gift it to someone they like, either as a suggestion or an invitation.

People can also earn badges, like the newbie badge which they receive when they first post some content. And there are rewards for pushing your sexual boundaries.

Gallop’s team are also taking their cues from the king of social networks, Facebook, and working on their own version of the “Like” button,  the MLNP.tv ‘Yes!’, which uses just the space bar for users to score ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’. In fact, the entire site is incredibly easy to use one-handed, “because nobody is just watching porn, they’re wanking”. And there will be a holistic rating system, which enables individuals to highlight the specific part of an in-video timeline that they found particularly compelling or stimulating.

It is Gallop’s hope that these novel features (and the data they generate) will help MakeLoveNotPorn transcend its original mission statement, and offer genuine insight into modern sexuality. Says Gallop: “This has the potential to be the Kinsey of today – real time, real life.”