"Other people getting off to me gets me off": Reddit's DIY porn forums

Are the site's "Gonewild" sections, where users post naked photos of themselves, an ethical source of porn?

By Daniel Harkins
Published July 14, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)
        (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-63906p1.html'>coka</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(coka via Shutterstock)

Reddit is one of the largest websites in the world, used by tens of millions of people a month. One of them is Barack Obama, who posted a Q&A to the site in September 2012. And another is naughtylittlenurse, who posts naked photos of herself to r/gonewild, a subsection of the site where hundreds of people a day upload their nude photos, not for money, but for the valueless Internet points known as “upvotes.”

In real life, naughtylittlenurse is a 21-year-old “pretty typical girl” we'll call Amy (not her real name). A few months ago she posted a picture of herself naked but for a pair of green underwear. It received 142 positive upvotes, the points that determine the popularity and visibility of posts on the site. “It actually didn’t do very well, and I was disappointed, but I figured I’d try again,” she says. “I like the site because something about other people getting off to me gets me off. I have had a sort of exhibitionist streak for years and this is a really fun way to explore that. It’s always a huge confidence boost when a post does well, and I try to make all my posts creative and fun instead of just boring mirror shots.”

Amy has since posted 58 times to the site. Her first post has been viewed more than 46,000 times and her most popular post has 305,000 views and 2,772 upvotes.

Reddit has thousands of subsections, known as subreddits, that cater to niche communities: atheists, news junkies, soccer fans, marijuana users, marijuana users who like to upload naked photos of themselves. That last one, treesgonewild, is one of the many offshoots of the main Gonewild site, which range from a subreddit for the larger exhibitionist to one for BDSM enthusiasts.

These sites are all highly trafficked but pale in comparison to Gonewild, which has nearly 438,000 subscribers and is one of the most popular parts of Reddit. Hundreds of photos are uploaded each day, from tame iPhone shots women have taken of themselves to 20-picture galleries of people inserting large things into various small places. The diversity of the content is what differentiates it from other, smaller amateur porn forums online. The content is effectively no different from that of an industry porn site, but while professional porn comes with a host of moral quandaries for the socially conscious, Gonewild may be somewhat more palatable.

“None of it is acting,” says Natural_red, or Karen as she will be known here. “Most people who post do it because they enjoy the thrill and earnestly want to. No one who posts to Gonewild is being blackmailed or forced against their will to post. No money is being made, either. Users post solely because they want to.” Karen is a moderator on Gonewild, and a poster herself. Along with a few other users she keeps the site ticking along. “We make sure there aren’t any minors posting pics, no one is posting photos that aren’t theirs – photos of exes, pornstars or random Facebook pics, etc. – and we try to cut down on the negative comments and things like that.”

Gauging the positives and negatives of the porn industry is a difficult thing to do -- research into its effects has been sparse, and its conclusions mixed. “Men who view pornography… are more likely to believe rape myths,” says a 2011 report in a journal on sexual addiction. “Pornography is not as big and bad a wolf as we thought it was,” said the author of another report, which found pornography use and sexual behavior to be only modestly linked. The potential harm of pornography can be hard to quantify. But Gonewild skirts most of the objections to pornography. There is no financial inducement, as users post for pleasure. There is no industry to manipulate or take advantage of the users. No naïve 18-year-olds are getting involved with the hope of fake and a movie career on the horizon. The posters themselves have complete control over what images they make and all posters are required to provide verification that they are indeed the subject of their photos.

Karen believes that Gonewild also gives its users a self-esteem boost. Popular posts receive hundreds of flattering comments, some polite (“this is one of the most physically attractive women on Reddit”); some poetic (“Alot of people are talking about your eyes and they are beautiful, but your titties are from the gods!”); some hyperbolic (“WOW these pictures are what I think I have been searching for my whole life”); and others juvenile (“those pics give me a pants pyramid”).

Not all comments are complimentary, though. “As a whole, the community is very supportive,” Karen says, “but there’s always some bitter person who tries to rain on someone’s parade.” Negative comments are very rare, and are almost always “downvoted,” which results in the comment being hidden by default. However, posters can also be sent private messages, over which the site’s users and moderators have less control.

“In a few of the pictures you can see my boyfriend’s penis," says user WhyYouNoWorkCaptcha, or Courtney. "He is Hispanic and his skin is darker than mine but because of my paleness and the camera’s own problems adjusting to light, his penis looked like he was black. I got a few private messages saying I was disgusting for being with a black person and that they hoped that me and my N-word were euthanized.”

Courtney received this and a number of other such messages since she first posted to the site. “There is a whole ecosystem that goes on behind the scenes in private messages. Guys who have pictures and walls of text ready to be cut and pasted to message girls as soon as they make a new post. Same text, same photo. Guys who I imagine achieve some sort of success with some girls who can’t really tell a person’s intentions. If you think for a second that some of the comments are creepy, let me tell you: they aren’t. They might seem cheesy, sordid, obscene, cringeworthy, whatever you want to call them, but they are normal I think. The creepy stuff happens in private messages.”

Courtney continues to post to the site, and believes such negativity is outweighed by the site’s positives. The majority of the messages she has received have been “interesting” and have proven that “maybe I am as pretty as I’ve been told by people who care about me and are emotionally invested with me.”

But users who post pictures of their faces may be especially vulnerable to harassment. Reddit’s guidelines recommend avoiding face-shots, but many post them all the same, including Courtney. Other users have sent her messages threatening to expose her real identity: “I haven’t been posting for that long and I already have had someone [who claimed to know me] trying to reach out to me through fear. I said: ‘Just tell me who you are, or keep being creepy; that’s your call. Either way it’s not a big deal.’ Their response was to stay anonymous and keep pressuring me. That’s the creepy part behind the messages; the malice, the deceit to get something fast and forcefully, all wrapped in sexual motivation and trying to make someone vulnerable by holding stuff over their heads, taking advantage of their fear of scrutiny and public humiliation. Who does that? Someone who tried it all already and had no success?”

The implication is that there may be malicious people on the site, spamming posters with threatening messages or trying to expose their real identities. “I don’t know for sure if there are women being taken advantage of,” Courtney says. “I must assume there are and there are many stories often posted in different subreddits about people identifying some of the girls in the pictures.”

Karen admits that users identifying the people in photos can be a problem. “It happens probably once or twice a month,” she says. “It almost always happens because a user has the same name on multiple sites, making it easier to track down personal info, or they have their name as part of their username; like their name is Jane Marie Smith and their username is jmsmith89 or something like that. There’s not a lot we, as moderators, can do to help these folks. We do help users if their pics show up on other websites, with filing DMCA requests. The only thing I can think of for these users to do is to have common sense and play it smart. Use alt accounts, don’t post face pics and don’t talk about specifics.”

One user, Hungfun, or Brian, had to deal with just such a problem. Brian is a 30-year-old engineer, student and exhibitionist. He posts hardcore photo galleries to Gonewild, often involving multiple people, and his posts have received millions of views. They became so popular in fact, that they were reposted widely across the Internet on many different sites. “I vastly underestimated how many people would upload and share the pictures,” he says. “My first reaction was to request takedowns and try to get many of them taken down. I eventually changed my mind, and now see it as a futile effort. However, I was angry that people were taking my pictures and re-uploading them, without mentioning me. And I did find pictures on various commercial porn sites, which I immediately attempted to get taken down.”

The other people in Brian’s photos started getting identified offline. “After that, they finally realized how huge Reddit’s audience is, and asked me to refrain from uploading any other pictures that would cause them to be recognized.” Brian’s friends weren’t angry, he says, and they have since taken part in other photo sets he’s uploaded, but the event illustrates how Gonewild, despite its do-it-yourself nature, can cause problems for users. Brian says the subreddit is like an addiction. “It’s likely that, if I were examined by a psychologist, I would be diagnosed with sexual addiction and sexual fetishism. Is this harmful to me? I think it likely is. I usually don’t encourage people to engage in this kind of lifestyle. I’ve actually tried to dissuade various people on Reddit from doing things that I openly talk about. Diseases, pregnancies and broken relationships are common amongst people I’ve met while swinging. If people are going to do it, I usually advise them to exercise extreme caution.”

Gonewild, then, is not without its flaws. Psychologist James Griffith of Shippensburg University, who has studied pornography and sexuality, believes potential downsides to using it do exist. For instance, the site’s age verification procedures and safeguards, Griffith said, may not be as stringent as those found in the pornography industry. And there is a potential harm in people linking their self-esteem with posting their naked photos, and chasing the popularity that comes with that. “Clearly if others approve of us, the majority of us like that,” Dr. Griffith said. “Thus, it is often the case that if we are reinforced for a behavior, we will continue that behavior. If someone posts nude photos that receive positive remarks, they will most likely enjoy that and the probability of engaging in that behavior in the future increases.”

“I do not know if negative ratings could damage one’s self-esteem,” Dr. Griffith said of the site’s upvote and downvote system, “although I am quite sure it would not boost it.” But, as Dr. Griffith explains, any effects – positive or negative – from posting to the site will depend on the psychological make-up of the individual. “If sexuality is a central part of one’s self-concept or how they identify themselves,” Dr. Griffith said, “then receiving positive feedback or comments from observers of their revealing photographs would most likely be linked to them feeling better about themselves in some way. If sexuality was not important in one’s self-concept, the feedback provided may not make that much of a difference.”

It would be wrong, then, to characterize Gonewild entirely by its most negative elements. At its best, it offers fun and sexual release to some users, and a self-esteem boost to others. “Posting puts a little spring in my step and makes me feel confident all day,” Amy says. “My body is going to fade fast into wrinkles and softness and I like that these photos of me at my height of beauty and youth will last forever.”

Daniel Harkins

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