The Psychology Behind Fake Porn

Deep fake porn puts familiar faces on new bodies – but why do people do this?

Posted Jan 02, 2019

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Long ago, if you wanted to imagine people without their clothes on, you had to use your actual imagination. You know, that part of your brain where things happen inside your own head. But today, technology allows us to create hyperrealistic images and videos, morphing faces from one person onto another person’s body. Though the technology was originally used for humor, parody, or political satire, say, where the President’s head is put on a baby's body, it was quickly adopted for sexual purposes. This is, to be honest, the fate of almost all new technologies, as people show boundless creativity for finding ways to exploit innovation in matters of sex.

One could claim, as some have, that Photoshop ushered in this revolution, with its ability to easily and effectively manipulate digital images. These pictures can be extremely convincing, fooling viewers so well that websites such as Snopes were created to disprove them. However, artists for many generations have been creating images of celebrities and/or people they know, sometimes in satirical or even erotic ways. If you remember in the film Ghostbusters 2, the movie ended with the faces of the ghostbusters morphed into an Italian Renaissance–style painting. In the film Watchmen, there’s a scene where the Silk Spectre character nostalgically reviews a “Tijuana Bible,” a pornographic book depicting cartoon images of herself having sex.  But today, there’s a tremendous outcry over a more challenging form of image manipulation, one where women, in particular, are being morphed into hard-core images and videos, which are extremely realistic. Actress Scarlett Johansson recently prompted attention to this issue in an interview where she stated, “Nothing can stop someone from cutting and pasting my image or anyone else's onto a different body and making it look as eerily realistic as desired.” 

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

In much of the recent media response and commentary on this issue, a great deal of attention is given to the angry, misogynistic motivations of the people making and posting these images. “I feel violated—this icky kind of violation,” one woman told The Washington Post, describing her reaction to finding a fake porn image of herself distributed online. The Post described the process as being “weaponized” against women, “It’s like an assault: the sense of power, the control,” a domestic violence shelter director told reporters. Mary Franks, a University of Miami law professor commented: “If you were the worst misogynist in the world, this technology would allow you to accomplish whatever you wanted.” 

Media critic Anita Sarkeesian was targeted in such a video, viewed more than thirty-thousand times on Pornhub. Comments in response to the video offered justifications based on Anita’s history of media criticism and her high-profile status in the technology industry. In some cases, these fake images and videos have included personal information about the women, resulting in death and rape threats.

Clinically, I’ve encountered this “fake porn” issue many times over my career, and it has rarely involved misogynistic motivations. I don’t discount those threats and anger, but suggest that attention to these motives creates a false, two-dimensional image of a complex phenomenon. I’ve seen far more of these cases driven by feelings of loss, shame, hope, and fantasy than by misogyny and anger.

In India, a naval officer was exposed and arrested after posting fake porn pictures of his wife online. The man’s wife had recently left their home with their children and filed for divorce. According to the news report, the couple had argued over the husband’s use of pornography, as well as over an alleged affair that the husband was having. This, in fact, has been one of the most common manifestations of fake porn that I’ve seen: husbands who create fake pornographic images of their wives having sex with other men. In the cuckold community, where men fetishize the idea of their wives being sexual with others, many wannabe cuckolds use or create such images in order to explore their fantasies when their wives are unwilling to participate. “I don’t really find most porn as appealing, or as sexy, as my wife. But, she is very sexually conservative and is absolutely not interested in sex with other people. Making images like this, with her face, lets me fantasize about her giving up all that control and being as sexy as a porn star,” one such husband told me during therapy.  

Back in the days before Photoshop, when most porn was in print magazines, I counseled numerous male teenagers who had gotten in trouble for cutting out yearbook pictures of their female crushes and pasting those faces onto such pornographic pictures. Sometimes these boys were angry at  young women who had spurned their advances. But usually these young men were socially isolated, impaired, and unable to effectively engage with the opposite sex or the dating scene. Creating these porno collages was a way for them to explore fantasies that were likely impossible for them to ever fulfill.

Why can’t they just keep these images in their heads then? Why do they have to make them in real life, so to speak? It would be easy to say that men are “more visual” in their sexual arousal than are women, though there’s substantial evidence showing that this isn’t really true. Men do consume more visual sexual images than do women, at least in part because culturally, in comparison to women, they’ve been allowed to. But women often consume, and produce, erotic fiction, even what is called "slash fiction," which is the female version of deep fake porn. In slash fiction, authors create sexual narratives, frequently based around famous celebrities or fictional characters such as Harry Potter. Slash fiction involving characters from the Twilight series was actually the origin of the uberpopular Fifty Shades of Grey series by female author E.L. James. Such material exists worldwide, with similar genres in Japan and China. In young women, slash fiction is often described as a “safe place to explore your sexuality” and share your interests with others. Women I've counseled for these issues have sometimes been embarrassed when their fictional erotic fantasies became public or were revealed to the people they had fantasized about. 

Like it or not, people DO want to share their creations, even their fantasy sexual creations, with others. They seek approval from others; they want to demonstrate how they've overcome technical challenges to play around with the taboo opportunities available; they want to bond and connect with those who share the same interest or arousal triggers; they want to arouse others in the way they are aroused; and they want to feel as though they are not alone for having these interests and desires.

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

The world of deep fake porn doesn’t truly represent anything new. These types of visual fantasy creations have been around since art first gave people the ability to share what was in their imagination. The technology of deep fakes though, offers ordinary folks the ability to quickly, easily and cheaply create very convincing depictions and to blur the lines of reality. No one looks at slash fiction, cartoons, or magazine collages, and thinks, Wow, I wonder if that’s actually real? Online, deep fake porn is banned from many popular sites, and Google and other online platforms are exploring ways to limit misuse of the technology. 

“You can’t sue someone for exposing the intimate details of your life when it’s not your life they’re exposing.” 

It may be difficult for the law to do anything, however, with questions of free speech, satirical use, different laws in different countries, and the challenge of even finding a law that applies. Is it an invasion of my privacy to take my face and put it on a picture that makes it look as if I’m doing something I wouldn’t normally do (like smoke)? It’s certainly rude and irritating. But that’s most of the internet, as far as I can tell. When paired with threats of violence, it’s likely criminal and should be prosecuted as such. Laws like those in Europe, which allow private citizens to petition for changes to the internet (or at least to block personal things from being included in Google searches) may offer hope, as might antidefamation and anti-revenge porn laws.

But, such changes can only truly have effect if we acknowledge that these fake porn images reflect sexual fantasy, with all the nuances, complexity, and heterogeneity that imbues it. Misogyny and anger make up only one small piece. Highlighting those elements may feed social outrage but is unlikely to help address the real issues of sexual shame, ignorance, and fear that perpetuate these dynamics.