by Eileen Isagon Skyers
I connected with Cindy Gallop, the CEO/founder of IfWeRanTheWorld and founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, ahead of Rhizome’s 9th Seven On Seven conference, which assembles seven pairs of leading artists and technologists to create, and share, high-level collaborations. Gallop is the self-proclaimed “Michael Bay of business.” In her thirty-two year history in marketing, brand-building, and advertising, she has amassed a global following in the interest of bringing together human and corporate intentions, and changing the way we communicate about sex. Read the interview below, and be sure to review the wide gamut of other conference participants.
Eileen Isagon Skyers: So you’ve worked in the advertising industry for a number of years, and you seem to approach many aspects of advertising with sharp criticism. You’ve mentioned, for instance, that the mattress industry focuses much of its marketing around sleep, when people, very often, use beds for intercourse. Meanwhile, the automotive industry seems to highlight sexuality despite the fact that cars are not particularly well-designed for this purpose at all. Why do you think that we, as consumers, are so often led to feel misconstrued about sex, as it relates to products? What is the drive there?
Cindy Gallop: I am passionate about my industry: I bloody love advertising, and I bloody love the advertising industry. As a result, I champion gender equality and diversity, which are signally lacking in my industry. Like every other industry, advertising is dominated at the top by a closed loop of white guys talking to white guys about other white guys. My industry thinks its glory days are over, our glory days haven’t even begun—because we haven’t even begun to see what the ad industry could be with the talent, and skills, and creativity of women and people of color. When any industry is dominated by that closed loop of white guys, the creative output you get is Batman vs. Superman which, not coincidentally, tanked at the box office. When you welcome women and people of color into the room where it happens, what you get is Hamilton, which not only exploded every creative convention of the Broadway musical, but is also, again not coincidentally, making literally billions of dollars. That is the creativity and the enormous amount of money my industry is missing out on by not welcoming in women and people of color.
The other reference in your question is to a talk I gave at the Cannes Lions Festival of Advertising last year. As a result of the nine years I’ve spent working on my startup MakeLoveNotPorn, where our mission is to help make it easier for the world to talk about sex, in order to promote good sexual values and good sexual behavior, I campaign beyond that for more openness, honesty and authenticity in depictions of sex in popular culture. I’ve been asking my industry, for years, to apply as much research and understanding to consumer attitudes and behavior around sex, as in every other area of consumer behavior that we study in depth on behalf of our clients. Four years ago I spoke at Cannes Lions on “Porn, Youth And Brands: The Biggest Sociocultural Impact On Young People Today That We Don’t Talk About.” Last year, Cannes Flamingo Research brought me over to speak on their “Sex: The Final Marketing Frontier” panel, where I made the point that brands and advertising agencies are failing to acknowledge this universal area of human experience when it has much broader business relevance and implications than they are allowing themselves to realize.
For example, people have sex in cars. Especially in markets where it is customary for young people live at home with their parents until they get married; where premarital sex is frowned upon; where whole families live together in households such that even husbands and wives cannot find privacy in order to be intimate. So all around the world, a lot of people are having a lot of sex in a lot of cars. And yet the automotive industry is spectacularly failing to factor this into their product design, dealerships, CRM, advertising. Even more fundamentally, people have sex in bed. And yet the mattress industry focuses all its R&D on sleep. People have sex on kitchen counters, but the kitchen industry is failing to leverage that fact. My point in being, the only person in the whole of the global advertising industry pointing this out, is that there is a far broader business context for the normalization of sex across many more brands, products and services than current narrow-mindedness understands. And we do consumers a huge disservice when we do not help them, and ourselves, by taking the shame and embarrassment out of this universal human experience, to enable all of us to live happier, more fulfilled lives.
EIS: Thanks for elaborating on that. You speak a lot about bringing in women and people of color to shift the dialogue and creative output; disruption often arises from those at the margins, effectively coming in to challenge the status quo. Can you tell me a bit a bit more about how your work in sextech challenges norms of pornography, and our broader attitudes toward sexuality?
CG: MakeLoveNotPorn was an accident that came out of direct personal experience. I date younger men, predominantly twenty-somethings. Ten or eleven years ago, I began realizing that I was encountering an issue that would never have occurred to me if I had not experienced it so intimately: what happens when total freedom of access to hardcore porn online, meets our society’s equally total reluctance to talk openly and honestly about sex, and results in porn becoming by default the sex education of today, in not a good way.
The average age today at which a child first views hardcore porn online is eight. A Bitdefender survey done four years ago indicates that age may actually be as low as six. This isn’t because eight-year-olds and six-year-olds go looking for porn, it’s a function of the digital world we live in today. It is inevitable and cannot be prevented—no matter how hard you try, they stumble across it.
And that’s why, as I discovered for myself in my own dating life, young men and women who grow up today watching hardcore porn online, for years, before they ever have their own first romantic or sexual experience, assume that is what sex is, and that is how you do it for real. When I realized what I was encountering, I decided to do something about it. So, nine years ago, I put up on no money a tiny, clunky little website at MakeLoveNotPorn.com, which posts the myths of hardcore porn and balances them with reality: “Porn World” versus “Real World,” in a straightforward, non-judgemental, humorous way. I launched MakeLoveNotPorn at TED in 2009, and the response was extraordinary, in a way I’d never anticipated. It resonated with huge numbers of people globally: young and old, male and female, straight and gay, from every country in the world.
Four years ago, my tiny team and I launched MakeLoveNotPorn.tv, which is MakeLoveNotPorn.com brought to life: an entirely user-generated, crowdsourced site where anyone from anywhere in the world can share videos of themselves having #realworldsex. We’re very clear what we mean by this. We’re not porn. We’re not “amateur.” We’re building a whole new category on the internet of social sex. Our competition isn’t porn, it’s Facebook and YouTube, or it would be, if Facebook and YouTube allowed sexual self-expression and self-identification, which they don’t.
#realworldsex videos on MLNP are not about performing for the camera. They’re simply about doing what you do on every other social platform, which is capturing what goes on in the real world, as it happens, in all its funny messy beautiful silly glorious wonderful humanness. We curate to ensure this. Our curators watch every video, from beginning to end, to make sure it’s real. And we have a revenue-sharing business model. We’re part of the sharing economy, just like Uber and Airbnb. Our members pay to rent and stream #realworldsex videos, and half of that income goes to our contributors, or as we like to call them, our MakeLoveNotPornstars.
We’d like our MakeLoveNotPornstars one day to be as famous and celebrated as YouTube stars, for the same reasons: their authenticity, realness, and individuality. And we’d like them to make just as much money. We want to hit the kind of critical mass where one day, your #realworldsex video on MLNP could hit a million rentals, at $5 per rental, and we give you half of that income. We call ourselves “the social sex revolution.” The revolutionary part isn’t the sex; it’s the social.
We all watch porn; we don’t acknowledge it. Porn exists in a parallel universe, a shadowy otherworld. When you force anything into the shadows and underground, you make it a lot easier for bad things to happen, and a lot harder for good things to happen.
EIS: It could be said that we’re in a crisis of intimacy. Instead of sharing a cigarette after sex, we’re looking at our iPhones. It’s like we depend on our devices to hide from each other, even as we’re tethered to one another. Do you feel that it is feasible for that same technology to bring us closer together?
CG: It is, but it all depends on who the tech world chooses to support. Just as the tech world is male-dominated, so is the tech media. Which is why the vast majority of coverage of my category, sextech, defaults to the side of sextech that’s a lot more comfortable to talk about, which is the hardware. Teledildonics! Sex robots! VR porn! It’s a lot less comfortable to talk about the side of sextech that MakeLoveNotPorn and many other female-founded ventures operate on—the software—which has to do with people actually having sex with each other. At MLNP we’re using technology to change the way the world has sex for the better.
At the same time, you also have the dynamic in the tech world that white, male VCs fund in their own image. Only five percent of venture-funded startups are female-founded. What happens when the coverage and attention is imbalanced and biased, is that all the awareness, championing, promotion, support and funding goes to the side of sextech focused on driving us further and further apart into our own little virtual worlds, usually through the male lens. The female lens is usually focused on bringing us closer together in the real world. Which side do you think has more profoundly beneficial implications for the future of humanity?
EIS: How familiar were you with Addie Wagenknecht’s practice, ahead of the 9th edition of Seven on Seven?
CG: I knew of Addie, but had never really studied her work in detail. Obviously, the moment I heard she had very flatteringly proposed collaborating with me, I immediately did so, and was blown away by it. I absolutely love what she does.
EIS: Can you share any tactics that you’ve taken from either theater, or the advertising world, that you feel might be applicable to this particular collaboration?
CG: Well, I obviously don’t want to give anything away in advance of unveiling our collaboration, but what I can say is that it focuses on something I feel very strongly about after having worked for the past thirty-two years in advertising: communication.
by Eileen Isagon Skyers
This interview accompanies Rhizome’s 9th edition of Seven On Seven conference, which pairs leading technologists with visionary artists to create new ideations, projects, and prototypes. Ahead of her joint efforts with Cindy Gallop, founder of IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn, I spoke with artist Addie Wagenknecht to discuss intimacy, relationships, and collaboration. View the full list of Seven On Seven participants here.
Eileen Isagon Skyers: Parallel to the physical and emotional growth of our bodies and selves, is the digital growth of our selves: our online personas and identities, and the practice of maintaining and refining them. Your work addresses the demands and challenges of maintaining privacy and intimacy under these conditions; can you share a bit more about the mechanisms and devices you use to reveal that tension?
Addie Wagenknecht: There has been a definite transition for me over the course of the last year and a half. Specifically, the definition of political, private, and public, and the polarization of, as you say, “our online personas” versus everything else as we exist. If we see public, versus private, versus the other as a sort of artifact, and contend with what it excludes, what would that look like?
As an artist, there is some permission to have a gray space in which we/I keep and abstract artifacts. For example, I used to sketch people who I slept with, when they were sleeping, in the total dark. They did not know, nor could I see what I was drawing. It was just about an expression, about capturing other people’s silence. For my practice, it’s quite similar to these encrypted spaces we maintain. It is about being somewhere no one else is, and documenting that space in a way that no one else has experienced it: making something or someone visible, as if I could somehow prove, if only to myself, that these moments offline, or on, existed. Sort of as a way to encapsulate a moment and find a way to articulate it outside of the private space we inhabit, regardless of medium. Capturing time as if time is not linear, it’s just always around us; that is often where the honesty and meaning is.
Relationships, until maybe fifteen years ago, were entirely ephemeral, and here we exist in a space in which every relationship is automatically documented, and verified, online. We are “friends,” or “followers,” or we heart a pic, etc. etc., these metrics. In these spaces, even anonymous relationships have digital lines that can be drawn. The phones in our pockets show that we had dinner, or shared a room, a bed. The metadata reads like a diary.
At some point I started to collect screen captures of private encrypted chats of moments I did not want to lose, or of images sent over encrypted channels. I started to think about how I document people, or experiences, in my life when the intention is they be invisible, especially those who have a reliance on a public that requires a private. There’s a sort of binary between visible and invisible, in spaces that are calculated, or compartmentalized, and especially in the cases that I was intentionally part of an invisible life. Without ever realizing it, I learned that everything we do in private is political even down to how we chose to maintain privacy, or not, or the perceived lack thereof, who we have sex with, what we eat, where we spend our money, if we go into debt, etc. etc. We can see this now even in US politics, as of last week, ISPs can sell your entire browsing history. Privacy is optional and yet completely public.
EIS: Do you still keep these screen captures? Have you incorporated them into your art practice, or would you?
AW: Yes, I have incorporated them. I obfuscate things like names and identifying content, but the narrative remains.
EIS: Were you familiar with Cindy’s work, or with MakeLoveNotPorn, before the occasion of Seven on Seven?
AW: Yes, I ran across her work a year or so ago, in the context of women and minorities in business. Specifically, I was looking at startups and I came across a talk she did on VC funding groups of white men by white men, and expecting things to change without changing the people in charge.
EIS: How do you typically approach collaboration? How do you feel your approach for this project will either diverge from, or conform to, your ordinary habits for creative production?
AW: I work a lot in collaborations, and they vary tremendously depending on so many factors. I wouldn’t say I ever depend on one specific medium when I make work. I tend to look at what it is I want to express and then seek the medium that makes the most sense for the expression. I would say that the project we are developing for Seven on Seven is no exception.
EIS: Are there certain qualities of technology, or social media, that you feel are immobilizing people? If so, could you describe some of them?
AW: Most modes of immobilization are internalized, lived, embodied, and no doubt invisible. Social media redefines this existence as something that is often public within a specific space, or context. The net redefines existence as something that is documented and not temporary, or it is perceived to be temporary, like Snapchat, but the content is still very much there, stored away in some data center in Utah. The implication is that we are continuously reliant on infrastructures in order to support, change, and learn, so we need to reshape the world around this fact.