A Review of “Use Me”: Different Realities Interweave in this Sexualized Thriller!

In describing the movie as a sexualized thriller residing in the ambiguous territory between fantasy and reality, Use Me sets the audience up for one ride – while delivering another. It’s just one part of the overall misdirection that makes this film so interesting.

I viewed the film at it’s Brooklyn Film Fest world premiere and was immediately sucked into the story.  But it’s taken me a full day of replaying the film in my head to realize what I saw was not what I watched.  Like a magician using his skills to distract the audience’s attention, the film’s more obvious story deflects the viewer’s attention from where the real magic is occurring — just outside the story.  Only at the end does that magic unfold to the surprise and delight the audience. The hints as to how that magic will eventually manifest itself are there throughout the movie, but as with any good magic show, the audience is not fully aware of what it is watching.

And that’s the genius of this film.

The main themes of the movie are planted early on in the film. Julian’s ambitious pursuit of the American dream as a documentary film maker and Ceara’s morally ambiguous work are the obvious threads that drive the story forward. For those familiar with Ceara’s work, the first 30 minutes may be slow. For those not familiar with her work, those 30 minutes are sure to be fascinating as they provide insight into a bizarre world of online sexual fantasy play most are unaware even exists.  Whether familiar with that world or not, the viewer should watch closely.  There is meaning in even the mundane.  Little noticed clues speak to those themes which only broach the audience’s consciousness once the layers of reality are peeled back at the end of the film to reveal the truth.

The film is a tapestry of all those layers of reality which define who we are – loathsomeness, arrogance, deceit, greed, fear, love.  Layers so tightly woven together they create a single psyche. A psyche that, for the maladjusted person, is hard to comprehend let alone repair. The film dances around, then delves deeply, into the complex psyche of Julian, the director and producer of this pseudo-documentary.  And it is here, in Julian’s reality, the story unfolds and where, at it’s core, the film becomes less about Ceara the humiliatrix and more about Ceara the healer. Less about selfish manipulation and damnation and more about selfless affection and redemption. Once the truth is known to the audience, words and scenes take on different meaning. A forceful reproach of Julian, “You know nothing!” strikes at the deeper reality of truth. Viewer sympathy shifts during an argument between Julian and Ceara once the ultimate truth is known. Like a densely written book, this film deserves a second or third viewing to fully appreciate and understand just how intricately both the visible and the mostly unseen themes are woven together.

Julian describes his job as a documentary film maker as ‘uncovering the truth.’ One truth not addressed in the film is a man’s desires to have others rejoice in the good in which he rejoices. I think Julian, upon deciding to make this film about Ceara Lynch, was expecting to find moral decadence and the worst common parts of humanity.  Instead what he unexpectedly found was goodness. And I think he made movie so that he might share his rejoice with others.

Oh. One final thing.  If you’re wondering whether Julian ever finds that layer of reality called the American Dream, well you decide.


The Irrational Economics of Financial Domination

A short essay in which I apply Behavioral Economics concepts to explain financial domination.

“Men do stupid things when they’re horny. But at the end of the day, they’re only responsible for themselves.” – Ceara Lynch

Just Horny Men Doing Stupid Things?

I’ve observed and been involved in the online financial domination community for over thirteen years. During that time I’ve spent well over six figures on tributes and gifts for women who, aside from the infrequent cash point meet, I’ve never met! Which, in terms of traditional economics, is a pretty fucking irrational thing to do. So why do I do it, then? Good question.

Over the course of those years, I’ve read a couple theories that try to rationalize that sort of spending on financial domination (see footnote 1.) The most common idea is that money is a surrogate for power and that, for the genuinely submissive male, financial domination is a very real form of power exchange. For those submissive men, handing over their hard-earned money to a dominant woman while being denied any sexual and/or romantic reciprocation is about as real as female domination gets. Or as real as it can get over the internet anyway. I’ve also read that for others, financial domination is simply paying (and overpaying) a woman to orchestrate elaborate online fetish and fantasy games of degradation, humiliation, and sexual pleasure.

In my case, both theories would make sense if I were genuinely submissive or enjoyed being humiliated. But I’m not and I don’t. Mostly I spent that money because I’m lazy. I mean, when it came to playing around in my pretty mundane sexual fantasy land, I just prefer that the woman do all the hard mental work. Or to put it in play English, spending that money was simply my way to compensate the dominatrix for her time and effort.

Well, okay, maybe there’s a bit more to it. I mean, obviously what I was paying for was the woman’s attention. But, given all the free porn on the internet, why do I allow myself to pay so much? I mean, when it comes to money in general, I’m a pretty rational guy. For a good part of my career I lived, slept, and dreamed cost-benefit analysis spreadsheets. When it came to job-related financial decisions, I was good at it. In an era of shrinking top lines and relentless search for efficiencies, my skill at finding ways to get the biggest bang-for-the-buck with minimal risk was near legendary. In short, I’m not stupid.

So what’s up with me giving so much of my money away for so little visible return? That’s fucked up, right? Well, maybe not.

Enter Behavioral Economics

Clearly there are some pretty serious psychological factors at play. Factors outside the usual, more rational, economic calculus of supply and demand. But what those factors were and, more importantly, how they influenced my spending habits, were unnamed (and therefore largely unrecognized) until 2017. That was the year Professor Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in the field of Behavioral Economics. Dr. Thaler’s work established that when it comes to money, people are predictably irrational in ways that defy conventional economic theory. Which brings me back to all that irrational spending I did under the guise of financial domination.

Have a look at these two tables.

Tables 1

What would you say are the dimensions of the two tables? If you are like most people, you think that the table on the left is much longer and narrower than the one on the right. Now take out a ruler and measure each table. You will find that the two table tops are identical. Measure them until you are convinced, because this is a case where seeing is not believing. What should we conclude from this example? If you see the left table as longer and thinner than the right one, you are certifiably human. There is nothing wrong with you (well, at least not that we can detect from this test). Still, your judgment in this task was biased, and predictably so. No one thinks that the right table is thinner! Not only were you wrong; you were probably confident that you were right.

Now consider the figure below.

Tables 2

You can see that the legs and the orientation facilitate the illusion that the table tops are different in the first figure, so removing these distractions restores the visual system to its usual amazingly accurate state. These two figures capture the key insight that behavioral economists have borrowed from psychologists.

Normally the human mind works remarkably well. We can recognize people we have not seen in years, understand the complexities of our native language, and run down a flight of stairs without falling. Some of us can speak twelve languages, improve the fanciest computers, and/or create the theory of relativity. However, even Einstein would probably be fooled by those tables. That does not mean something is wrong with us as humans, but it does mean that there are predictable systematic biases in the way we think. Understanding these systematic biases and applying them to conventional economic theory is what behavioral economists do. Drawing on some well-established findings in social science, behavioral economists show it’s quite normal for individuals to make some pretty bad decisions —financial decisions in particular – decisions they would not have made if they had paid full attention and possessed complete information, unlimited cognitive abilities, and complete self-control.

But who has the time, the self-control, and all the necessary information to construct and populate a cost-benefit-risk matrix for all the financial decisions we make each day? No one. As a practical matter, when we have to make judgments, we use simple rules of thumb, called heuristics, to help us. These heuristics are more intuitive and automatic than reflective and rational, and we often make mistakes when we rely too much on them. The fact is that heuristics can lead to systematic biases in our decisions. And those biases can lead to irrational choices in the way we spend our money.

Behavioral economists have identified dozens of these cognitive biases (see footnote 2.) Some of these biases, such as confirmation bias, are readily recognizable in other people’s thinking, but most people have a hard time seeing biases that exist in their own thought processes. Nevertheless, they’re there. In this essay, I’ll examine those heuristics and cognitive biases which I think directly contribute to the irrational spending of financial domination.

The Hot-Cold Empathy Gap: Why Hot Is Much Hotter Than We Realize

Ask most twenty something male college students whether they would ever attempt unprotected sex and they will quickly recite chapter and verse about the risk of dreaded diseases and pregnancy. Ask them in any dispassionate circumstances—while they are doing homework or listening to a lecture—whether they’d enjoy being spanked, or enjoy sex in a threesome with another man, and they’ll wince. No way, they’d tell you. Furthermore, they’d narrow their eyes at you and think, “What kind of sicko are you anyhow, asking these questions in the first place?”

In 2001, while visiting Berkeley for the year, behavioral economist Dan Ariely and his longtime collaborator George Loewenstein invited a few bright students to help them understand the degree to which rational, intelligent people can predict how their attitudes will change when they are in an impassioned state. In order to make this study realistic, they needed to measure the participants’ responses while they were smack in the midst of such an emotional state. They could have made their participants feel angry or hungry, frustrated or annoyed. But instead they preferred to have them experience a pleasurable emotion. They chose to study decision making under sexual arousal.

There are sexual motivations everywhere we look, and yet we understand very little about how these influence our decision making. Moreover, since they wanted to understand whether participants would be able to predict how they would behave in a particular emotional state, the emotion needed to be one that was already quite familiar to them. That made their decision easy. If there’s anything predictable and familiar about twenty something male college students, it’s the regularity with which they experience sexual arousal.

Roy, an affable studious biology major at Berkeley, is in a sweat—and not over finals. Propped up in the single bed of his darkened dorm room, he’s masturbating rapidly with his right hand. With his left, he’s using a one-handed keyboard to manipulate a Saran-wrapped laptop computer. As he idles through pictures of buxom naked women lolling around in various erotic poses, his heart pounds ever more loudly in his chest. As he becomes increasingly excited, Roy adjusts the “arousal meter” on the computer screen upward. As he reaches the bright red “high” zone, a question pops up on the screen: “Could you enjoy sex with someone you hated?” Roy moves his left hand to a scale that ranges from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ and taps his answer. The next question appears: “Would you slip a woman a drug to increase the chance that she would have sex with you?” Again, Roy selects his answer, and a new question pops up. “Would you always use a condom?”

Berkeley itself is a dichotomous place. It was a site of anti-establishment riots in the 1960s, and people in the Bay Area snarkily refer to the famously left-of-center city as the “People’s Republic of Berkeley.” But the large campus itself draws a surprisingly conformist population of top-level students. In a survey of incoming freshmen in 2004, only 51.2 percent of the respondents thought of themselves as liberal. More than one-third (36 percent) deemed their views middle-of-the-road, and 12 percent claimed to be conservatives. Students at Berkeley are in general not very wild, rebellious, or likely to take risks.

The advertisements Ariely posted around Sproul Plaza read as follows: “Wanted: Male research participants, heterosexual, 18 years plus, for a study on decision making and arousal.” The ad noted that the experimental sessions would demand about an hour of the participants’ time, that the participants would be paid $10 per session, and that the experiments could involve sexually arousing material. Those interested in applying could respond to Mike, the research assistant, by e-mail. For this study, Ariely decided to seek out only men. In terms of sex, their wiring is a lot simpler than that of women. A copy of Playboy and a darkened room were about all they’d need for a high degree of success.

Shortly after the ads went out; and college men being what they are, Ariely soon had a long list of hearty fellows awaiting the chance to participate—including Roy. Roy, in fact, was typical of most of the 25 participants in the study. Born and raised in San Francisco, he was accomplished, intelligent, and kind—the type of kid every prospective mother-in-law dreams of. Roy played Chopin études on the piano and liked to dance to techno music. He had earned straight A’s throughout high school, where he was captain of the varsity volleyball team. He sympathized with libertarians and tended to vote Republican. Friendly and amiable, he had a steady girlfriend who he’d been dating for a year. He planned to go to medical school and had a weakness for spicy California-roll sushi and for the salads at Cafe Intermezzo. Roy met with the student research assistant, Mike, at Strada coffee shop—Berkeley’s patio-style percolator for many an intellectual thought, including the idea for the solution to Fermat’s last theorem. Mike was slender and tall, with short hair, an artistic air, and an engaging smile. Mike shook hands with Roy, and they sat down. “Thanks for answering our ad, Roy,” Mike said, pulling out a few sheets of paper and placing them on the table. “First, let’s go over the consent forms.” Mike intoned the ritual decree: The study was about decision making and sexual arousal. Participation was voluntary. Data would be confidential. Participants had the right to contact the committee in charge of protecting the rights of those participating in experiments, and so on. Roy nodded and nodded. You couldn’t find a more agreeable participant. “You can stop the experiment at any time,” Mike concluded. “Everything understood?” “Yes,” Roy said. He grabbed a pen and signed. Mike shook his hand. Great!” Mike took a cloth bag out of his knapsack. “Here’s what’s going to happen.” He unwrapped an Apple iBook computer and opened it up. In addition to the standard keyboard, Roy saw a 12-key multicolored keypad. “It’s a specially equipped computer,” Mike explained. “Please use only this keypad to respond.” He touched the keys on the colored pad. “We’ll give you a code to enter, and this code will let you start the experiment. During the session, you’ll be asked a series of questions to which you can answer on a scale ranging between ‘no’ and ‘yes.’ If you think you would like the activity described in the question, answer ‘yes,’ and if you think you would not, answer ‘no.’ Remember that you’re being asked to predict how you would behave and what kind of activities you would like when aroused.” Roy nodded. “We’ll ask you to sit in your bed, and set the computer up on a chair on the left side of your bed, in clear sight and reach of your bed,” Mike went on. “Place the keypad next to you so that you can use it without any difficulty, and be sure you’re alone.” Roy’s eyes twinkled a little. “When you finish with the session, e-mail me and we will meet again, and you’ll get your ten bucks.”

Mike didn’t tell Roy about the questions themselves. The session started by asking Roy to imagine that he was sexually aroused, and to answer all the questions as if he were aroused. One set of questions asked about about sexual preferences. Would he, for example, find women’s shoes erotic? Could he imagine being attracted to a 50-year-old woman? Could it be fun to have sex with someone who was extremely fat? Could having sex with someone he hated be enjoyable? Would it be fun to get tied up or to tie someone else up? Could “just kissing” be frustrating? A second set of questions asked about the likelihood of engaging in immoral behaviors such as date rape. Would Roy tell a woman that he loved her to increase the chance that she would have sex with him? Would he encourage a date to drink to increase the chance that she would have sex with him? Would he keep trying to have sex after a date had said ‘no’? A third set of questions asked about Roy’s likelihood of engaging in behaviors related to unsafe sex. Does a condom decrease sexual pleasure? Would he always use a condom if he didn’t know the sexual history of a new sexual partner? Would he use a condom even if he was afraid that a woman might change her mind while he went to get it?

A few days later, having answered the questions in his ‘cold’ rational state, Roy met again with Mike. “Those were some interesting questions,” Roy noted. “Yes, I know,” Mike said coolly. “Kinsey had nothing on us. By the way, we have another set of experimental sessions. Would you be interested in participating again?” Roy smiled a little, shrugged, and nodded. Mike shoved a few pages toward him. “This time we’re asking you to sign the same consent form, but the next task will be slightly different. The next session will be very much the same as the last one, but this time we want you to get yourself into an excited state by viewing a set of arousing pictures and masturbating. What we want you to do is arouse yourself to a high level, but not to ejaculate. In case you do, though, the computer will be protected.” Mike pulled out the Apple iBook. This time the keyboard and the screen were covered with a thin layer of Saran wrap. Mike explained that Roy would browse through a series of erotic pictures on the computer to help him get to the right level of arousal; then he would answer the same questions as before. (A complete list of the survey questions, with the mean response and percentage differences, is provided in the appendix.)

Within three months, some fine Berkeley undergraduate students had undergone a variety of these sessions. In the set of sessions conducted when they were in a cold, dispassionate state, they predicted what their sexual and moral decisions would be if they were aroused. In the set of sessions conducted when they were in a hot, aroused state, they also predicted their decisions—but this time, since they were actually in the grip of passion, they were presumably more aware of their preferences in that state. When the study was completed, the conclusions were consistent and overwhelmingly clear. Frighteningly clear. In every case, the bright young participants answered the questions very differently when they were aroused from when they were in a ‘cold’ state. Across the 19 questions about sexual preferences, when Roy and all the other participants were aroused they predicted that their desire to engage in a variety of somewhat odd sexual activities would be nearly twice as high as (72 percent higher than) they had predicted when they were cold. For example, the idea of enjoying contact with animals was more than twice as appealing when they were in a state of arousal as when they were in a cold state. In the five questions about their propensity to engage in immoral activities, when they were aroused they predicted their propensity to be more than twice as high as (136 percent higher than) they had predicted in the cold state. Similarly, in the set of questions about using condoms, and despite the warnings that had been hammered into them over the years about the importance of condoms, they were 25 percent more likely in the aroused state than in the cold state to predict that they would forego condoms. In all these cases they failed to predict the influence of arousal on their sexual preferences, morality, and approach to safe sex.

The results showed that when Roy and the other participants were in a cold, rational, superego-driven state, they respected women; they were not particularly attracted to the odd sexual activities we asked them about; they always took the moral high ground; and they expected that they would always use a condom. They thought that they understood themselves, their preferences, and what actions they were capable of. But as it turned out, they completely underestimated their reactions.

No matter how you look at the numbers, it was clear that the magnitude of underprediction by the participants was substantial. Across the board, they revealed in their unaroused state that they themselves did not know what they were like once aroused. Prevention, protection, conservatism, and morality disappeared completely from the radar screen. They were simply unable to predict the degree to which passion would change them.

Image waking up one morning, looking in the mirror, and discovering that someone else—something alien but human—has taken over your body. You’re uglier, shorter, hairier; your lips are thinner, your incisors are longer, your nails are filthy, your face is flatter. Two cold, reptilian eyes gaze back at you. You long to smash something, rape someone. You are not you. You are a monster. Beset by this nightmarish vision, Robert Louis Stevenson screamed in his sleep in the early hours of an autumn morning in 1885. Immediately after his wife awoke him, he set to work on what he called a “fine bogey tale”—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—in which he said, “Man is not truly one, but truly two.” The book was an overnight success, and no wonder. The story captivated the imagination of Victorians, who were fascinated with the dichotomy between repressive propriety— represented by the mild-mannered scientist Dr. Jekyll—and uncontrollable passion, embodied in the murderous Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll thought he understood how to control himself. But when Mr. Hyde took over, look out. The story was frightening and imaginative, but it wasn’t new. Long before Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the war between interior good and evil had been the stuff of myth, religion, and literature. In Freudian terms, each of us houses a dark self, an id, a brute that can unpredictably wrest control away from the superego. Thus a pleasant, friendly neighbor, seized by road rage, crashes his car into a semi. A teenager grabs a gun and shoots his friends. A priest rapes a boy. All these otherwise good people assume that they understand themselves. But in the heat of passion, suddenly, with the flip of some interior switch, everything changes.

The experiment at Berkeley revealed not just the old story that we are all like Jekyll and Hyde, but also something new—that every one of us, regardless of how ‘good’ we are, underpredicts the effect of passion on our behavior. In every case, the participants in the experiment got it wrong. Even the most brilliant and rational person, in the heat of passion, seems to be absolutely and completely divorced from the person he thought he was. Moreover, it is not just that people make wrong predictions about themselves—their predictions are wrong by a large margin.

Most of the time, according to the results of the study, Roy is smart, decent, reasonable, kind, and trustworthy. His frontal lobes are fully functioning, and he is in control of his behavior. But when he’s in a state of sexual arousal and the reptilian brain takes over, he becomes unrecognizable to himself.  Roy thinks he knows how he will behave in an aroused state, but his understanding is limited. He doesn’t truly understand that as his sexual motivation becomes more intense, he may throw caution to the wind. He may risk sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies in order to achieve sexual gratification. When he is gripped by passion, his emotions may blur the boundary between what is right and what is wrong. In fact, he doesn’t have a clue to how consistently wild he really is, for when he is in one state and tries to predict his behavior in another state, he gets it wrong. Moreover, the study suggested that our inability to understand ourselves in a different emotional state does not seem to improve with experience; we get it wrong even if we spend as much time in this state as our Berkeley students spend sexually aroused. Sexual arousal is familiar, personal, very human, and utterly commonplace. Even so, we all systematically underpredict the degree to which arousal completely negates our superego, and the way emotions can take control of our behavior. In behavioral economic terms, this cognitive bias is known as a hot-cold empathy gap and it occurs when people underestimate the influence of visceral states (e.g. being angry, in pain, or hungry) on their behavior or preferences.

Habit, Affect Heuristic. Herding, Sunk Costs and Confirmation Bias

But financial domination isn’t just about any old visceral state, it’s about the most deeply ingrained and complex visceral state of them all – sexual arousal. So, of course, it’s much more complicated than something as simple as a hot-cold empathy gap.

People are creatures of habit with narrow frames of reference. Pornography is habit forming, and habit is an extremely powerful cognitive bias. An automatic and rigid pattern of behavior acquired through repetition and associative learning, a habit occurs when actions become paired repeatedly with a context of event. Habit loops involve a cue that triggers an actual behavior and reward. For example, habitual drinkers may come home after work (the cue), drink a beer (the behavior), and feel relaxed (the reward). Behaviors may initially serve to attain a particular goal, but once the action is automatic and habitual, the goal loses its importance; i.e., popcorn may habitually be eaten in the cinema despite the fact that it is stale. For the financial submissive, achieving the reward (orgasm) becomes less important than the action (sending money to a dominatrix.) The financial sub’s habit may be the triggered by any of numerous cues – a video clip, a text message, or even an erotic image. Once ‘trained’ (habituated), habit overrides reason and the irrational spending of financial domination becomes normal. But how does a man develop a financial submission habit in the first place? Aside from underestimating the influence sexual arousal has on his decision making, there are several other cognitive biases that steer a man down the irrational path of financial submission.

The affect heuristic is a mental shortcut everyone uses when they don’t have the time or resources to reflect (such as when in the heat of passion.) In general, the affect heuristic informs a person’s decision by relying on good or bad feelings and thoughts that person may have relative to a stimulus. Affect-based evaluations are quick, automatic and are activated prior to reflective judgment. It’s no accident that financial domination goes hand-in-hand with unusual fetish fantasies. Men with vanilla sexual tastes may consider the benefits of sending money to a dominatrix as low and risks as high. On the other hand, a man with unusual sexual fetishes, instead of considering risks and benefits independently, may consider the benefit of overpaying a dominatrix that can play to his fetishes as high and risk as low, thereby leading to a more positive risk-benefit correlation than would be evident under normal conditions. For that fetish-aroused male, this decision making process can exacerbate two other cognitive biases – herd behavior and sunk cost fallacy – which can provide the mental inertia required to propel the irrational spending of financial domination down the path towards eventual habituation.

Herd behavior occurs when people do what others are doing instead of using their own information or making independent decisions. The idea of herding has a long history in philosophy and crowd psychology. It is particularly relevant in the domain of finance, where it has been discussed in relation to the collective irrationality of investors, including stock market bubbles. In other areas of decision making, such as politics, science, and popular culture, herd behavior is sometimes referred to as ‘information cascades’. In financial domination, social media provides a mechanism for herd behavior to influence an aroused man’s decision process. And make no mistake, financially submissive men are part of a larger heard.  A single tweet from a financial domme referencing a large tribute often beget more tributes (both large and small) from other men.

Sunk cost fallacy occurs when an individual continues a behavior as a result of previously invested resources (time, money or effort). This fallacy can also be viewed as a cognitive bias resulting from an ongoing commitment. For those 29% of men who view financial domination as genuine power exchange, commitment to that relationship underlies their sunk cost fallacy behavior. This view of power exchange, though widely assumed as valid rational for physical dominance/submission play, lies well outside the realm of traditional economic theory. In that sense, power exchange as motivation for financial domination is wholly irrational and reflects still another cognitive bias, confirmation bias. Confirmation bias occurs when people seek out or evaluate information in a way that fits with their existing thinking and preconceptions. For a man seeking an online dominant/submissive relationship, the belief that sending money to a woman is a surrogate for power exchange confirms a preconceived belief in the nature of the relationship. The submissive wants the money exchange to be about power because he wants the relationship to be about dominance and submission. From a behavioral economic perspective, confirmation bias exacerbates the illusion.

Time Discounting, Mental Accounting, and Self Control

Ceara Lynch once famously said, “Men do stupid things when they’re horny. But at the end of the day, they’re only responsible for themselves.” And of course what she’s really saying is that it’s not her fault if some men lack self-control and can’t stop sending her money. But there are two other biases that abet this lack of self-control – factors exploited not by Ceara Lynch, but by banks and money transfer platforms.

People mentally account for credit card purchases differently than they do for purchases made with cash. With credit cards, mental accounting decouples the purchase from the payment by separating and delaying the payment. This delay triggers a second bias, time discounting. In time discounting, present rewards are weighted more heavily than future ones. (Once rewards are very distant in time, they cease to be valuable.) Impulsivity and immediate gratification drive time discounting and to a large extend the use of credit cards for irrational economic behavior.

In the first section of this essay, I discussed how emotions grab hold of us and make us view the world from a different perspective. When we promise to spend our money wisely, we are in a cool state. But then the lava flow of hot emotion comes rushing in: a financial submissive gets a cue – an image, a video clip, a text message – and immediate gratification takes precedent to longer-term financial goals. And the time discounting and mental accounting biases associated with credit card and online money transfer platforms make self-control that much harder.

And so …

The 60% of people who think financial domination is about horny men doing stupid things are probably right. But that’s not to say financial submissives are stupid people.  They aren’t.  What they are is being influenced by cognitive biases we all have; biases that they’re largely unaware of as they act, but that are there nonetheless. These biases are observable, testable, and repeatable. And in the case of financial domination, those biases interplay with each other in the most complex of situations:  online sexual fantasy play involving socially restricted or prohibited kinks.


  1. A recent Twitter poll asked, “Which of the below do you think best describes financial domination?” Of 145 respondents, 11% chose ‘Overpaying for attention’, 29% chose ‘Genuine power exchange’, and 60% chose “Horny men being stupid.”
  2. For those interested, a complete list of known cognitive biases and behavioral economic concepts can be found in Part One: Selected Behavioral Economic Concepts” of Alain Samson’s The Behavioral Economics Guide 2014

Berkeley Questionnaire and Results

Questionaire 1Questionaire 2

Questionaire 3


In war, enemy fighters are three or four hundred yards away, and the bullets they are shooting cover that distance in about half a second – roughly two thousand miles an hour. Sound doesn’t travel nearly that fast, though, so the gunshots themselves arrive a full second after they were fired. Because light is virtually instantaneous, illuminated rounds – tracers – can easily be perceived as they travel toward you. The brain required two-tenths of a second just to understand simple visual stimuli, and another two-tenths of a second to command muscles to react. That’s almost exactly the amount of time it takes a high-velocity round to cover 400 yards.

Reaction times have been studied extensively in controlled settings and have shown that men have faster reaction times than women and athletes have faster reaction times than non-athletes. Tests with soccer players have shown that the “point of no return” for a penalty kick – when the kicker can no longer change his mind about where to send the ball – is around a quarter of a second. In other words, if the goalkeeper waits until the kicker’s foot is less than a quarter second from the ball and then dives in one direction, the kicker doesn’t have enough time to adjust his kick. Give that quarter-second cutoff, the distance of which you literally might be able to “dodge a bullet” is around 800 yards. You’d need a quarter second to register the tracer coming towards you – at this point the bullet has traveled 200 yards – a quarter second to instruct your muscles to react – the bullet has now traveled 400 yards – and half a second to actually move out of the way. The bullet you dodge will pass you with a distinctive snap. That’s the sound of a small object breaking the sound barrier inches from your head.

Humans evolved in a world where nothing moved two thousand miles per hour, so there was no reason for the body to be able to counter that threat, but the brain still had to stay ahead of the game. Neurological processes in one of the most primitive parts of the brain, the amygdala, happen so fast that one could say they compete with a bullet. The amygdala can process an auditory signal in fifteen milliseconds – about the amount of time it takes the bullet to go thirty feet. The amygdala is fast but very limited; all it can do is trigger a reflex and wait for the conscious mind to catch up. That reaction is called the startle, and it is composed of protective moves that would be a good idea in almost any situation. When something scary and unexpected happens, every person does exactly the same thing: they blink, crouch, bend their arms, and clench their fists. The face also sets itself into what is known as a “fear grimace”: the pupils dilate, the eyes widen, the brow goes up, and the mouth pulls back and down. Make that expression in front of a mirror and see not only how instantly recognizable it is, but also how it seems to produce a sense of fear. It’s as if the neural pathways flow in both directions, so the expression triggers fear as well as being triggered by it.

In a battle, veteran combat soldiers drop into a crouch. They don’t do this in response to a loud sound – which presumably is what evolution has taught us – but in response to the quieter snap of the bullets going past. The amygdala requires only a single negative experience to decide that something is a threat, and after one firefight every man has learned to react to the snap of bullets and ignore the much louder sound of men near them returning fire. After a second or two, the soldiers straighten up, begin shouting and taking cover. In those moments their higher brain functions decide that the threat requires action rather than immobility and everything ramps up: pulse and blood pressure to heart-attack levels, epinephrine and norepinephrine levels through the roof, blood draining out of the organs and flooding the heart, brain, and major muscle groups.

Veteran combat infantrymen will tell you, “There’s nothing like it, nothing in the world. If it’s negative twenty degrees outside, you’re sweating. If it’s a hundred and twenty, you’re cold as shit. Ice cold. It’s an adrenaline rush like you can’t imagine.”

The problem is that it’s hard to aim a rifle when your heart is pounding, which points to an irony of modern combat: it does extraordinarily violent things to the human body but requires almost dead calm to execute well. Complex motor skills start to diminish at 145 beats per minute, which wouldn’t matter much in a sword fight but could definitely ruin your aim with a rifle. At 170 beats per minute you start to experience tunnel vision, loss of depth perception, and restricted hearing. And at 180 beats per minute you enter a nether world where rational thought decays, bowel and bladder control are lost, and you start to exhibit the crudest sorts of survival behavior: freezing, fleeing and submission.

To function effectively, the soldier must allow his vital signs to get fully ramped up without ruining his concentration and control. A study conducted by the Navy during the Vietnam War found that F-4 Phantom fighter pilots landing on aircraft carriers pegged higher heart rates than soldiers in combat and yet virtually never made mistakes (which tended to be fatal.) To give an idea of the delicacy of the task, at one mile out the aircraft carrier is the size of a pencil eraser held at arm’s length. The plane covers that distance in thirty six seconds and must land on a portion of the flight deck measuring seven yards wide and forty-five yards long. The Navy study compared stress levels of the pilots to that of their radar intercept officers, who sat immediately behind them but had no control over the two-man aircraft. The experiment involved taking blood and urine samples of both men on no-mission days as well as immediately after carrier landings. The blood and urine were tested for a hormone called cortisol, which is secreted by the adrenal gland during times of stress to sharpen the mind and increase concentration. Radar intercept officers lived day-to-day with higher levels of stress – possibly due to the fact that their fate was in someone else’s hands – but on mission days the pilots’ stress levels were far higher. The huge responsibility borne by the pilots gave them an ease of mind on their days off that they paid for when actually landing the plane.

The study was duplicated in 1966 with a twelve-man Special Forces team in an isolated camp near the Cambodian border in South Vietnam. The camp was deep in enemy territory and situated to disrupt the flow of arms along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. An Army researcher took daily blood and urine samples from the men while they braced for an expected attack by an overwhelming force of Vietcong. There was a serious possibility that the base would be overrun, in which case it was generally accepted that it would be “every man for himself.”

The two officers saw their cortisol levels climb steadily until the day of the expected attack and then diminish as it failed to materialize. Among the enlisted men, however, stress levels were exactly the opposite: their cortisol levels dropped as the attack drew near, and then started to rise when it became clear that they weren’t going to get hit. The only explanation the researchers could come up with was that the soldiers had such strong psychological defenses that the attack created a sense of “euphoric expectancy” among them. “The members of this Special Forces team demonstrated an overwhelming emphasis on self-reliance, often to the point of omnipotence,” they wrote. “These subjects were action-orientated individuals who characteristically spent little time in introspection. Their response to any environmental threat was to engage in a furor of activity which rapidly dissipated the developing tension.”

Specifically, the men strung concertina wire and laid additional mines around the perimeter of the base. It was something they knew how to do and were good at it, and the very act of doing it calmed their nerves. In a way that few civilians could understand, they were more at ease facing a known threat than languishing in the tropical heat facing an unknown one.

What does all this have to do with Ceara Lynch?

The primitive amygdala driven adrenaline rush. Euphoric expectancy and fear of the unknown. The similarity between the bodies response to combat stress and a Dominant’s skilled manipulation of a submissive’s fear is striking,  even if to a lesser degree.


(Inspired by, and adopted from, the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft)

It was a simple icon on a computer screen that, once opened, would play a ten minute hypnosis video.

And it was the promise that compelled him to watch. Because he knew that he only wished to cross the barrier to the untrammeled land of his dreams and the gulfs where the dimensions dissolve in the absolute.

So he opened the file. And watched.

What happened then is scarcely to be described in words. It is full of those paradoxes, contradictions, and anomalies which have no place in waking life, but which fill our more fantastic dreams, and are taken as matters of course till we return to our narrow, rigid, objective world of limited causation and tri-dimensional logic.

From the first gestures and syllables spoken on the screen an aura of strange, awesome mutation was apparent – a sense of incalculable disturbance and confusion in time and space, yet one which held no hint of what we recognize as motion or duration. Imperceptibly, such things as age and location ceased to have any significance whatever. A moment before, there had been a computer screen with vague suggestions. Now there was neither screen nor absence of screen. There was only a flux of impressions not so much visual as cerebral, amidst which the entity that was Frank experienced perceptions or registrations of all that his mind revolved on, yet without any clear consciousness of the way in which he received them.

Frank knew that he was in no region whose place could be told by earth’s geographers, and in no age whose date history could fix. A gate had been unlocked – a gate leading from earth and time to that extension of earth which is outside time. There would be a guide. And Frank recalled what was written in his dreams. “And while there are those who have dared to seek glimpses beyond, and to accept Her as a guide; they would have been more prudent had they avoided commerce with HER; for it is written how terrible is the price of a single glimpse. Nor may those who pass ever return, for in the vastness transcending our world are blacknesses that seize and bind. And She will guide the rash one beyond all worlds into the abyss of unnamable devourers. For She is the Guide, Ceara, the Prolonged of Life.”

Memory and imagination shaped dim half-pictures with uncertain outlines amidst the seething chaos, but Frank knew they were of memory and imagination only. Yet he felt that it was not chance which built these things in his consciousness, but rather some vast reality, ineffable and undimensioned, which surrounded him and strove to translate itself into the only symbols he was capable of grasping.

There floated before Frank a cloudy pageantry of shapes and scenes which he somehow linked with earth’s primal, aeon-forgotten past. Monstrous beautiful things moved deliberately through vistas of fantastic handiwork that no sane dream ever held. The images bore no fixed relation to one another or to him. He himself had no stable form or position, but only such shifting hints of form and position as his whirling fancy supplied.

He had wished to find the enchanted regions of his dreams. Now, intoxicated with wider visions, he scarcely knew what he sought. Thoughts of infinite and blasphemous daring rose in his mind, and he knew he would face the Guide Ceara without fear, though She would ask monstrous and terrible things of him.

All at once the pageant of impressions seemed to achieve a vague kind of stabilization. Light filtered down from everywhere at once in no assignable color and from baffling, contradictory directions. There was a Shape which seemed to glide across the congested void. It was not exactly permanent in outline, but held transient suggestions of something remotely paralleling the human form. It seemed to be heavily cloaked with some neutral colored fabric and it seemed to belong to an order of being far outside the merely physical.

A moment later, Frank knew this was so, for the Shape had spoken to his mind without sound or language. And the Shape was nothing less that that which all the world has feared and revered. It was indeed the frightful guide, Ceara. The Guide knew, as she knew all things, of Frank’s quest and coming, and that this seeker of dreams and secrets stood before Her unafraid. There was no horror or malignity in what She radiated, and Frank wondered for a moment whether the Guide reserved Her horror for those who feared. As the radiation continued, Frank mentally interpreted them in the form of words.

“I am indeed the Prolonged of Life,” said the Guide, “of whom you know. I have awaited you. You are welcome, even though long delayed. You have passed though the first gate of consciousness, and are ready for your trial. If you fear, you need not advance. You may still go back unharmed the way you came. But if you choose to advance …”

The pause was ominous, but the radiation continued to be friendly. Frank hesitated not a moment, for a burning curiosity drove him on.

“I will advance,” he radiated back, “and I accept You as my Guide.”

At this reply the Guide seemed to make a sign by certain motions of Her robe which may or may not have involved the lifting of an arm or some homologous member. A second sign followed, and Frank knew he was at last close to the final test. The light now changed to another inexplicable color, and Frank remained content, for he knew soon he was to learn all. Damnation, he reflected, is but a word bandied about by those whose blindness leads them to condemn all who can see. He wondered at the vast conceit of those who had babbled of the malignant Ceara , as if She could pause Her very essence to wreak havoc upon mankind. As well, he thought, might a mammoth pause to visit frantic vengeance on an angleworm. And She radiated a message which he understood.

“I accept you, frank, whose daring has made you part of My world.”

Frank saw then two vacant pedestals, a gesture of the Guide told him one was reserved for him. The other taller pedestal, ornate and centered in the ethereal mistiness, was the Guide’s own throne. Moving and rising in a manner hardly definable, Frank took his seat; and as he did so he saw Ceara the Guide likewise seated Herself above him.

Gradually and mistily it became apparent that Ceara was holding something – some object clutched in the outflung folds of Her robe. It was a large sphere or apparent sphere of some obscurely iridescent metal, and as the Guide put it forward a low, pervasive half-impression of sound began to rise and fall in intervals which seemed to be rhythmic even though they followed no rhythm on earth. There was a suggestion of chanting – or what human imagination might interpret as chanting. Presently the quasi-sphere began to grow luminous, and as it gleamed up into a cold, pulsating light of unassigned color Frank saw that its flickering conformed to the alien rhythm of the chant.

At last, the suggestion of chanting ceased. The quasi-sphere, however, continued to pulsate with inexplicable light. Slowly there filtered into his mind the truth that this strange chanting ritual had been one of instruction which led to contemplation of the unplumbed vastness of utter and absolute Outsideness with which the earth had nothing to do, and of which his presence had demanded.

Just what would happen next, and how it would pass, Frank could not be certain; but a feeling of tense expectancy surged over him. He was conscious of having a body, but that was all. For the first time, Frank realized how terrific utter silence, mental and physical, may be. The earlier moments had never failed to contain some perceptible rhythm, if only the faint, cryptical pulse of the earth’s dimensional extension, but now the hush of the abyss seemed to fall upon everything.

Despite his intimations of body, he had no audible breath, and the glow of the quasi-sphere had grown petrifiedly fixed and unpulsating. A potent nimbus, brighter than all things, blazed frozenly over the shrouded head of the Guide.

A dizziness assailed Frank, and his sense of lost orientation waxed a thousand fold. The strange lights seemed to hold the quality of the impenetrable blacknesses heaped upon blacknesses, while there hovered everywhere an air of stupefying remoteness. Then he felt himself wafted into immeasurable depths, with waves of perfumed warmth lapping against his face. It was as if he floated in a torrid, rose-tinctured sea; a sea of drugged wine whose waves broke foaming against shores of brazen fire. A great fear clutched him as he half saw that vast expanse of surging sea lapping against its far-off coast. But the moment of silence was broken – the surgings were speaking to him in a language that was not of physical sounds or articulate words.

“The man has found Truth. And Truth is beyond good and evil,” intoned a voice that was not a voice. “The man of Truth has ridden far and learnt that Illusion is the only reality, and that substance is an impostor.”

And then he floated forward. Beyond reality. Into the existence of the All-in-One.  Into the Truth that is Ceara.

Is Ceara Lynch A Home Wrecker?

An essay in which I discuss pornography, marital infidelity, and Ceara Lynch.

Where’s the line?

In 2006, the marriage of Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook collapsed the old-fashioned way when she discovered that he was sleeping with his 18-year-old assistant. But their divorce trial that summer was a distinctly internet-age affair. Having insisted on keeping the proceedings open to the media, Brinkley and her lawyers served up a long list of allegations about Cook’s taste in online porn: the $3,000 a month he dropped on adult web sites, the nude photos he posted online, the swinger sites he visited, and even the videos he made of himself masturbating. As juicy as these porn-related revelations were, the most interesting thing about them was the ambiguity about what line, precisely, Cook had crossed.   The notion that pornography has something to do with marital infidelity has been floating around the edges of the American conversation for a while. But the attention paid to the connection between porn and infidelity didn’t really translate into anything like a consensus on what that connection is.

Increasing usage of porn or marriage instability – which came first?

During the past few decades, a number of academic studies have examined the qualitative relationship between pornography use and marriage. With few exceptions, however, these studies lack both objective measurements and sufficiently robust data samples to establish a generalized connection between pornography usage and marital stability. In fact, less than a handful of studies explored any empirical connection between pornography use and divorce at all, and those that did were unable to discern whether divorce occurred because of porn use or vice versa.

Perhaps the most scientifically rigorous of these studies was conducted in 2017 by Samuel Perry and Cyrus Schleifer of the University of Oklahoma. Their study, “Till Porn Do Us Part? Longitudinal Effects of Pornography Use on Divorce” (published in the Journal of Sex Research, Vol 55:3) found that under certain social conditions, pornography usage has a negative effect on marital stability. Specifically, their analysis showed that increased pornography viewership habits during marriage increased the probability of divorce (from 6 to 11 percent for men, and nearly tripled from 6 percent to 16 percent for women.) This was particularly true for the internet generations in which the study found that the younger an adult was when he or she began watching pornography, the higher his or her probability of getting divorced. Religiosity also seemed to played a role. For those married persons who did not attend religious services regularly, increased pornography use was associated with an increase in probability of divorce (from 6 percent to 12 percent.) By contrast, those who attended religious services at least weekly saw virtually no increase in the probability of divorce despite increased viewing of pornographic material. Whether couples perceived their marriage as happy also seemed to play a role; an increase in pornography viewership seemed to rock an otherwise happy marriage to the point of divorce, though it didn’t seem to make an unhappy marriage any worse than it already was. Interestingly, Perry and Schleifer also found that women who discontinued the use of pornography reduced their risk of divorce (from 18 to 6 percent), whereas porn discontinuance by men made no appreciable difference in their probability of divorce.

So what does this all mean? The Perry and Schleifer study, like most others, is correlative. That is, none of the studies clearly indicate that porn use causes marriages to break up. Despite exceptions where erotic media are used as a part of love-making and thus may yield positive returns, their study suggests that pornography use is an indicator of marital problems and that, taken together with prior research, increased pornography use has at least some direct negative impact on marital stability. What it doesn’t show is whether increased porn use causes, or is a result of, marital problems. Nor does it address what thresholds of pornography usage or what type of pornography being used pose the greatest risk to marriages. And it’s the last issue – what type of pornographic material is being used – that may be most relevant.

It’s not your grandfather’s porn

The days of purchasing magazines and videos from an adult book store are long gone. Over the past three decades, the internet has completely changed the way in which people interact with porn. The porn we see is weirder, wilder, and more particular than what most of us will ever have – or want – in our own lives. Online porn has become a laboratory of the sexual imagination. Pornographic scene-setting, erotic situations, and role-playing are being reinvented to accommodate ever-expanding imaginations. Some of the porn is pedestrian and conventional, some contrived and unbelievable, and some only acceptable when they are taboo. Technological innovation has piled on technological innovation, making modern pornography a more immediate, visceral, and personalized experience than ever before. Undoubtedly the internet has changed the very nature of pornography.

The vast majority of people no longer pay to watch porn. The content consumers watch is being paid for by advertisements or, for subscription porn sites, by a slim minority whose spending is lucrative enough to keep the site afloat. That minority skews to the niche, fringe, and extreme. And the handful of people willing to pay for that kind of porn are really into it. Niche audiences have a harder time finding their thing at volumes great enough to titillate and surprise on a regular basis. So niche porn producers oblige them by customizing content to those highly specific tastes. Designing specific experiences for fans through private webcam shows, personalized video clips, and social media interactions can be highly lucrative. And for those niche porn consumers, they are no longer merely witnessing sex acts, they are actively participating in the fantasy being produced. And it’s here that the barrier between online pornographic fantasy play and marital infidelity becomes less and less solid. If you approach infidelity as a continuum of betrayal rather than an either/or proposition, then the Internet era has ratcheted the experience of pornography much closer to adultery than I suspect most porn users would care to admit.

But before I go deeper down that rabbit hole, I need to say a few words about infidelity.


Though a large majority of people in the United States do not believe that porn use is a form of adultery, porn use comes up in divorce proceedings more often than you’d expect. An informal survey of 350 lawyers attending the annual meeting o f the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in 2002 claimed that “an obsessive interest in internet pornography” was a significant factor in 56% of their divorce cases the prior year. And porn usage is the most cited cause of ‘Constructive Desertion’ — meaning the spouse is at fault for emotionally abandoning their partner and withdrawing from sexual intimacy.

Undoubtedly increasing pornography usage will often lead to withdrawal of sexual intimacy, but in these cases the root cause for the breakdown in marriage is less about pornography and more about a betrayal of trust. If you posit that adultery lies on a continuum of betrayal and that there are many different levels and ways to betray your partner’s trust, some more onerous than others, then where the use of pornography lies on that continuum depends on how much secrecy is connected with a spouse’s porn viewing habits. Fact is, there are few things that will tear apart a relationship as much as snooping around and keeping secrets.

So the argument about porn breaking up marriages goes something like this. When the secret is that one half of the relationship is not only imagining but actively soliciting and paying for sexually stimulating play with another person over the internet, the other half in the relationship feels betrayed. After all, sex can be one of the better parts of being in a committed relationship. It can connect partners and provide a way to express the deepest emotions of love and intimacy. When one half of a relationship views and masturbates to customized porn, they aren’t sharing intimate moments with their partner, but instead are having those moments on a computer screen with a persona who is delivering customized erotic fantasy play using internet-enabled technology. It’s not just constructive abandonment. It’s virtual adultery.

But it may not be quite so simple. The larger truth is, generally speaking, men and women view sex differently. While there are plenty of women who can compartmentalize and separate sex from love, there are far more men who can. Married men who have a one-time fling are often telling the truth when they say, “She meant nothing to me.” And so it is with customized pornography. It really is just sex. But for most women (and a number of men), sex cannot be so transactional. It is bound up with emotional need – to feel we excite our partner above all others, to believe that we have primacy in their lives. So the question is whether it’s possible to act on our desires sensibly while maintaining the special equilibrium we trust our marriages to preserve. Do we know our relationships well enough to allow our partner to go outside them?

Relationship and sex advice journalist, Dan Savage, thinks we probably don’t. Sexual fulfillment matters in its own right, but mainly it matters because without it, relationships are more likely to break apart. It is for the sake of staying together – not merely for the sake of orgasms – that Savage coined his famous acronym, G.G.G. — lovers ought to be ‘good, giving, and game’ (put another way, skilled, generous, and up for anything.) And if they cannot fulfill all of each other’s desires, then it may be advisable to decide to go outside the bounds of marriage if that is what it takes to make a marriage work. Savage says a more realistic sexual ethic would prize honesty, a little flexibility, and when necessary forgiveness. In short, he things the youth-filled assumption that “all relationships are monogamous and between two people, that love means nothing can come between you” is unrealistic. It’s not about an open-relationship as much as it’s about acknowledging that your partner may have different tastes. And that if you’re not G.G.G. with those tastes, then you have to give your partner the out.

Savage’s honesty ethic gives couples permission to find happiness in unusual places, including pornography. And according to Savage there’s another, more realistic, factor that needs to be taken into account when discussing pornography in marriage — all men look at porn. So it’s pointless to moralize about porn because men are going to use it anyway. While men shouldn’t rub their female partners noses in the fact that they look at porn – that’s just inconsiderate – telling women that the porn ‘problem’ can be resolved through good communication, couples counseling, or a chat with your pastor is neither helpful or realistic. Given the choice between men using porn or abandoning a marriage, Savage things porn use should be tolerated. Marriage is just too important to let a secret internet-enabled virtual pornographic dalliance destroy it.

Most people, however, aren’t so enlightened. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, Americans have evolved an understanding of marriage in which partners must meet all of each other’s needs — sexual, emotional, material. When we rely on our partners for everything, any hint of betrayal is terrifying. So as good as Savage’s ‘good, giving, and game’ advice may be, most couples are afraid to take it. If you expect to have only one person be all things sexually for you, then you have to be whores for each other. You have to be up for anything. But rather than broach the subject of our fetishes or wildest fantasies with our mates, we opt for a tacit code of reticence. Because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of not being everything to our partner. We’re afraid that they might find someone worthier. We’re afraid of being alone.

And so we keep our secrets. And turn to the privacy and comfort of the internet to satisfy our desires.

It’s just fantasy, right?

Porn has always been a place for indulging irrational, secret, socially unacceptable desires. It’s a place where people feel free to let their fantasies run wild, a place where fetishes and eroticized taboos can be indulged if only in fantasy and not real life. One such online fantasy play space place is the porn genre inhabited by Ceara Lynch — erotic humiliation.

As fetishes go, erotic humiliation is an extremely small niche in the porn industry. Less than 1% of all the videos available for viewing on the world’s largest porn web site, Pornhub, are erotic humiliation and related videos. On that same site Ceara Lynch’s public account has barely 1.5% the number of followers as that of the most popular porn stars. Yet, Ceara’s popularity within the genre can’t be overstated. Her business model is built around providing a fantasy fetish experience that is personalized and more accessible than that of a mainstream porn star. The video clips she produces are custom-made to meet customers’ specific requests. The infrequent webcam sessions she has are one-on-one and personal. In short, nothing is mass-produced. Everything is personalized.

It’s not uncommon for online cam girls to develop a personal video-based friendship with their more devoted customers; to evolve a relationship that goes beyond masturbation into something more intimate and familiar. Perhaps what makes Ceara most successful is her ability to compartmentalize her job’s fantasy play from reality; to construct boundaries and maintain a professional relationship with her customers without alienating them. During a recent interview with Holly Rand on 8 Dec 2018, Ceara discussed her interactions with her customers. With few exceptions, aside from their fetish preferences, Ceara knows very little about the lives of her customers. She respects their desire to remain anonymous and detached. She strives to keep the relationship professional, discrete, impersonal and harmless (particularly to people who have not consented to be involved in the play.) She’s a professional sex worker so to her it’s just about sex and masturbation. There’s no emotional investment. It doesn’t really mean anything. Except it’s erotic humiliation. Which, from a genuinely submissive male’s perspective, might lend itself to being about a bit more.

The most common feedback Ceara receives from the myriad of customers who purchase her videos is “I felt like you were talking directly to me.” Even though the dialogue in the video is one-way, that feedback hints at the effectiveness of both the emotional and psychological impact she has on her viewers. And viewers can watch a purchased video clip over and over again, so that impact endures. For men who are conditioned by society to be ashamed of their submissiveness and of their erotic desire to be verbally and emotionally humiliated, having a beautiful woman speak directly to you about your most secret and taboo fetishes can be powerfully seductive.

Ceara makes no effort to conceal that her clips are fantasy based. Acknowledging that artifice excuses most viewers who might feel uneasy with the fantasy or need reassurance that no real coercion or humiliation is taking place. And most men are quite able to distinguish the difference between reality and fantasy. But the wall between fantasy and delusion is wafer thin, particularly in an environment like the internet where technology and virtual social networks tend to subvert the fantasy-reality dichotomy. When fantasy is augmented by clips that ‘speak directly’ to the viewer and more than encourage that viewer to become addicted to stroking for her, to forgo your marriage and become her virtual slave, to encourage home wrecking .. well, it’s not hard to imagine that some men might obsess and delude themselves into believing that their darkest desires are within reach, and in a way that can be done harmlessly – compartmented off from wife, family, and a vanilla life. And so they take the plunge and commit emotional infidelity and constructive abandonment. But does that man really exist, or it is just conjecture? A hypothetical?

In that same interview with Holly Rand, Ceara said she has never received any feedback from wives girlfriends, or partners that her clips or online play had caused harm to a relationship. No phone calls. No emails. She’s not aware of any real or anecdotal evidence that her work has ever ruined the lives of her customers or their families. Yet, when I run the statistics and crunch the numbers*, there’s a good probability that the deluded submissive male hypothesized in the preceding paragraph does exist.

So is Ceara Lynch a home wrecker?

As mentioned previously, the relationship between porn and marriage stability is still largely unknown. It’s not clear if excessive pornography use causes increased risk of divorce, of if increased risk of divorce causes excessive pornography use by men inside their marriage. I suspect, however, that the unique features and attributes of Ceara Lynch’s online erotic humiliation videos lend themselves to ‘obsessive use’ in a way mainstream pornography doesn’t.

Ceara Lynch is no intentional home wrecker. In that regard, however, her porn is more dangerous than most. Though she bears no direct culpability for any divorce which may be attributed to obsessive use of her pornography, for those instances in which men may have delude themselves into believing that her clips are more than just fantasy, it’s not a stretch to suggest she has abetted emotional infidelity and constructive abandonment, and contributed to the conditions that lead to divorce.

* From the CDC, there were 825, 000 divorces in the US last year. Assuming that the percentage of divorces in which porn usage was a factor remained at 56% then the number of porn-related divorces in the US last year was approximately 462,000. I then used Pornhub video views for Ceara Lynch (1.9M) and those of their most popular porn star (827M) to estimate Ceara Lynch’s percentage of the total porn viewership (0.22%.) Applying this percentage to porn-related divorces last year provides an estimate as to how many divorces may have been due to ‘an obsessive interest in Ceara Lynch pornography’ (1016).

Ceara Lynch: Full of Grace

grace noun \ˈgrās \ 1.a. unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification. b. a virtue coming from God. c. a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine assistance. 2. a. a charming or attractive trait or characteristic. b. a pleasing appearance or effect.

In his book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Philip Yancey describes a conference on comparative religions where experts from around the world debated which belief, if any, was unique to the Christian faith. C.S. Lewis happened to enter the room during the discussion. When he was told the topic was Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions, Lewis responded: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”  Lewis was right. No other religion places grace at its theological center. It was a revolutionary idea; as Mr. Yancey puts it, grace “seems to go against every instinct of humanity.”

We are naturally drawn to covenants and karma, to cause and effect, to earning what we receive. Grace is different. It is the unmerited favor of God, unconditional love given to the undeserving. It’s a difficult concept to understand because it isn’t entirely rational. There’s a radical equality at the core of grace. None of us are deserving of God’s grace, so it’s not dependent on social status, wealth or intelligence. There is equality between kings and peasants, the prominent and the unheralded, rule followers and rule breakers.

If you find yourself in the company of people whose hearts have been captured by grace, count yourself lucky. They love us despite our messy lives, stay connected to us through our struggles, always holding out the hope of redemption. When relationships are broken, it’s grace that causes people not to give up, to extend the invitation to reconnect, to work through misunderstandings with sensitivity and transparency.

You don’t sense hard edges, dogmatism or self-righteous judgment from gracious people. There’s a tenderness about them that opens doors that had previously been bolted shut. People who have been transformed by grace have a special place in their hearts for those living in the shadows of society. They’re easily moved by stories of suffering and step into the breach to heal. And grace properly understood always produces gratitude.
Living a grace-filled life is hard. Most of us, when we feel wronged, want payback. Our first impulse, when hurt or offended, is to strike out, justifying our anger in the name of fairness.

When Mr. Yancey was young, he rejected the church for a time because he found so little grace there. There is a tendency among many people of faith to come across as holier than thou, more eager to judge than to forgive. Jesus encountered this throughout his entire ministry, which helps explain why he was more comfortable in the company of the unclean and reviled, the lowly and the outcast, than religious authorities. The odds are that you know people who have had scars of ungrace inflicted upon them by the Christian church. Yet when we see grace in action — whether in acts of extravagant, indiscriminate love, in radical self-giving, or in showing equanimity in the face of death — it can move us unlike anything else.

In 2014, a friend of mine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Upon learning it had spread, he wrote, “In all probability, the remainder of my life on this earth is now to be counted in weeks and months.” (He died in January 2015.) My friend acknowledged that pain and death are reminders of the nature of our broken world. Yet he went on to say: “There is a much bigger story of which this is only a tiny part. And it is God’s story of love, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy. We went into this journey choosing to trust God and to offer our fears to God. We’ve been so grateful for the freedom from fear and the abundance of peace that we have experienced.” He added, “There are, of course, times of discouragement, grief, pain, and wonder. After all, there are a lot of unknowns ahead of us.”

I sent my friend’s reflections to my brother, who responded, “It’s letters like this — the wisdom, the grace — that make me wish I weren’t an atheist.”  When I recently asked my brother how, as a nonbeliever, he understood grace and why it inspires us when we see it in others, he told me that grace is “some combination of generosity and magnanimity, kindness and forgiveness, and empathy — all above the ordinary call of duty, and bestowed even (or especially?) when not particularly earned.” We see it demonstrated in heroic ways and in small, everyday contexts, he said. “But I guess, regardless of the context, it’s always at least a little unexpected and out of the ordinary.”

I think I’ve listened to every Ceara Lynch interview and podcast she’s done.  It’s clear to me that she accepts people without judgment; that she lives deliberately with an  unwillingness to harbor animosity and ill-will. If one were to solely believe her humiliatrix persona, the empathy, kindness and equanimity revealed in her podcasts would be unexpected, surprising, and unearned. Yet, in stark contrast to that fantasized persona, it’s in those podcasts and interviews – in those unguarded moments – that the real Ceara Lynch  reveals the grace that lies within.

Feminism, Pornography, and Sex Wars

A Collective Culpability

A few months ago, Meghan Murphy (founder and editor of Canada’s leading feminist website, “Feminist Current”) wrote an editorial for Al Jazeera Online in which she criticized ‘feminist’ politicians for not backing up their words with political action. Though most of Murphy’s arguments targeted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his position on Canada’s current prostitution laws, at one point she opened her sights and blasted all male feminists who watched pornography as being culpable for a culture of misogyny, rampant sexual harassment, and sexual abuse.

Setting aside the remarkable notion of wholesale male culpability, lets assume, for the sake of argument, that Murphy’s conclusion is correct and that pornography is partly responsible for rampant misogyny in today’s culture. What then does that imply about women working in the porn industry? Are women like Ceara Lynch just as culpable for enabling a culture of sin against women?

Since Murphy is a unapologetic dyed-in-the-wool feminist, I felt confident that modern day feminism would offer some insight on the matter. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that feminist arguments against pornography revolve around the notion of objectification. What was surprising is how messy the arguments became when the notion of female sexuality was introduced. It turns out that pornography has been one of the most divisive issues in all of feminism, pitting open expression of female sexuality against its concomitant sexual objectification.

The Sex Wars

In the late 1970’s, feminist theory was being developed as part of the emerging gender studies programs then being created at universities and colleges throughout the country. During that time, much of the internal academic debate centered around female sexuality and a number of other sexuality related-issues (including pornography, erotica, prostitution, lesbianism, the role of trans-women in the lesbian community, and sadomasochism.) But pornography took center stage in 1980 when the National Organization for Women declared that pornography was about exploitation and violence and not about sexual expression. With that declaration, battle lines between sex-positive feminists and their anti-porn counterparts were drawn.

Two years later full fledged war broke out at the Barnard Conference on Sexuality. The Conference, held 24 April 1982 at Barnard College in New York City, intended to advance feminist thought “beyond debates about violence and pornography and to focus on sexuality apart from reproduction.” Anti-pornography feminists were excluded from the events planning committee, so they staged rallies outside the Conference to voice their disapproval of the agenda. During and following those rallies, anti-porn feminists made some salacious accusations about the sexual practices of individual sex-positive women involved in the conference. Academic arguments had given way to personal attacks and the publicity surrounding the event took on a far more titillating aspect. The internal feminist debate about female sexuality and porn had moved out of the academic lecture halls and onto the front page of the national press.

Following the Barnard Conference, the two sides continued to clash over a number of issues, resulting in intense debates held both in person and in various media. The feminist movement was deeply divided as a result of these debates. At their core, the arguments for and against pornography were (and still are) about sexual objectification versus a free and open expression of female sexuality.

Pornography And Objectification

By most standards, pornography is defined as the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal. However, noted anti-pornography feminist academic Catherine MacKinnon defined pornography quite differently, and in so doing, argued why pornography consumption is, in fact, an act of female sexual objectification.

According to MacKinnon, pornography is “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women though pictures or words” and that pornography defines women’s role as sexual objects available for men’s consumption. Within this definition and framework, feminist opponents of pornography argue that pornography is harmful to women, and constitutes strong causality or facilitation of violence against women (most famously described as “pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice” by radical feminist Robin Morgan.)

But when it comes to feminism and pornography, things aren’t quite that simple. For example, the view that pornography has this amount of influence over men and plays such a central role in women’s objectification received criticism. In their book, “The Lust to Kill: A Feminist Investigation of Sexual Murder”, Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer question the idea that men are conditioned to behave in certain ways as a consequence of pornography consumption. What is problematic with this idea, according to them, is that men are presented as incapable of critically interpreting pornographic materials, and as simply imitating what they see in pornography.

As feminist theorists grappled with the pornography versus sexuality issue, another unexpected but important disagreement emerged. Feminism had difficulty defining what constitutes objectification.

Objectification is the central notion of feminist theory. Feminist theory identifies sexual objectification of women as a driving and perpetuating component of gender oppression, systemic sexism, sexual harassment, and violence against women. However, what constitutes sexual objectification is hardly a settled question within feminist academia. All agree that, depending on context and to varying degrees, the objectified person is identified with their body and appearance, and is treated less as a human being and more as a tool lacking autonomy, agency, and self-determination. Where disagreement occurs is whether sexual objectification includes both how a person is seen and treated, or something less broad in which only behavior is considered.

In the case of pornography consumption, the nuance between these two definitions is important. Given the broader definition as including both thought and deed, MacKinnon argues that pornography consumption constitutes objectification. Her argument goes as follows: pornography involves sex between people and things, human beings and pieces of paper, real men and unreal women. As a result, in the consumers mind, the woman becomes a thing and a man’s consumption of pornography therefore constitutes female objectification. However, if objectification is considered exclusively a behavior, then pornography consumption is not objectification but rather anthropomorphism in which pornographic objects are treated as sexual partners. In a paper published in the journal Hypatia in 2006, Jennifer M. Saul examined these conflicting views. The article, entitled “On Treating Things as People: Objectification, Pornography, and the History of the Vibrator” did little to reconcile the two perspectives, however it is worth reading nonetheless if only for the historical case study presented.

Anyway, at the core of their argument, anti-porn feminists charge that the production of pornography entails physical, psychological, and/or economic coercion of the women who perform and model in it; and that much of what is shown in pornography is abusive by its very nature. They also argue that the consumption of pornography is an enticement to sexual violence against women, provides a distorted view of the human body and sexuality, and fosters hatred of women. In short, feminist theory links gender inequality to the objectification of women, which is created and sustained by men’s consumption of pornography. Thus Meaghan Murphy’s collective culpability pronouncement in the opening paragraph of this essay.

Overlooking that pornography is being defined to conform to a particular brand of feminist theory, what can be made of these arguments? Are the consequences of pornographic consumption as dire as feminist argue? Does pornography consumption promote violence and/or foster hatred against women? Is pornography a tool for promoting male sexuality at the expense of female sexuality expression? Does the consumption of pornography create, promote and sustain gender inequality? These questions have been studied and to a certain extent answered. And, as you might expect, some study results are quite definitive; in others, results are mixed and inconclusive.

Pornography And Violence Against Women

With regards to the most serious accusation against pornography – that it incites sexual aggression – rape statistics and controlled studies suggest otherwise.

US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics data show the rates of reported rapes and sexual assault in the U.S. are at their lowest levels since the 1960s. This same goes for other countries. As access to pornography grew in once restrictive Japan, China and Denmark in the past 40 years, rape statistics plummeted. Within the U.S., the states with the least Internet access between 1980 and 2000—and therefore the least access to Internet pornography—experienced a 53 percent increase in reported rape incidence, whereas the states with the most access experienced a 27 percent drop in the number of reported rapes. It is important to note that these associations are just that—associations. They do not prove that pornography is the cause of the observed crime reductions. Nevertheless, the trends just don’t fit with the theory that rape and sexual assault are in part influenced by pornography.

A 2014 controlled study by Jae Woong Shim of Sookmyung Women’s University and Bryant M. Paul of Indiana University did show that exposure to sexually explicit material, coupled with feelings of anonymity, could lead male participants’ to harsher sexist attitudes toward women. But the study did not show that these same participants are more likely to act out those desires and attitudes toward women. And there’s the rub. The study implies that, at least when it comes to pornography-inspired sexist attitudes, how you view women may not be linked to how you treat women.

Repression also seems to figure prominently into the puzzle of pornography. In 2009 Michael P. Twohig, a psychologist at Utah State University, asked 299 undergraduate students whether they considered their pornography consumption problematic; for example, causing intrusive sexual thoughts or difficulty finding like-minded sex partners. Then he assessed the students with an eye to understanding the root causes of their issues. It turns out that among porn viewers, the amount of porn each subject consumed had nothing to do with his or her mental state. What mattered most was whether the subjects tried to control their sexual thoughts and desires. The more they tried to clamp down on their urge for sex or porn, the more likely they were to consider their own pornography use a problem. The findings suggest that suppressing the desire to view pornography, for example, for moral or religious reasons, might actually strengthen the urge for it and exacerbate sexual problems. It’s all about “personal views and personal values,” Twohig says. In other words, the effects of pornography have little to do with the medium itself and everything to do with the person viewing it.

Sex-Positive Feminist Views on Pornography

For sex-positive feminists, pornography is seen as a medium for women’s sexual expression. Sex-positive feminists see many anti-pornography feminist views on sexuality and pornography as being equally oppressive as those of patriarchal religions and ideologies, and argue that anti-pornography feminist discourse ignores and trivializes women’s sexual agency. Ellen Willis (who coined the term “pro-sex feminism”) states “As we saw it, the claim that ‘pornography is violence against women’ was code for the neo-Victorian idea that men want sex and women endure it.”

Sex-positive feminists take a variety of views towards existing pornography. Many of these feminists see pornography as subverting many traditional ideas about women that they oppose, such as ideas that women do not like sex generally, only enjoy sex in a relational context, or that women only enjoy vanilla sex. They also argue that pornography sometimes shows women in sexually dominant roles and presents women with a greater variety of body types than are typical of mainstream entertainment and fashion, and that women’s participation in these roles allows for a fulfillment of their sexual identity and free expression.

Feminist Pornography

Pornography produced by and with feminist women is a small, but growing segment of the porn industry. According to Tristan Taormino, “Feminist porn both responds to typical images with alternative ones and creates its own iconography.”

In 2002, Becky Goldberg produced the documentary “Hot and Bothered: Feminist Pornography,” a look at women who direct, produce, and sell feminist porn. According to Goldberg, feminist pornography is whenever the women is in control of the sexual situation, and as such, she is in control of what is being done to her. As Goldberg explains, feminist pornography is about women enjoying sex.

Some pornographic producers such as Nina Hartley, Ovidie, Madison Young, and Sasha Grey are self-described sex-positive feminists. They do not see themselves as victims of sexism, but rather defend their decision to work in pornography as freely chosen and argue that much of what they do on and behind the camera is an expression of their sexuality. It has also been pointed out that in pornography, women generally earn more than their male counterparts

Erotica versus Pornography

Seeking to find a middle ground, a number of anti-pornography feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Page Mellish make a distinction between “pornography” and “erotica”, the former emphasizing dominance and the latter emphasizing mutuality. Steinem holds that, “These two sorts of images are as different as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation, as partnership is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain.” Feminists who subscribe to this view hold that erotica promotes positive and pro-woman sexual values and does not carry the harmful effects of pornography. However, more ardent anti-pornography feminists are skeptical about this distinction, holding that all sexual materials produced in a patriarchal system are expressions of male dominance. Andrea Dworkin wrote, “erotica is simply high-class pornography: better produced, better conceived, better executed, better packaged, designed for a better class of consumer.”

Still others find the distinction manufactured and thus problematic. Ellen Willis holds that the term ‘erotica’ is needlessly vague and euphemistic, and appeals to an idealized version of what kind of sex people should want rather than what arouses the sexual feelings people actually have. She also emphasizes the subjectivity of the distinction, stating, “In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably comes down to ‘What turns me on is erotica; what turns you on is pornographic.'”

The Sex Wars and Third Wave Feminism

Third wave feminism promotes personal, individualized views on those gender-related issues (such as prostitution, pornography and sadomasochism) that drove the second wave sex wars. In particular, the third-wave view of pornography is that there is no greater meaning other than which the actor or consumer gives it. Items such as sex objects and porn, identified by some second-wave feminists as instruments of oppression are now no longer being exclusively used by men but also by women. Feminist critic Teresa de Lauretis sees the sex wars not in terms of polarized sides but as reflecting a feminism that inherently embodying difference, which may include conflicting and competing drives.

Meanwhile, critic Jana Sawicki rejects both the polarized positions, seeking a third way that is neither morally dogmatic or uncritically libertarian. She offers the idea that what is needed is a theory of sexuality separate from feminism. And it is in that intellectual space where sexuality is divorced from feminism that Ceara Lynch thrives.  Whether as an example of emerging feminist theory or just as a matter of practicality, Ceara Lynch seems to have found an unambiguous ease with her sexuality independent of those feminist issues most important to her.