The object of a woman is consistently made into the subject of a man, looked at in public spaces as a thing to be turned into art or porn. An alternate, feminist, heteronormative sexual dynamic is hard to imagine, then; there’s just too many qualifiers. Radical transfeminist blogger Lisa Millbank argues that sex, under patriarchy, is infused with terms of unequal power and violence against women and that this inequality has been sexualized. The choking, spanking, and degrading of women is hot — to both parties. This is an association that is hard to untangle, if anyone even cares to untangle it.
The female gaze tends to be a rare, flighty bird. I was starting to question if it was ever more than a film studies term or a myth. Willingly, a woman can objectify herself, deriving pleasure from it. And skillfully, with practice, a woman can objectify another woman; looking at her hungrily, like a man or an animal. In my hunt for a more feminist porn, I tried to define the female gaze within the parameters of the medium: I searched for videos of men masturbating. Clicking on porn video links that led to more links (that led to more links), I was suddenly confronted with a mirage of close-cropped dicks. Men who were all lower torso and masturbating to pictures they’d received via sext, or to Google-culled images of Britney Spears during her “Hit Me Baby One More Time” era, or to the fully-clothed Olympic athlete, Denise Lewis. Watching these men masturbate, I thought I’d found a secret haven for the practice of the female gaze. I couldn’t quite figure out who was being objectified in this scenario, if anyone. Enter: tribute porn.
When I enter a room, I’m always trying to figure out the power dynamics — who is being objectified and who is the arbiter of the objectifying? I’m fun at parties.
The internet, like most spaces, is a male dominated place, but the specific wormhole of the web I’d discovered seemed to be the most blatant and accurate display of its masculinity. There was something violent in a faceless man hovering pantsless over the picture of a woman. If I played all the videos at once, in different windows on the screen of my Macbook, that would be the patriarchy given definitive form: hundreds of dicks ejaculating on the faces of women.
I was confused. A man masturbating to a picture of a woman, while filming himself. He was simultaneously objectifying his own body while objectifying the symbol of a woman. Who was the audience? Was it me, the woman looking to feel empowered by watching a man rub himself to some symbol of his desire that he couldn’t attain? Was the audience men who simply wanted to watch other men get off? Tribute porn is often under the gay label on porn sites, for ease of classification, but why involve a girl in all of this if a dick is the heart of the matter? It’s clear that tribute porn is a different and unique animal.
In an erotica forum dedicated to tributes, users expressed interest in giving and receiving tributes, then coordinated as such. For some of them, it was an act of curiosity. They had come across the thread, were interested in the act, and were eager to try it out. In response to a newcomer’s inquiry, “Tifani” wrote, “It’s weird, I know. But it is a big turn on for us to know someone is ‘tributing’ me like this. Can’t really explain it more than that, except it’s proof they were looking at a picture when they did it. I thought it was strange at first too, but when I got one. Wow!” She then proceeded to welcome the curious newbie, “Tray,” in tributing any of her pictures on her profile when he asked if anyone was interested in “taking his tribute virginity.” When Tray was finished, he happily posted the picture of his release on her selfie with the caption, “My finished artwork!!!”
Amateur tribute videos are often uploaded with a standard formula for the caption: “Tribute to [Woman’s Name Goes Here].” By nature of a tribute, they are often for someone, requested, like a commissioned work of art, and on many of the videos you’ll find comments like, “Beautiful work!” that make it easy to forget you aren’t looking at a video art installation. With the exception of celebrity tributes, the blank is filled by the requestor’s username on the porn site.
In the most generous form of the phrase, the tribute porn video is a celebration of women, the exaltation of the female form — the highest from of flattery being the approving grand gesture of the male orgasm. Most women on the receiving end of the tribute expressed that it was a “huge turn on” to see images of themselves given this stamp of approval. “Lindsay” commented, “I found it hot when a man did it on an actual face shot of me where I was wearing makeup and had my hair done. They ‘dirtied’ a pretty picture of me.”
One commenter asked the question that this essay flounders around: So this looks like men doing “tributes” to ladies who provide photos. Has there ever been a reversal of roles? Anyone ever consider it? I realize it can’t quite be the same but I can still see ways it could be done. Or is it just that women wouldn’t be turned on enough by a simple photo?
Comically, yet sincerely, “Lindsay” answered, “Typically women do not cum in the volumes that men do. Even if one ‘ejaculated’ it wouldn’t be thick and white. A photo would most likely look like someone pissed on it.” To which the original inquirer replied, “Very true.”
The phenomenon of tribute porn feels like the real life version of those moments in ‘90s high school coming-of-age comedies when parodies of jocks stand around the locker room, waists wrapped in towels, bragging about their sexual conquests. The men on these sites circulate their tribute videos to each other, showing off all the girls they’ve masturbated to. This show-and-tell is coded as masculine bravado and for women, it is packaged as radical sexual agency. But as Jillian Horowitz wrote, “Kinks are not necessarily harmless. Even the notion of consent, considered by so many to be a simple matter, is problematic — in a patriarchal society where women’s agency is circumscribed by male supremacy, how meaningful is consent?”
The profile of a woman who has uploaded dozens of tributes that men have given her unabashedly announces, “DON’T FORGET TO COMMENT ON MY PICS ;-D I WANT TO BE A TRIBUTE S.T.A.R!!! :-)” She has 447 comments and her profile has been viewed 14,610 times, which has earned her the ranking “Porn Expert.” As they say, a woman wants what a woman wants. Or alternatively, a woman wants what she is reinforced to want: validation, adoration, relative fame.
The politics of tribute porn bring to mind the other mechanisms by which we seek affirmation. The language of the girl who is hungry for tributes is very similar to the language of a Tumblr user who is hungry for followers, or the 2008 MySpace user who aggressively asserts PC4PC (picture comment for picture comment, for those for which 2008 is just one big blur). Though it is understandable why a young girl from “Paradise City” loves “to see cum tribute on pics,” the fleeting nature of this form of validation is summed up best by “SubmissiveBrat” who disinterestedly commented on the forum, “Cool. But I prefer tributes in cash.”
Gabby Bess is a freelance writer and poet. She writes about art and feminism for various places around the internet, including Dazed and Confused Magazine, Paper Magazine, The Daily Beast, and Opening Ceremony. Her second poetry collection Post-Pussy is forthcoming from Coconut Poetry next year. She lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY and is always looking for a job.