Facial recognition technology may be coming to porn – and these men can't wait

Why some men on 4chan and Reddit are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a morally dubious technology.

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Michael, a 30-year-old New Yorker, messages me via the chat forum website Reddit to explain how a new technology could be the answer to his relationship woes. “She said that her job left her worn out and overworked,” he says of a former girlfriend. “She didn’t seem interested in having sex. Maybe somebody else was satisfying her and it haunts me to this day.”

Michael (a pseudonym) is one of many men rejoicing over software reported soon to be publicly available. Responses on forums such as Reddit, 4chan and 8chan read: “I’ve been waiting for this all my life” and “Hoes are about to be mad”.

The innovation that has excited these men? A tool that they hope will resolve their romantic paranoia: facial recognition software designed for porn, built to search for women’s faces.

Interest in the new tool is based largely on a tweet from a statistician called Yiqin Fu. In a now-viral post she states that a “programmer said he and some friends have identified 100k porn actresses from around the world”. A new programme “cross-references faces in porn videos with social media profile pictures. The goal is to help others check whether their girlfriends ever acted in those films.”

Facial recognition software has long been fraught territory – software used by the Metropolitan Police misidentified innocent members of the public as potential criminals 96 per cent of the time – raising ethical concerns and questions over its usage. The repercussions when this sort of technology is applied to pornography are considerable: what happens when men searching for their girlfriends or family members or colleagues receive false results saying “here she is, in this porn film”?

The use of facial recognition in porn is not entirely new. One of the world’s largest porn sites, PornHub, announced in 2017 that it was using such technology to scan its videos. Its aim was to curate data to allow users to search for their favourite porn stars, sex positions and sexual fetishes. While still ethically dubious, this is different from taking an image of any woman and running it through a facial recognition search in efforts to find her in a video.

The moral dilemmas have not deterred those desperate to use the porn site-scraping software. “I’m willing to do anything to search for her through the facial recognition porn engines,” Michael tells me. He even asks if I have access to the new software and if so, if I could search for his girlfriend.

Even when gently pressed, the men I contacted could not appreciate the mammoth logical leaps they’d made in presuming that their unresponsive or uninterested girlfriends must be doing porn. Many complained of unanswered calls and low-libido partners. Never mind being busy or tired: they are, of course, shooting smut.

Clicking through these men’s profiles revealed the extent to which porn has taken over their lives. Most of them post about it online and many are active in Reddit’s popular r/Braincels forum – dedicated to  incels (“involuntary celibate” people, typically men) who believe that women are withholding sexual engagement.

“My fear is that I’m being humiliated by these women,” Michael says. “That’s why I want to know. I know some communities think it’s OK if your partner is sleeping with others, that there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a cuck, but I disagree.”

The fear of being cuckolded has been a huge drive behind the facial recognition frenzy since the term became a popular online insult in 2016. “Being labelled a cuck could be very damaging to my image,” Michael says, revealing that some of his favourite internet idols have been ruined by the news of being cuckolded.

“Finding out about this technology has really opened my eyes at new ways of learning if your woman is cheating on you,” Michael says at the end of our conversation. “Finding them in professional or amateur porn would help me move on.”

The use of facial recognition software in porn ultimately feeds a growing concern among certain men over women’s sexual liberation. It’s another sign of a new wave of gender-based conservatism; feeling that all women fit into a Madonna-whore dichotomy, refusing to believe that more nuance might be necessary. 

These ideas are far from niche, with forums dedicated to incel views boasting hundreds of thousands of members. Members post near-daily about porn facial recognition, excitedly awaiting its release. So with its inevitability, we should starting calling porn facial recognition exactly what it is: not a dystopian impossibility, but our fast-approaching modern nightmare.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.

This article appears in the 28 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order