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The disturbing underbelly of the ‘step’ porn trend

August 8 is International Female Orgasm Day, and we’re celebrating with an entire week dedicated to exploring the business and pleasure of porn.


Pop onto Pornhub’s homepage and you’re likely see at least one title akin to Gorgeous Step Daughter Sneaks In and Seduces with Creampie.

Or My stepson pays me a visit.

Or Beautiful Step Sister Loves Porn & Wants to Fuck.

These are all real titles I can see on Pornhub’s main page as I write this. If I refreshed, I’d be inundated with new regurgitations of the same idea. 

If you’ve visited any of the many tube porn sites in the past several years, you’ve likely noticed there are more and more titles like this — even if the video itself is fake incest (“fauxcest”). 

This isn’t just in our imaginations, either. In a look at 218,000 Pornhub titles from 2008 to 2018, data-driven site found a true spike in “step” porn. They explained it in their piece “.”

Image: bob al-greene/mashable

It’s not just Pornhub, either. This a trend across tube sites. According to Alex Hawkins, VP at the porn site xHamster, they’ve seen a spike in “step” content in the past decade as well. There are currently more than 10,000 videos with “step” in the title on xHamster, nearly 40 times more than what was there a decade ago. 

“Pretty much everyone from big studios to premium social to amateurs is making at least some ‘step’ content,” Hawkins said in an email to Mashable. 

As with human sexuality itself, the reasons behind this trend are complex — so complex that Dr. Gail Dines, professor emerita at Boston University’s Wheelock College, and the president of , a nonprofit aimed to address hypersexualized media, called it “the perfect storm.”

Taboos and Game of Thrones 

Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, surveyed 4,175 Americans between the ages of 18 and 87 about their sexual fantasies for his book

One in five people reported having at least one incest fantasy before, according to Lehmiller’s research. A much smaller number, just three percent, said they had frequent incest fantasies. Those fantasies take on a slew of forms, from blood relatives to twins to Cruel Intentions-esque step families. 

Sensation seekers, those who need a heightened thrill in order to get aroused or orgasm, may also be especially attracted to incest porn. Further, some people may have a specific fantasy about a blood relative, which could be a result of an early childhood experience. 

For many people, though, it’s not a specific family member that’s the real turn-on. As Lehmiller explained, “A big part of the appeal across all of these different types of incest fantasies is that it is a major taboo.”

Incest is one of the ultimate taboos in human sexuality, according to Lehmiller. It’s viewed as a forbidden act across cultures and historical periods. Even on Pornhub, a search of the term “incest” yields no results. Use a word like “step” or “daddy,” however, and you’ll be inundated with videos.

“It’s something you’re not supposed to do — and we know that when you tell people they’re not supposed to do something, this often makes them want to do it even more,” he said.

The recent increase in incest fantasy on Pornhub and other sites cannot be explained by the taboo aspect alone, though. So given that it’s not exactly a new fantasy, why is step porn having a “moment” of sorts now?

“My suspicion is that part of it has to do with certain very popular media portrayals of incest,” said Lehmiller, speaking primarily of HBO’s long-running series Game of Thrones. The cultural zeitgeist is sometimes reflected in our fantasies and subsequently in the pornography we prefer.

Access, algorithms, and cheap shoots

Lehmiller warns against simply explaining away this trend with Games of Thrones or the thrill of taboo, however. A Pornhub user may click on a video with “step” in the title because they harbor that fantasy, but that’s not the case for everyone. They could also be enticed by the still, which may not signal that it’s an incest video at all, or by the performers themselves. 

What’s more is that these super popular videos may be catering to a fairly narrow segment of the site’s audience that watches a slew of porn, which may give the impression that the genre is more popular than it actually is. Lehmiller said, “A lot of the tube sites are creating more content for those niche audiences, because they’re the most likely to to click on ads and pay for porn and things like that.”

Indeed, there are algorithmic and technical explanations for the influx, beyond fantasy. 

Components editor Andrew Thompson pointed out that the sharpest increase started in 2015, which may not be a coincidence. “I think of 2015 as being the year where analytics finished inserting itself into every nook of the internet,” said about the findings. 

“A big part of the appeal across all of these different types of incest fantasies is that it is a major taboo”

Thompson compared BuzzFeed’s 2015 strategy of churning out content that responded instantly to trends with porn conglomerates attempting to do the same thing. “My hunch is that this was when porn companies started to do what all the content companies were trying to do,” he explained, “which is getting really sophisticated about creating super responsive content.”

Porn viewers will click on a video for any number of reasons. Some have a step fantasy, yes, but some others are just bored, or they click everything on the front page. Regardless of the motivation, the click signals to the site’s algorithm that the content is what people want to see, which means that the algorithm starts serving more and more of said videos. The bored users continue to click on them, and the cycle continues. 

“You could see [step porn] as an expression of the perception that Pornhub owner MindGeek has about its audience (or the owners’ tastes themselves), and that its own ideas of What The People Want informs what they push to the front page,” said Thompson. “It’s the same way what Netflix flaunts as most popular content on its site is as much a function of its own curation as it is of audience tastes.”

Another shift that could help explain the spike is something simple: smart phones. They allow for more privacy, Dines said. Whereas once you could only watch online porn on a bulky computer (at dial-up speed, no less), now you can take your phone to the bathroom and view whatever you want. So it’s far easier to indulge in something taboo.

On the production side, xHamster’s Hawkins remarked on the practicality of creating step porn compared to other genres. Since porn budgets are tighter than ever, anything that is cheap and efficient to make is enticing. 

“The set up and script are all fairly standard, and you can shoot it in pretty much any suburban house without the need for special sets or costumes or props,” he said. “There’s a tremendous flexibility in age of the cast, so it accommodates last minute changes fairly well.”

A slippery slope?

It’s true that some step porn features older women, the ever-popular “MILF.” While Hawkins mentioned that MILF videos are a popular subsection within step porn, many step plots instead feature an older man with teen girls — or women made to look like teen girls. 

Porn looks the way it does today because of legislation In 2002, overturned the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996. This allowed performers to look under 18 in films even though they had to actually be 18. This sparked a flood of porn featuring performers that could pass for under 18. (Dines discussed this shift in her 2015 TED Talk, .)

So even though the performers are over 18, they can often look well underage. And that unleashes a host of ethical (if not legal) issues. They’re just that — performers. No one in these videos is likely actually related, as step-siblings or otherwise. None of it is real, obviously. But that doesn’t matter, according to Dines, “because the user is masturbating to images that he thinks is real.” 

Pornographic images bypass the frontal lobe of our brains and go into a less rational part of the mind, Dines explained. That means that even if we cognitively know what we’re seeing isn’t real, our less rational brain believes it is. And that’s where the excitement comes from. 

Pornstar Stoya commented on this phenomenon in her conversation with Thompson: “People actually think Melody Star is my roommate. They think we were roommates at one point because we were roommates in a porno,” she said. 

“You can’t overestimate the critical thinking ability that people engage in when they’re watching porn. It goes out the fucking window,” Stoya said.

So even if people are watching people who are technically not minors, it still feels to them as if they’re watching a version of child porn. Step porn that features a daddy and his stepdaughter is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to porn that skirts illegality and hovers on the edge of child pornography.

That’s not to say that those who enjoy step porn will necessarily go deeper and watch or enjoy other more ethically and legally problematic video genres. But for problematic porn users and porn addicts, especially, watching step porn (and teen porn at large) can lead down a slippery slope. 

The future of step porn

Like all trends, step porn probably won’t be popular forever. In fact, Lehmiller seemed sure of it. Humans are turned on by novelty, and what’s popular a decade ago isn’t popular today for that reason. “It might just be a temporary blip,” said Lehmiller. 

“The same operational rules that gave us Epstein also gave us a machine that generates seemingly infinite amounts of this material”

In Components, Thompson ventured to compare the step trend to Jeffrey Epstein’s guiding philosophy and reiterated it in his statement to Mashable. We consume video in “YouTube/Netflix mode,” for example, bouncing from curated video to curated video fulfilling a shallow need for “fresh” content. Sex is now in “Epstein mode,” Thompson argued, transgressing to have sex with as many women as possible, as young as possible. “The same operational rules that gave us Epstein also gave us a machine that generates seemingly infinite amounts of this material,” he said. While porn is certainly not the same as sex itself, the idea is similiar — bouncing from video to video, performers as young and “fresh” as possible.

The perfect storm that Dines evoked — changing legislation, Game of Thrones, the human craving for novelty — has come to a head with step porn, but that’s not too surprising.  

“It’s hard to fathom that mere coincidence led to step-incest porn’s ascendance specifically during the 2010s,” said Thompson, “a decade that overnight we’ve suddenly agreed was the most empty, overindulgent, aesthetically neutralized in at least 80 years — all qualities that I think describe both this kind of pornography as well as the billionaire class that has spent the past ten post-Recession years consolidating its power and setting the terms of our engagement with the world.” 

Epstein himself may be gone, but our cultural obsession with sexualizing girls remains — as does our constant hunger for new content spit out by an algorithm. Whether or not step porn will maintain its dominance depends largely on whether the culture that fueled its rise persists. 

While in some corners there’s been a shift toward producing more ethical porn, the power that MindGeek and mainstream conglomerates hold is undeniable. Between the #MeToo movement and the most recent social reckonings, there have certainly been shock waves of change reverberating through mainstream culture — but will it reduce the hunger for step porn? Or will it render it even more taboo, more shocking, and cause the view counts to be higher than ever? Only time will tell.



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