A Culture of Consumption: Hot Girls, The Male Gaze, and The Internet

Credit: Oleg Elkov/Shutterstock

“Why do men follow random, hot women online?” I asked Google. According to the internet, it’s simple: women are hot, and men want to look at them. 

The Random Hot Girl Online. The pretty woman online catching boyfriends’ eyes who’s verified with 100K followers. Who is she, really? Is she a bitch? A slut? Is she attention-seeking? Is she big boobs and “not much else?” People remain divided, but there is more to her than strangers online assume.

In the media, the male gaze erases female subjectivity and positions women as passive objects of male desire. It is a form of dehumanization that includes, but is not limited to, sexual objectification, in which women are narrowly perceived as sexual objects for male consumption. 

How is a woman’s presence online complicated by the male gaze? How does user behavior on platforms like Instagram obscure who is sexualizing and objectifying who?

The History of The Hot Girl Online

The Random Hot Girl Online, who may be an online sex worker with an OnlyFans or a non-sex-working model with an Instagram account, incites complex, heteronormative dilemmas and fear. She is perceived as an equal parts object for male consumption, direct-to-consumer business owner, and random person minding their business online who happens to be hot and feminine. Countless articles, tweets, and discussion threads want to know: is it okay if my boyfriend follows random hot girls online? 

The question’s lineage can be traced back to women’s fears of their husband’s cybersex pursuits in the early 1990s.

In the early days of the internet, random hot women could be found on bulletin board systems which were an online precursor to Yahoo groups, forums, and the eventual progression into tube sites like Pornhub. 

Gabriella Garcia, technologist, researcher, sex work advocate, and founder of Decoding Stigma, says sex was the reason people got on the internet to begin with. In her essay “The Cybernetic Sex Worker”, she outlines the historical narrative of the internet and the role sex workers played in its development. 

The Influence of Sex Work On The Internet

In an essay from Decoding Stigma, Garcia and her peers discuss how consumer demand for pornography and video games pushed for better graphics, faster processing speeds, and greater data bandwidths. The way of the Web as we know it today was paved by the money made in the erotic market of 1980s bulletin board systems.

The distribution of sexual material transitioned from print photography, home video, and cable TV to internet bulletin boards, tube sites, live streams, cam shows, Snapchat, and online membership subscription models. Digital mediation reduced sex worker reliance on third-party management and provided an ability to independently produce sexual content from the safety of one’s own home, and facilitated the creation of a new generation of people participating in the sex trade. 

The expansion in the ability to make money online merges the online sex worker from the 90s with the content creator of the 21st century. A collapse in boundaries around sex work ushers in an era of debate around 21st-century sex work, relationships, and modern dating that is further complicated by the digital expansion of the sex industry, a surveillance economy, and present-day relationship anxieties. Who is a sex worker? Who commodifies sex? How does social media, a surveillance technology masquerading as a communications technology, magnify the ambiguities we face offline?

Hot Girl, Online: The Archetype

The Random Hot Girl Online and the space she occupies in what Adrie Rising calls the “sociopolitical and ethical minefield of cishet dating” takes center stage in the public consciousness in a way she hadn’t prior to 2010: pre-Instagram, pre-creator economy, and pre-SESTA-FOSTA

This digital archetype is not just a good-looking woman with an Instagram account. She may be an independent model, artist, and online sex worker using the platform among others to run her online business. Her presence and Random Hot Girl Online status is defined by the attention she receives from men in the form of likes, follows, subscribers, and cash. In short, her status is a social currency.

In 2022, random, hot, and woman are three adjectives with social importance in private and public conversations about sex, sex work, and modern dating. The randomness, hotness, and womanness coalesce, straddling the relational and political. The imagined threat of the Random Hot Girl Online *feels* personal. Not confined to a printed magazine, a strip club, or a passerby on the street, she’s in the palm of your hand on an infinity scroll. She increases paranoia as she becomes more accessible.

Her presence is elusive and manifold both offline and in the digital realm. Her experience of being watched manifests in the form of policing her participation within or without conventional beauty standards and hetero-patriarchal norms. What we know about Random Hot Girl Online’s personal life does not matter. What matters is that her appearance functions as a threat to the social order, and thus, reactions ensue from sexualization to hatred.

The Madonna, The Whore, And The “Internet Baddie” 

The Random Hot Girl Online in the judicial eyes of the public, whether she self-identifies as a sex worker or not, is a whore. The threat of her existence, shaped by men’s desire to admire and conquer her, makes her simultaneous prey and a menace to society. 

The vampiric nature of the male gaze expressed in the form of a social media following is a hard danger to articulate, considering it’s “just a follow.” For many people, men following women online to the degree of compulsion is harmless and commonplace. 

The debate around its potential harm elicits a response steeped in sexism and whore stigma that overlooks the emerging role digital behaviors and boundaries play in our relationships, romantic and platonic, both online and offline. Women online are blamed for being hot, sex workers are shamed for existing at all, and the men who desire them face no consequences for their behavior.

Men are responsible for developing a critical awareness of the power dynamic between themselves and the women objectified by their unexamined gaze. Men are also responsible for developing coping strategies that don’t involve using women to placate their suffering under patriarchy. Relating to women must live beyond consumption.

There is something intimately horrific about having visibility to the extent to which men consume women as objects of sexual desire in the palm of your hand. Who men choose to follow online at whatever volume, regardless of relationship status, provides a visual metric for how men see women in the world as sources of consumption. Without conscious engagement with the power dynamics involved, women will always struggle to find safety and security in relationships with men.

Heterosexual monogamous relationship structures are typically defined by matters of permissibility. Is this allowed? Can my partner do this? Is this ok? What is cheating? These questions are asking, ‘Am I enough, and am I safe?’ These are political questions of freedom and security as much as they are relational, and they necessitate critical thinking about power and consent within our romantic relationshops.

Social Protection, Sexual Objectification

Whorephobia, sex work stigma, and the idea that women open themselves up to the sexual violence of men by claiming their bodies as their own and not men’s property have its origins in early Mesopotamian law codes, 19th-century rape law, and slave codes.

In “Screwing the System: Sexwork, Race, and the Law”, Anne McClintock writes that historically, “male law has attempted, with great vigilance and inclemency, to police the contradiction between male dependence on female sexual power and male juridical definitions of women as naturally and universally the property of men.” 

This policing is upheld by the insistence on different categories of women. Women are differentiated in the eyes of the law by the level of protection from sexual violence: Black women face disproportionate rates of sexual violence and are among the groups least likely to report it to the police. Indigenous women are missing and murdered at disturbingly high rates, and are often offered no protection from the police. Despite federal efforts, tens of thousands of rape kits still sit untested, and police can legally have sex with detained people in 35 states. Even recently, sex worker murders are written off as “no human involved.” 

Historically designating slaves, wives, and prostitutes unrapeable by law, the law facilitates a war among women in which the only way to be protected from the violence of men is to submit to white male domination and concede ownership of your body as men’s property. It is the logic of 19th-century rape law for a man to insist that because hot women exist, he has a “right” to look at them. When rape victims are asked what they were wearing, as if that invites violation, is the perception of women as sexually accessible to male whims something we’ve moved past as a society? I’d argue not. 

What does protection, legal and otherwise, from sexual violence mean? It is no wonder women struggle to reconcile the reality of bodily autonomy with the exposure to unmitigated violence by men. Women who partner with men are challenged to reckon with the false promise of safety and security afforded to them by entering into monogamous relationships with men. It includes seeing clearly men’s cognitive inheritance that orients their perception of women as men’s property, as objects of desire, and as sites of consumption.

Profiting From The Male Gaze

Sex-working and sex-work-adjacent women seek to profit from their sexualization. At what cost? Is a woman consenting to sexualization by choosing to profit from her sexualization? Is her consent null and void if it is coerced by the need to survive capitalism? 

Sex workers, in particular, risk safety and security in the pursuit of economic autonomy. Sex workers are not unique in that pursuit, but we are the least protected. Though it is easy to misinterpret all online sex work as a content machine receptive to and dependent upon male fantasy, negotiating male desire is both a core tenet of the adult creator economy and a means of survival.