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The horror of Big Porn

Why pornography apologists are wrong

October 1, 2019

12:57 PM

1 October 2019

12:57 PM

This article is in The Spectator’s inaugural US edition. Subscribe here to get yours.

We used to have big tobacco. Now we have big porn. The adult industry has enormous soft cultural power today — just as the tobacco industry once did. Recall The People vs. Larry Flynt, in which the megabucks head of the Hustler empire was portrayed as a free speech hero? We see that trope over and over in Hollywood movies. In most popular entertainment, in fact, it’s only prudes and killjoys who don’t appreciate porn.

The tobacco giants once peddled propaganda about how cigarettes were glamorous. They convinced many that smoking could cure a cold or sore throat. Today, we are led to believe that porn stars are cool, that acting in pornographic films is empowering, and that masturbating to those films is a healthy way of expressing oneself. But is that true? Is it really progressive or ‘pro-sex’ to support this massive industry? Is it anti-sex to oppose it? The dominant view among industry apologists is that pornographers are not exploitative capitalists but agents of unleashing sexuality from religious or state-imposed constraints.

These are lies. Here are truths: like tobacco, porn is highly addictive. It ruins lives. It doesn’t cause cancer or heart disease, but, worse than tobacco, it exploits people and damages relationships. These truths are suppressed because a few groups are making enormous sums of money out of this harmful business. The idea that pornography ‘empowers’ is widespread but it romanticizes an unlovely reality . Take Chloe, for example. I met Chloe in 2017 during research for my book on the sex trade. At that time, she was a 22-year-old stripping in a ‘gentleman’s club’ and planning to become a porn ‘star’. I recently contacted Chloe again. She had worked on three porn sets. ‘The first film was not too bad,’ she said. ‘It certainly wasn’t my choice to take part in a so-called gangbang with three men. It was pretty humiliating and unpleasant, but the money wasn’t bad and I convinced myself that it had been worth it.’

‘The second and third films were horrible,’ she said. ‘They filmed them one after the other, and it involved a lot of very painful sex for me. I was choked [and] orally penetrated, with anal at the same time. I was told I would get $6,000 but they take loads of money off you for insurance, HIV testing, even the outfits I had to wear. I hated it.’ She made $2,000 for eight days’ work.

Porn makes a lot of money. Annual revenue from the global porn industry has been estimated at up to $90 billion. (To put that into context, Hollywood makes about $10 billion a year.) There were 23 billion visits to just one of the major porn websites in 2016 — more than 5,200 centuries of porn are viewed there every year.

Pornography’s famous stars get rich, and producers and website owners certainly do. But the vast majority of its workers don’t. The women (and most performers are women) don’t get royalties, on the whole. Massive competition for clicks drives down pay and forces people to perform ever more extreme and physically harmful acts for ever more demanding audiences. One man closely involved in the business told me: ‘The women don’t enjoy it. They have to take a load of painkillers. Of course, they just do it for the money.’

Gail Dines, a sociologist and expert on the business side of porn, says that much of the content on free porn websites acts as a teaser to get viewers interested so that businesses can then ‘monetize’ the free porn with advertising and by diverting the consumer to paid sites. Rather than destroying the porn industry, free porn expands paid porn’s consumer base. ‘Free porn is the same as the tobacco industry handing out free cigarettes to kids to get them hooked, without fear of prosecution,’ says Dines.

Porn is a kind of slavery. It’s also more racist than most people realize. One of the best-selling porn video series is called ‘Oh No! There’s a Negro in My [Daughter/Wife/ Sister]’. ‘Can you imagine a sitcom called “Oh No! There’s a Negro in my Suburb?”’ asks Dines. ‘Porn gets a pass for a level of racism that would not be tolerated in any other media genre.’

I saw the racism of the industry first hand when I attended the annual XBIZ Awards in Los Angeles in 2015. As porn performers made their way down the red carpet — they were ordered to show as much tit and ass as possible to the waiting photographers — I spoke with a couple of producers. They told me they did ‘black-on-white gangbang porn’ and explained that the genre was highly popular. I asked the men if, as African Americans themselves, they felt the genre might feed into racist stereotypes of black men as sexual violators of white women. They laughed. ‘It sells,’ one told me. ‘So long as they buy, we’re gonna make it.’

What was striking about the XBIZ awards was not the absence of any shame among those who peddle and profit from porn. It was their pride. Pornographers make their money from abuse, yet they have hijacked the language of social justice and freedom. One producer boasted to me about the progressive, innovative nature of his interracial gay porn. Most videos in this genre feature the domination of Asian youths by white men. He explained that his material sometimes shows the young Asians — ‘bitches’ in the term of art — in the dominant position. He didn’t seem to realize the enormous irony of what he was saying.

So-called ‘ethical porn’ hit our screens a couple of decades ago. I have heard the ridiculous terms ‘art-core’ or ‘real sex’ used to describe what is effectively low-budget, independently made porn with a dubious ‘fair-trade’ imprimatur. Just like the pimps and brothel owners who insist on ‘fair pay’, workers’ rights and better conditions, the ethical pornographers claim to be doing it differently than the big boys.

I have asked so-called ‘ethical’ pornographers what they do that is so different. Their performers, they tell me, are checked for STIs and their ages certified. They are even given choices about the kind of sex they have and asked if they are ‘happy with the process’. I have heard the same a thousand times over from mainstream pornographers, all of whom insist that performers are age-checked and not forced into doing anything they don’t wish to do. I don’t believe them either.

Makers of ‘ethical porn’ believe a violent fantasy of any kind can be a legitimate part of your sexual identity, one that you have a right to explore. In the industry, the only difference between ‘ethical’ ‘art-core’ porn and hardcore mainstream porn is that consumers pay for the latter. The ‘ethical’ version is the sanitized poster girl of the trade, but in reality it’s a smokescreen and a loss-leader for a highly exploitative industry. Before long it will have been totally subsumed within the mainstream, helping drive traffic to brutal depictions of sexual violence and subservience.

Many people make a living defending porn. Jerry Barnett is the author of Porn Panic!: Sex and Censorship in the UK. He describes himself as an ‘anti-censorship campaigner’. He’s also a former managing director of anywhere.xxx, described as the ‘internet’s red-light district’, so he knows of what he speaks.

I asked him about so-called ‘feminist’ porn. For Barnett, it is an ‘interesting trend in porn marketing’.‘Watching porn from producers that call themselves feminist and/or ethical is a way of distancing themselves from (what they imagine to be) the yuckier parts of the business.’

Most porn doesn’t even try to be ethical or feminist. It is revolting, and everybody who isn’t completely twisted knows it. Research shows that a majority of men have accessed porn, yet there is a growing male resentment. Robert Jensen, academic and author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, believes that no matter how any particular woman feels about making or using pornography, the industry is not interested in empowering women. ‘Male dominance is at the core of pornography, exacerbated by the relentless quest for profits in capitalism. Those producers have to “innovate” if they want to maintain profits, which means offering increasingly extreme material.’

It’s hard to know what, if anything, can be done to tackle the porn industry in terms of US government policy without shutting down free speech and free expression. But perhaps we can all ditch the pretense that the business is just another branch of the regular ‘entertainment’ sector, something that everybody can enjoy if they so choose. Tom Farr, trustee of the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation, is one of a rare breed of young men who speaks out against the normalization of porn. ‘The industry literally commodifies our sexuality and turns it into something that is subsequently sold back to us,’ says Farr, ‘which then shapes our attitudes towards women in the real world.’

‘Porn, like all major global industries, interfaces with banks, credit cards, mainstream media and multiple social media platforms,’ says economics expert Gail Dines. ‘Every one of these industries has a vested economic interest in the continuation and growth of the porn industry.’ It’s just the poor girls like Chloe who get totally screwed.

This article is in The Spectator’s inaugural US edition. Subscribe here to get yours.


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