A protest against the pornographic movie 'Deep Throat', New York City, 1980. (Photo by Peter Keegan/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The angst of Eros

Debating porn over the decades

Artillery Row Books

Skin flicks, stag rags, hardcore filth — you know it when you see it! 

In modern times, no topic provokes quite such an exquisite mix of lurid fascination and moral outrage like pornography. 

In Pornography Wars: The Past, Present and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession, sociologist Dr Kelsy Burke tries to make sense of the 20th and 21st century porn wars — drawing on the perspectives of American Evangelicals, radical feminists, porn performers and queer sex positive activists. 

Burke displays a subtle animosity towards radical feminists

The result is a fascinating social history of smut, spanning nearly 150 years, from the 19th century Comstock laws, which prohibited “obscene, lewd or lascivious” material in the mail, to SESTA/FOSTA and the rise of NoFap.

Attitudes towards porn are enticing fodder for any sociologist, capturing the sexual anxieties and values of a particular time and place. In the United States, the “problem” of porn has evolved from a clear-cut case of “vice” to one of the key pillars of “rape culture” to a source of “addiction” given the developing male brain.

Evidence has always been lacking in porn debates. Decades of research into the effects of pornography on violence, sexist attitudes, relationships and the health of users have consistently ended with “mixed” or “inconclusive” findings.

Although Burke is keen to canvas all sides of this debate, when reading Pornography Wars it becomes pretty clear at points where her biases lie. 

A chapter entitled “Christian Right v America” is explicit in rejecting the conservative activism of Evangelical Christians in the 1980s and their obsession with the perceived threats of “abortion, homosexuality and pornography”.

Similarly, Burke displays a subtle animosity towards radical feminists. I let out a slight chuckle when, in discussing feminist opposition to pornography, Bourke switched her language to introduce each new feminist theorist with the terrifying descriptor of “white” (eg. “white feminist activist Dana Densmore”).

Nevertheless, Burke doesn’t shy away from speaking of the brutal side of the US porn industry. The “golden age” of porn in the United States occurred in the 1960s and 70s, under an oppressive legal regime. As such, the most successful smut merchants were sleazy libertarian men who were as indifferent to vice laws as they were to consent.

Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner sold himself as a symbol of arrested development, where teenage boy fantasies of hot sex without responsibility could be commercialised and sold. He also treated his “bunnies” like cheap toys to be played with, damaged and thrown away.

Similarly, Burke tells the story of porn performer Linda Marchiano, better known under the stage name “Linda Lovelace”. Machiano was repeatedly brutalised by her husband Chuck Traynor during the “golden age” to make bestiality and urine fetish films for cash. The classic 1972 porn film Deep Throat, which played in mainstream cinemas and is hailed today as one of the most popular porn films ever made, is actually (in the words of Machiano) a depiction of real-life rape and abuse.

The callousness of many men involved in the heyday of industry is further illustrated by Burke in the treatment of Colleen Applegate, who entered the porn industry in 1983 under the stage name “Shauna Grant”. 

Decentralisation means that porn is just one of many gigs for performers

Applegate ran away from home at 18, answering an ad for “soft-core” shoots in Los Angeles. In a desperate situation, Applegate quickly moved on to hardcore films where she developed a cocaine habit. After just one year in the industry, Applegate’s mental health deteriorated rapidly — she contracted herpes and had an abortion. She was quickly dropped by the industry for her lack of “enthusiasm” during sex scenes and died by suicide just one year later. In a final act of cruelty by the industry, adult filmmaker Roberta Findlay released Shauna: Every Man’s Fantasy, one year after Applegate’s death, cutting together her most explicit scenes to take advantage of the increased media attention. 

Whilst the savagery of some key players in traditional porn production is undeniable, Burke notes that there appears to be little appreciation by porn critics to drastic shifts in the industry.

Burke’s history of porn documents the structural changes brought about by the decline of both the cinema and VHS distribution models and the rise of the internet. Large porn studios still exist, but power (and profit) is severely limited by decentralisation — particularly the rise of subscription services like OnlyFans and the various tube sites owned by porn tech company MindGeek. The shift to online porn meant that most porn performers could no longer be considered “porn stars”; participation is far more of a “gig” than a career. As Burke observes:

Performers were forced to adjust to a new reality that they couldn’t make a living from commercial porn shoots alone, as there were fewer and fewer of them after the emergence of free streaming sites.

As a performer named Tristan Taormino reports in an interview with Burke, greater decentralisation means that porn is always just one of many gigs for performers:

Most porn stars I know today have like eight hustles. They’re doing OnlyFans and clips, and they’re doing feature dancing and appearances, and then they’re making porn, and many of them are also escorting. People have all sorts of gigs. It’s not like in the 2000s where you could basically be the contract girl, and all you had to do was make a few movies a month and make some public appearances, and you were good.

At the peak of the pandemic, we saw many women experiment with porn production on OnlyFans and other outlets to supplement their income. Many soon learned the ruthless competition of the new gig-based model of porn. The top 10 per cent of OnlyFans accounts make 73 per cent of all the money, with the median income sitting at just $180 per month.

Paradoxically, this freelance model of porn has occurred at the same time as greater labour organisation by performers in the United States.

In 2014, the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, the first union for porn performers in the US was formed. Similarly, as the “gig” economy of porn forced performers to become self-marketers on social media, they also gained greater power to “name and shame” unethical production companies, performers and agents in the industry. Even seemingly “untouchable” sleazebags of porn, such as Ron Jeremy, have begun to face commercial and criminal consequences for their actions.

Yet the rise of the independent porn performer gaining income through a combination of self-production on OnlyFans and occasional studio shoots, did little to change the tune of antipornography activists. As Burke notes, the standard line of porn critics to seemingly self-assured women choosing to be involved in porn is “they think it is good for them when actually it is not”. 

Porn performers have always been quick to push back against narratives that they are drug addicted survival sex workers trafficked into the industry, or women “duped” by the patriarchy. 

This line seems even more untenable given the increasingly large number of middle- and upper-class women entering the industry as part of many side “gigs” during study or outside standard work hours. The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Council recently had to release a warning to nurses about supplementing their income on OnlyFans, and there has been a wave of scandals regarding teachers taking advantage of the platform.

The latter half of Pornography Wars, shifts gears from production to consumption and the rise of “porn addiction” narratives in the United States. The more Burke describes the experiences of young men with porn, the more it becomes clear that consumer backlash is driven less by the effect of porn on dopamine pathways and more about the perils of sexual “fantasy”.

Burke is quick to point out that mainstream porn is not, and never has been, about authentic female pleasure. Instead, it depicts male fantasy in all its sadomasochistic ridiculousness reduced to its core components. A typical porn scene is a combination of set pieces revolving around “corrupted innocence” where a wide eyed ingénue is introduced to a world of depravity.

One of the most popular porn categories online is “teen” where women in their mid to late 20s pretend to struggle with their calculus homework and ask a teacher for “help”. Another is “hentai” involving coquette cartoon characters with gargantuan breasts, squirming around with cries of overwhelmed delight.

Whilst malevolent for some, porn is neutral for most

It’s not surprising then, when Burke looks into the research on “porn addiction” what is actually found is high rates of “moral incongruence”. 

Men are understandably ashamed of their desires, particularly when what’s getting them off is morally or logistically impossible to achieve in real life. “I was lonely,” says one young man interviewed by Burke. “I was never happy going to bed after looking at pornography.”

Whilst there has been much hyperbole about the problem of “incels”, one of the reasons this type of young man can be such a powder keg for violence, is that thwarted desires — particularly those fuelled by the promises of porn — are incredibly frustrating. When real life doesn’t match the fantasies on screen, there is real potential for a snowballing of rage and misogyny. 

Even Burke admits that for some men, “detoxing” from porn is not so much about religious principle but about bettering themselves. Speaking of a young man named Tad, who uses a “self-control app” to stop himself looking at porn, Burke concludes:

Tad exemplifies the many men who intentionally avoid pornography to maximize their overall health and well-being, just like the rest of us who, in large numbers, are avoiding carbs, quitting alcohol, joining exercise classes, or using meditation apps.

Burke is sceptical of the broader “healthism” underpinning porn abstainers, which is unfairly harsh towards young men involved in groups like No Fap or “Your Brain on Porn”. Whilst liberal “sex positive” types may find any shame in sexual desire utterly unacceptable, porn detoxing seems to be a somewhat misguided, but useful, attempt to obsess less about fantasy and engage more in real world relationships.

As writer Mathew Crawford has argued, rather than building potential for “incel terrorists” and far right extremists, young men detoxing from porn are instead reclaiming self-discipline as part of a vitalist tradition:

[Men abstain] on the supposition that their vital energy has been dissipated and colonised by a culture, and an industry, of pornography that is predatory and dehumanising.

“Porn addiction” may be questionable, but dedicating oneself to real-world intimate relationships may be constructive for a generation of young men prone to escape into pornographic fantasy.

Ultimately, Burke fails to find the “bogeyman” in porn, even when highlighting some of its potentially pernicious features. Over a century’s worth of debate has shown that whilst malevolent for some, porn is neutral for most, neither being a source of liberation or oppression.

As a social history, Pornography Wars is an excellent snapshot of the various players involved in the porn wars, and why it still puts us at ideological loggerheads. Hardly a resolution, Burke’s work makes it clear that the controversies over porn are far from over. They will stick around for many years to come.

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