Why leftists should not support the porn industry.
The discourse surrounding pornography is deceptive, societally treated as a product to be consumed rather than a process to be transformed. Webster Dictionary defines pornography as “material (such as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement”.
Though pornography has existed in society for quite some time, the definition of it has morphed. It has taken a new form with the creation of the internet. Kassia Wosick, an assistant professor at New Mexico State University, estimates the global porn industry to be worth $97 billion. Pornography has become a social institution, attracting viewers of many genders, though promptly focused on young male viewers’ acquisition.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) reports that 64% of young people, ages 13–24, actively seek out pornography weekly or more often (2017). In 2019 alone, the equivalent of nearly 6,650 centuries of porn was consumed on PornHub, according to their annual public report.
For these consumers, watching pornography has become a lifestyle, often seen as a healthy sexual behavior linked with the celebration of self-pleasure. Indeed, it has become a hallmark of teenage life to confess your sexual exploits in terms of sex and pornographic preference.
This growth of affordable, easily accessible pornographic media has resulted in many strong, sometimes hostile reactions. On one end of the spectrum moral conservatives and anti-capitalist feminists alike reject today’s form of pornography (Seidman 240).
Moral conservatives view pornography as morally compromising individuals by exposing them to risqué content that will ultimately destroy romantic relationships and nuclear family models. In the United States, these moral conservatives often argue from a religious perspective, focusing on the act of consumption rather than the means of production. Anti-capitalist feminists do just the opposite.
They see the porn industry as violent to women (often from low socio-economic status), perpetuating sexualizing views of women, and lining the pockets of pre-existing wealthy (often white) men. This is not to say there is not a case in support of pornography. Indeed, other feminists see pornography as an artistic landscape to celebrate female pleasure and eroticism (239). Some see it as art. They view porn as countering a sexually repressive society.
Libertarians, too, support pornography insofar as they do not believe that the government should have a hand in the regulation of pornographic materials (238). They believe it is up to the consumer to consume or abstain from porn.
In three of these perspectives, the emphasis is placed disproportionately on porn as a product. Within the product, disproportionate attention is placed on the obscenity of women. Porn is something that is consumed, enjoyed, that brings pleasure to the viewer, often men.
That pleasure either is something to be celebrated or be disgusted by. To some, hearing of someone else finding pleasure from porn may trigger feelings of inadequacies — feeling like one has to measure up and meet the others’ desires, or prove oneself. Alternately, one may view this as a victory over oppression, a way to let loose and enjoy oneself, by oneself. This mode of thinking is a consumerist perspective, which posits that humans work to consume — live to consume — live to feel better, based on whatever standard the market declares.
This consumption is reinforced by popular discourse. All members of society must participate by mutually supporting the power structure, as a web. Television sets project the images of unrealistic male and female bodies, which in themselves go in and out of vogue. Clothes are sold at insanely cheap prices (at the expense of modern-day slavery) to make oneself feel sexually desirable.
How frequently we shower, the intonation used in the workplace — even the decision to order a steak versus a salad — can provide a robust discourse on how we want to be perceived, sexually, and through our gender performances. Society consistently perpetuates a dialogue about sexuality without explicitly discussing it as such. It is sinister, hiding in the shadows. Discourse on porn is no different.
Michel Foucault initially proposed these ideas in his book History of Sexuality: Volume 1 where he suggests that sexuality has not been oppressed, but rather has grown in importance and power since the Victorian age. One of the ways individuals reinforce the power of sexuality is through the practice of confession, the need each of us feels to depict all the details of our sex lives and fantasies (originally required in a religious context and now becoming secularized) (61).
Foucault details the ways society has come to surveillance the sexual activities of young people, boys in particular (42). Individuals are meant to embody certain familial archetypes, whether that be the absent father, hysterical mother, or pre-pubescent boy (104). The transition between childhood and adulthood injects a paranoia into the power structure, which causes those in power to try to control sex more fiercely through amplified sexual communication. This includes the segregation of boys and girls in dormitories, rules concerning bedtime, or whether a door may remain open or closed (46).
Something Foucalt could not have predicted is the widespread availability of the internet, and thus near-universal access to free pornography. Indeed, Webroot, a cyber-security company, estimates that 35% of all internet downloads are related to pornography. In this environment, parents survey their children’s sexual behavior by monitoring their search histories and requiring their children to hand in their cell phones. Schools limit the websites students can access after connecting to their internet, making the consumption of pornography on school premises a serious offense that may suspend a student.
Both of these examples are often perceived as sexual oppression, either seen as disallowing one to express themselves or as censorship. According to Foucalt’s perspective, however, these examples further convey the point that sexuality is being discussed in great succession, given more power, and becoming more integrated into the fabric of our culture even when no words are spoken.
Another consequence of this perceived oppression is the apparent need to confess pornographic desires by words and by consumption. In the high school setting, where young men are expected to cut out discourse surrounding pornography, students turn to their friends to confess. One may recall Foucalt’s theory that the Western desire to confess and analyze one’s desires is rooted out of 12th-13th century Catholic penance, which required adherents to detail their sins (including their sexuality) that they may not have examined before.
This action later was mapped onto the medical field, therapy, the justice system, and even closer social circles (65). When individuals talk about pornography they watch, it reenforced the importance of pornography and thus increases pornography consumption.
In a capitalist society, all that wealthy industry leaders must do to make profit is make something feel unattainable and then make an individual confess for wanting it. Once the confession is reciprocated, a product (pornography) or act (sex) is no longer just a product or act. It becomes a lifestyle. It becomes part of one’s identity.
In addition to confession to peers, increased access to the internet allows individuals to confess their desires to a search bar. To find specific forms of pornography one may want to consume, they must detail their desires in keywords. This confession serves the viewers’ desires but also converts these desires into data.
Capitalist business owners are then able to sell this data or produce more content based on keyword trends. If, for example, ‘gang rape’ porn becomes vogue on the internet, these leaders have the power to easily liquidate these confessive desires into more product, to subsequently make more money. In turn, these executive actions sustain an industry of sex workers with minimal benefits and virtually no rights against abuse or violence.
Confessing pornographic consumption (and preferences) is often seen as a harmless act. It feels like a personal choice that only affects the self. In reality, as is showcased above, this confession has far-reaching implications. The power of the word no longer ends with a priest. It continues in discourse with friends, and it translates into data which changes the landscape of the internet and the porn industry.
Each individual is responsible for the perpetuation of the success of the online porn industry. This directly leads to the proliferation of sex trafficking via the porn industry that requires it to exist.
This is not to say that porn itself cannot be a valid form of expression. Indeed, one may argue that pornography is just another form of sexual self-pleasure, akin to sex toys, or just another form of art, akin to renaissance nudes. Like much art in our society, this art has been corrupted by the forces of corporations and business owners and exploited without our knowing.
To make porn ethical, a confrontation must take place against the power structure that is uplifted when it is said that violence and lack of workers’ rights are not a deal-breaker.
The issue of pornography is not about sex. It is not about obscenity; it is not about corrupting the minds of children. The issue of pornography is an issue related to the means of production — the power relations that exploit the workers’ right to a safe and well-paid work environment. Emphasis should not be placed on our society’s products but the processes that enforce unequal power distributions.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 1990.
“Internet Pornography by the Numbers; A Significant Threat to Society.” Webroot, www.webroot.com/us/en/resources/tips-articles/internet-pornography-by-the-numbers.
Seidman, Steven. The Social Construction of Sexuality. W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
“The National Center on Sexual Exploitation Pornography and Public Health Research Summary.” The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, 2017, endsexualexploitation.org/wp-content/uploads/NCOSE_Pornography-PublicHealth_ResearchSummary_8–2_17_FINAL-with-logo.pdf.
“The Pornhub 2019 Year in Review.” Pornhub Insights, 2019, www.pornhub.com/insights/2019-year-in-review.
“Things Are Looking Up in America’s Porn Industry.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 11 June 2015, www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/things-are-looking-americas-porn-industry-n289431.