Kelsy Burke's "Pornography Wars" Examines America's Conflicted Relationship to SmutRoundup
tags: pornography, sex work, history of sexuality
Content, some say, wants to be free; so, reportedly, do we. At any rate, such conclusions jibe with at least 9 billion visits a month to porn websites and “tubes,” where professionals and amateurs upload sex videos for others to stream, at any hour we please, at no monetary cost. As many reading this presumably already know. (Not judging.)
Is nonstop free pornography liberating, or is it shackling, leaving us less humanlike than ever? This is one of the contemporary conundrums that the sociologist Kelsy Burke explores in The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession. The answer depends on how you define “us,” because those producing the stuff, as is true of other content providers laboring in the digital sweatshops of our time, are barely scraping a living together. Though Pornhub alone gets more visits a month than either Netflix or TikTok, according to one online guide for budding porn entrepreneurs, a video garnering 1 million views will net its producer roughly $500.
Unlike back in the 1970s and ’80s—the heyday of XXX-rated features with multiday shoots and catering budgets, of ample profits and thriving stars—the new porn economy generates its revenues primarily from ads, accruing to site owners, not performers. The subscription site OnlyFans produces big paydays for a few stars, but elsewhere the story for workers is depressingly familiar, and porn performers are doubly screwed, so to speak. They’re kept busy, as Burke details, creating new content—one-on-one interactions with customers in “camming” sessions, for example—to supplement the content they’re barely being paid for. But even that material often finds its way to free sites.
Whether ubiquitous pornography degrades or emancipates us, Burke writes, also depends on whom you talk with. She is less interested in porn as such than in the debates that people keep having about it—arguments about the ills of porn consumption that have only grown more polarized since Congress passed the first of many ineffectual curbs on the distribution of obscene material, back in 1842. In her wide-ranging book, Burke hopscotches among porn producers, viewers, activists, and various experts (including the self-appointed). At the core of her project are interviews with a smallish and nonrandom selection of those invested in these battles: 52 people who align themselves with the anti-porn cause, and 38 whom she calls “porn positive.” Approaching her subjects “with curiosity rather than judgment,” Burke mostly lets their competing views duke it out on the page, challenging myths on both sides while noting where those with divergent beliefs occasionally coincide.
Her anti-porn contingent is largely male, religious, and associated with porn-addiction recovery programs, some as clients, others as clinicians; she also spoke with nonaffiliated proselytizers and activists. Porn does physical and emotional harm to those who watch it, they maintain. Many think that it’s even biologically addictive, snaking its way into our brain and rewiring things. Or that the dopamine system’s response to online porn has the effect of fostering compulsive behavior—scientific-sounding theories abound. Here Burke intervenes to say that she’s found no definitive evidence for such neurobiological claims. But it’s also a thorny question to study under lab conditions, she points out: A subjective topic such as behavioral addiction is “all but impossible” to assess with objective measures like brain scans, and as the sociologist Gabriel Abend observes, the researchers themselves can never be neutral or objective about the morality of human behavior. As to whether we come equipped with hardwired brains dictating that males want to sever sex from romance while females dream of blissfully uniting the two, Burke gives the last word to Cordelia Fine, a psychologist who has spent her career debunking such theories: The word (Fine’s coinage) is neurosexism.