08-Undress-Porn
STATE OF POWER 2017

Power of Porn Cultures

Karen Gabriel

>> Español

The porn business is among the world’s most lucrative and fast-growing, easy-money operations.

In 2007, it was estimated that the industry generates an annual US$ 2.9 billion, mainly from male user–consumers.  A 2011 study stated that the global pornography revenue – including from sources like websites, magazines, cable TV, in-room hotel movies, and sex toys – was calculated at about US$ 97 billion in 2006. Paul Fishbein of the Adult Video News Media Network observes that approximately US$13 billion of this revenue was from the United States alone, despite an ostensible ‘slowdown in sex entertainment trade’.

Hilton, Jr and Watts note that the global porn revenue reportedly exceeds the combined revenue of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple, and Netflix. Furthermore, these figures do not include estimates of the child-pornography industry, a separate and distinct phenomenon that is beyond the scope of this essay.

With such revenues, and the fact that up to 11,000 porn films are produced each year in the United States alone (compared to about 400 Hollywood films), it appears that pornography is no longer a ‘sideshow’ but ‘the main event’. Nevertheless it is rarely analysed by social movements, liberals or progressives.

The Globalization of Porn

Declared and estimated revenues are important but not conclusive indicators of the size of the industry, which is very likely to exceed these figures. Dennis McAlpine, an analyst of the entertainment industry for nearly three decades, remarked in an interview with a US public television series, Frontline that:

There’s no reason for the adult entertainment companies to make themselves look bigger, unless they’re a Playboy who would like to look bigger. Most of them would like to say, ‘Oh, we’re just a small cottage industry. We’re struggling to survive’. ... They don’t want the notoriety of how much money they’ve made. That’s why you don't see most of them running around in the Rolls they keep that in the garage and take out on weekends. It draws too much attention to them. Then they’re afraid that there will be investigations, and that some of the so-called public interest groups will come back and start going after them.

Reliable figures about the porn industry are elusive for various other reasons.

First, the phenomenon of porn itself is uneven in its occurrence, production, distribution and consumption within and between countries.

Second, countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan, as well as most countries in the Middle East and North Africa (except Egypt), several African countries and Cuba have made partially or completely illegal to produce, distribute and in some cases even use–consume porn and hence do not generate figures.

Moreover, any available figures need to be generated, juxtaposed with thicker descriptors and carefully interpreted. For example, while in 2016 Pornhub identified India as having the third heaviest porn traffic in the world, it is not a key producer of porn, and possibly not even a customary or habitual consumer, even though it may be a key user–consumer in absolute terms.

What has tended to happen is that Internet penetration has been conflated with porn consumption, and racial–cultural stereotypes promote the understanding of ‘Indian’ society as sexually repressed and therefore with a proclivity for practices such as the consumption of porn.

I will not engage here with this categorization of Indian society or indeed the understandings of sexuality on which it is based, other than to note that India’s relatively heavy porn traffic may be simply a function of demographic size (India is the second most populous country in the world) rather than an indicator of a particular tendency to view porn. Moreover, unlike in many industrialized countries, the availability of Internet does not necessarily equate with its usage.

In fact, according to MetaCert, both the production and consumption of porn take place mainly in the industrialized world: in rank order, the top ten countries which host porn sites are the US (60%), the Netherlands (26%), UK (7%), Germany (1%), France (0.7%), Australia and Canada (both 0.3%), Japan (0.27%), British Virgin Isles and the Czech Republic (both 0.21%).

The greater per capita presence of porn connectivity and networks in industrialized countries may be attributed to logistical factors, such as reliable electricity, robust ICT infrastructure (networks, servers, optical cables, connectivity, bandwidth), hardware providing ready and affordable access to the Internet and digital content; and socio-cultural factors such as a greater acceptance of porn and porn cultures, the registers in which conversations regarding sexuality can or may happen, gender-sexual norms, the organization of gender-sexuality or the prevailing sexual economies.

Although not all of these circumstances apply equally and evenly, and despite the controversy surrounding them, porn and porn cultures have clearly expanded dramatically across the globe and their influence is everywhere: in advertising rife with sexual innuendo; on TV channels (such as FTV and AXN in India, that have been penalized for hosting obscene or objectionable sexual content); or in video games that are both hypersexualized and obscenely brutal (e.g. Gotcha, Custer’s Revenge, Grand Theft Auto, Dead or alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, RapeLay).

This phenomenon is quite unlike the long-standing use of sex to advertise and sell something other than itself. It is about an exponential increase in and normalization of specific kinds of sexual explicitness and content that used to be, and sometimes still are, considered obscene or pornographic.

This general and overt increase in the occurrence and acceptability of specific kinds of sexual themes and imagery in the public domain has been referred to as the ‘pornification’ of the media (the use of porn-like images in the depiction of everyday situations, such as in advertising cars or ice-cream); the ‘mainstreaming of pornography’ (the increasing acceptance of some kinds of porn as harmless, needing only adult monitoring, e.g. soft-core, especially heterosexual porn), the ‘pornification of culture’ (the increasing use of pornographic themes and situations in everyday cultural phenomena, such as TV serials, fashion), or the ‘pornographication of mainstream capitalist culture’ (seeing porn as a product of capitalism).

The expansion of porn and of porn cultures may be understood as a function of factors such as the emergence and expansion of the Internet; the processes of globalization, liberalization and privatization, including of the media and the expansion of ICT services, which in turn generated socio-economic crises such as growing precarity and national and transnational displacement and a range of other ‘push and pull’ factors;  and socio-cultural factors such as a spike in the number adults engaged in sex work and the greater acceptance of porn cultures and extended sexual horizons and expectations.

Politically-correct Porn?

There is a range of porn that claims to be ‘feminist’, aiming to redress concerns about mainstream production and labour practices, content and ethical issues. ‘Feminist’ pornographers claim to provide better working conditions, wages and health protection, and content that caters to ‘authentic’ women’s rather than men’s needs, desires and sexuality.

In terms of idiom, this typically indicates a slightly more prominent story line, changed point of view (POV), more filters, occasionally impeded visibility and less intrusive camera work. The claims that performers’ working conditions are more equitable and accommodating remain unverified.

In fact, notwithstanding the claims of ‘feminist’ pornographers like Tristan Taormino and Erika Lust, the economic and social realities of performers remain murky, the idioms more or less mainstream, and the profit imperative intact.

Commenting on Taormino’s ‘feminist’ pornography, whose claims are common to those ‘who produce, perform in, and/or support feminist pornography’, Rebecca Whisnant writes that ‘her work is burdened by thin and limited conceptions of feminism, authenticity, and sexual ethics, as well as by the profit-based exigencies of producing ‘‘feminist porn’’ within the mainstream pornography industry’.

Notwithstanding the claims of ‘feminist’ pornographers ..., the economic and social realities of performers remain murky, the idioms more or less mainstream, and the profit imperative intact.

Taormino herself has frequently commented on how the market and money have moulded her films.

In response to growing critiques about and scrutiny of economic inequalities and ethical issues regarding performers’ working conditions, pornographers now routinely speak of performers’ consent and choice.

The fetishization of race, class, and imperialism remain common and prominent in genres such as ‘gonzo’ and ‘pick-up’ porn, and categories like ‘Afro’, ‘Asian’, ‘Black and Asian’, ‘Blonde Teen’, ‘Arab’, ‘White’ and so on.

The play on race, male aggression and female submission are evident even in ‘feminist’ porn. Taormino’s ‘Rough Sex’ series exemplifies this, showing women being choked, slapped, gagged, spat on, degraded and weeping. Surprisingly, even the ‘money shot’ is often retained in porn that claims to be feminist.

These observations are not aimed at challenging the larger, very important feminist agenda of making possible the free and safe representation, articulation and practice of female desire and sexuality. Rather, they serve as a broad index of the insidious power with which the oppressive and exploitative ideologies that dominate the world of porn leech into attempts to critique and correct it.

Writing about the problems of ‘decolonizing the Indian mind’ the Indian critic, Namwar Singh, notes that, ‘the spirit that we seek to exorcise has thus infiltrated the very mantra through which we seek to exorcise it’. It is telling that a comment on the processes of decolonization can apply to the dominion of the pornographic imagination.

An added issue in the orientation and scope of discussions on porn is that so much of the sustained and sponsored research on the subject has been on the porn business in countries in which it is recognized as a legitimate activity (whether as a form of sex work, a type of filmmaking, or both).

These mainly comprise countries of the global ‘North’, in particular North America, Australia, Japan, the UK and other European countries. Consequently, there is a modest but growing body of empirical and analytical work on the porn business in these countries.

Yet despite the growing presence of various kinds of porn in the global ‘South’ and elsewhere, and their lucrative markets for promoting digital porn in particular, there is almost no corresponding work on these parts of the world.

Furthermore, and typical of the (imbalanced) powers of location, those working in the global ‘North’ often ignore, under-represent or denigrate relevant scholarship from the global ‘South’.

Consequently, diverse findings, observations, discursive frameworks and practices regarding the porn business – including its nature, scope and organization – and closely related issues, such as sexual practices, gender norms, economic conditions, laws and policies that are specific to the global ‘North’, become hegemonic, universalized and applied normatively to the global ‘South’.

This leads to three main consequences.

First, the material conditions within which the production, distribution and consumption of porn happen outside the global ‘North’ are obscured or ignored; second, the analytical and discursive frameworks through which porn is examined outside the global ‘North’  become dissociated from the context and site and end up being derivative; and third, conversations tend to become either abstractly moral or purely philosophical at the expense of more robustly contextual, data-driven, discursively layered debates.

It is vital to recognize that disparities in the methods of production, distribution and user–consumption bring their own complex dynamics that need to be factored into any analysis of the porn business.

Sunder Rajan observes, for instance, that the ‘liberationist postmodern position’ has framed both sex work and arguments for decriminalization and regulation in terms of ‘agency’, ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘rational choice’. Such a framework may not be appropriate in certain contexts in the global ‘South’, where exploitation, coercion and forms of family prostitution exist.

Moreover, migrants account for around 70% of people working as prostitutes in the European Union (EU), many of whom are undocumented or part of informal set-ups. There are persuasive arguments to consider porn as a significant link in the chain of sex work and prostitution, and not just as a representational genre.

The Porn Socio-Economy

Researchers have noted pornography’s links to not only to prostitution, trafficking and modern forms of slavery, but also to the alcohol and drug industries, the military, media networks and the corporate world.

They have found that in most of the world, the porn business is not organized and regulated.

It therefore uses often vulnerable women and men, as well as children, from wherever they are cheaply available, and so is closely linked to prostitution, trafficking and slavery; and a variety of industries and businesses use its products not just as entertainment (by the military or hospitality industries), but to promote sales, for instance of sexual performance-enhancing drugs by the pharmaceutical industry, or to reinforce anxieties about body types by the fashion industry.

There is more research, as well as its far greater acceptance, on areas of sex work such as prostitution and other kinds sexual transaction, than there is on pornography. One reason for this is the routine reduction of the field of pornography to its AV images.

Most research on porn treats it as a ‘purely’ textual–representational phenomenon, to be governed by laws pertaining to free speech and artistic freedom, rather than a socio-economic phenomenon – sex work – that would then be governed by a different set of criminal, civil and labour laws, and different systems of regulation. Despite the fact that cross-country studies show a strong bi-directional link ‘between pornography and prostitution’, pornography is rarely regarded as a link in the chain of sex work.

The pressure to treat the pornographic as a purely textual event or representational phenomenon comes through lobbies and through political, polemical and analytical arguments. Of course, it is much easier to study porn as a ‘pure’ text, divorced from the politics and conditions of its production and reception.

After all, the porn business is highly secretive, sometimes underground and often on the margins of illegality or criminality. It is very difficult to gain access to its key actors – be they performers, producers or distributors.

Most research on porn treats it as a ‘purely’ textual...phenomenon..rather than a socio-economic phenomenon

In the specific case of online porn, there are conceptual and analytical problems like understanding the operational dynamics of the Internet, and the logistical problem of tracking. Consequently, there is limited information on the material conditions within which porn is produced, distributed and consumed.

Moreover, Johnson notes that, ‘According to Google, there are over one trillion pages of content on the web today whereas there were only 26 million just 10 years ago; there has been a 40,000 fold increase in the size of the web in just a decade’.

These epistemic fault lines and knowledge gaps are likely to endure for a while, since the research on porn, besides being uneven, is often actively discouraged.

Notwithstanding the size of the business or the fact that it is being ‘normalized’ as a mainstream phenomenon, the study of pornography is routinely stigmatized, as if the study of the phenomenon is tantamount to its practice: the general imputation of sleaziness, immorality, even debauchery and criminality attributed to the field, is extended to the research and researcher.

 

Porn Inc. – the corporations driving the industry

 

The stigma associated with the porn business and its reduction to its texts and images result in its being effectively dislocated from the complex, dense and lucrative chain of commercial sexual activities within which it is actually located.

Most of the industry is privately owned, whether by individuals or private corporations, a fact that contributes to its characteristic secrecy. The links between the corporate world and the porn business were amply clear in Francis Koenig’s porno-capitalism initiative.

Koenig, a former Wall Street hedge-fund executive, is founder, President and CEO of the adult-oriented private equity firm AdultVest, which has sought to promote legitimize and mainstream ‘sin stocks’ since 2005, by matching big-money investors with adult entertainment companies.

In November 2013, Vicex Fund was advertised as the ‘only pure sin stock mutual fund’, with assets of almost US$ 211.17 million invested in 97 holdings, including Philip Morris, Lorillard, British American Tobacco (BAT), defence and weapons giants like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, beer companies such as Carlsberg A/S and Molson Coors, and some gambling sites. While these investments are played down and largely anonymized, they are increasingly openly marketed as attractive, acceptable and recession-proof.

 Years ago ABC News disclosed that companies like General Motors, AOL Time Warner and Marriott earn revenue by piping adult movies into US homes and hotel rooms, without revealing this in their company reports.

According to Chris Hedges:

General Motors owns DIRECTV, which distributes more than 40 million streams of porn into American homes every month. AT&T Broadband and Comcast Cable are currently the biggest American Companies accommodating porn users with the Hot Network, Adult Pay Per View and similarly themed services.

Johnson remarks on the connections between pornography and mainstream companies:

Both AVN and X-Biz publish business reports chronicling which companies, websites and brands are doing business with each other. These reports document new and established connections between and among both pornography and mainstream companies.

Many the major hotel chains, including Marriott, Hilton and Westin, used to derive revenue from adult films without mentioning it in their company reports.

In 2001 ABC News reported that adult movies were available in around 40% of all hotel rooms in the US and elsewhere, and the participating hotels shared the revenue with the in-room entertainment companies that provide the TVs and the content. With the arrival of digital porn, hotels provide full Internet access either free or for a modest fee.

The growth of the Internet also facilitated the expansion of amateur porn. This form of porn soon began to blur the lines between ‘real’ and ‘enacted’ sex, not least because its rapid popularity led professional pornographers to produce a kind of amateur-like, professionally produced porn – with new, unknown faces, camcorders and documentary-style filming – that came to be called ‘gonzo porn’, distributed and sold in the same way as professional porn.

Also, while a substantial amount of amateur porn was, and continues to be, freely uploaded, enterprising amateurs also started selling their own visuals (films and stills), on websites that began to cater specifically to this demand.

Furthermore, as Johnston demonstrates, the very organization of the Internet facilitates the commercialization of even ostensibly ‘free’ content, as  pornographic websites continue to earn money from affiliates to which it directs traffic. This traffic is monetized through traffic brokers – most of which do not even visit the sites in their affiliate networks.

The transnational processes of technological, media and platform convergence ...[is] building a formidable convergence of patriarchal and capitalist business interests and strategies

John Straw, author of iDisrupted and chair of Thomas Cook’s Digital Advisory Board, highlights a different aspect of the relation between mainstream operations and porn. He observes that, ‘porn will be the driving force behind mainstream consumer adoption of virtual reality [VR] headset devices’, such as the Oculus Rift, Sony Project Morpheus, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, Microsoft HoloLens and Razer OSVR.

He notes, for instance, that platforms such as VHS won the war against Sony Betamax because the porn industry adopted the format. He believes the same will happen with VR devices,  where ‘what will drive standard adoption again is porn’.

One of the key requirements for effective and viable porn technology – especially of the immersive VR type – is privacy. This underpins the continued technological migration away from shared household devices towards single-use smartphones and tablets, which facilitate the transfer of ‘more enhanced, tailored content … onto these personal devices’.

Other concerns regarding distribution, privacy, device reliability, affordability, and secure and efficient methods of payment, are addressed in collaboration with the ICT companies, most of which are multinational corporations (MNCs).

The transnational processes of technological, media and platform convergence that characterize the communications industry have substantially enabled this,  facilitating the use of porn on personal consumer devices (such as smartphones and computers) and via different delivery chains (print and online), and so building a formidable convergence of patriarchal and capitalist business interests and strategies.

Sexual liberation or neoliberal exploitation

The proponents of porn interpret the proliferation of sexual explicitness as testimony to the democratization of desire in a manner of speaking, a result of growing sexual openness and gender equality.

They argue that the existence, growth and increased visibility of porn are welcome signs of a democratizing socio-polity and an enabling politico-economic regime.

Those who critique porn frequently invoke the principle of harm. They draw links between sexual exploitation and pornography and between these and structural violence, impoverishment, the violence of transnationalization, the increased the vulnerability of women and children to commercial-sex industries, and changing sexual cultures.

Porn may be understood as a cultural phenomenon that manifests the nexus between a set of institutions (e.g. commercial, media, ICT); gendered practices; the organization of sexuality; directly linked phenomena like sexual exploitation; indirectly linked phenomena like criminal networks, the grey economy and their conduits; representational idioms; and the gendering and sexualization of power within and between these.

Interestingly, both the corporate sector and technological change are conceptualized and discussed in gender-neutral ways. Jeff Hearn notes that, ‘MNCs are typically constructed as gender-neutral, without gender in – everyday discourse, research, media and political debate’. In actual fact, ‘MNCs, and their organization and management are one of the taken-for-granted elements of transnational hegemony of men within transpatriarchies’.

Porn may be understood as a cultural phenomenon that manifests the nexus between a set of institutions (e.g. commercial, media, ICT), [the broader socio-political economy]...representational idioms; and the gendering and sexualization of power within and between these.

Hearn, and also Connell and Messerschmidt, have argued that ICTs are also very much a male arena. In many transnational movements, both physical and virtual, particular groups of men are the most powerful actors.

Hearn notes that despite or perhaps because they are thought of as virtual, ‘ICTs are not disembodied technologies but operate in local social practices’. In other words, ICTs are not just texts but exist within and create material social and sexual relations.

ICTs have produced hugely successful historical transformations in promoting global trafficking and sexual exploitation of women in supplying encyclopaedic information on prostitution, and the (re)constitution and delivery of the sex trade…. Pornographers are also leaders in developing Internet privacy and secure payment services….

Viewers can interact with DVD movies similarly to video games, giving the man apparently more active role. The ‘real’ and the ‘representational’ converge; and the sexual commodification can proceed apace.

Hearn’s 2009 observations about the convergence of the real and the representational have even greater import today in relation to the growing phenomenon of live sex shows. These have piggybacked on the increasing use – and hence the increasing technological facilitation – of live videoconferencing (VC) via the Internet, as well as the popularity of amateur porn noted earlier.

In its pornographic form, VC involves buying live sex shows, which the (usually male) user–consumer can often direct. It is estimated to be earning US$ 1 billion, annually, and the revenue is growing. While this appears to be largely voluntary in the US, ‘for many, especially outside the United States, “camming” is a form of exploitation and even sex trafficking’.

It is also increasingly evident that evolving and new forms of sex work are deeply gendered, with women, girls and vulnerable persons being the worst-off, often racialized category of the precariat, performing the riskiest jobs.

It is only by locating the practice in its own context, rather than in terms and frameworks produced elsewhere, that a clearer picture emerges of the forces at work in the production, dissemination and use–consumption of porn.

Perhaps most troublingly, the phenomenal growth of porn facilitated by ICTs and the Internet, and of new, more interactive, more ‘real’ forms, drawing on cutting-edge VR technology, increasingly and insistently blur the distinctions between ‘reality’ and ‘representation’, ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’, ‘free’ and ‘paid’.

These developments may be seen as indications of the growing extent to which porn is shaping gender and sexuality, not just as cultural capital but also as ‘real’ capital, through the systems of monetization offered by the Internet.

As technology makes it easier, and also far more private and intimate than ever before to access porn, porn is serving as the vehicle for the delivery of these new cultural capitals, directly into the most private and intimate experiences of its user–consumers.

This process echoes the familiar ways in which finance capital has evolved and spread, as neoliberalism develops. For example, Google profits from sharing information rather than from conventional products.

This has far-reaching implications, not only for how porn user–consumers will practise their gender and sexuality, as the lines between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ become ever more blurred, but also for how such porn is produced – for the ‘performers’, and for how their gendering and sexualization will be shaped by the demands of porn and pornification.

The fast-growing phenomenon of video sex-chats, for instance – where (mostly) women strip, masturbate and ‘chat’ their (mostly) paying male clientele to orgasm, over a live video feed – exemplifies the blurring of boundaries between the actual and the virtual, the real and the representational, and between sex work and porn work. The various (often deeply gendered and racialized) aspects and implications of these developments need to be carefully assessed and analyzed, as the idiom of porn, if not porn itself, gradually becomes ubiquitous.

 

This article is a product of research conducted by the writer on a Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship (IIF), funded by the European Union.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karen Gabriel is Director of the Centre for Gender, Culture and Social Processes, St Stephen’s College, and Associate Professor of English at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. She has just concluded a project on the industrial-commercial bases of pornography in India and The Netherlands. She was affiliated with the International Institute of Social Studies-Erasmus University of Rotterdam, The Hague, as a Marie Curie International Incoming Senior Research Fellow, for the duration of this project. She has written extensively on issues of gender, sexuality, cinema, nation and representation.

karen gabriel photo