A Look Into Pornography in the Digital Age

The realm of depicting sexual content has existed since prehistoric times; from Mesopotamian artifacts depicting explicit heterosexual sex to Roman erotic art found in the aftermath of large-scale excavations of Pompeii in the 1860s.[1][2] However in 1857, the world’s first law criminalizing pornography was born in the UK, followed by an American equivalent in 1873. These laws made the sale of obscene material a statutory offense, giving the courts power to seize and destroy offending material and made it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” material through the mail. However, neither the English nor the United States Act defined what constituted “obscene”, leaving this for the courts to determine. This lack of clarity about what constitutes pornography remains today. 

Production of pornographic films commenced almost immediately after the birth of the motion picture in 1895.[3] Despite these explicit films opening up producers and distributors to prosecution, in 1969, Denmark became the first country to abolish censorship, which led to an explosion in investment and commercially produced pornography. Meanwhile, it continued to be banned in other countries. Nonetheless, and also in 1969, Blue Movie by Andy Warhol, was the first adult film depicting explicit sex to receive wide theatrical release in the United States, making it a seminal film in the Golden Age of Porn.[4] 

Over the past few decades, there has been an increase in pornography viewing ascribable to the widespread public access to the World Wide Web in the late 1990s. The debut of home video and the Internet saw a surge in the worldwide porn industry that generates billions of dollars annually. Commercialized pornography and associated products account for over US$2.5 billion in the United States alone and the general porn industry is between $10–$12 billion in the U.S.[5][6]

More recently, so-called tube sites such as Pornhub, RedTube, and YouPorn emerged as a result of technology advancement revolutionizing a lot about the way people create and consume pornography. Online advertizing redefined the way money was made and despite many people still being prepared to pay to access adult content, online ads meant that those hosting this content didn’t have to rely on its revenue alone. However, these sites often aggregated stolen pornographic content, disseminated it for free, and claimed the revenue from banner and video ads, presenting a significant challenge to the commercial pornographic industry. Consequently, studios were constrained to selling themselves to the tube sites at fire-sale prices as they lacked the capital and connections to sue their most threatening adversaries out of business. The biggest of these adversaries being MindGeek – the largest pornographic conglomerate owning both free and paid websites, an advertizing network, and major professional porn studios.

Photo by Charles on Unsplash

The Birth of The Tube

Through the 2010s, many pornographic production companies were acquired by MindGeek. The ‘crown jewel of the MindGeek empire’ – Pornhub (perhaps the most popular tube site in the world) – is supplied with content from numerous in-house production companies including Brazzers.com, Reality Kings, and Men.com. MindGeek is one of the top three consumers of bandwidth in the world and has been deemed a monopoly, putting industry members in the paradoxical position of working for the very company that profits from the piracy of their work. In fact, the company has both brought and defended copyright lawsuits for hosting pirated content.[7]

Unsurprisingly, the wide prevalence of free pornography today and the revolutionization of the industry can be attributed to none other than Fabian Thylmann the founder and managing partner of MindGeek.[8] In the late 1990s, Thylmann created NATS (Next-generation Administration management & Tracking System), a software that is essentially the framework through which pay per click advertizing operates and allows content owners to be paid commission when people click the ads on their websites. In 2010, Fabian bought the assets of Mansef, a Montreal based adult website company that had just started Pornhub.[9] Mansef then allowed users to upload their videos, which were almost all stolen from the original creators, only to then track clicks and make money from the ads that ran alongside them, consequently exploiting the slow-paced traditional porn industry and its performers. This transformation can be seen as a result of their A/B testing approach and their categorization of content in specific searchable terms, allowing individuals to instantly find exactly what they were looking for. 

After reinvesting $362 million and buying most of the biggest studios and distributors in the industry, Fabian sold his stake in Manwin to the senior management of the company for $100 million, who then renamed it MindGeek. This, we can assume, has little to do with his extradition from Belgium to Germany on suspicion of tax evasion in 2012, and his indictment in 2015 by the Cologne federal prosecutor on tax evasion charges, which were dropped after his payment of 5 million euros. 

Nonetheless, this grand expansion gave MindGeek access to an enormous amount of data, revealing the things people were interested in and facilitating the creation of content specifically designed to suit these needs in their newly acquired studios. Since relevance has become key for any business’s success in the 21st century, this data-driven approach has prompted the creation and propagation of more extreme and hardcore content to keep consumers coming back, and fundamentally changing the industry forever. 

Photo by Charles on Unsplash

Behind Closed Doors

In a 2016 article published by The Atlantic titled ‘How Porn Leads People to Upgrade Their Tech’, Patchen Barss – author of The Erotic Engine, a book chronicling the history of pornography’s effects on mass communication – said that porn companies ‘create an initial market that allows [technologies] to develop to the point where they’re ready for the mainstream’.[10] He highlights that once technologies and platforms reach mainstream status, they may become less favorable to adult content, and the social stigma attached to porn has repeatedly drawn consumers to new, largely untested inventions as they provide better privacy. 

Similarly to the way social media has broken the barriers between creators and consumers, technological developments such as the camcorder destroyed the traditional distinction between producers, distributors, and consumers. Once the internet-enabled simple data transferring, the general public could also participate in generating, sharing, and even making money from explicit content. In fact, Barss expressed that the social aspect of this relationship was what surprised him the most during his research, saying ‘pornography driving technology has been as much about people finding new ways to connect to others as it has been about people finding more private ways to consume pornography.’

This finding sheds some light on a recently emerging technologically-driven trend in sex work – ‘camming’. Camming is essentially an online strip show where performers use their webcam to broadcast themselves to anyone in their chat room. Performers usually set tipping goals and the more viewers tip, the more unveils on screen, creating a very intimate, although transactional, dynamic between the viewer and the performer. Despite once regarded as not worth the time for many adult stars, the monopolization of studios and production companies has propelled performers into camming, especially as the industry now generates upwards of $2 billion in annual revenue worldwide, according to Stephen Yagielowicz, a spokesperson for XBIZ, the adult industry’s leading business publication.[11]

Unlike traditional pornography, camming is also more resilient to piracy as its value lies in its personalization and interactivity. It is much safer and empowers performers to reclaim control over their working conditions, hours, and income. At the same time, however, the Internet-driven porn industry also lacks benefits such as healthcare insurance or paid-leave and cam companies, which host performers, can demand incredibly high commissions. Not to forget the stigma, isolation, and the perpetual possibilities of scams, harassment, intimidation, and blackmail that come with the adult industry.

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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

All in all, the prevalence of free and easily accessible pornography presents many precarious implications. The scholarly study of pornography, notably in cultural studies, is alarmingly limited, and the first peer-reviewed academic journal about the study of pornography – Porn Studies – was only published in 2014.[12] But why is that the case? 

For starters, we have yet to conclusively define what constitutes ‘obscenity’, let alone what can be characterized as pornography. Different types of pornography have been found to have different effects in viewers and confirmation bias has been abundant on both sides of the discussion due to societal taboos surrounding the matter. Additionally, most of the studies have been correlational rendering it difficult to establish causation or to say whether pornography is indeed changing or reinforcing attitudes. To be able to do that, we would need to conduct randomized, controlled experiments, where young people are exposed to violent pornography in a lab and the effects are observed. This understandably comes with its own ethical conundrum.

In 2016, the Children’s Commissioner and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) published a ‘quantitative and qualitative examination of the impact of online pornography on the values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of children and young people’.[13] In it, they disclose that about 53% of 11- to 16-year-olds have seen explicit material online and that 28% of these had initially accessed it accidentally after clicking a pop-up ad. In terms of their affective and cognitive responses, the report states that some respondents felt curious (41%), shocked (27%), or confused (24%) on first viewing. When asked how they now feel about said content if they still view, 30% remained curious, 8% remained shocked, and 4% remained confused, suggesting repeated viewing has a desensitizing effect on some respondents.

A report from 2016 found that viewing a greater proportion of unprotected sex on-screen was associated with engaging in more unprotected sex (just as viewing a greater proportion of protected sex was associated with the use of protection).[14] Furthermore, statistics presented by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, examining cosmetic procedures in over 106 countries, showed that labiaplasty is the world’s fastest-growing cosmetic surgery, rising by 45% in 2016. Surprisingly, it was also shown that over 200 girls under 18 underwent the procedure, with over 150 of them being under 15.[15] These numbers only count for the procedures completed by the NHS, so there is no indication of how many girls had the surgery privately. 

While independently the studies referenced do not prove that pornography causes harm, when taken in totality the converging evidence overwhelmingly suggests that pornography is correlated with a broad array of harms that adversely impact public health. However, it is important to note that all of these findings cannot and should not exclusively inculpate pornography, as tempting as that may be, as it is a result of our society and will not be going anywhere anytime soon. Forensic psychologist Miranda Horvath believes it is time to give up looking for cause and effect and instead ‘focus on identifying young people’s characteristics, vulnerabilities, and strengths and how and why they might be related to their experiences of pornography.’ The next step, she argues, is for researchers to broaden their questions to consider pornography in a wider context.[16]

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Reclaiming Power Over The Erotic

It is of scientific consensus that a combination of comprehensive sex education and access to birth control appears to decrease the rates of unintended pregnancies among teenagers and it is no surprise that abstinence-only programs did not reduce the likelihood of pregnancy, but rather may have increased it, compared with comprehensive sex education.[17][18] According to the UNFPA, ‘A 2010 review found that ‘gender-focused’ curricula – meaning curricula that integrate gender equality into the learning material – were substantially more effective in reducing risky behaviors than those that did not consider gender.’[19] Additionally, young people adopting egalitarian attitudes about gender roles has resulted in delayed sexual initiation, the use of condoms, and the practice of contraception. 

These findings, amongst many others, unambiguously point to the important role of sexual education in combating the issues we face today. Unfortunately, few sexual health interventions are designed with input from adolescents, who themselves state the importance of sex-ed being more positive with less emphasis on anatomy and scare tactics; suggesting it should focus on negotiation skills in sexual relationships and communication. And they are very right. The UNFPA recommends comprehensive sexuality education for its ability to empower young people to make informed decisions about their sexuality. According to UNFPA,

It is taught over several years, introducing age-appropriate information consistent with the evolving capacities of young people. It includes scientifically accurate, curriculum-based information about human development, anatomy, and pregnancy. It also includes information about contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. And it goes beyond information, to encourage confidence and improved communication skills. Curricula should also address the social issues surrounding sexuality and reproduction, including cultural norms, family life, and interpersonal relationships.

Comprehensive Sexuality Education according to the UNFPA

Personally, I find this approach to be crucial if we, as a global community, wish to take progressive strides in expanding our knowledge and improving our relationship with the erotic in the light of online pornography. I haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to exploring the reverberations online pornography has on our society. Especially when many of these effects stem from something much more deeply-rooted.

The perspective we are socialized into (and thereby perpetuate) has led to an epidemic of internalized fear and shame that prevents us from truly delving into the intricate matter at hand. Of course, the nuance is never-ending when it comes to cultural and religious perspectives on sex, but the world is increasingly globalizing and the Internet is merely a tool in our arsenal that we need to master. Through open communication and further research, I feel we are far more likely to reap the benefits we wish to see.

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