The Pornography Paradox
Reformers fear that ever more outré sites are warping users’ desires. But transgression has always been part of the appeal.
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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.
Burke’s anti-porn interviewees—a “strange alliance,” she observes, evenly split along lines of political ideology—also include a secular wing of feminists who lean more on arguments about misogyny and the commodification of sex. Women’s pleasure, they say, is left behind or inauthentically performed to please men. Burke again pushes back: This sort of activism rests on what she considers weak grounds—personal distinctions between good and bad sex, and presumptions about “what authentic sexuality for women should look like.”
Even porn-addiction discourse, she astutely observes, reproduces gender inequality. A woman who likes porn is more readily pathologized than a man who likes porn, her taste seen as a sign of past trauma or victimization. Among men, Burke writes, overindulgence in porn is often chalked up to a strong sex drive, and their efforts to kick the habit are seen as proof of triumph over natural urges. In her view, there’s already more than enough shame and penance-seeking to go around.
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Burke focuses in particular on the growing number of Millennial men committed to overcoming “fapping,” an onomatope for masturbation. (A Reddit forum called NoFap has nearly 1 million followers.) Among the book’s eyebrow-raising revelations is how heavily porn-addiction rhetoric, especially the versions emphasizing purity and abstention, figures in white-nationalist and incel online communities, where porn’s ubiquity is blamed on liberals, feminists, socialists, and Jews (interchangeable villains for this crowd). Actually, plenty of liberal feminists and Jewish socialists are no doubt alarmed themselves that porn-watching is replacing the challenges of three-dimensional sex and real-life relationships for generations of young men.
Burke has the gift of being supremely unruffled about even the most incendiary of subjects, including whether children—first exposed to online porn, according to reports, at ages 10 to 15—are being damaged by pornography, a concern that brings her opposing camps closest together. “All the educators, therapists, religious leaders, and activists I interviewed, regardless of their position on porn,” she writes, “agreed that it makes for bad sex education,” especially the free streaming fare to which kids have readiest access. All emphasize the need for better parent-child communication about porn, including the sex worker and sex educator Andre Shakti, even as she also insists that porn is entertainment, not an instruction manual: “We don’t take our kids to see Fast and the Furious and then expect them to learn how to drive like Vin Diesel.”
Anti-porn allies, alarmed by the normalizing of acts, such as facial ejaculation, that teen girls can feel pressure to go along with, endorse a strategy of inculcating the dangers of porn, starting very early (see a “bad picture,” and “turn, run, and tell!”). Some favor removing all electronic devices from children’s bedrooms at night, the digital-age equivalent of Victorians prescribing anti-masturbation gadgets. The “sex positive” approach, born of concern about dating and sexual violence, encourages “porn literacy” rather than avoidance, guiding parents in discussing the difference between real sex and porn sex with their teens. The progressives and social scientists Burke talks with tend to be realists: Sexually explicit media abound in our society, and porn is hardly the single source of all misogyny and bad sex; the priority should be teaching about consent and context. Conservatives (of both the religious and secular stripes) stress harm: “Pornography gets inside your brain and hurts it,” a Christian-themed picture book for children ages 6 and up instructs.
Among Burke’s “porn positive” interviewees, most of whom are women and secular, the focus in general is less on porn consumption than on the production end of the industry. She speaks with sex workers and activists who bridle at the recent conflation of the anti-porn movement with the anti-trafficking movement, which has meant the conflation of all sex work with trafficking. It reduces consent to an impossibility—a paternalism that Burke balks at too. Meanwhile, activists take issue with credit-card companies’ decision to cut ties with Pornhub, arguing that the move won’t significantly diminish its profits (which come from ads) or reduce the posting of nonconsensual videos; it will, though, directly affect legal and consenting porn performers, many of whom have turned to the internet in search of greater safety and control over their work.
Burke also hears from a feminist pornographer who says that taking control of the camera is a way of reclaiming her own sexuality, and from an industry-reform group that has published a “Performer Bill of Rights” that prioritizes consent. The problem, they themselves acknowledge, is that the “feminist” and “ethical” porn produced by porn progressives ends up as just another niche category on porn sites, jostling for views with “anal” and “Asian.” No one should conclude that the reformists are reshaping the industry: Burke has some pretty horrifying and no doubt all-too-common tales about the ongoing sexual and financial exploitation of young women trying to break into the business; they’re ripe for manipulation by anyone who calls himself a “manager” (whose managerial duties might include casting himself as the male lead in his client’s first film).
Another hitch for those attempting to move “ethically” through the maze of online porn is that our sexual desires don’t always line up with our values or our politics. A queer feminist sociologist bemoans being less aroused by homegrown feminist porn than by the nasty mainstream stuff, despite being appalled by the sexism, racism, and terrible labor practices. A Christian woman who says she is a masturbation addict found she had to quit watching even such profoundly anti-libidinal TV shows as The Handmaid’s Tale, lest she slip. That’s the problem with having an imagination: Anything can be porn. And the porn that turns you on doesn’t necessarily correspond to the sexual identity you embrace: Recall the poignantly hilarious scene in The Kids Are All Right in which the two gay-mom characters watch gay-male porn to try to perk up their sex life. In 2017, Pornhub said that 37 percent of its viewers of gay-male porn were women.
As someone who is occasionally baffled by why I choose the subjects I do, I always wonder about the personal impetus for ostensibly scholarly book projects. Burke doesn’t leave us in the dark about hers. As a teenage born-again Christian, she discovered that she liked looking at her father’s hidden stash of Playboys, knowing she was committing “the sin of lust” and also beset by queer fantasies—“homosexual perversion,” in the language of her adopted tribe. Now grown, she’s devoted her academic career to navigating the same antipodes: “Sociology became the tool I used to make sense of my sexuality and religious faith and the persistent ways that sex and religion collide more broadly in American culture and politics.”
Though I count Burke as fortunate to have been saddled with such a productive dilemma, I also wonder if those teenage prohibitions led to certain conceptual lacunae as she mapped her inquiries. Because of her focus on the pitched battle, you’ll search in vain to find anyone in her pages, male or female, who simply likes porn without needing to turn it into a therapeutic mission or a cause. Nor will you learn anything much from Burke about the actual content of porn, although after sifting through studies, she concludes that 21st-century porn is more violent than earlier porn, and that the victims of that violence are disproportionately people from marginalized groups. (Of course, popular culture in general has become more violent, which goes unmentioned.) The details that do surface suggest some interesting untapped themes. Incest porn was among the top searches on Pornhub in 2014, she notes in passing. What might be said—aside from hot stepmoms being a perennial fantasy—is that porn has always been dedicated to taboo-smashing and impropriety, which may be something we rule-saddled humans like about it.
But, as if looking too hard at porn might still be verboten, Burke shies away from thinking very much about why, aside from the obviously compelling fapping opportunities it supplies, such large numbers of people are as devoted to pornography as they are. You won’t catch her wondering whether there may be more complexities and emotional lures to the experience—perhaps even a few deeper human yearnings.
Those lures bring me to the other issue I kept expecting Burke to take up, given how thoroughly religiosity permeates her work: the terrain that porn and religion share. To be sure, religion offers purposes and consolations that are alien to porn. Yet both address a common desire—to get outside ourselves, to break free of this world, if only temporarily. Porn doesn’t have to be read only literally: Women can fantasize about being men and men women, and about rebelling in other potentially liberating, and dangerous, ways. And porn-on-demand promises abundance (whatever you want, whenever you want it), unboundedness (a world without inhibitions), maybe even a little transcendence, or at least an escape hatch.
In an essay titled “Tongues Untied: Memoirs of a Pentecostal Boyhood,” the Yale literary and queer theorist Michael Warner, now an atheist, writes that “religion does things that secular culture can only approximate.” Without wanting to reduce religion to sex, he nevertheless finds overlap, as have others, Georges Bataille and Harold Bloom among them. Religion offers rapture; it “makes available a language of ecstasy”; it gives us the “strobe-light alternation of pleasure and obliteration.” As does sex at its most intense.
Though Christianity is always pretty queer in Warner’s telling (“Jesus was my first boyfriend”), his teenage struggles sound quite similar to Burke’s. The “two kinds of ecstasy” on offer became an agonizing dilemma for him as well; having to choose, on a nightly basis, between orgasm and religion was excruciating: “God, I felt sure, didn’t want me to come.” At the same time, religion’s celebration of ecstasy offered a way of understanding “transgressions against the normal order of the world” as a good thing.
Burke takes a less transgression-celebrating path to reconciling her own antinomies. The anti-porn and porn-positive camps she’s been chronicling actually care about the same things, she concludes: “human rights, sexual consent, and living a fulfilling life.” Everyone wants to achieve “a real and authentic sexuality” and break away from the “fake sex that surrounds us.” Her perspective is reassuring, and no doubt the authenticity of tender, caring sex with another person has much to recommend it. But it’s out of reach for many, and even the sound of it is a little tedium-inducing.
Pornography’s immense audience suggests that a lot of us would like some respite from authenticity, too. Porn offers a world where you don’t have to deal with other people’s personalities and expectations just to have sex, a world where (even more fantastically) men and women want the same things in bed, a world where (as in the Freudian unconscious) there’s no “no” or sexual scarcity. It’s utopian in the truest sense: a world that doesn’t exist.
Nor will a world ever exist in which the great porn wars are settled—a world where sexual morality triumphs, or a world without sexual prohibitions. The combatants themselves, Burke found in the course of her interviews, are well aware of this. No one thinks they’ll win this fight. What both sides do mostly agree on is that the porn sites everyone would be better off without are the ones you can stream for free. Now just convince the users.
This article appears in the May 2023 print edition with the headline “The Pornography Paradox.”
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