16 March, 2020

Porn Restriction for Realists

A screenshot of a "Girls Do Porn" video uploaded by a pseudonymous user. An American court charged "Girls Do Porn" with sexual trafficking, but these videos are still uploaded on to Pornhub by anonymous users every day (I found this video after about 30 seconds of googling and took a screen shot of it on 15 March 2020). 
Since returning to the United States several months ago I have spent a great deal of time interacting with American conservatives, especially young American conservatives. They are at the center of the intellectual civil war that now divides the American right. These divides and debates are important. I wager that what the right is going through now parallels what it went through in the '60s and '70s. How these debates are decided will shape the future of the right as a political and cultural force for decades to come. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what these things might mean for the future.

Over the next few months my thoughts will be laid out in a series of different essays and articles. Most will not be published on this blog, but for various magazines and dailies.  One of the over-arching themes of this series is that the debates conservatives are having are not really about the things they claim they are debating. One of the most obvious examples of this has been the four month long spat over banning porn. I am not at all convinced than any of the major participants are actually interested in using the suite of social, economic, and political tools available to lessen pornography's grip on American society. There is a level of unreality to almost all of the things written about the problem, especially on twitter.  Sohrab Ahmari's declaration "the Founding generation would likely have reacted to Pornhub not with high-libertarian nostrums, but with tar and feathers" is a perfect example of the phenomena. These anti-porn manifestos are not about taking Big Porn down; they are about racking up cheap rhetorical points against other factions of the right. The porn debate is fundamentally about this sort of symbolics; when things are said and done, nothing is at stake here but abstract philosophical ideas. Debates like this are pantomimes designed to show-case each party's vision of "the common good." They are very far removed from actually achieving any good, common or otherwise.

Why so many conservatives have latched onto this "common good" frame will be a topic for a future piece. Today it is enough to note that in the American system no vision of the "common good" will go anywhere unless said vision is actually common. 45% of the American public does not believe that viewing porn is wrong in any way whatsoever. There is no evidence a significant percentage of the remainder want to ban it entirely.

A second difficulty is that banning porn is simply hard to do. Consider the examples of various Asian nations that have tried their hand at the art. Japanese pornographers get around Japanese obscenity laws by filming their scenes with select organs blurred; South Korea's anti-porn legal regime simply shifted the focus of the industry from hardcore shorts to film-length softcore erotica (think Basic Instinct). I am sure South Korean legislators did not intend to create the world's premier soft erotica media complex when they created instituted these laws, but nevertheless this is what happened! The Chinese example is little better. There the draconian power of active state censorship has been unleashed on everyone on their side of the Great Firewall, but it has had little practical effect. Hardly a Chinese man under 40 is not a habitual viewer of pornography, and plenty of it is in Chinese.

So an outright ban of pornography is neither politically feasible nor practically possible. The best we can hope to do is try and create a more restrictive online environment than currently exists. This is the thesis of a piece I've have out at the Washington Examiner, which explains what such an environment might look like:
A successful anti-pornography campaign will have to operate within these constraints. That will mean attempting to create a more restrictive online environment than now exists, one where it is substantially more difficult for children to get ahold of pornography, where only adults willing to pay for it can access it, and the industry is held liable for the abuses that it profits from. 
Not too long ago, such an environment was easy to imagine. In the late '90s and early aughts, the adult film industry was very different than it is today. The industry made most of its money through DVD sales or gated websites that required users to pay to access content. Individual performers could create their own sites and make millions through subscriptions, and free pornography was difficult to get ahold of. That world is no more. Performers labor as peons to an unethical global monopoly, and free pornography is everywhere. 
The change was largely the result of technology, and specifically, the ability of websites to host and stream video cheaply. The same developments that made YouTube possible made a host of “tube” pornography sites possible as well. Like YouTube, these websites host free, user-generated content, although in reality, much of their content is pirated from the gated sites.

The company responsible for this state of affairs is Mindgeek, which owns Pornhub and a host of other popular tube sites. In the late aughts, Mindgeek created a half-dozen tube sites and then used the ad profits it made from pirated material to buy out large but struggling studios. By the mid-2010s, the company had a vice grip on the entire industry. Performers now work at a fraction of the wages that they would have earned in 2000. They are filmed by Mindgeek-owned studios, have their performances released by Mindgeek-owned distributors, and then have the same films pirated and uploaded onto Mindgeek-owned tube sites.

The sheer evil of this entire process was put on display in 2019 by a court case filed against a Pornhub content channel named "Girls Do Porn." The channel's producers lied to the women in their videos, asking them to sign complicated, fine-print-filled contracts (some while drunk, others while still legally minors) that gave the producers the right to upload the finished product on “tube” sites, even as they told the girls involved that the scenes they were about to film would only appear in “DVDs for ‘private collectors’ in Australia and New Zealand.” The videos were instead uploaded to a channel that has racked up some 677 million total views. Mindgeek knew about the problem for months but would not remove the channel until the producers were indicted on sex trafficking charges. And although Mindgeek eventually took the “official” videos down, it still presides over a media ecosystem in which pirated copies of them will live on forever. Our task is not to ban adult material but to ban the business model that allows companies like Mindgeek to prosper. [2]

I think that there is a lot to gain from shifting our attack from an industry to a business model. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, a world where the tube-sites are gone and people must go back to paying for their porn is a significant improvement over the world we live in now. This world is possible: it existed two decades ago. Technological change is part of what happened, but only part. Just as important in the creation of the new, porn-flushed world we live are legal protections given to websites like PornHub and X Hamster which allow them to dodge liability for the theft their business model is based on. It also allows them to dodge liability for much worse sins.

I submitted this piece to editors long before the BBC reported the story of Rose Kalemba, who was raped as a 14 year old girl, and whose rapists uploaded the video to PornHub with titles like "teen crying and getting slapped around" and "teen getting destroyed" for all the world to see. The most popular video had 400,000 hits⁠—including hundreds from the poor girl's own school. It took more than a year of protest before PornHub would remove the video (and that only after threatened with litigation).[3]  

This story has outraged every person I have told it to. As it should! Our task is to help the broader world understand that incidents like this are an inevitable result of the 'tube' site business model and the legal protections corporations engaging in this model have been granted. Mindgeek faces no costs for hosting revenge porn and rape videos. Nor do they have the capability to keep such material off of their websites if they wanted to—it would require policing millions of user-posted videos every month. But what if they were held legally liable for the pirated material on their sites? What if they had to pay damages for every instance of revenge porn, every rape video? One questions whether the free-porn model could survive.

It will be hard to build a coalition to against porn. But a coalition against an exploitive group of businesses who are financially viable only because of theft and whose manner of business enables revenge porn and turns a blind eye towards rape videos? That is another matter entirely. The allies we would find in such a fight might surprise: one of the groups most damaged by the rise of the Mindgeek empire has been porn stars themselves. In a world where pornography was hidden behind paywalls, porn studios and porn stars made a lot more money than they do currently. They would prefer a more restrictive pornography regime—though most are afraid to say this openly, as their future in the Mindgeek ecosystem relies on keeping on that company's good side.

For the rest of my thoughts on how to unseat Mindgeek and upend the existing porn ecosystem, I encourage you to read my full piece. It may be unpalatable for a certain sort of conservatives to link arms with feminist activists and porn stars, but if done right we actually have a chance to limit porn's reach into our society.

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If you would like to some of my other takes on American political affairs, you might read  "Questing for Transcendence," "The Title IX-ification of American Childhood," "The Problem Isn't the 'Merit,' Its the 'Ocracy',"  "On the Angst of American Journalists,"  To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] Sohrab Ahmari, "Porn Isn't Free Speech," New York Post (9 December 2019). This declaration was originally posted to twitter, but Ahmari has since deleted his entire twitter account.

[2] Tanner Greer, "Pornography Restriction For Realists," Washington Examiner (12 December 2020).

[3] Meghan Mohan, "I was Raped at 14, and the Video Ended Up on a Porn Site,BBC (10 February 2020).

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

What do you think about highlighting DIY efforts like the Nofap bunch?

Anonymous said...

Had to back up and applaud you for this line, 'By the mid-2010s, the company had a on the entire industry. '

I see what you did there o:

Anonymous said...

Hey, I have read your posts on "Honor, Dignity, Victimhood", and was struck by similarities of underlying causes with amazing series of posts by Lou Keep https://web.archive.org/web/20200102235214/https://samzdat.com/the-uruk-series/

Lexington Green said...

Always seemed to me that the best thing to do on a regulatory basis was to require sites which have port to use a notation in their web address, such as .xxx which would make it easier to filter. Otherwise, any attempt to get rid of it by government fiat is hopeless. The 55% who think there is something wrong with it are right. And the percentage of those people who still struggle not to look at it is a lot higher than 55%. Our lower drives are very powerful. Prayer and mortification are highly recommended in this regard.