Issue 2/2021 of WestEnd is out, with the special theme of “Pornografie. (Un-)Sittlichkeit und Geschlecht” edited by Juliane Rebentisch and Kerstin Stakemeier and including my piece, “Pornokreuzzüge und emotionale Plattformpolitik”. I remain very enthusiastic about my year publishing in a language I don’t speak in any meaningful way. Here, the abstract and whole text in English.
Porn crusades and affective platform politics
Online pornography forms a ubiquitous part of online culture even as its ready and abundant availability continues to fuel social concerns and campaigns aimed at curbing it. Focusing on the recent campaign of US-based journalist, Nicholas Kristof, against a leading video aggregator site, Pornhub, this article examines the logic and politics involved in “the deplatforming of sex”—that is, the expansive removal of nudity and sexual content from online platforms. It argues that Kristof’s campaign, in targeting online payment system providers in particular, represents a shift in anti-pornography activism towards infrastructural interventions aiming to delimit porn sites’ techno-material conditions of operation. As such, it speaks of broader platform politics where regulatory practices specific to the US impact the sexual expression of users on a global scale.
In December 2020, Pornhub, the globally leading porn video aggregator site, suspended access to nine million videos, these amounting to the majority of its content. The action was in response to public attention caused by a The New York Times exposé opinion article by the Pulitzer-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof, titled “Children of Pornhub”. Setting out to reveal the dark side of the platform as one “infested with rape videos”. it dramatically claimed that the site monetizes on “child rapes, revenge pornography, spy cam videos of women showering, racist and misogynist content, and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags” (Kristof 2020). In addition to dwelling on the stories of abused, tortured and trafficked women, Kristof reiterated some well-known problems in the operating principles of Pornhub, a platform long critiqued for building its business model on piracy, having lax moderation practices and responding slowly to complaints on illegal content and requests to remove it (e.g., Auerbach 2014; Grant 2020). When voiced by sex workers, these critiques have had little effect. The case was different with the NYT article.
Starting from Kristof’s lobbying against Pornbub and other platforms trading in commercial sex, this article explores their logic, goals and ramifications within the broader context of “the deplatforming of sex” (Molldrem 2018), namely the increasingly vigilant removal of nudity and sexual content from online platforms. This involves what David M. Halperin (2017, 3) calls “the war on sex”: a cumulative effect of many independent initiatives targeting sex, and especially forms of sex arousing “disapproval on moral, aesthetic, political, or religious grounds” in the United States (see also Halperin 2017, 6; Race 2018, 172–173).
Out with it
Porn video aggregator sites broadly emulate the operating principles of YouTube which has, since 2005, largely defined the principles of online video sharing. With the exception of XVideos and xHamster, the most popular of these (e.g., Pornhub, Redtube, YouPorn) are owned by the same company, MindGeek. Writing on YouTube, Tarleton Gillespie (2010, 352) maps out the notion of platform in four different senses of the term: “computational, something to build upon and innovate from; political, a place from which to speak and be heard; figurative, in that the opportunity is an abstract promise as much as a practical one; and architectural, in that YouTube is designed as an open-armed, egalitarian facilitation of expression”.
In a political and figurative sense, to have a platform means being heard and seen, having the possibility of gaining an audience and potentially impacting culture and society. Conversely, to deplatform means to silence by removing someone’s or something’s access to a channel through which they can be heard and gain an audience. In networked media, deplatforming occurs on diverse levels: by removing user accounts or entire groups (Rogers 2020), by banning content categories (Pilipets and Paasonen 2020) and enforcing such bans through moderation, or by impacting the technical or economic infrastructures necessary for the platform’s operability. The deplatforming of sex in social media operates through in-platform laws such as community standards. In a dramatic example, Tumblr decided to ban nudity and sexual depiction in 2018, these having previously formed a large part of its content (Cho 2018). The platform was popular among sexual and gender nonconforming communities who lost access to networks, resources and archives built over a decade, further adding to their marginalisation (Byron 2019; Molldrem 2019). The third form of deplatforming targeting the infrastructural conditions of an application, site or service – deplatforming in a computational sense – became a topic of debate following Amazon’s decision to remove the Parler app favoured by Trump supporters from its web hosting service in January 2021.
The solutions that Kristof suggested for fixing Pornhub’s problems were partly same to those that sex worker activists had long been calling for: that, in order to curb piratism and illegal content, only verified users should be able to post videos, downloads should be prohibited and content moderation and reporting practices improved. To use Gillespie’s terms, these suggestions cut through Pornuhb as a political, figurative and architectural platform. Pornhub claims to have complied with all these modifications (see Pornhub 2020). Kristof however further suggested cutting the platform’s ties to payment infrastructures: “I don’t see why search engines, banks or credit card companies should bolster a company that monetizes sexual assaults on children or unconscious women”. Visa and Mastercard, alarmed by the negative publicity and looming PR damage, moved quickly to severe their ties with the platform, so that it cannot currently accept credit cards. In 16 April, 2021, Kristof continued his project with another NYT opinion article, “Why Do We Let Corporations Profit from Rape Videos?”, targeting XVideos and calling for both credit card companies and search engines to cut it off.
As Sarah T. Roberts (2019) details in her ethnographic study of commercial content moderation, social media platforms would be rife with materials of torture, both animal and human, were not armies of low-paid employees tasked with weeding it out. For while much of visual content moderation happens through automated, algorithmic means, distinctions pertaining to authenticity and context are hard for machines to make (the format of video posing its specific sets of challenges). The work within the “cesspool” of social media is largely concerned with the brand management of these platforms, seldom comes with sufficient mental health support and entails notable emotional and psychological stress (Roberts 2019, 116–123, 151–154). Kristof (2020) however framed the problem of traumatizing content as specific to Pornhub so that its moderators became both victims of MindGeek and villains facilitating the sexual abuse of children.
The shortage of content moderation resources on porn aggregator sites is an acute concern, yet similar work at Google and Facebook has been discussed as no less “soul-crushing” in making employees “soak up the worst of humanity” (Chen 2014). ISIS beheading videos, documentations of sexual and other violence and footage shot by white extremists on shooting sprees have all been available on mainstream social media before being flagged or removed by commercial content moderators (Gillespie 2018, 9; Parks 2019). Facebook (2021) reports taking action on five million incidents of child nudity and exploitation in the first three months of 2021, catching 98,9% of the content before it was reported by users. As porn video aggregator sites’ principles of operation are to a large extent similar to those of social media platforms, their problems in content moderation are also similar, even as their content policies drastically differ.
The spaces for sexual display and communication have been growing increasingly narrow on social media since the passing of the 2018 “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” (FOSTA) and “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” (SESTA) bills in US senate with overwhelming bipartisan support. As exceptions to Section 230 of the United States Communication Decency Act which protected online services from liability for the content posted by users, FOSTA-SESTA has redefined online platforms as publishers responsible for content aiding sexual solicitation. This has resulted in broad removal of content connected to commercial sex that has nothing to do with trafficking, mainly since no distinction is drawn between consensual and non-consensual sex work (Reynolds 2020): consequently, online advertisements for sexual services have disappeared, as have social media groups and threads for sex workers sharing tips on filtering clients, sexual health resources and managing their careers independently (Blunt and Wolf 2020; Paasonen et al. 2019, 133; Tripp 2020). Since US-based social platforms are globally used, the legislation has broad resonances, also in countries where sex work is legal.
These transformations have impacted content moderation well beyond the realm of commercial sex. As pre-emptive measures, social media companies have tightened content policies since the liabilities of weeding out too little by far overshadow the commercial benefits involved in hosting sexual content – this having always been difficult to monetize as advertisers are unwilling to place their ads next to depictions of nudity and sex (Pilipets and Paasonen 2020). Facebook and Instagram have opted for horizontal content bans pertaining to nudity, sexual display and solicitation, deplatforming sex up to the visibility of female nipples and nude buttocks, users inquiring after each other’s interest in having sex, and the uses of eggplant and peach emojis in a sexual context (for a longer discussion on deplatforming of sex in social media, see Paasonen 2021).
Meanwhile, FOSTA-SESTA is argued to have little impact on curbing trafficking while curbing sex worker’s access to information resources and failing to protect them (Tripp 2020). In her critique, Lura Chamberlain (2019, 2206) defines the law as “deeply flawed” in that it “threats to criminalize significant categories of protected speech have already led to a documented chilling effect on speech due to its gross misunderstanding of the interaction between sex work and sex trafficking.” Long in the planning, FOSTA-SESTA built on a 2017 ban on commercial sex advertising targeting Backpage.com (Goldman 2018). Summing up the impact of FOSTA-SESTA and the closing of down Backpage’s sex advertising, Hacking//Hustling sex worker community report points out that there is no evidence of it having “done anything to prevent sexual labor exploitation. Our research shows that this law has actually put people in more precarious financial situations that actually make individuals more vulnerable to trafficking, as well as decreasing access to previously established channels of communication used to protect sex workers against violence.” (Blunt and Wolf 2020, 35.)
Targeting Backpage in a 2017 NYT opinion piece, Kristof called it “the odious website where most American victims of human trafficking are sold” and argued that SESTA “was crafted exceedingly narrowly to target only those intentionally engaged in trafficking children” and hence, contrary to criticism, has nothing to do with narrowing the freedom of expression online, or with limiting the rights of sex workers. In the light of empirical evidence, this is patently untrue. As in his previous work and later campaigns against Pornhub and XVideos, Kristof’s liberally conflated all commercial sex work with forced and involuntary labour, used the sexual abuse of minors as his affective rhetorical focus and accused tech companies such as Google for being allies of sex traffickers to undermine their critiques of FOSTA-SESTA (e.g., Barnes 2019; see also Kristof 2009). As a rhetorical strategy, the conflation of sex work and trafficking has been highly influential for two decades, cutting through and bringing together the Christian right, abolitionist feminists and governmental actors (Weitzer 2007, 449). This strategy remains knowingly blind to the presence and agency of sex workers as others than victims of abuse, delimiting their possibilities to impact policy, as well as obscuring their different agendas, positions and experiences, both locally and internationally (Bernstein 2019).
Given the impact of US internet governance on users across the globe, initiatives such as FOSTA-SESTA go well beyond regional concerns. This also means that campaigns such as Kristof’s, basically consisting of opinion articles published in one US newspaper and a flow of tweets aiming to impact policy, matter internationally since these policies alter the terms and conditions of online platforms used by billions of people around the world. What may seem – or in fact, be – a moral panic in the US can impact the livelihood of people doing online sex work in Germany, just as it can impact the ways in which social media users can, or cannot, exchange sexual content ranging from sex education resources to historical photographs or titillating selfies, or sexually relate to one another on these platforms.
The association of porn with violence against women has, of course, been key to feminist initiatives that have, since the 1970s, framed pornography as both a symbol and documentation of male violence justifying the sexual objectification, dehumanization and subjugation of women (e.g., Griffin 1981; Dworkin 1989; Kappeler 1986; Long 2012). This line of argumentation has drawn causal connections between porn and sexual violence, as in Robin Morgan’s famous 1974 slogan, “porn is the theory, rape is the practice”. Largely originating from the US, anti-pornography feminism continues to have international influence.
Premised on porn production and consumption being harmful to women both individually and collectively, anti-porn feminism has focused on critiques of patriarchal power relations in the framework of binary gender, so that forms of pornography not including women or made by women for other women, by people not conforming to a gender binary, or not simply fitting the patterns of critique, are either absent or interpreted as offering further proof of patriarchal sexual politics. In its focus on women’s abuse by men, this line of argumentation operates with a deeply hetenormative logic which, while seldom acknowledged, becomes generalised as a framework for sexual fantasies and the work of porn (Thompson 2015; Paasonen et al. 2020, 40–41). Like Kristof’s campaigns, anti-pornography feminism paints a binary universe, both moral and gendered, where porn and sex work lack female agency and help to bolster male hegemony. There is no room for considerations of porn as a site of sexual experimentation or expression, or for sexual desires and fantasies of the unruly, queer and kinky kind. This speaks of the persistent presence of sexual hierarchies of the kind that Gayle Rubin (1989, 281) identified at the early stages of the feminist sex wars as separating “good sex” (heterosexual, married, monogamous, procreative, non-commercial, private, vanilla) from the bad (homosexual, unmarried, promiscuous, non-procreative, commercial, public and kinky).
Since anti-porn feminism’s critique is categorical, it approaches the genre as a singular entity with aligning intentions, aesthetics, politics and economies, firmly placing it in the realm of “bad sex”. As the genre becomes thus homogenised, its inner diversity and fragmentation evaporates from view so that it is impossible to grasp the work or products of contemporary porn – and, consequently, to understand much of what is being discussed (see Paasonen 2011). These critiques also tend to be disinterested in the views of women working in porn, unless they are speaking against the industry, hence excluding their concerns connected to sexual health, income or control over work conditions. The notion of the porn industry, largely coined in the 1980s and 1990s, fails to describe contemporary forms of production involving studios of various sizes, amateurs and semi-amateurs, independent producers and animators aiming to make their products seen on online platforms even as the dominance of video aggregator sites, combined with the invisibility of porn work on social media, means that such visibility is by no means easy to achieve. In her critique of Kristof’s Pornhub campaign, journalist Melissa Gira Grant (2020) points out how,
“For years, porn performers have tried to draw attention to the exploitation at the heart of the tubesite business model—YouTube clones, which now dominate an online porn ecosystem that, not long ago and like much of online media, once offered independent creators more control over their work. Those days are all but over in porn, and the large companies behind websites like Pornhub have drained money out of independent porn, not just by pirating their work but by nearly monopolizing the business. Pornhub’s parent company owns porn-production companies, too, ones that some performers who might otherwise speak out also need to rely on for work. In turn, that has resulted in less work, lower wages, and less control for performers. In monopolies, particularly in industries that operate with little independent oversight and a nonunion labor force, abuse proliferates.”
There is much to critique in Pornhub and MindGeek’s impact on porn work and production culture that has contributed to something of a collapse in the studio system allowing for longer contracts and an emergence of a gig economy of financial precarity while also narrowing down the financial viability of independent producers and distributors (Berg 2021; Paasonen et al. 2019, 44, 59–60). As Grant argues, campaigns for credit card companies and PayPal to halt payments to Pornhub nevertheless do little to amend the situation. Rather, they hurt sex workers and other content producers who depend on the platform for their income. Attacks on Pornhub as a sex trafficking hub are also missing the point in that not only do users post child abuse material on mainstream social media platforms but the majority of reported child sexual abuse material is shared in either the dark web or through encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp (e.g., Burgess 2021; Kleinman 2021). There are, however, no campaigns to date targeting the Facebook-owned WhatsApp used by two billion people as a child sexual trafficking platform.
A liberal journalist, Kristof is careful to distinguish his critiques of rape videos from arguments of porn being an engine of rape culture, targeting platforms for sharing illegal content instead. In other words, by framing his project as not being about pornography but about rape, he rhetorically detaches it from those aiming to ban pornography in more categorical terms. At the same time, his Pornhub article promotes the efforts of Traffickinghub, a campaign run by Exodus Cry, a religious right organization aiming at “the abolition of the sex trade, including prostitution and porn, by means of the criminal law” (Grant 2020). Kristof’s then appears to have intimate kinship networked anti-pornography initiatives bringing together conservative groups resisting sex education, LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive and abortion rights (Grant 2020). Framing these organizations as anti-trafficking (Weitzer 2007) has helped to neutralized them so that they can receive funding for their diverse actions: arguing to protect the rights of women with anti-trafficking campaigns, they in fact campaign against women’s sexual rights, operating internationally. Meanwhile, Kristof’s journalistic status gives him an aura of objectivity of the kind inaccessible to activists labelled either radical feminist or conservative Christian. With some two million Twitter followers, his political platforms are notable: some of his platform status is evident in the Pornhub article taking up the entire front page of NYT Sunday Review section.
During the Reagan presidency, high-profile radical feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon aligned their initiatives with those of Christian conservative coalitions, even as their gendered and sexual politics were fully incompatible (see Vance 1997). A similar alignment is taking place between anti-pornography feminist initiatives and conservative lobbying groups – as well as in Kristof’s alignment with Exodus Cry. Attending to these connections, commentators have been quick to identify Kristof’s attack on Pornhub as a moral crusade (Grant 2000).
His argumentation makes use of visceral examples – such as Backpage advertising “a 13-year-old whose pimp had tattooed his name on her eyelids” (Kristof 2017) – and excerpts from the survivors of abuse. These operate as textual equivalents of anti-pornography feminist slide shows aiming at negative affective responses for a political effect (Gentile 2010, 85–92). Feminist anti-pornography activism has, both historically and within the contemporary, made use of negative affect in arguing for the nefarious impact of porn, associating it with feelings of hurt, sadness, anger, frustration, sorrow, fear and nausea (e.g., Griffin 1981; Dworkin 1989; 2000). This was particularly true with Dworkin whose work is undergoing something of a revival with the publishing of Last Days at Hot Slit (2019), a collection of her writings. Within the cultural context of #MeToo and the fight over reproductive rights in the US, many find her emotional prose, fury at the way things are, and the firmness of her political stance resonant (Paasonen et al. 2020, 46). At the same time, her clarity of argumentation comes with ample simplification and sexual normativity within the framework of binary gender that fits ill with considerations of sexual and gender diversity.
Accounts of negative affect connected to porn, in the variations it has taken from the 1970s to the current day, from feminist texts to Christian fundamentalist ones and to Kristof’s reporting, anchor political argumentation in gut reactions in order to bestow on them a visceral sense of authenticity and acuteness. They operate affectively by putting “the body behind our words” so that words can become “something more than mere words” (Miller 1997, 181). Activism building on the power of feeling (anger, sorrow, disgust) together can be powerful in bridging the personally felt with the collective and the societal (Protevi 2009). At the same time, these forms of affective address work to efface diversity within the aesthetics, sexual routines, bodies, genders, sexualities, economies, politics and ethics connected to porn so as to frame it as singular entity and object assumedly evoking uniform responses. In other words, not only do the cultural objects and practices of pornography become homogenized but so do the presumed ways of experiencing them. All this sets clear limits to how porn can be approached, conceptualized, analysed and known – which, of course, is what these campaigns aim at.
What’s in a word?
The boundaries of porn as a genre have never been set, and they have grown ever more ephemeral in the course of digital and networked production, distribution and consumption involving a plethora of actors, governance practices, financial and political interests. Porn is an umbrella term for practices, aesthetics and economies that may share little similarity with one another across space and time. In order for analyses and critiques of porn to be efficient, these need to be specific, founded in empirical evidence and attuned to the distinctions among the actors and materials addressed.
As we have been communicating through networked means, often unable to connect flesh-to-flesh during the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of mediated forms of sexual relating for wellbeing has grown strikingly evident. It is crucial not to understand such relating in narrow terms as an extension of extant intimate relationships: it is also a realm of sexual play, experimentation and pleasure involving the (mediated) bodies of virtual strangers through webcams, OnlyFans accounts, porn clips, hookup app profiles, and beyond. As sites for play for some, these are sites for work for others in ways blurring any clear divisions between the two notions (Paasonen 2018, 31). In any case, they are detached from reproductive goals and attuned toward discoveries in what one can sexually enjoy, like and prefer and, consequently, what or who one’s sexual self may be. Such “unpredicted forms of experience” (Warner 2000, 185) can alter one’s understanding of sexuality and desire as “a new sensation, an unusual mood, a previously inconceivable way of relating” comes about (Race 2009, 186). Unexpected incidents happen in encounters with other people, just as they do with mediated images and sounds – porn included. To consider porn in this vein as affording potentially startling and possibly encounters opens up alternative ways of thinking about its affective power and potential.
Within the current cultural conjuncture, it is however also necessary to reconsider what it means to label cultural objects as pornographic to start with: this necessity is pertinent in terms of securing spaces for sexual expression and relating through networked means. People creating sexual media do not necessarily see it as porn even as it can hold great personal importance as a means of exploration and reflection. Sexual depiction and visibility are key to the making and maintenance of gender and sexual nonconforming communities, just as it can be key to self-discovery and social relating (Molldrem 2018). At the same time, social media platforms classify all displays of nudity as offensive and categorically remove them, so as to protect their own brands and the commercial interests of advertisers (Tiidenberg and van der Nagel 2020, 46–47). As sexual content is being zoned to specific sites and as both feminist and Christian right organizations are pushing for closing down these sites’ access to payment systems, it remains crucial to ask whose interests are being served, how, and in whose name.
Carefully contextual analyses of sexual media production, distribution and use are necessary for shifting the foci of public debate so that sexual rights on online platforms are not merely understood in the negative sense as freedoms from (being harassed and abused) but equally as positive freedoms to (express and enjoy sexuality), without the one overweighing or cancelling out the other (Spišák et al. 2021). Such a step also necessitates acknowledging, and working through, the complexities in how people of diverse gender identifications and sexual orientations make use of sexual media and how online platforms – political, figurative, computational and architectural – and their governance shape the ways that sexual sociability can take. Simplified moralistic and ideological takes on what sexual exchanges and bodily displays mean or who produces them do much more harm than good when it comes to the sexual rights of self-expression, pleasure and knowledge.
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