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A cartoon drawing of two figures riding in battle tanks, facing each other, yelling at one another through bullhorns. A laptop sits in the background between them. The laptop screen reads “XXX.” Cristina Spanò for Vox

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The return of the porn wars

How today’s fight over pornography is rooted in a 40-year-old feminist schism.

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Part of the issue Everything old is new again from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

The news has come, at first gradually and then all at once, over the past few years: The teens don’t believe in casual sex anymore. And they really don’t believe in porn.

They are the puriteens, they are in a backlash against sex-positive liberal feminism, they want to #CancelPorn. They also happen to be the first generation who grew up in a world where unlimited porn was readily available and free.

In her 2023 book The Pornography Wars, sociologist Kelsy Burke writes that many Americans are now between 10 and 15 years old when they are first exposed to porn. According to PornHub’s self-reported traffic analysis, a plurality of their visitors are between the ages of 18 and 24. Young people today watch a lot of pornography, usually while they are quite young. Some of them are uncomfortable with the results: In 2021, for example, Gen Z star Billie Eilish made headlines for calling porn “a disgrace.” She started watching porn when she was 11 years old, she said, even when it gave her nightmares. “I think it really destroyed my brain and I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn,” she added.

The thing is, all of this was supposed to be settled by now. Surely this issue was put to bed (haha) after the porn wars of the 1980s. That was the big split between feminists over whether pornography was inherently misogynistic and should be outlawed, or whether feminists should embrace pornography as part of a liberated sex life. The porn wars were all but finished after the anti-porn feminists failed to get any of their legislation past the courts, and then the internet came along and apparently decided the matter: Pornography was everywhere, and feminists of all stripes had better make their peace with that fact.

Yet the pornography question seems to have reemerged while we weren’t looking.

In her 2021 essay collection The Right to Sex, the political theorist Amia Srinivasan describes teaching her undergraduate students about the porn wars and finding that they were fascinated by the anti-porn position.

“Could it be that pornography doesn’t merely depict the subordination of women, but actually makes it real, I asked?” Srinivasan writes. “Yes, they said. Does porn silence women, making it harder for them to protest against unwanted sex, and harder for men to hear those protests? Yes, they said. Does porn bear responsibility for the objectification of women, for the marginalisation of women, for sexual violence against women? Yes, they said, yes to all of it.”

Here’s how we got from the porn wars of the 1980s to the porn wars of now.

For the feminists of the 1980s, the porn question created a schism

The two most prominent feminists of the anti-porn movement of the 1980s were activists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. Dworkin was a writer; MacKinnon was a legal scholar. Like today’s teens, they were living in a moment of social change, in the midst of a series of debates about how we should think about gender and sexuality. They wanted everyone to rethink their relationship to sex — and specifically to porn.

MacKinnon and Dworkin argued that pornography hurts women in two ways: First, because the women who appear in pornography must be unconsenting. Second, because men who consume pornography are inspired to enact its violence upon women in real life.

The activists wrote about commercial pornography routinely as if it were the same thing as filmed rape. In part, that’s because the boundary between the two could be slippery.

In her 1993 book Only Words, MacKinnon cited the case of Trish Crawford, who pressed charges against her husband for marital rape in 1992. Crawford submitted into evidence a videotape her husband had made of the assault. In the tape, she can be seen bound and gagged, with duct tape over her eyes, as her husband assaults her.

“Was that a cry of pain and torture? Or was that a cry of pleasure?” asked the defense lawyer as the videotape played. The defendant was found not guilty — in part, MacKinnon argued, because pornography had trained the jury to see such a scene as erotic rather than horrific.

Both MacKinnon and Dworkin referenced the case of Linda Lovelace, the star of the 1972 hit hardcore porn film Deep Throat. In 1980, Lovelace alleged that her ex-husband threatened and coerced her into making the movie against her will. “Every time someone watches that film, they are watching me being raped,” she said.

Women like Crawford and Lovelace constitute the entirety of the porn industry, according to MacKinnon and Dworkin: each woman unwilling, each brutalized, each forced to smile and say she likes being brutalized. The possibility of a woman consenting to make pornography in good faith does not exist in this worldview. Instead, sex work in general and porn in particular are held to be inherently degrading, and women only appear to do it willingly because they have been threatened or brainwashed.

“She is taught to be that thing: raped, beaten, bound, used, until she recognizes her true nature and purpose and complies — happily, greedily, begging for more,” wrote Dworkin in her 1981 manifesto Pornography: Men Possessing Women. The “she” here is all women: “She is used until she knows only that she is a thing to be used. This knowledge is her authentic erotic sensibility: her erotic destiny.”

In 1983, the pair collaborated to draft a statute defining pornography as a civil rights violation against women. One version was passed in Minneapolis in 1983, and another in 1984, but both were vetoed by the mayor on free speech grounds. Another version that focused specifically on violent pornography passed in Indianapolis in 1984, but it was ruled unconstitutional in court and overturned.

Pro-porn feminists, meanwhile, argued that MacKinnon and Dworkin were unfairly conflating pornography with filmed rape. Pornography, they said, was not inherently nonconsensual, and it was in bad faith to pretend that being pro-porn meant being pro-rape.

In her 2004 anthology Porn Studies, scholar Linda Williams writes scathingly of a 1993 MacKinnon article arguing that the Serbian rapes of Muslim and Croatian women in Bosnia were especially egregious because they were filmed. “With this war, pornography emerges as a tool of genocide,” MacKinnon wrote.

“This was not a theoretical argument about the evils of porn,” Williams responded, “it was an argument that encouraged taking action against pornography as if it were the same thing as taking action against rape. As such, it seemed to me to be thoroughly inimical to the goal of feminism.”

For Williams and those who agreed with her, one of the goals of feminism was sexual liberation. If adults consented to making a piece of pornography, even violent pornography, what was wrong with that? What was wrong with the adults who consented to watch it? Were women incapable of enjoying porn themselves? Why was the anti-porn position imagining women without desire or agency of their own? Weren’t they just rebuilding the old misogynistic myth of the virgin/whore binary all over again?

There was something suspiciously un-liberated, something demure and prudish, about the anti-porn position, some suggested. “‘Good’ women have always been incensed at smut,” pointed out activist Amber Hollibaugh in 1984. “Our reaction went far beyond disgust at pornography’s misogyny or racism; we were also shocked at the very idea of explicit sexual imagery. At heart, our horror at pornography is often horror at sex itself and reflects a lesson all women carry from their earliest childhoods: sex is filthy.”

Then came the technology that, in theory, was supposed to render the whole conversation moot.

The internet era changed the way porn is made and consumed — for better or for worse

Traditional commercial pornography flourished in the hypersexualized ’90s. In The Pornography Wars, Burke reports that porn stars working with the biggest production companies of the era could expect to make $10,000 a week just from shooting a couple of scenes and then, influencer-like, rake in even more cash by making an appearance at a nightclub. Porn was on VHS and DVD, on adults-only cable channels, and on paywalled websites on the nascent world wide web.

Then, in 2005, YouTube was born: a website where you didn’t have to be a coder or a tech genius to upload a video to the internet. By 2006, there were multiple YouTube clones on the internet that were designed explicitly for the explicit stuff. One of them was named PornHub.

PornHub is now a subsidiary of a company called MindGeek, which owns a conglomerate of pornographic streaming websites. In fact, it owns most of them: YouPorn, Playboy TV, plus many more niche affairs. MindGeek has a near monopoly on the internet porn market. The industry plays by its rules, and under the MindGeek business model, the audience generally doesn’t pay for its porn.

There’s little consensus on whether the audience for pornography is bigger in the internet era than it was before. What we know for sure is that the audience is younger than it used to be. Accessing MindGeek websites involves checking a box affirming that you are over the age of 18, which is not difficult to fool. (Utah and Louisiana both passed laws this year legislating ID checks on porn sites. MindGeek responded by blocking all of Utah from its content.) Because many very young people are watching pornography, some even before puberty, it can end up functioning as a form of sex education.

The internet hasn’t only changed the way people watch porn. It’s also changed the way people work in porn. There’s a lower barrier to entry now. Performers can set up accounts on OnlyFans or other streaming platforms and do camwork on their own. They don’t necessarily have to do classic porn videos with other people, and they don’t have to work with the industry’s notoriously predatory agents.

On the other hand, it’s also much harder for performers to make money from their labor than it was pre-PornHub. Porn makes more money than it ever has, going from $300 million in the US in 2005 to $800 million in 2020, per Burke. That money, though, is coming in the form of ad revenue. It goes to the owners of the websites — mostly MindGeek management — not to the performers who make the content.

The porn performers Burke interviewed say that they can expect nearly all their paywalled videos to get uploaded to PornHub, where they will make no money from them, without their consent. Technically, that’s an illegal copyright infringement, but PornHub is slow to respond to complaints about such uploads, much as they tend to be slow to respond to complaints about nonconsensual revenge porn on the platform (deliberately so, some former employees allege).

With less money available for the taking than ever before, performers can find themselves pushed into creating ever more extreme content in order to maximize their earnings. That’s especially the case if they’re women who can’t be booked to play either teens or MILFs.

“If you don’t fit into those two stereotypes, which is 90 percent of the shoots that we are booked for on set, then all you have going for you is what you’re willing to do,” a porn actress tells Burke in The Pornography Wars. “And ‘what you’re willing to do’ is not exactly the same as ‘what you enthusiastically consent to,’” Burke adds.

“Within the porn industry,” Burke concludes, “choice and coercion operate on a continuum.”

In this new world of internet porn, the old arguments go on.

Can porn be made safely? Who gets to decide what “safe” is?

Like Dworkin and MacKinnon, today’s anti-porn feminists make the case that little if any pornography can be said to be truly consensual.

“Stuff that I was in looked consensual and I’m here to tell you right now, it never was,” sex trafficking survivor turned anti-porn activist Elizabeth Frazier says in The Pornography Wars.

While not all porn performers have been sex trafficked, the reasoning goes, most of them are so young and have so little money that they cannot meaningfully consent to the work they are doing. “The majority of women are young and up against predators who use you and know how to manipulate you,” says sociologist Gail Dines in The Pornography Wars. “This idea that you’re actually consenting is ludicrous.”

Pro-porn feminists argue that while commercial porn has its consent issues, indie porn offers a potential ethical alternative. Independent producers can create shoots where performers call the shots on what they’re comfortable with and where the content is less likely than commercial porn to fetishize misogyny and racism. When they distribute their videos, they can push them to paywalled platforms. “Like paying more money for pasture-raised meat or organic produce,” writes Burke, “paying for porn is one way to support a more ethical industry” — until your video ends up on PornHub against your will.

Pro-porn feminists also point to industry regulatory bodies like the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee. APAC has published a Performer Bill of Rights that states performers are entitled to informed consent, which they can withdraw if a scene feels unsafe or uncomfortable. It also links performers with sex worker-positive therapists and other services, offers a mentoring program, and can sometimes connect sex workers with pro bono legal help if they need to sue an agent or production company. APAC, though, has little practical leverage within the industry. It may have published a performer Bill of Rights, but it has no way of implementing sanctions when companies or agencies violate it.

Bad labor conditions exist in every industry, though, say pro-porn feminists. Are the labor conditions of porn shoots inherently worse than those of Amazon’s warehouses? “Porn is operating under capitalism, not outside of it,” feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino says in The Pornography Wars. “It’s just smack dab in the middle of it.”

They also argue that women can meaningfully choose to work in the industry despite its problems. “The single narrative of pornography’s exploitation of women falls short in explaining women from middle- and upper-class backgrounds who graduate from college and decide to work in porn even when they have other, so-called legitimate choices to become successful outside the X-rated marketplace,” Burke points out.

Moreover, however furiously we might try to litigate pornography away, pro-porn feminists hold that it will always continue to exist. In a version of the Clinton “safe, legal, and rare” model of abortion law, they argue that keeping it legal and regulated is the best way to protect women.

“Whatever the law says, porn is going to be made, bought, and sold,” Srinivasan writes in The Right to Sex. “What should matter most to feminists is not what the law says about porn, but what the law does for and to the women who work in it.”

Most of the regulation facing the industry today, however, is imposed from the outside, and the performers Burke spoke with say that it tends to make their jobs less safe. A campaign to get credit card companies to stop working with porn sites made it harder for sex workers to get paid directly by their viewers. A proposed California regulation to mandate visible condom usage on porn sets in 2016 would have ignored the industry’s rigorous STI testing practices, workers argued, while mandating the wearing of uncomfortable chafing condoms during multi-hour shoots.

Feminist porn exists. Not that many people watch it.

The other half of the porn war argument, now and ever, is about the people who watch it. Pornography is harmful, argue anti-porn feminists, because it means everyone has to live in a world in which straight men get all their ideas about sex from the racist, misogynistic, and violent world porn has taught them to fantasize about.

In The Right to Sex, Srinivasan describes a meeting with a student whose ex-boyfriend always told her that she was “doing it wrong” during sex, because she didn’t act the way women do in porn. “My student, like the anti-porn feminists of the 1970s, traced a straight line from the consumption of porn to the negative treatment of women by men,” Srinivasan observes.

The scientific evidence on whether pornography rewires people’s brains to make them more misogynistic is not definitive. Burke quotes public health professor Emily Rothman, who advocates for pornography literacy as part of a broader program of media literacy. “All signs point to the idea that mainstream online pornography appears to negatively influence youth in several ways,” says Rothman: It seems to be correlated with more negative beliefs about women, higher rates of depression and anxiety, and higher rates of unprotected sex.

Yet it’s difficult to isolate porn as the only factor in these studies, Rothman says, because our entire popular culture is so saturated in racism and misogyny. Porn is a correlating variable, but it’s not the only one.

Nonetheless, even people who identify as pro-porn feminists find themselves troubled by the concerns anti-porn feminists raise. “I didn’t want the responsibility of shaping young minds,” hardcore porn star Stoya lamented in a New York Times op-ed in 2018. “And yet thanks to this country’s nonfunctional sex education system and the ubiquitous access to porn by anyone with an internet connection, I have that responsibility anyway. Sometimes it keeps me awake at night.”

Once again, ethical and feminist porn presents itself as a potential solution to this problem. A recent BuzzFeed News article described Gen Zers turning away from hardcore commercial porn to the gentler stuff. “A lot of the heterosexual porn always felt graphic,” an 18-year-old woman says in the article. “There was always an element of violence to it, and I never truly felt like any of the women or AFAB individuals in it were enjoying it. ... That was very disturbing to me.”

That 18-year-old, though, is an outlier. Feminist porn is not what most young people watch, in part because it costs money. Young people making their way to the internet to watch pornography are most likely to go for the free stuff, the MindGeek sites, where the videos they are served are not particularly feminist.

This issue is central to the argument of today’s anti-porn feminists, many of whom, unlike Dworkin and MacKinnon, say there’s nothing wrong with feminist porn aside from its scarcity. Burke quotes sociologist Bernadette Barton, who says plainly, “This content does not solve the problem of sexism in internet porn because feminist porn is a niche.’”

There is also the simple fact that feminist porn is not always what gets people going, however progressive their politics might be. “Lucky are those whose arousal results from homegrown and independently produced feminist porn with gender-variant people of various races, body sizes, and abilities,” writes feminist scholar Jane Ward in her 2013 essay “Queer Feminist Pigs: A Spectator’s Manifesta.” “But for some of us mainstream porn — for all its sexist and racist tropes and questionable labor practices — still casts its spell.” Is it really helpful, Ward asks, to label some desires feminist and hence good, and other desires unfeminist and hence bad?

If ethical porn doesn’t work, the other solution that pro-porn feminists generally present to the problem of kids and porn is sex education. If kids were only taught properly about sex in schools, the thinking goes, they wouldn’t use porn as their sex ed instructor.

That’s the argument Srinivasan’s students make in her class. “They blame inadequate sex education for the authority that porn wields over them and their lives,” she writes. “In their view, porn has the power to teach them the truth about sex not because the state has failed to legislate, but because the state has failed in its basic responsibility to educate.”

Right now, a nuanced and careful education that includes discussing how to think about porn is not something the sex education system in the US necessarily supports. As of 2020, only 30 US states require public schools to teach sex ed. Burke points out that no state requires any specific credentials for sex ed instructors, and very few universities offer specialization in sexuality education for degree programs.

Srinivasan says her students fear any education reforms will come too late for them, that “they are already too old to reconfigure their desires. Children of the internet, with its infinite variety, somehow they find all but one possibility foreclosed.”

This foreclosing of possibility is, in a way, the arc of the story of pornography over the past 40 years. One of the feminist responses to Dworkin and MacKinnon in the 1980s was that porn did not have to be like that — degrading, violent, exploitative — that pornography could be empowering and exciting for women. Sure, Dworkin and MacKinnon retorted, porn doesn’t have to be like that, but in practice it mostly is. At this point, it’s hard to say that either of those arguments is exactly wrong.

We’re left with a system that is still by and large exploitative and degrading, and that still seems to disproportionately hurt women — and that also offers people their livelihoods, artistic and erotic pleasures, and fantasies so potent it seems unlikely to ever die. So the question is, in a way, unchanged from the question that haunted the feminists of the 1980s: Do we decide that porn is too fundamentally rotten to be reformed, and try to wipe the whole thing off the map? Or do we decide that porn is so entrenched that it can never be banned, and try to reform it, embracing what is potentially liberatory and redemptive about the industry?

It’s a question knotty enough we may still be fighting over it 40 years from now.

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