Porno-Enlightenment: How Pornography Propagates A Liberal Worldview

by Angel Archer on June 28, 2016 · 9 comments

in Politics, Porn

juliette1

“Modern industry, in overturning the economical foundation on which was based the traditional family, and the family labour corresponding to it, had also unloosened all traditional ties.” – Karl Marx, Capital

I open up my browser and type “pornhub.com” into the search bar. Once the page loads, I hover my cursor over “videos” and click on “most viewed.” This is a type of occupational research for a sex worker like me. The ad on the right side of the page says “small, tiny, teens gettin’ fucked!” It’s an animated .gif: the male performer wraps his hands completely around the circumference of the female performer’s torso, demonstrating just how small and tiny this teen getting fucked is.

Of the four videos displayed at the top, only two of them feature third-person cinematography showing the whole body of both performers. One of them is a lesbian incest fantasy video, the other is an interracial video, the title of which refers to the white male performer as “innocent” and the black female performer as “his First African Princess.” The other two videos feature a mix of first person, or “POV,” shots and third person shots which barely show more of the male actor than his dick. One of these videos is an internal ejaculation, or “creampie,” video; the other is an incest fantasy video. Both feature an all-white cast and heterosexual sex. Naturally, the white man is the absolute Subject, and everyone else is the Other.

According to a study featured in an early 2016 issue of sexology publication The Journal of Sex Research, porn viewers have more egalitarian views about gender than non-viewers. The specific metrics used by the study to assess whether participants have “gender egalitarian views” are a series of questions which gauge the extent to which they agree with contemporary liberal status quo with respect to gender and the family. The study shows that porn viewership is positively correlated with the beliefs that abortion should be legal, and that women should be allowed to work outside of the home and hold positions of power in society. Other studies have shown that pornography exposure is correlated with positive attitudes about premarital sex among younger adults and that women who view pornography are more likely to hold sexually liberal attitudes as well as have engaged in sex work. A plurality of Pornhub.com viewers support Bernie Sanders; most support marijuana legalization and federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Porn is a form of media which typically delivers images of women’s sexual objectification – the camera focuses on the woman’s body and her affective performance while the male performer seldom exists more than a few inches above his navel or below his knees – and where genres commonly cater to exploitative sexual proclivities (incest, “barely legal” teens, gangbangs, exploitation of domestic laborers such as maids and babysitters, and so on). It might seem counterintuitive that consumption of this media would correlate to liberal ideas.

(Screenshot from the author's Pornhub search)

(Screenshot from the author’s Pornhub search)

The Industrial Revolution ushered in an explosion of sex work. The working class family, no longer able to maintain the same sexual division of labor as the cottage industries of rural peasantry, faced a labor crisis. Working class women more often had to turn to survival sex work. During the Victorian era, Marx and Engels wrote, “In its completely developed form, [the] family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.” Eventually, the labor movement won a “family wage” for many working class men, creating a professional class of “housewives.” Women in the workforce also came to have expanded access to higher paying jobs. Sex work, however, has continued to be ubiquitous at the margins of capitalist society, where wages are lowest and family relations are the most unstable.

Pornography was illegal in most western societies until relatively recently. The first societies to legalize pornography outright were Northern European nations known for their liberal gender relationships: Denmark legalized pornography in 1969, followed by Sweden and the Netherlands in 1971. Obscenity jurisprudence in the United States has been more complicated; a coherent definition of obscenity (versus protected speech) has only existed on a federal level since 1973, with the Supreme Court’s Miller test. Jurists opened the possibility for considering porn a constitutional right. This gave space to the rise of the so-called “Golden Age of Porn”, when major porn productions like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones saw widespread theatrical release and were taken seriously as film by critics – a phenomenon New York Times Magazine called “porno chic.”

But videotape ended The Golden Age of Porn: in the 80s, new technology such as VHS made pornography a much more straightforward affair of mediating arousal and big budget erotic cinema productions became far less profitable by comparison. Naturally, this affected the type of content being produced—a combination of lower production costs and more pervasive home viewership allowed for more erotic niches to be catered to. This trend has exploded since the 90s. The democratization of digital media production and distribution means that far more people are able to be producers, consumers, and performers of porn than ever before.

(Screenshot from the author's Pornhub search)

(Screenshot from the author’s Pornhub search)

The internet has provided a platform for the proliferation of countless new genres and new fetishes. POV, a “gonzo” style shot from the perspective of the male performer, was one of Pornhub.com’s 20 top searches in 2015. It’s a very popular style of porn cinematography, making an appearance in many different genres. And it would not have been possible without the omnipresence of high quality digital handycams. It’s unsurprising that in the hands of an industry which receives 98% of its revenue from men, this technology is used to construct images of male sexual subjectivity. Male subjectivity is so absolute in the sex industry that when porn showing heterosexual sex depicts the man as an object of erotic desire, it gets marketed to gay men.

That the historical process which has created an industry dedicated to propagating the ideology of white male sexual subjectivity also seems to have created an industry which propagates liberal ideas about gender is to be expected. In Capital, Marx writes, “the technical subordination of the workman to the uniform motion of the instruments of labor, and the peculiar composition of the body of workpeople, consisting as it does of individuals of both sexes and of all ages, gives rise to a barrack discipline.” The ideology of liberal democracy—of capital—has the tendency to equalize all work. For profits to be accumulated from trade in commodities (which are the product of applied labor-power), labor-power in the abstract must necessarily have the ability to be freely bought and sold—to be commanded by capital. The kinds of arbitrary restrictions on civil rights opposed by porn viewers—such as preventing some women from working outside their homes—do not follow the long term logic of the accumulation of capital. Porn viewers, consuming media which is a technologically advanced product of sexual labor, therefore tend to hold ideologies which are more advanced from the perspective of capital’s ability to extract value from gendered labor.

That capitalism has been a liberalizing force with respect to gender is well known—it eventually brought with itself suffrage and civil equality. Capital has failed, however, to substantially alter gender relationships to the extent where persons with sexually commodifiable bodies are relieved of the pressure, from the destabilization of family and economic relationships, to sell their sexual labor to men. This was the case when Friedrich Engels wrote of sex work in the context of the dire situation of the urban proletariat at the time of the Industrial Revolution in The Condition of the Working Class in England. It is is the case currently when Black trans and gender nonconforming people are 47 times more likely to do sex work than women in general. Inasmuch as media is an ideological reflection of the social forces which produces it, media depicting sex work will promulgate liberal gender egalitarianism for exactly what it is—an ideology which allows for equality only to the extent that civil equality reifies an efficient trade in labor-power as a commodity, in the abstract.

(An illustration by Claude Bornet for Juliette, by the Marquis de Sade)

(An illustration by Claude Bornet for Juliette by the Marquis de Sade)

According to Jörg Metelmann’s paper, “Dialectic of Pornographic Enlightenment,” the proliferation of erotic media became inextricably linked to modernity and bourgeois liberalism at the time of the French Revolution. The dialectic of pornographic enlightenment is the tension between the construction of transcendentally mechanical erotic pleasure (i.e., seemingly separated from social relationships embedded in the reproduction of labor-power) and the tendency for said transcendence to annihilate the subject’s capacity for pleasure. Metelmann cites Horkheimer and Adorno’s reading of Marquis de Sade’s Juliette, where the eponymous character derives erotic gratification from the desecration of the Sacrament—ironically depending on tensions in an ideological schema which she rejects (feudal-aristocratic Catholicism) in order to experience pleasure: “Juliette’s critique is discordant, like the Enlightenment itself. In so far as the flagrant violation of the taboo…has not adjusted proficiently to the new reality, it lives on with sublime love as faith in that now proximate utopia which makes sexual pleasure free for all.” In destroying the idea which gives it its sexual power, the erotic desecration of the Sacrament is a kind of autoerotic asphyxiation: Sexual liberation ultimately annihilates the subject’s capacity to experience the pleasure they are pursuing.

Conflating erotica like Sade’s with media which is the product of sexual labor under the umbrella term “pornography”, Metelmann notes that pornography has gone from being a form of underground liberal propaganda to being an established, consumer-oriented genre in contemporary “porno-democratic” societies: “Maintaining this critical and very political function of early pornography as a central element of the dialectic of enlightenment, we can describe the cultural processes of pleasure and modernity as alternations between disembedded sex (= pornography as the fiction that sex simply exists) and re-embedded sex.” Mechanized pleasure, or “disembedded sex”, is only disembedded to the extent that it is actually separated from social relationships embedded in reproduction. Modern pornography is not just erotic media, however, it is also mediated sexual labor. For the average person who works in porn, their labor is not “speech.” For the many porn performers who work as escorts, porn is effectively another escorting gig—one which also serves as an advertisement for their escorting businesses. Sex work is never “disembedded” from the ideological regimes which structure reproductive labor, though the act of its consumption increasingly may seem to be.

The Golden Age of Porn in the United States and Western Europe occurred against a backdrop of the redefinition of civil liberties in liberal society vis-a-vis socialist states in Eurasia and the Global South. Erotic propaganda has been a feature of social conflict since the days of Marquis de Sade. To this day, pornography consumption is political, and has a measurable ideological effect. In “The East is Blue,” author Salman Rushdie argues for using pornography to propagate liberalism in Muslim-majority Asian nations. Richard Dawkins has famously made similar suggestions. As an ideological structure of liberal postmodernity, however, porn culture does not actually disseminate gender equality as much as it promotes those trappings of equality which treat men and women’s labor as having an equally abstract monetary value. Male sexual subjectivity—and by extension, female sexual objectification—becomes every bit as much a part of the progressive as the conservative partisan approach to administering the structures of the liberal state. It should surprise no one that the people who go on websites where the most popular videos often feature nude women performing paid sex acts on white men holding digital handycams—industrially constructing themselves as Subject—are, on average, more liberal. In Pre-Revolutionary France, subversive pamphlets were disseminated explicitly depicting Marie Antoinette in orgies and other humiliating sexual situations. Today, the woman in a gangbang video is an effigy of Marie Antoinette: Her public sexual humiliation indicates the dissolution of traditional social ties, along with their mystic feudal-aristocratic ideals. This ushers in the subsequent triumph of the rational, commanding power of capital over labor—and its fetish of the commodity form.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Goldmarx June 29, 2016 at 3:23 am

“Porn is a form of media which typically delivers images of women’s sexual objectification – the camera focuses on the woman’s body and her affective performance while the male performer seldom exists more than a few inches above his navel or below his knees…” Well, if so, doesn’t that mean that images of men’s sexual objectification in porn are even greater than women’s?

“(Pornography) ushers in the subsequent triumph of the rational, commanding power of capital over labor—and its fetish of the commodity form.” So why are a plurality of its fans supporting Bernie Sanders, who, as a democratic socialist, wishes to abolish this power of capital over labor?

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Angel June 29, 2016 at 11:34 am

the fact that the parts of a man which are commonly visible in porn are the parts of one’s own body which are easily visible to one’s self indicates that the man in hetero porn is intended to represent the subject (i.e., be a surrogate for the viewers’ consumption for the woman’s sexual labor). that the man is not the object of erotic desire in hetero porn is also indicated by his receiving less payment for the role in the scene and that men will be the primary consumers of this video.

bernie sanders is a social democrat who supports a northern european style bourgeois liberal democracy (e.g., with a strengthened social safety net) and as such his ideas fall outside of radical socialist tradition and firmly within liberal tradition

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Goldmarx June 29, 2016 at 8:56 pm

It’s the anti-porn feminists who have repeatedly used “objectification” to mean reducing women in porn imagery to one-dimensional, less than fully human objects, whereas men, they argue, are depicted in the same imagery as three-dimensional fully human subjects. Using that operational definition, however, it is easy to show that men are equally or more objectified in porn in the same sense of being reduced. On first glance, it appeared you were adopting Dworkin’s take on objectification. Perhaps you could clarify if that is the case, or were you simply using a more benign, innocuous interpretation of objectification as a way of assigning roles to players in a fantasy scenario, the way one assigns subject and object to a sentence one is parsing.

You are wrong about Bernie Sanders. While he advocates measures right now that are similar to ones prevalent in social democracies, he has not abandoned his desire to go further and replace capitalism altogether. Whereas social democrats’ endgame is a more humane capitalism; democratic socialists don’t trust capitalism and want it replaced, but nonviolently and with free elections, for instance. Sanders volunteered on an Israeli kibbutz in the 1960s and supports worker-owned and worker-run enterprises. This is not an abstract concept for sex workers, as the Lusty Lady business provided a sterling example of how to do socialism right.

Sanders relentless class analysis – his accusations against Wall Street and the One Percent – makes him an Orthodox Marxist. That puts him firmly within the radical socialist tradition.

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Bq July 3, 2016 at 1:46 am

What exactly is “egalitarian” about women dealing with even more sexual violence from men enacting the sociopathic shit that’s getting normalized in Internet porn?

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-health/11549954/Teen-girls-Suicide-kills-more-young-women-than-anything.-Heres-why.html

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Goldmarx July 6, 2016 at 10:21 pm

I checked your link, and the article blames online non-porn media, i.e. Kim Kardashian selfies, more than porn. Thanks for playing.

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Angel July 5, 2016 at 1:47 pm

That “egalitarian” is definitely a misnomer for describing the extent a person agrees with the liberal status quo is a central idea of this essay:

“Inasmuch as media is an ideological reflection of the social forces which produces it, media depicting sex work will promulgate liberal gender egalitarianism for exactly what it is—an ideology which allows for equality only to the extent that civil equality reifies an efficient trade in labor-power as a commodity, in the abstract.” “

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Treblato July 10, 2016 at 4:36 pm

I wonder where the rise in findom/goddess worship/adjacent kinks fits into the equation of propagating liberalism (some dudettes combine it with the #GiveYourMoneyToWomen hashtag, material support versus costless signalling about professing support for women). I’m reminded of Zizek on courtly love, and how really it’s the dude setting up an effigy of ideological security: https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/courtly-love-or-woman-as-thing-how-to-do-lacanian-analysis-like-slavoj-zizek-or-at-least-understand-what-hes-getting-at/

My initial, somewhat incoherent take: capitalism is increasingly leaving the white dude behind (and the prescription drug abuse/increased suicide rate has an effect on the collective self-image even if a dude isn’t materially affected himself by circumstance) in terms of neoliberal ideology marketing (“white guys are terrorizing women out of consumption of popular media, fighting inequality is seeing Ghostbusters 2016 twice or more”).

Findom changes this perceived degradation into something in his control and a way to support equality without the danger of any systemic upheaval. He just buys out the wishlist of Goddess_Whoever1990. Ideological uncertainty is replaced with a purpose (e.g., non-stop working and abstaining from all other things). Goddess worship replaces religion if you squint. Moreover, emphasis lies on the subject ‘earning’ a reward if he’s a good enough slave (sexual release linked to meritocracy). The lady controls most aspects of the interaction, but still distributes clips via various platforms if she wants to make a name (individual illusion of control, while the system is still in place). Findom is liberalism pur sang, it sells power and redemption as consumer products.

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