The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession
- By Kelsy Burke
- Bloomsbury Publishing
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Antoaneta Tileva
- May 22, 2023
Pulling back the curtain on our nation’s dirty little secret.
If you don’t consume pornography, why should you concern yourself with the debates surrounding it? Sociologist Kelsy Burke’s comprehensive The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession makes a persuasive case that sex matters far beyond the private sphere and that pornography is ultimately about how we relate to one another. Based on five years of research and more than 90 interviews with people on both sides of the debate, the book is nuanced in its treatment of the topic and compelling in the way it situates the subject within broader society.
Burke is convincing in her argument that the crux of the matter is not simply or only pornography but “how to live an authentic and fulfilling life, which includes sexuality, in a modern world.” Porn’s ubiquity and accessibility in the internet age render it a topic that has to be addressed, and not just by feminists or sex-worker advocates.
The book begins with a history of pornography and obscenity laws. It then launches into an incredibly thorough section on the effects of porn-indexing sites. Started by the “geek king of smut,” Fabian Thylmann, who has since sold his share in the company for €73 million (yes, you read that correctly), MindGeek, by some estimates, owns 90 percent of all internet porn. Pornhub, one of its sites, draws a staggering 120 million visitors daily, placing it above Amazon and Netflix in online-traffic rankings. Generating revenue through banner ads, this behemoth is responsible for the prevailing and pernicious idea that porn should be free. But more on this later.
Burke then explores the passing of FOSTA-SESTA, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, in 2018. For anti-pornography activists, porn and sex trafficking are too intricately linked to be considered separate entities. Pro-porn activists challenge this conflation but nevertheless have to recognize that the sex-work industry poses some very real threats to its purveyors.
Sex workers, for their part, have sought to overturn such laws because they actually place them in greater peril by not allowing these workers to share information about dangerous clients or to form networks of cooperation online. Another unintended consequence of the laws meant to help sex-trafficking victims is that they strengthen the penal system and push sex work further underground, making it much more dangerous. These laws also make a life outside of sex work harder to achieve as banks refuse to open accounts for sex workers and employers can fire employees who do outside, part-time sex work.
The Pornography Wars explores the feminist take on pornography, too, especially the so-called Porn Wars in 1984, spearheaded by legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon and writer/activist Andrea Dworkin. Women Against Pornography, founded by the pair, believed that porn exploits women and is fundamentally damaging and misogynistic. The very term “sex work” is abhorrent because it elides the exploitation and coercion anti-porn advocates claim is inherent in the system.
Burke’s interviews with people struggling with pornography addiction, as well as with people in the industry, are especially insightful. As adult-film performer and author Stoya says, “My politics and I are feminist…my job is not.” There is a particularly jarring interview with a BDSM performer who has a sobering realization in therapy that the violent content she’s participating in is being watched by people so that “they don’t have to make their own memories.” This line may leave readers shaken.
The book goes on to explore whether feminist (or ethical) porn can exist and what it looks like, as well as how our society perceives “genuine pleasure” and whether we can — or should — concern ourselves with distinguishing between the real and the fake.
Burke allows the contradictions and complexities on both sides of the debate to shine. “People experience pornography differently based on their sexual identity, experiences, and beliefs about sex,” she writes. Sex workers, too, she acknowledges, have inconsistent feelings about its harm or harmlessness.
The Pornography Wars concludes that, polarizing rhetoric and the way in which both sides have defined themselves vis-à-vis a distinction from the other aside, the overlap between porn-positive and anti-porn factions is larger than we might think. Because pornography is connected to broader social systems — including capitalism, the criminal justice system, and the media — any analysis of it without considering those connections is incomplete.
Finally, Burke outlines three points both sides agree on. First, that it’s a bad idea to keep porn habits hidden. Second, that talking to kids about sex and porn is necessary, considering its ubiquity. And finally, that nobody should be watching free porn. The two factions also share concerns about safety and consent, the risk of violence, and sexual health for sex workers.
The Pornography Wars is truly one of most cogent and sophisticated deep dives into our collective dirty secret that I’ve ever read. Do yourself a favor and pick it up.
Antoaneta Tileva is a Bulgarian transplant who has lived in the DC area for the last 31 years. An avowed introvert, she does a lot of extroverting as a cultural anthropologist who teaches at American University. She is a mean cruciverbalista.