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Exploitation rules global porn industry

Let’s not be needlessly pious; a lot of people watch porn. Yet the internal workings of this global industry, worth billions of dollars, is largely cloaked in mystery. 

Porn on a variety of platforms and devices is being consumed by viewers at exponential rates. As of 2016 South Africans are in the top 20 of Pornhub’s most frequent viewers list, standing far ahead of most countries on the continent. Pornhub, essentially the equivalent of YouTube, recorded 33.5-billion visitors to the site in 2018.

Coupled with this consumption is a grand indifference by viewers of the contexts in which porn is produced, how it is distributed and the conditions of workers in the industry.  This disparity triggered my curiosity because of the increasing popularity of Only Fans on social media. Besides inviting the predictable moral condemnation, the app has come to be known for its supposed ability to grant sex workers productive independence, creative freedom and offer a lucrative stream of income, while also providing safer conditions for performers.

I wondered why so many of us, whom I assume are concerned with trying to be ethical people, are unconcerned about the sources of our masturbation material? And why should we care in the first place? The answer partly rests in that for too long we have devalued and depoliticised certain experiences and certain members of our society. One experience drained of its merit in the collective imagination is sexual pleasure. 

Sexual pleasure is a vital feature of the human experience. Its value exists beyond just physical euphoria and health benefits. It can advance one’s self-development by enhancing intimate bonds with others, revitalise confidence, and assist in combating one’s fears or anxieties. 

You see this in how, for many queer people, learning to shamelessly enjoy sex with other queer people is a pivotal site of experience on the path to self-acceptance.

Sexual pleasure is undoubtedly political. It isn’t coincidental that in societies where male desire dominates in and out the bedroom, the location of the clitoris remains an enigma for men everywhere. Sexual pleasure is experienced and made available under certain economic conditions, and understood through different ideological lenses.

These forces can elevate sexual pleasure into a safe, healthy and rewarding component of life. But the composition of these forces has also made sexual pleasure into a profit-driven industry, one that exploits most of its workers and sells distorted fantasies about sex, while stacking cash from the abuse of women and children. 

Minds contort in confusion over the “sex work”. There is a refusal or judgmental reluctance to view porn actors as workers. This perception contaminates the general understanding of the numerous kinds of sex work such as stripping, street or private prostitution, escorting and online camera performances.

Like millions in the informal economy, sex work is in the bleak pits of a labour hierarchy. It is viewed as not being legitimate labour and generally condemned as immoral by many.

I don’t want to delve into the debates about sex work because the consequences of stigmatising the issue are evident. But it’s also not useful to embrace liberal rhetoric of sex work as inherently liberating for those involved.

The obstacle facing sex workers is one confronted by the working class all over the world: how to secure basic well-being, halt exploitation and abuse in the workplace in an economic system that diminishes people to be regarded as instruments for profit. 

As if the ravages of capitalism were not enough, sex workers are abandoned by governments refusing to provide welfare and are cruelly policed by the state. Male domination — in this context porn producers and viewers alongside pearl-clutching conservative activism — compounds this struggle for survival.

Neoliberal capitalism has shown a ravenous tendency towards producing monopolies. Facebook, Google and Microsoft Windows are examples, with Disney’s growing share of the market showing it is evolving into a similar titanic entity. I was stunned to learn that a monopoly had developed in the porn industry. MindGeek is a porn provider partnered with every major studio and owns 100 of the most popular “tube” sites such as Redtube, Pornhub and YouPorn.

MindGeek primarily gains revenue through advertising on its various tube sites, where videos can be watched — usually for free and often with no age restriction or verification of those who upload the content.

Rampant piracy has stifled the ability of porn producers, crew and actors to sustain a secure living. Sex workers are compelled to make videos for studios affiliated with MindGeek, only to see their pirated content spread on other tube sites without their notification or remuneration. 

Unlike musicians or Hollywood actors, workers in the porn industry receive no royalties. In South Africa as in the United States, those involved in the production of porn are paid by the hour and wages in the industry have been stagnant since the 1990s.

MindGeek has responded to some requests to remove pirated content and is legally obligated to moderate their content for copyright violations. Workers in the industry have, for years, bemoaned how slow and difficult this process is. 

MindGeek cannot filter and remove pirated content as quickly as it can be uploaded across its own platforms. The lack of keen vigilance for pirated content is not because of incompetence but rather a strong commitment to maximising revenue.

Large companies have always displayed, often covertly, a willingness to put their workers under financial strain or overlook processes through which workers are abused, if it reduces the costs of production and expands profits. The damage inflicted by these abuses is worse in an industry that functions with minimal to no regulation.

This lax regulation converges with producers eager to sell movies and actors who are increasingly desperate to stay working in a low-paying industry. 

Aggravating these layers of volatility is a sexual culture that has little respect for the agency and desires of women. The result? Violations of consent during porn filming that result in physical assault, actors forced into sex acts they did not agree to and rape.

The capabilities of the profit motive are amplified by algorithms and search engine optimisation. Porn is rarely realistic and the enterprise is primarily centred on selling fantasy. But a growing number of viewers and performers are questioning the substance of these fantasies.

The US’s adult film industry is saturated with racist pornography. Black men are hypersexualised to almost animalistic degrees and the black women, who are often paid less than their white counterparts, work with the humiliation of knowing their videos often fall under tags such as “ghetto girl” or “hood rat”. Adult performer Ana Foxxx recently recalled having to pose for a photoshoot, alongside two other performers while they held bananas.

The male gaze is ubiquitous in mainstream pornography. A focus on male pleasure not only negates the sexual desires of women but offers for objectification the type of bodies only seen on magazine covers and possessed by Instagram models. Rarely does this content capture the diversity and desirability of the human physique.  

But black performers are beginning to organise against these dehumanising portrayals. They are joined by women attempting to realise better working conditions to eradicate sexual assault and achieve some semblance of financial stability.

One can’t talk of the mainstream adult film industry without mentioning the hyper-sexualisation of young women. 

According to the American journalist and political commentator, Nicholas Kristof: “A search for ‘girls under 18’ or ‘14y’ leads in each case to more than 100 000 videos. Most aren’t of children being assaulted, but too many are.”

Before Pornhub recently purged its site of millions of items of unverified content, videos of rape and child pornography could be found on the site — often flagged for removal by viewers and not Pornhub itself.

What do these abuses in the industry mean for consumers of porn?  Exploitation is built into the processes that afford the pleasures and services we enjoy. Therefore there is an ethical implication in sustaining the victimisation that pervades the adult film industry. 

Individual action is useful; paying for your porn is an example, but its effect is limited. The hand of government must be forced to decriminalise sex work, usher in regulation and work with sex workers in response to their needs. Ultimately, the abuse of workers will persist unless our relationship to labour is upturned and renewed.

As noted by literary critic Terry Eagleton: “Most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil.” I hope for a future where we work not in a frantic, miserable pursuit of survival, but in order to enrich our abilities, unearth meaning in our lives or to simply have fun.

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Andile Zulu
Andile Zulu is a political essayist who runs the Born Free Blues blog.

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