The Material World Column from the February 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
Chatsworth is a leafy district of Los Angeles, home to various Hollywood film stars. Many famous movies and TV series were shot in the area. It is also the centre of the porn business, with 200 production companies employing some 1,400 performers (and a few thousand other workers). Here too is the office of the trade magazine Adult Video News, which sponsors an annual convention in Las Vegas.
Most performers are poorly educated women aged 18 – 21. They are attracted by the pay, which seems good compared to other jobs open to them. Rates for a scene range from $200 for a blowjob up to $2,000 for a double anal or gang bang.
Much of the money goes to support drug habits. Ex-porn star Shelley Lubben, whose Pink Cross Foundation helps performers trying to get out of the business, explains why they need drugs: without them they would be unable to bear the abuse the work entails. “Guys are punching you in the face. You get ripped. Your insides can come out of you. It’s never ending.”
Besides drug addiction, another perk of the job is sexually transmitted diseases. Only some end up dying of AIDS, but few escape the discomfort of herpes, which is likewise incurable.
Porn is very big business. Worldwide revenue in 2006 is estimated at $97 billion. Revenue in the US rose almost 2,000-fold between 1972 and 2006 – from $7 million to $13 billion. Market expansion through the internet has fuelled this explosive growth, though other media – videos, films, TV, magazines – have also done well.
With growth comes political clout. Like other capitalists, porn makers pay lobbyists to promote their interests. One is Bill Lyon, head of the so-called Free Speech Coalition, which represents 900 companies. Besides passing porn off as free speech, Lyon plugs its contribution to California’s economy: 12,000 jobs and $36 million annually in state tax revenue.
Porn versus religion?
Opponents of porn have different and often conflicting motives. Many condemn it in the name of religious morality. Yet the same people support conservative politicians who are totally beholden to corporate interests and hostile to any restrictions on business, including the porn industry.
Porn promoters use the religious anti-porn movement to portray all their opponents as puritanical and intolerant – a false stereotype designed to silence anyone who does not want to be regarded as a killjoy. It’s quite possible to be against porn while valuing erotica – the artistic celebration of sex as a source of joy and beauty.
Besides the suffering of those used to produce it, porn can have a dehumanizing effect on its male consumers. It has been argued that it distorts their perceptions of women and undermines their ability to engage in satisfying real-life relationships. Especially serious is the impact on teenagers the age group that views the most online porn. The average age at which American boys first download porn is now 11 years.
Opening up new markets
As many consumers become desensitized to milder kinds of porn, they seek out more extreme varieties in order to sustain the same level of stimulation. The remorseless drive of capital to expand also impels porn makers to break down taboos and open up new markets. So porn grows more extreme, violent and abusive.
One barrier to expansion is the illegality of using children’s bodies in porn. But it is a weak barrier. Even those porn makers who take care to remain within the letter of the law press hard against the barrier by using “childified women” – a concept introduced by sociologist Gail Dines (see her 2008 interview with Citizen magazine). Young women are made to look like children by wearing children’s clothes and braces on their teeth, holding lollipops and shaving their pubic hair. So while these porn makers don’t abuse children directly some would argue that they incite their customers to do so.
Porn goes mainstream
Despite its increasingly violent character, porn is becoming more acceptable socially and culturally. Characters in popular TV sitcoms joke about it.
This is because the porn industry is no longer a disreputable enterprise on the fringes of the business world. “Respectable” business has merged with the industry as major corporations, observing the high rates of return offered by porn, have invested in it in a big way. Porn has gone mainstream.
* Media and telecommunications companies rely heavily on profits from porn. They have acquired porn-making subsidiaries and offer cable subscribers hardcore porn channels.
* Over 95 percent of new Hollywood films are “adult movies”.
* Some big hotel chains now make up to 70 percent of their profits by feeding porn to TVs in guest rooms on a pay-per-view basis.
* The most profitable parts of General Motors are no longer its auto plants but the porn channels EchoStar and DirecTV, owned by GM subsidiary Hughes Technology.
Consumer goods manufacturers are also linked to the porn business through their use of “soft porn” in advertising cars, clothes, shoes, cosmetics, etc. Fashion modelling, in particular, has close links with the industry.
The political implications of this development are discussed by D.A. Clarke, a contributor to the volume Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography (Spinifex Press). Now that the industry has gone mainstream, she argues, opposition to porn challenges the interests of capital as a whole. So anti-porn protestors would be up against formidable odds. If we want to decommercialize and humanize sex, we need to take the next step and build a broad popular movement to overthrow capitalism itself.