Trigger Warning: References to sexual assault, violence in pornography, and graphic descriptions of sex acts in pornography. Articles used for sources may link to porn.

In 1983, feminist scholars Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon won what they considered a narrow victory. The Minneapolis City Council voted 7-6 in favor of a de facto ban on pornography. MacKinnon, a lawyer and professor, worked with Dworkin to write the ordinance that would become the ban. They argued that pornography that portrayed women as submissive with graphic sexual acts was discrimination against women.

I can understand why feminists of this era would try to get rid of porn. Just three years earlier, Linda Lovelace released her memoir detailing the brutal abuse and rape by her ex-husband while filming the Golden Age of Pornography film, Deep Throat. In the 80s and 90s porn was rapidly changing from the softcore, wide-angle shots of two people having sex to the more gritty home videos on VHS and DVD emphasizing close-ups of the actual penetration (i.e. fingers, hands, penis, or inanimate object in mouth, vagina, or butt).



There’s an argument to be made that a vast chasm exists between porn of today and that of the days of watching two people have sex like an unacknowledged spectator at the far end of the room. But what is it now and who is it for? Professional industry porn seems to be largely made for men even when the characters are lesbians. Scholarship that follows in Dworkin and MacKinnon’s footsteps argue that porn distorts men’s perception of women. Furthermore, authors like Robert Jensen argue that porn combines violence with sex in such a way that sex is perceived to be an inherently violent act.

Within porn itself, actors and filmmakers struck back by creating two forms of porn: feminist and queer porn. While not the same (i.e. feminist porn can be queer porn but it is not always), the two aimed at changing what is seen in terms of who is having sex with who, how that sex happens, what counts as sex, who gets to have pleasure, and to what degree is the sex and pleasure seen on screen authentic.

But the existence of porn that aims to be different, aims to be better doesn’t erase decades of porn which deserves the scrutiny and criticism it received. Moreover, with new technology the porn industry evolves and amplifies existing problems. Despite claims that it isn’t, revenge porn continues to be a problem for Pornhub, the Youtube of porn. Revenge porn is essentially releasing nude photos and videos without the consent of all the people in pictures or video. The purpose of this type of media is to punish someone else, thus the moniker “revenge.”


In no small part, revenge porn is effective because of societal attitudes about sex workers and what it says about people if they are willing to be recorded for sex. Nothing says what society’s valuation of sex workers is than the financial restrictions placed on sex work in the name of safeguarding people from human trafficking. In 2018, FOSTA-SESTA forced sites like Craigslist to remove their personals section and enabled the FBI to shutdown websites like Backpage. These websites provided a crucial platform for sex workers to connect with potential clients.

Laws like the above mentioned hit sex workers in the porn industry, especially indie porn actors after PayPal updated their policies to reflect a Draconian set of rules about what their online payment platform could be used for. If a sex worker accepts funds through PayPal and the company discovers what those funds were compensating, they might cancel the transaction or confiscate the funds entirely.

And all that is on top of the fact that people refuse to pay for porn.

Now that our story has come full circle, the hard-fought laws of the 80s and 90s meant to protect people from human trafficking, objectification, and gender-based violence have turned corporations and the masses against the people who work in the sex industry. Can porn be redeemed from this nightmare? The sex worker is a worker just as much as the person making burgers at a fast food joint or the plumber who fixes the kitchen sink when it leaks. Therefore, until capitalism has been destroyed the sex worker is at the mercy of exploitative working environments and a clientele conditioned to recognize them as neither a worker nor a person.

Unfortunately, there is no silver lining. No “gotcha” that can absolve feminists from the implications of what sex work is like in the 2020s and its implications for porn. Even when supporting sex workers through platforms like OnlyFans and purchasing porn directly from the creators, it is only a matter of time before governments devoid of any value except the almighty dollar and carceral feminists close what few loopholes exist giving sex workers agency over their own work.

There is no ethical consumption under capitalism. What can be done is coalition building, bolstering support for sex workers with support from labor organizers and the might of unions. If tipping at restaurants—or in the case of life in a pandemic, the delivery driver—is an act of solidarity with workers, then paying for porn is the bare minimum that could be asked of anyone.

It still leaves a lot of unresolved issues, but restoring the sex worker to their rightful place as a worker and pushing towards the abolition of capitalism, police, and prisons goes a long way towards true justice for sex workers.


https://thetempest.co/?p=147328
Jamie Saoirse O'Duibhir

By Jamie Saoirse O'Duibhir

Editorial Fellow