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What the UK Porn Block Misunderstands About Adult Content

The porn block, in effect 1 April, is out of touch with the internet and protects neither ‘innocent minds’ nor sex workers

Khloe Kardashian came in for some criticism last week, after she posted an advert on Instagram shilling meal replacement milkshakes by Flat Tummy Co. ‘#Ad Loving how flat my tummy looks right now,’ the caption read. The internet wasn’t happy with such scantily clad marketeering, with one follower commenting, ‘THIS IS NOT OKAY,’ while another underscored Kardashian’s hypocrisy, writing, ‘how do you post these "be your true authentic self" quotes on your stories and then promote this crap which you obviously do not use?’ But the real kicker arose when pornography screening site Pornhub joined the fray: invoking model and actress Jameela Jamil, who has criticized the porn industry for feasting on the carcass of women’s self-esteem; they wrote: ‘We need @jameelajamilofficial up in here ASAP!’

Kloé Kardashian poses with Flat Tummy Shakes, 2019. Courtesy: Instagram

Khloé Kardashian poses with Flat Tummy Shakes, 2019. Courtesy: Instagram

On Instagram, clearly, banter’s the ticket, but – to stay with the issue of hypocrisy a little longer – it’s worth pointing out that 11-year-old company Pornhub, owned by monopoly MindGeek, is the single largest porn site on the internet, worth US$4 billion alone. Together with MindGeek’s other streaming services – YouPorn, RedTube, Playboy, ExtremeTube, Babes.com, Brazzers, SpankWire, the list goes on – the conglomerate boasts 115 million visitors every day. With verticals such as ‘Rough Sex’, ‘School’, ‘Gang Bang’, ‘Pissing’ and ‘Korean’, Pornhub is no stranger to the business of commodification.

This week the Digital Economy Act’s long-awaited porn block comes into force in the UK, compelling porn sites to verify that viewers are over the age of 18. The regulation, which 76% of the population has never heard of, has been criticized for its lack of clarity, and faced condemnation from privacy campaigners alarmed that it creates a direct link between someone’s personal identity and their porn habits in an age of routine data leaks. Others have critiqued the block’s poor planning, which ignores access via social media and can be easily circumvented by using a VPN. There are also certain ironies about the block’s final incarnation: the British Board of Film Classification, the agency which banned face-sitting and female ejaculation back in 2014, is to be the main regulator, and MindGeek – yes, the monopoly porn conglomerate – is the company administering the primary age verification technology.

This all speaks of a state out of touch with how the internet works, mistakenly diagnosing problems that are social and political in nature and origin as somehow hermetically digital. Buried within this crusade to shield young minds is an unarticulated anxiety about how porn reflects and affects attitudes toward women. By censoring these representations, the government seems to believe, we can avert associated problems of harassment, rape, domestic violence, paedophilia and sexual abuse. This makes it all the more curious, then, that the state has insistently failed to reckon with the incontrovertible harms that pervade the porn industry from root to bloom, from the precarious labour rights of many of its female workers to the coercion and abuse they so often face.

Women Against Pornography (WAP) demonstrators march on Times Square, New York, 1979. Courtesy and photograph: Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

Women Against Pornography demonstrators march on Times Square, New York, 1979. Courtesy and photograph: Barbara Alper/Getty Images

In fact, by encouraging the uptake of browsers used to access the dark web, like ToR, the argument can be made that this new legislation inadvertently drives young people towards parts of the web that the law fails to regulate. But to see the issue as primarily one of consumption is to swallow the government’s bait. Why, many sex workers ask, has the debate over pornography so long been dominated by concerns about the viewer, without considering the material realities of the women working within this $97 billion industry? Back in 2013, when David Cameron launched his war on porn, he cast himself as the valiant defender of ‘innocence’ itself; much less was said about the women who go on experiencing the after-effects of porn’s violent fictions.

In the 1970s and ’80s, during the so-called ‘porn wars’, radical feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin ran up against the full force of the American establishment trying to implement a piece of civil legislation that would enable sex workers to sue for damages where damage had been caused. Feminists in this varied tradition have, on the whole, seen censorship as an inappropriate response to the problems embodied by porn: sequestering pornography and dismissing it as a rogue problem – rather than seeing it as the site of capital extraction where patriarchy and the subordination it engenders bare themselves most openly – fails to understand how, in the words of political philosopher Lorna Finlayson, ‘pornography now pervades the sexualized social life of patriarchal societies.’

Peter Paul Rubens, Descent from the Cross, 1612 -1614. Courtesy: Wikimedia

Peter Paul Rubens, Descent from the Cross, 1612–14. Courtesy: Wikimedia

The result is the intensely strange polarity that continues to confront us, in which Pornhub gets a cheer for shaming a Kardashian, all the while hosting a sex tape alleging to have been leaked by her ex; Instagram polices sightings of the female nipple while staking itself on the wholesale pornification of mediated communication; Facebook will take down a portrait painted by Rubens but not a group whose main content is gonzo shots of women eating bananas on public transport; and the government, for its part, will go on moralizing about the corruption of innocent minds, while refusing to address the deep asymmetries in social and economic relations that construct those violent acts and desires in the first place.

Main image: Gustave Courbet, L'Origine du monde, 1866, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Wikimedia

Phoebe is a writer and editor who has worked for WIRED UK and openDemocracy.

 

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