*Content warning: This article includes mentions of sexual violence and discrimination.
A December 2020 New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof exposing Pornhub’s refusal to take down videos depicting rape and child abuse has sparked international outrage. Since then, credit card companies like MasterCard and Visa have cut ties with the Montreal-based site. Financial institutions are now part of the public debate of whether porn should be banned entirely by governments. The fact that 93 per cent of male and 62 per cent of female college students watch porn before turning 18 shows that pornography influences students’ sexual interactions. But beyond the popular prohibitionist feminist stance that porn is dangerous for women and the permissive stance that rejects moralist concerns, there is an often-overlooked point: The business model behind the industry. The problem with porn is how it makes money. Understanding how it works is important and can ultimately change harmful consumption habits.
The purpose of porn is to entertain and arouse viewers. Although porn is available to everyone who has access to the internet, it caters to white, straight, cisgender men. From Hugh Heffner’s Playboy to many Pornhub videos, a lot of free and mainstream pornography objectifies women. Women are often at the centre, but we see them through the eyes of men. This does not mean that women, people of colour, or gender and sexual minorities cannot watch or enjoy porn. But the filming is done with a certain demographic in mind, tapping into harmful gender and racial stereotypes to please its audience.
Pornography, like any industry, prioritizes profits above all else. Its business model provides little to no incentives to regulate the content that users upload. It would not be profitable to get rid of something that people clearly enjoy. In this sense, Pornhub is the perfect blend of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism because it takes advantage of people’s biases to make a profit. Pornography platforms make money off leaked videos of 14-year-old girls, revenge porn, violent depictions of rape, and in a broader sense, racist and sexist content. One could argue that porn is subversive and that it defies moralist and prudish values that seek to villainize sex by representing hidden sexual desires that people cannot publicly claim. However, the racist and sexist mainstream porn industry challenges nothing; it upholds the oppressive systems on which it is built.
Debates about the ethics of porn can often seem abstract and ideological, but it is important that they centre around the people they tangibly impact. The critique should not seek to criminalize and punish sex workers for making a living. Moreover, not all porn is created equal, and the rise of ethical porn provides an important alternative. Instead, criticism should be aimed at companies like Pornhub and their respective business models, which incentivize them to profit off of the violence and trauma of others.
Rather than debating whether porn should be banned, it is important to focus the discourse on the systems and the companies that facilitate and actively partake in harm. Discussions should not fall into the trap of individual responsibility that tends to distract from the true perpetrators. The danger of criticizing porn is punishing people for their sexual desires. But as Kristof states, criticizing the porn industry and being sex-positive should not be mutually exclusive.
Awareness of the structural dynamics that enable porn should not become an excuse for mindless porn consumption. People can choose what type of pornography to watch, what stereotypes they buy into, and to stop consuming violence. Young people and students have the power to shape the way we understand sex, and resignation to injustice should not eclipse the power of dissent.