On the Shelf
The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession
By Kelsy Burke
Bloomsbury: 352 pages, $30
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Kelsy Burke spent five years deeply immersed in pornography. No, not by herself in a darkened room, but out in the world, researching the subject and interviewing people about it. Her interviewees were antiporn activists, sex workers and others whom she terms “porn positive” people and consumers.
In her book “The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession,” the sociologist explores everything from shifts in the industry to varying approaches to porn addiction to debates over laws and regulations. Burke strives to avoid being prescriptive but doesn’t look kindly on either extreme — on the one hand, the capitalist free-for-all that left Pornhub and other sites open to videos involving trafficked women or minors for many years, on the other, a moralist crusade to ban all pornography.
She is clearly more sympathetic to sex workers and what she calls “porn positive” advocates, but in a recent video interview, Burke said that early readings have “pissed people off on both sides.” She adds that she is writing not for activists but for ordinary people “who don’t feel like they have stakes in either side of the porn wars.”
Burke emphasized that she is presenting her findings, not her opinions: “I’m careful in the book about not telling people what I believe about porn or what they should believe.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Did you come into this project with preconceived notions you had to shed?
All of us have ideas about sex and sexuality and pornography based on our personal experiences and our social locations. I have a background as a born-again Christian but I’m now a progressive sociologist, queer person and feminist, and all of those things played into expectations I had.
Interviewing people blew my preconceived notions apart. I had assumed that the people who used moral and religious arguments were uniformly the people opposed to pornography, but my assumptions were rooted in stereotypes.
I found a lot of porn-positive people who are also very interested in ethics and morality, who are religious or spiritual and who feel sexual exploration and sexual freedom is part of their religious or spiritual identity or practice.
How different would a book on pornography have been before the internet?
I started thinking I was just writing about internet pornography, but then I asked how we got here, and I had to go back to the 1840s to start the story. In some ways, the internet changed everything, but when it comes to the messages around pornography, they are the same arguments recycled over and over. It’s questions of how we as a democratic society deal with sex, how we treat the relationship between religion and expressions of sexuality.
Is there room for compromise or listening, or is this like other culture war battles over, for example, the right to an abortion?
The antiporn movement folks see everything as black and white, so there’s little gray area. They think the idea that women would freely choose to perform in porn is an impossibility; no sex work can be consensual, it’s by its nature exploitative. So it’s hard to start a dialogue because there’s no openness.
It would be helpful for policymakers and politicians to be open to multiple perspectives, but messaging about pornography often stems from groups with overt religious or political ties and gives the illusion that they know the truth about porn.
You say you don’t want to be prescriptive, but it feels like you are challenging blind, willfully naive porn consumption.
Yes, one of my goals is for people to think more deeply about their porn habits and beliefs about porn. Both sides would say it’s not a good idea to look at free porn — one side because they don’t want you to look at any porn and the other because those streaming sites are not good for people who work in the industry, just for the people who own the sites. You used to be able to sign a contract with a major production company, make a few videos a month and do a few appearances and make a nice living. That’s not true today.
If someone uses indie porn or OnlyFans or pays for commercial porn, can they do it guilt-free?
There’s not one single true answer to that question. If men are paying for and watching feminist porn but still believe it’s addictive or they shouldn’t be doing it while in a relationship, then it’s still going to cause problems. But we also know from empirical studies that watching diverse pornography can be a source of affirmation for queer young people.
Conservatives who oppose queer lifestyles would disapprove of that. But do you think some porn goes too far? It seems like boundaries have been pushed and pushed some more in recent years.
It is clear that internet pornography is more violent than the porn in the ’70s or ’80s. In the extreme hardcore end of the industry, people said the industry sets a good standard with strict consent practices and safe words and other strategies to minimize harm. But they are not fail-proof, and people are still mistreated and abused. That’s a real problem and something the industry needs to reckon with. But it’s hard to make improvements, because we don’t know how to talk about extreme and kinky porn in a way that is disentangled from the religious conservative arguments.
There are 16 states that have passed resolutions declaring pornography to be a public health crisis, and almost all say something about how watching porn leads you down a slippery slope to more extreme and deviant sexual desires. Antiporn groups tend to exaggerate and sensationalize stories of harm and make them examples of the industry writ large, which is not what I found in my research.
How can legislators actually make things better?
If I had to make one policy recommendation, it would be to listen to sex workers in making policy decisions. SESTA/FOSTA is one example. These laws [which in part clamped down on online escort listings] passed in 2018 with widespread bipartisan support because the law is intended to curb internet sex trafficking. All along, sex workers were saying it’s not going to reduce sex trafficking and it’ll make their work more dangerous and harder. But no one listened.