Famously, I was told the internet is for porn. That can’t be true, of course, because as far as I am concerned, the internet is for writing book reviews! Anyway, The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession is yet another entry in a long line of books that looks at how people have lined up against one another to support or oppose the creation, distribution, and consumption of pornography. Some people on both sides call themselves feminists. Kelsy Burke looks at who the people are on these sides, and how we got here. Thanks to NetGalley and publisher Bloomsbury USA for the eARC!
I’ve read several books that touch on similar themes. Way back in 2018, I read the much older Female Chauvinist Pigs, which Burke cites here. More recently, I’ve read The Pornification of America and Why We Lost the Sex Wars, both through NetGalley as well. Why do I keep coming back to this topic? I think it has to do with a fascination with the limits of feminism. I identify as a feminist, but I also recognize that my views on feminism have been shaped by my privilege as a white, able-bodied person with a good education and job. A lot of my learning in recent years has focused on unlearning my white feminism in an attempt to look at things more intersectionally. Porn, and its influence on our culture, is at the centre of a lot of debates about what it means to be feminist. As usual, historically, it has been middle-class cis white women leading the charge, while sex workers are disproportionately poorer women and non-binary people of colour.
Burke’s book intrigued me because, while didn’t go so far as to promise objectivity, it did say it would strive to include multiple perspectives on “the pornography wars” and to critique those perspectives. This was something I felt was sorely lacking in Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, which despite professing feminist views and a neutrality towards porn, interviewed mostly people one would describe as anti-porn. In contrast, The Pornography Wars has data and stories gathered from across a vast spectrum, ranging from interviewees who are staunchly anti-porn on moral grounds to people who are staunchly pro-porn to people who are just confused, unsure, or who don’t like porn for their own reasons but aren’t opposed to its existence socially.
Although I’m not going to get into it here, you can imagine, I hope, that my own relationship to porn, as a 32-year-old asexual transgender woman, is complicated. Indeed, Burke elucidates how most people’s relationship with porn is a complicated one, which is why this subject needs to be studied and discussed. Though I would largely describe myself as “pro-porn, sex-positive, pro-sex-worker,” I must admit that Burke’s work has me feeling more negative towards the porn industry than ever before.
Now, I knew already about how problematic PornHub/MindGeek are. But as Burke peeled off the layers of corruption and dysfunction within the industry, I started to realize that the idea of “ethical porn” is problematic, to say the least. It’s great that one can pay for one’s porn, but that only solves a single problem and doesn’t address the underlying abuse of sex workers within the porn industry. A consumer must embark on more extensive research—has that talent ever been accused of sexual assault of a fellow talent?—to feel confident in the ethics of one’s pornography. Suddenly the idea of consuming porn ethically feels closer to the idea of consuming meat ethically—and while I haven’t gone vegetarian, I am all for dramatically reforming the meat industry.
At the same time, Burke is careful not to repeat, and indeed she calls out, when critics of the porn industry cherry-pick the most sensational stories of abuse. As the subtitle of this book implies, part of her examination of the history of the pornography wars involves the battle to have pornography declared “obscene.” Burke is very careful to delineate between opponents of pornography who hold it as immoral versus those who see it as unhealthy (although there is often overlap).
Her exploration of whether or not there is science to support the idea of porn addiction reminds us that science is a tool prone to being biased or misused. Plenty of evangelicals are seizing on science, albeit often junk science, to back up gender-essentialist ideas of brain function and sexuality. Though out of the scope of Burke’s thesis, these findings hint at the underlying problem in American society—a general dismantling of scientific literacy to the point where what counts as science and fact is now up for debate.
As Burke points out, the pornography wars have become increasingly polarized and moralized. She wants to demonstrate that there is common ground between those who would describe themselves as anti-porn or pro-porn (or at least, porn-neutral). This might seem like an impossible task, but I think through the patient exploration of her topic from different angles, she succeeds. At the very least, The Pornography Wars shows that the history of smut, obscenity, and pornography in America is not as simple as many of the people on either side of this battlefield might claim. I really enjoyed learning about that history, and I think Burke did a great job of presenting different perspectives in a way that truly challenged my own existing views on pornography, both as a concept and as an industry.