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From The Good Old Naughty Days (2002), dir. Michel Reilhac (all images screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

In early December 2020, a New York Times op-ed alleged that pornography streaming giant Pornhub, one of the most visited sites on the internet, was hosting videos of child pornography, revenge porn, and sexual assault. Visa and Mastercard subsequently pulled their support for the site. As damage control, Pornhub removed all videos uploaded by unverified users and instilled stricter measures to prevent such content from being uploaded in the future. Along with the offending videos, millions of others that had nothing illegal or unethical, but were simply made by amateur and underground pornographers, were caught up in the purge (as was a good deal of copyrighted content). Many articles have outlined how this shift will impact sex workers going forward — particularly those who operate outside the industry. In the meantime, it’s worth asking: With those millions of videos suddenly gone, have we lost anything of value? 

Almost as soon as cinema was invented, people turned cameras on private spaces and acts. Pornography produced in those early years of the medium, primarily screened in brothels, was made by anonymous crews and performers. These films are easy to find if you’re curious; I quickly dug up two examples on xHamster here and here. (WARNING: Both the site and the videos are NSFW, obviously.) Some were even assembled into a collection titled The Good Old Naughty Days, which screened at Cannes in 2002. What’s immediately remarkable about these films is that they rarely have the pretext of plot and are primarily joyful. The movements and bodies are unpolished but graceful in their pursuit of pleasure. Beyond their obvious historical value, they stand out as poetic visions of lust and fulfillment. 

Fast-forward a hundred years. Does amateur porn made in the past decade (the source of most of the films now wiped away from Pornhub) have the same artistic value? Does amateur porn that’s rarely made without previous experience of viewing porn have value beyond its documentation of how pornography has transformed the way we have sex? Of the literally tens of millions of videos made in the wake of the digital revolution, is any individual scene worth saving?

From The Good Old Naughty Days

One significant problem is that, for the most part, there have been few efforts to preserve pornography. As Elena Gorfinkel writes Lewd Looks: American Sexploitaiton Cinema in the 1960s:

As with pornographic cinema more broadly, both the explicitly sexual nature and outré nature of the film material, its maligned status, and the noncanonical nature of the films have resulted in wariness and caution on the part of archivists and preservationists. Very few of these films are housed in film archives, nor do they have a coherent or summary archive attached to them that might catalog representative or atypical works.

Is it possible that decades from now, archivists will be scouring basements for hard drives brimming with porn scrubbed from the internet? Pornography has an increasingly significant impact on our culture; it is an impossibly large industry that a considerable percentage of the population engages with regularly. Yet it still exists on the outskirts of cultural and artistic criticism, discussed solely in moral terms. This good/bad binary challenges our ability both to critically scrutinize porn and correctly assess social problems. As of 2019, not Pornhub but Facebook was the biggest social media site used in the sharing of child pornography. Yet it’s pornographic sites that are routinely targeted by activists and law enforcement, thanks largely to effective lobbying by religiously motivated activists. Recent attacks on Pornhub are linked to anti-porn crusaders whose policies often have the opposite effect of what they intended, further endangering the lives of sex workers (while doing little to stop sex trafficking). 

From The Good Old Naughty Days

The fixation on pornography as a source of moral corruption similarly removes nuance from discussing the business practices of the major porn streaming companies and their effects on the industry. Pornhub is owned by MindGeek, which is also the parent company of RedTube, YouPorn, and hundreds of smaller sites. For years, they built power by hosting copyrighted material made by their competitors. MindGeek’s ascension meant that customers were less likely to pay for their porn, driving down the overall value of work in the industry. Now that MindGeek is effectively a porn monopoly, they could afford to cut out all the unverified postings and pirated content from Pornhub without a second thought. 

In a recent issue of the erotic magazine Leste, Fan Wu writes: “cinema’s been so crucial in composing our images of sex — to such a point that sex is an image before it becomes an act.” In the realm of human experience, this is a relatively new development. Hollywood historically played a large role in this shift, but pornography has increasingly taken over this formative experience. In spite of this influence and being a billion-dollar industry, porn remains on the outskirts. We won’t be able to measure what has been lost — whether to historical decay or the Pornhub purge — until we stop thinking of pornography as something inherently aberrant and unworthy of serious study.

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Justine Smith

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

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2 Comments

  1. I appreciate the tenor and tone of this article very much. The categorical overarching feminist dictum that all sex work and pornography is exploitation of women and that all sex workers are being exploited (or even raped) is absurd and extremely offensive. Some pornographers are rapists and do exploit their subjects (and even themselves). But that is true across all demographics—minus the filming part. Exploitation and rape are real. But they aren’t a byproduct or consequence of pornography.
    The key question at the end of the piece hinges on whether or not we should be archiving and studying contemporary pornography as a cultural barometer. Does it reflect our times? Absolutely. Is it entirely clear what the value of this would be? Of course not. Few societies study their popular sexual dos and donts. But Americans often try to deny sexuality altogether—puritanically enforcing censorship of the intimate areas of our bodies. Not to mention the idiotic idea that teaching teenagers abstinence is anything of any value to anyone at all, ever.

    I never liked pornography because I’ve done video production and I could never suspend my disbelief. It’s an act being played out and that’s not arousing to me. But when we got digital cameras something began to shift dramatically. Especially so when the iPhone and other devices gave us a one stop mode of production. Suddenly pornography became a form of self-expression. Frid from most constraints we started to see each other unfiltered. For many years the way those images functioned and the kind of imagery we portrayed was pretty straightforwardly aligned with traditional pornography. And certain tropes still hold true today. But at this moment in time a simple scan of a site like porn hub even after the purge shows how widely we have let our selves be who we really are as sexual personae. We explore our fantasies in unabashed ways. The algorithms reflect this and the way the sex looks is increasingly naturalistic. More natural bodies and varied kinds of sexual acts. Fetish and kink are surprisingly Mundane and sometimes a video will show everything from natural intimacy to theatrical exhibitionism. As a society in full decadent mode one would expect this but I think that there is a more central reflection of the way we have liberated ourselves now that the tyranny of production has given way to a democratized DIY Agora where everything is up for grabs.

    1. I should have noted that in early 2008 I had a show that I made specifically for the Kinsey institutes art gallery (on the campus of Indiana University at Bloomington, where Dr Kinsey did his research) My subject was the self marketing imagery I was seeing online on cruising/networking sites like manhunt and Craigslist. A Dick. An ass. This is me. Hyper objectification and a Gaze so laser focused it was literally indifferent to critique.
      My show was called iGuy and the collage works are now part of the Kinsey’s permanent collection.

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