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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