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This month, following an opinion piece in the New York Times by liberal political commentator Nicholas Kristof, the Canadian based porn site Pornhub was put on trial. The accusations revolve around the site allegedly allowing and profiting from sex trafficking, child, and rape porn. Without a doubt, Pornhub as well as many other similar sites, have profited from some questionable content. Like social media, it is not responsible for the content uploaded by individuals. It is only responsible for dealing with it once it is there. This is the only logical way that a free and open internet could possibly work. But there is a dark side to Kristof’s Pornhub diatribe. This crusade against porn comes at a time of unhinged QAnon conspiracy theories involving secret elite pedophile rings. And much of it smacks of a typical American-style sex panic.
Following the publication of Kristof’s piece in the NYT, credit card behemoths Visa and Mastercard discontinued their service to the site, adversely affecting the livelihoods of scores of sex workers and performers. In addition to this, far right groups, such as Exodus Cry, have seen the article as a clarion call in their crusade for sexual “purity.” Morphing from the early Puritans into today’s evangelicals, this war has never ended for them. Exodus Cry claims that its aim is to stop human trafficking, an admirable goal. But the organization never addresses decriminalizing sex work or the inhumane immigration laws and policies which are at the root of the problem. They also exclude gay men and transgender people as victims of sex trafficking and assault, even though this is a well documented problem. In addition to this, the founder Mike Bickle and the president Benjamin Nolot have expressed their antigay and anti-choice positions on several occasions, with one comparing being gay to opening “the demonic realm.”
Pornography has always been a charged topic in America, and it is often painted with a broad brush. Most people understand that exploitation of children or non-consensual sex are abusive and thus designated as crimes. Certainly, the modern porn industry is rife with abuses. But beyond this, who decides what is acceptable for adults? Back in the late 1980s, Robert Maplethorpe’s art works were censored in the US because they were labeled “obscene” by some politicians. And the genre of erotica is often lumped in with more explicit, hardcore pornography. Indeed, sexual expression in the visual medium has been a part of human culture for millennia. In fact, to many evangelicals and other religious conservatives all or most displays of public nudity or eroticism are considered offensive or perverse.
But this crusade against a pornography giant cannot be understood outside of the context of the rise of QAnon, a cult that centers around an antisemitic conspiracy about an elite, pedophile ring run by prominent Democrats who sacrifice children to extract a life prolonging chemical called adrenochrome. It is reminiscent of the debunked satanic ritual abuse scandal of the 1980s and 90s. Both panics were over the top and deranged in their allegations and accusations. Both rallied around the noble cause of “protecting children.” But, as in the panic of earlier times, there is no other reason for this other than the reactionary elements of a society being confronted with the agency of groups who have been historically oppressed.
The liberation movements of the 70s which saw great gains for women and LGBTQ people were seen by many conservative Christians to be the ultimate evidence of America’s denigration. Traditional gender roles were being challenged. Children were suddenly being taken care of by others while women joined the workforce. Today, there is a similar dynamic at play. Transgender people are challenging the very notion of a fixed gender. Sex workers are demanding recognition and labor rights. And once again, the hegemony of reactionary sections of society are feeling threatened. The difference now is that there is a marked disconnect from reality in a huge section of the population.
QAnon is perhaps one of the most dangerous of all conspiracy phenomenon in recent history thanks to its enormous influence. There are now sitting members of congress who are adherents. And it gained momentum thanks to the slow and steady chipping away of scientific education. But it should not come as a surprise that it arose in the United States. This is a country, after all, where many politicians still blame natural disasters on gay marriage or supposed sexual immorality.
Without a doubt, the pornography industry was given a significant boost by technology this century. The internet has enabled access to images and videos with ease and in the comfort of one’s own home. And it is no wonder that it has become one of the most lucrative industries on the planet. Sex, after all, sells. And capitalism has created a market where virtually everything, including sex, can be stamped with a barcode. But although pornography is, at best, a poor facsimile of sexual intercourse and relations, it sells because of its power to remove a person from the staleness and monotony of modern life. Like opioids, internet porn serves as a temporary release from the crushing reality most Americans deal with daily. But the latter is far less damaging to the individual and society in general.
To be clear, Pornhub is not a victim in this battle. It will still rake in millions of dollars off the backs of underpaid sex workers. And its content is not likely to change very much from the standard porn it profits from. Sex workers, an already marginalized community, will continue to lose their livelihoods and be demonized as societal degenerates. The real victims of sex trafficking will not see any justice in this crusade against porn either, because ultra-conservative organizations like Exodus Cry are only interested in promoting their rigid and reactionary mores regarding human sexuality. But QAnon has brought this issue to a different level, one fraught with both hysteria and idiocy. No one should kid themselves that the attacks on a prominent porn site are without a broader agenda. This has never been about pornography or “saving” children or women. Conservative evangelicals have an axe to grind. And this is only the beginning of their renewed war on human sexuality and the diversity of its expression.
Kenn Orphan February 2021
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