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The price of pornography

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As the Tories call for censorship, Amy Leather looks at a global porn industry that takes the humanity out of sex—and reflects and reinforces the oppression of women
Issue 2364
Pornography is about making money - not improving peoples sex lives
Pornography is about making money – not improving people’s sex lives (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Socialists are against pornography. We don’t see pornography as the cause of women’s oppression or think that if porn disappeared there would be no violence against women. We don’t back state censorship of pornography. But we do oppose porn.

In mainstream pornography physical and verbal aggression towards women are the norm rather than the exception. One study of contemporary porn in 2007 found that most scenes from 50 of the top rented porn titles contained physical and verbal abuse of the female performers.

These images are easily accessible and free, not lurking in some dark recess of the internet. This is the nature of mass produced, mainstream porn. 

The internet has transformed how pornography is viewed and the sort of the images that are easily accessible. One 2009 survey found that there were 420 million internet porn pages. There were 68 million search engine requests for porn every day.

Anyone with basic computer skills can access porn with just a few clicks. Porn can be viewed on mobile phones. The average age that people first access pornography is 11 years old.

So it’s easier than ever for children who are curious about sex to get their view of what sex is from pornography, which bears little relation to real sex.

Understanding capitalism and what drives it helps to understand why porn has developed in the way it has. A Marxist understanding of pornography doesn’t see pornography as being a problem to do with individual men, or indeed all men.

Instead it looks at pornography in the context of capitalist society and how it is driven by the logic of that system.

Capitalism is driven by competition and profit. It looks to make money from every area of life and turns everything into a commodity, something to be bought and sold. That includes our emotions and our sexuality.

Socialists want more openness about sex. This was one of the demands of the 1960s women’s liberation movement —that sex should be for pleasure not just procreation, that women were sexual beings too with needs and desires.

But pornography isn’t about making our sex lives better, it’s about making money. Pornography is big business, very big business indeed. It’s hard to get reliable figures but the global porn industry was estimated to be worth around $96 billion in 2006.


It doesn’t exist in isolation from capitalism. It is linked to many businesses we think of as mainstream and helps them to make profits too.

Those who produce porn make money, as do those who distribute it. The bankers who finance the industry make money from interest on their loans. Those who produce the software that enable people to view porn make money. So do the hotel chains that provide it on pay per view, such as Holiday Inn, Marriott and the Hilton. 

So do the mobile phone and internet companies that allow people to access it. The mobile phone market for pornography was estimated to be $3.5 billion in 2010.

Cable companies and distributors like Time Warner Cable in the US make millions from adult video on demand and pay per view sales. Search engines such as Google and Yahoo make money from people accessing porn.

So the porn industry has links to mainstream finance, media and communications businesses. It has powerful allies.

Pornography, like other capitalist industries, has been driven by competition. This led to a growing acceptance of ever more explicit imagery within the mainstream pornography market.

And it opened the way for mass distribution of more hardcore materials.

Most commentators agree that porn in its current form can be traced to Hugh Heffner’s launch of the Playboy magazine in 1953. Explicit images did of course exist before this but they did not reach the mass audience that Playboy achieved.  

It marketed itself as a “lifestyle” magazine but included a porn centrefold. By the late 1960s its circulation figures reached an all-time high of 4.5 million. And others rushed to make money for themselves by copying its formula.

Penthouse was launched in the 1970s. It competed with Playboy by making its images more explicit. In August 1971 it printed its first full frontal centrefold. Playboy was then under pressure to follow suit—which it did in January 1972.

This competition to outdo rivals by producing ever more explicit and extreme images has continued to this day. Pornography takes sex and turns it into a product to be sold. Author Gail Dines likens it to an industrial product—the mass production of sexual images.

Most pornography is extremely formulaic and narrow because it is packaged to be mass produced and marketed. It cannot be complex or explore the intricacies of sexuality.

Rather than expanding our horizons of sex, it limits them. It sells a very narrow vision of sexuality based on stereotypes of what sex is and what men and women want from it.

Porn is a particular construction of what sex is, acted out by people paid to do so. So it mostly involves thin, toned, large breasted, often surgically enhanced, hairless women who are usually blonde.


It isn’t designed to satisfy its audience. Rather it’s designed to leave viewers wanting more so they will buy more porn. It isn’t liberating for women. Women don’t have their own sexual desires in pornography—their desire becomes what the man wants.

Some, such as radical feminists of the 1970s Andrea Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller, concluded that porn led to violence against women. 

But socialists would argue that it is the other way round. Pornography doesn’t cause women’s oppression, it reflects and reinforces it. 

Popular culture, whether it’s billboard adverts or gender stereotypes in cinema or music, plays the same role. So does the odious page three of The Sun newspaper.

Women’s oppression has a material base and is rooted in class society, particularly the institution of the family. Whether you live in the traditional version or not, the family is used ideologically and held up as an ideal to aspire to or emulate.

Women and men are socialised into different roles within society largely through the family. Despite the huge advances women have made, they still bear the brunt of childcare, cooking and cleaning.

Boys are expected to be more aggressive and not to show emotion. Girls are expected to be nurturing and helpful.

Women and men are shown as having different roles in sex too. In popular culture sex is shown as something that is done to women—unless they are giving a man pleasure.

Pornography mirrors back oppression that already exists but in a more extreme way.

To say that pornography isn’t directly responsible for violence against women isn’t the same as saying it has no impact. It reinforces a view of women as sex objects. It degrades and objectifies women. Women performers can suffer in the production of porn.

But more than that, it distorts our sexuality. It takes sex, something based on human relations, and then shows it without the human relations.

Many of the right wingers who want more censorship have a narrow and moralistic view of what constitutes sex. They are for less openness.

Socialists don’t oppose porn from a moral objection of particular sex acts or on the basis that there is something that constitutes “normal sex”. We don’t want to increase the power of the state. Such power is often used against minorities rather than those it allegedly targets.

We want more openness, honesty and information about sex. But we don’t want it to be based on stereotypes of what is sexy or a formulaic, scripted depiction of what sex is. That means fighting for things now—proper sex education in schools, youth services that can give advice and support to young people.

But it also means fighting for a different sort of society where every emotion isn’t commodified to make a quick profit.

This article is based on a talk at Marxism festival 2013

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