There's a four-letter word for pornography: evil. Why can't the media pronounce it?

Justifications of pornography are ingenious and endless but seldom novel. However, when OnlyFans, one of the world’s largest websites for user-generated porn, threatened to ban sexually explicit videos and images, a new argument emerged.

Honest working folk will go hungry because they can’t upload images of themselves having sex for their viewers.

"If you're not allowed to post really explicit content it's going to be a massive kick in the teeth," a 22-year-old gay man told the BBC. "We're doing it from the comfort of our own bedrooms, it's given us a living -- it could be getting people off drugs, off the streets. [Making porn] is helping people and they still want to put bans on it, and [that's] disgusting."

As Brendan O’Neill of Spiked, a very unprudish Marxist-libertarian-humanist-pro-choice website in the UK, put it, “There you have it. What’s ‘disgusting’ in 2021 is not porn, but being prevented from making porn.”

OnlyFans is one of the UK’s biggest tech start-ups. For PR purposes, it purports to host training videos for cooking and yoga, too, but most of its revenue come from pornography. It takes 20 percent of what its “creators” earn exhibiting themselves doing erotic stuff on camera. It is said to have accumulated 130 million users and 2 million content creators since it launched in 2016.

However, the company claimed last month that investors fretting about reputational risk were going to starve it of funding unless it stopped hosting explicit pornography. Banks and credit card companies threatened to cancel their services.

There was a huge outcry – or so the company claimed – from their impoverished content creators.

A woman who calls herself Morgan Music told NPR that the money she earned from her videos on OnlyFans helped to reduce her anxiety. "To have that lifted because I have, like, a savings account for the first time and have a good credit score for the first time in my life, I think it's hard to really convey how much that means to a person's quality of life," Music said.

So OnlyFans compassionately caved in. The moral pressure was too intense. It tweeted: “We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change. OnlyFans stands for inclusion and we will continue to provide a home for all creators.”

A New York Times journalist swallowed this guff about the magnanimous pornographer and the money-grubbing banks.

In an article updating its readers about the porn wars, Spencer Bokat-Lindell quoted another sex worker: “OnlyFans is how I pay my rent. I feed myself from this.” He quoted the Free Speech Coalition, a trade organisation for pornographers: “Companies like Mastercard are now accomplices in the disenfranchisement of millions of sex workers, complicit in pushing workers away from independence into potentially more dangerous and exploitative conditions.”

I mustn’t give the impression that the New York Times supports pornography. It doesn’t -- at least for the being. But it’s ambiguous. It shilly-shallies. It hums and haws. It dithers. It’s bad because it exploits women … it’s good because it’s liberating....

This week, to its credit, it also featured an essay by Catharine A. MacKinnon, an elderly feminist with an impressive academic record. She was incandescent about the media’s description of exploited women (and men) as “sex workers”. “What is being done to them is neither sex, in the sense of intimacy and mutuality, nor work, in the sense of productivity and dignity,” she wrote.

“Sex work” implies that prostituted people really want to do what they have virtually no choice in doing. That their poverty, homelessness, prior sexual abuse as children, subjection to racism, exclusion from gainful occupations or unequal pay plays no role. That they are who the pornography says they are, valuable only for use in it.

She is on the money about this. Almost no intelligent person who reflects upon pornography, the objects of pornography, the users of pornography, and the effects of pornography believes that it is good.

The problem is that its liberal critics cannot, are utterly unable to, and will never, ever, say that it is evil. They shilly-shally. “Evil” is a four-letter word.

Take, for instance, Amia Srinivasan, a Wunderkind Oxford professor of philosophy who often writes in the Times. This week the newspaper featured both an excerpt from her new book The Right to Sex and an interview with Ezra Klein.  

Srinivasan’s book is a kind of scholastic dissection of sexual desire. This is not as lubricious as it might sound. Having detached sex from its natural psychological and biological ends, the only topic of interest is an ever-more subtle taxonomy of desire – rather like the philosophers in Gulliver’s Travels who extract sunbeams from cucumbers. It’s … boring.

And her views on pornography are surprisingly conservative. In fact, she feels a certain sympathy with people who contend that “we have this kind of sacred thing that’s being degraded by being placed on this screen”. And she is sensitive to the plight of women who turn to pornography and prostitution because they are poor and marginalised.

So what is her solution?

In her conversation with Ezra Klein, the best she can come up with is – wait for it – government funding of excellent pornography. Young people shouldn’t be educated in relationships by the appalling stuff they see on OnlyFans or PornHub. So, " one option I gesture at is, well, you could imagine states doing things like putting more resources in the hands of indie queer feminist porn filmmakers, of which there are quite a few.”

There’s only one correct response to pornography: absolute rejection. It corrupts men; it exploits women. Our democracy is built on the notion that each person has a unique, precious and transcendental destiny. Pornography is built on the notion that some persons are just raw meat.

Are there difficulties in banning pornography? Of course. We’ll never scour this blot entirely away. But the first step is the unwavering conviction that it is absolutely unacceptable in a civilised society. As O’Neill (who is, remember, not a prude and not a Christian) says:

Rejecting the industrialisation of sex in favour of returning to feeling will be a central task for all of us who are keen to recover humanity from the rapacious forces of capitalism, exploitation and fear. And this cannot be done without moral judgement. I’ll go first: pornography and prostitution are morally wrong. You should not partake in these wicked pastimes. Be better.

And if we don’t have the fortitude to say the E-word, we’ll end up, as Srinivasan predicts, with government-funded pornography for your kids.


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