KeywordsSocial Networking Site Sexual Aggression Sexual Script Child Pornography Hypersexual Disorder
Features and functionality of a technology that invite or enable use.
- Deep web
World Wide Web content that is not indexable by common search engines.
- Indie porn
Independently produced pornography.
- Media substitution
Displacement of an existing technology by a newer, superior one.
- Peer-to-peer networks
Networks of computers connected to the Internet that allow users to share files.
Representations of sexual behavior designed to excite.
Neologism that suggests a world replete with pornographic goods and services.
- Porn tubes
YouTube-like websites that allow individuals and commercial entities to upload pornographic content.
Neologism that suggests the fusion of producer and consumer.
An analytic perspective that focuses on interactions between people and technologies.
Curve that describes the shape of diffusion of an innovation over time.
Sending sexually explicit messages or images via mobile phone.
- Substitution effect
An increase in behavior A is associated with a decrease in behavior B.
There may be nothing new under the pornographic sun, at least as far as sexual predilections, perversions, fetishes, and techniques are concerned – after all, troilism, bondage and bestiality were around long before the daguerreotype and World Wide Web yanked them forcefully into the public eye – but the landscape of erotic desire and opportunity has changed beyond all recognition in a matter of mere decades. Online tools and technologies, from search engines to live webcams, have ushered in a bewildering variety of pornographic products and services, many of which are easily and freely available to anyone, young or old, with access to a computer or mobile phone, creating “an empire of sensations that operates as an unregulated carnival” (Breen 2011, p. 161).
We live, and it is neither an invitation to moral panic nor an instance of hyperbole to resort to such language, in an age of public sexuality; in what Kendrick (1996, p. 95) termed a “post-pornographic age.” Today, no form of pornography, soft or hard, indecent or obscene, licit or illicit, amateur or professional, or commercial or homespun, is more than a few keystrokes away: “pornucopia” is a popular portmanteau to describe this new, lewd, hypermediated world, a world offering more genres and subgenres of pornographic material than most people could imagine.
Surveys of adults’ and adolescents’ use of online pornography suggest that the notion of a progressively sexualized culture, or “pornified” public sphere, is far from alarmist (e.g., Ogas and Gaddam 2011), even if, as we shall see, statistics relating to the business side of pornography production, distribution, and consumption are notoriously unreliable. Of course, one must be cautious about generalizing from samples that are temporally, demographically, or geographically specific; universality of attitude and behavior should not be assumed, even in the realm of human sexuality. Levels of online pornography consumption vary greatly around the world, reflecting differences in digital infrastructures, disposable income levels, sexual permissiveness, gender equality, religious beliefs, and prevailing legislation. Behaviors, such as cocreating or sharing pornographic materials, or discussing one’s sexual preferences and peccadilloes in explicit fashion with others via social media, that would be deemed acceptable, morally and legally, in, say, Denmark or the USA, would constitute criminal acts in countries such as Indonesia or Singapore with their strict antipornography laws.
Pornography, defined parsimoniously as the representations of sexual behavior designed to stimulate and excite, is not a new phenomenon. The word itself, however, which is derived from the Greek words for prostitute and writing, only came into use some 200 or so years ago. Today, both the term and its multivalent referent are ubiquitous. Across the centuries, societies have exhibited enormous variation in terms of the kinds of explicit depictions of sexual activity that are tolerated; the pendulum swings, erratically and often, from permissiveness to prudery and all points in between. To take but one illustration, erotic art was commonplace in the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, in both public spaces and private dwellings. Yet, priapic imagery that was acceptable in ancient Roman culture would have been deemed morally repugnant in Victorian Britain, a time of irrational fear and prudery.
What makes a particular depiction of sexual behavior indecent rather than obscene? What is the distinction between erotica and pornography, between pornography and extreme pornography? Who is empowered or qualified to judge what is injurious to the public good? How are community standards to be determined and enforced? Is sexual arousal a good and desirable thing in and of itself? How can causation rather than mere correlation be demonstrated in relation to exposure to pornography and subsequent behavior? Does wide availability of, and easy access to, pornography increase the incidence of sex-related crime or instead act as a societal safety valve? Does regular exposure to pornography create a yet stronger appetite for extreme and hard-core materials? The questions are many; the answers, when not ideologically determined, are often inconclusive and inconsistent. For an overview of the long and complex relationship between politics and pornography, between free speech and censorship, Hunt’s (1993) compendious reader, The Invention of Pornography, is recommended.
From primitive wall paintings through Attic pottery and salacious anticlerical pamphlets to stag films and interactive websites, pornographers, professional and amateur, have shown a remarkable ability to appropriate the technologies of the day to create wares for commercial, political, or personal use and for private or public delectation. It is demonstrably the case that “technology and Eros have from time immemorial performed an inventive pas de deux” (Cronin 2008, p. 492), and online pornography is yet one more compelling illustration of that historically close relationship. Socio-technically speaking, the online world and pornographic appetites are co-constitutive; that is, digital technologies are shaped as much by pornographic needs and desires as pornographic goods and services are fashioned by the affordances of digital technologies (Cronin and Davenport 2001).
The Market for Online Pornography
The legal sex industry – or adult entertainment industry as it is euphemistically known – is a multibillion dollar business, made up of large corporations (producers, distributors, infrastructure providers), some of which are publicly traded, along with a raft of SMEs (small- and mediumsized enterprises) that seek to fill a variety of market niches. At least that is what any starting researcher or journalist would quickly conclude, such is the authoritativeness with which trade statistics are cited, circulated, and invoked as reliable evidence of this or that trend. Estimates relating to the number of pornographic websites/web pages (thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, hundreds of millions?), subscription services (how many, how profitable, average renewal rate?), site traffic (how accurate are web traffic reports? are quoted figures for all visitors or unique visitors?), and associated annual revenues (hundreds of millions or billions of dollars?) also vary wildly, as has been shown (Cronin 2008, pp. 511–515). Whatever the actual numbers, it is manifestly the case that there has been an enormous increase in the availability and consumption of pornography since the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web and a commensurate increase in the amount of user-generated content, which is hardly surprising given that 70 % of the digital universe consists of content created by individuals rather than corporations (Strangelove 2010, p. 17). Some idea of the global appetite for online pornography can be had by perusing the top 500 website rankings produced by Alexa (http://www.alexa.com/), a leading provider of digital metrics.
When it comes to mapping the networked structure of the adult entertainment industry (see McDermott 2011; Johnson 2008, 86, 2009) or capturing the vital statistics of the pornography market, there are issues of validity, reliability, and credibility relating to the following: the difficulty of capturing and interpreting data, sampling frames and self-reported data, research sponsors’ motivations and predispositions, and vendors’ and carriers’ unwillingness to divulge proprietary information. This is only to be expected, given the nature of the sector, the dubiety of some of its business practices, the widespread social stigma attached to pornography, and the understandable desire for anonymity on the part of many purveyors and consumers of pornographic goods and sex services. Additionally, the industry’s product mix is constantly evolving and today’s blockbuster product may be tomorrow’s heavily discounted offering or failed product line: the continuing slump in revenues from video sales and rentals is a telling instance of just how quickly technological innovation can disrupt an established product line and render revenue forecasts, of both industry analysts and corporate executives, meaningless.
Occasionally, however, a study provides a glimmer of insight into a segment of the overall industry. Edelman (2009) used the zip codes associated with all credit card subscriptions for 2006–2008 provided by a top-10 seller of adult entertainment to profile per capita consumption patterns across the USA, controlling for broadband Internet usage levels. The state with the highest number of subscriptions was Utah; 5.47 of every 1,000 broadband households subscribed to the service in question. Edelman also found that subscriptions “are slightly more prevalent in states that have enacted conservative legislation on sexuality” (Edelman 2009, p. 219). We don’t, of course know, inter alia: (a) how representative the seller in this study was, (b) whether households had subscriptions to other commercial services, and (c) how many households accessed free pornography online in addition to, or in lieu of, paid for services. It seems clear, however, that as the amount of free commercial material on the web continues to increase, estimates of online pornography viewing based on subscription data alone will significantly underestimate the public appetite for adult content. And that is before taking into account the phenomenal growth of social media as mechanisms for distributing and exchanging free pornographic materials of infinite variety to a potentially limitless audience.
With each successive wave of technological innovation, from the printing press to the digital camera, pornographers have been able to extend their reach and fine-tune their business models, no more so than in the latter part of the twentieth century, creating mass (global) markets and an increasingly diverse and sophisticated range of products for their customers. Pornography thus provides a textbook illustration of media substitution. To be sure, successive waves of product innovation and displacement do not always occur in smooth S-curve-like fashion, nor, indeed, overnight; nonetheless, during the last half century or so, we have witnessed the rise and often rapid fall of a range of novel delivery media and product types.
Most recently, the adult entertainment industry, specifically pay-per-view websites and DVD sales, has been convulsed by the emergence of numerous “porn tube” websites – YouTube-like sites that aggregate commercial and usergenerated content. Much of what is on offer is absolutely free at point-of-use and often in violation of copyright. Yet, as so often, pornographers exhibit entrepreneurial verve and innovativeness. Many of these “tube” companies generate revenue by offering (a) premium member services featuring high-definition video and fast downloads, (b) live webcams, and (c) advertising. In some cases, the free product is the gourmet’s hors d’oeuvres before the main (paid for) pornographic course while the gourmand’s rapidly moving eyes never leave the seemingly limitless array of complimentary hors d’oeuvres: habituation, as is well documented in the research literature, leads to loss of arousal, so producers must ensure that the consumer’s palate is refreshed continuously (e.g., Koukounas and Over 2000).
Any serious history of modern pornography would, of course, be much more nuanced than this sketchy account of the last five or six decades and give requisite attention to a variety of other subgenres and entertainment options, such as the role played by adult movie theaters in the promulgation of soft- and hard-core pornography. What can be asserted with confidence is that the demand for pornographic goods and services continues to grow apace, especially the demand for free material, much of which, to the consternation of industry stalwarts, is pirated. The transformation of the digital pornography marketplace can be attributed, in no small measure, to two principal drivers: domestication and democratization. The former captures the fact that pornography can be consumed effortlessly in the privacy of one’s home, at work, or on the go, largely unobserved, at the time and on the terms of one’s choosing. The latter acknowledges the remarkable growth in do-it-yourself or amateur (authentic amateur and fake amateur, for the two blur in the kaleidoscopic world of adult entertainment product labeling) pornography creation and distribution: the means of production are now available to anyone with a computer, connectivity, and a lustful imagination.
As Strangelove (2010, p. 193) notes in his account of the YouTube phenomenon, “we are moving into a new age of mass participation in the creation and distribution of the image.” As a consequence, the online world offers a multiplicity of sites in which the historically oppressed or marginalized can, in theory, find their voice and achieve emancipation. Feminists are divided on the issue; some see pornography as irredeemably sexist and objectifying in nature, while others argue in favor of freedom of choice and expression. And not all pornographic actresses view their situation in terms of victimhood and exploitation. The debate is complex and many-sided (e.g., Shrage 2008).
The affordances of web technologies have eroded the traditional distinctions between producers and consumers and virtually eliminated barriers to market entry; the “prosumer” is now an established player on the highly populated pornography stage with the means (e.g., email, live webcams, peer-to-peer networks) to reach like-minded individuals, synchronously or asynchronously. Schäfer (2011) coined the term “bastard culture” to describe the progressive blurring of the demarcation lines between industry-driven and user-created culture that was ushered in by YouTube. What began as amateur erotica on YouTube has hardened into no-holds-barred public portrayals of private lives and sexual role-playing on XTube and other websites of that ilk. The comparatively restrained, slightly self-conscious world of 1950s pornography is light-years away from the digital cornucopia of the twenty-first century in terms of volume, variety, and accessibility.
Hardening of the Image
It is widely held that contemporary pornography is qualitatively different from those available in even the fairly recent past and that “chronic consumers both become visually sensitized, and find themselves viewing depictions they themselves would once have regarded as taboo or off-limits” (Eberstadt and Layden 2010, p. 20). The threshold is being raised. In their study of sexual violence in different pornographic media, Barron and Kimmel (2000) looked for differences in narrative content over time. They sampled three succeeding modes of pornography distribution associated with three historical periods: magazines, videos, and Usenet (i.e., an Internet newsgroup, specifically alt.sex.stories posted in 1997). They found that there was “a consistent increase in the amount of violence from one medium to the next” (p. 161), with the Usenet being associated with greater levels of violence and misogyny. In the 15 or so years since the data in their study were collected, the world of digital pornography has evolved remarkably. If Barron and Kimmels’ survey were to be replicated today, it is hard not to imagine that they would find even greater levels of violence, given the mass of extreme hard core pornography now freely available on the web and the ease with which such material can be distributed using mobile technologies and social media.
Gossett and Byrne (2002) provided early confirmation of this trend in their content analysis of 31 free Internet rape sites. The ever-spiraling demand for ever more extreme material becomes clear to anyone who cares to spend the occasional hour uninhibitedly surfing free pornographic websites: to be frank, it does not require a scientific study. Even a decade or two ago, it would have been almost inconceivable that such a plenitude of material on torture, rape, emetophilia, bestiality, incest, and much more could have been available in uncensored fashion. From Texas to Tokyo, society’s response to the proliferation of extreme forms of sexual imagery routinely translates into urgent demands for legislation to label, contain, and, ultimately, stem the tide of presumptively offending and damaging materials and thereby protect the society at large, most importantly minors. This, though, is a vexed issue.
Purely technological solutions (e.g., installing filtering/blocking software), or legal fixes (e.g., criminalizing distribution or possession of extreme images) may be altogether neither appropriate or effective nor, indeed, popular in certain quarters. By way of example, in 2001, the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged, unsuccessfully in front of the Supreme Court, the constitutionality of the Children’s Internet Protection Act which required that any school or library receiving federal funding for Internet connectivity put in place protection measures to block access to images that are (a) obscene, (b) child pornographic, or (c) harmful to minors. In the UK, Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 criminalizes the possession of extreme pornographic images. Such an image is held to be “grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character” and “it portrays, in an explicit and realistic way, any of the following – (a) an act which threatens a person’s life, (b) an act which results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals, (c) an act which involves sexual interference with a human corpse, or (d) a person performing an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal (whether dead or alive), and a reasonable person looking at the image would think that any such person or animal was real.” In China, the government launched a coordinated campaign in 2009 to curb the transmission of “obscene, pornographic and vulgar content” (Yan 2011, p. 4), as a result of which more than 100,000 websites were shut down, nearly a million obscene or pornographic images removed, and more than a million domain names suspended (Yan 2011, p. 13). It was also proposed by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology that every computer sold in the country should have preinstalled filtering software (Yan 2011, p. 11).
The effectiveness of antipornography legislation in achieving underlying public policy objectives is questionable. Furthermore, as history has shown repeatedly, prohibition creates a vibrant underground market for the product or practice it seeks to eradicate, not least among those in the vanguard of the censorious.
Some scholars caution against ahistoricism and knee-jerk reaction to the latest set of statistics, research findings, or media revelations about the prevalence or toxic effects of pornography in contemporary society, specifically in the lives of children and adolescents. The Internet is not a singularity; outrage and concern have almost invariably accompanied each succeeding generation of new media. Such, for instance, was the case with photography, telephony, and cinematography. While there is a large corpus of behaviorist research on the effects of exposure to pornographic images (e.g., on rates and patterns of arousal, of the connection between violence and exposure to sexually violent imagery), relatively little is known about the ways in which the sexual mores of today’s youth are being shaped by the flood of objectivizing images to which they are routinely exposed.
The “sexual scripts” (Doidge 2010) teenage boys are learning online are not the same as those predominantly in use outside the virtual realm, and, as a consequence, teenage girls are under pressure to deviate from the established sociosexual norms to meet more coarsened expectations. Flood (2007, p. 57) has argued that “pornography consumption may intensify boys’ investment in problematic constructions of gender and sexuality,” creating in effect “a sexual double standard of female ‘sluts’ and male ‘studs’.” Others are more sanguine (e.g., Löfgren-Mårtenson and Månson 2010). Such trends are not restricted to young adults; the potentially damaging effects of pornography viewing on romantic relationships and marriages are well documented (e.g., Bridges 2010; Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection 2012). More studies are needed, but given the complicated and contested nature of research into the effects of pornography on behavior and attitudes, it would be naïve to expect unambiguous or universally palatable findings.
There exists a sprawling literature on the effects of pornography, both on individual actors and on society as a whole. It is, however, almost intractably difficult to measure with any kind of precision the multimodal effects of a phenomenon when there isn’t even a commonly accepted definition of what constitutes pornography.
In a meta-analysis of research on pornography and sexual aggression, Malamuth et al. (2000, p. 85) concluded that “for the majority of American men, pornography exposure…is not associated with high levels of sexual aggression.” The exception to this generalization are men who already have a high predisposing risk level for sexual aggression and who are frequent viewers of pornography. Fisher and Barak (2001, p. 312) came to somewhat similar conclusions, namely, that “normal range individuals will ordinarily choose sexually explicit Internet materials which are not antisocial in nature,” reflecting preexisting response tendencies, while individuals with “strong preexisting arousal responses to sexually explicit materials” (p. 321) will consume even more. Diamond (2009) concluded that the scientific evidence did not support the hypothesis that sex crimes have increased in line with the growing availability of pornography. In fact, he went so far as to suggest that relationship between pornography consumption and the commission of sex crimes may be inversely causal in nature.
In his study, “Porn up, rape down,” D’Amato (2006) showed that the incidence of rape in the USA had declined as access to pornography had become easier for teenagers and adults. He compared states’ per capita percentage change in the incidence of rape with per capita Internet access levels across the nation and found that the four states with the lowest levels of Internet access had a 53 % increase in rape, while the four states with the highest Internet access levels recorded a 27 % decrease in rape. In similar vein, Kendall (2007) correlated the decline in both the pecuniary and non-pecuniary costs of accessing pornography (proxied as Internet availability) with state-level panel data on crime rates in the USA from 1998 to 2003. His findings suggest that pornography and rape are, in the language of economics, substitutable: a 10 % increase in Internet access is associated with a 7.3 % decline in rape. To test for similar substitution effects, Kendall examined state-level data on 25 other categories of crimes but did not find any. Correlation is not causation, but studies such as these are, if nothing else, a partial corrective to the alarmist rhetoric that fuels much of the public debate on the subject of online pornography and its ramified social effects.
Psychologists and others have produced a large body of quantitative and qualitative research findings on Internet use and associated effects (Wallace 1999); on the remarkable degree of “sexual plasticity” that humans exhibit and the complexity of the “sexual scripts” they follow (Doidge 2010, pp. 22–23), “Internet addict” and “Internet addiction” have become part of everyday discourse, despite the fact that there is no consensus on whether the implied behaviors constitute, medically speaking, a distinct disorder. Some argue that “the Internet is not cocaine, alcohol, or nicotine” (Wallace 1999, p. 101) and thus, not strictly speaking, a behavioral addition. On the other hand, there is little disagreement that some (possibly many) people are compulsive viewers of pornography, just as there are compulsive gamblers, who may become withdrawn, fantasy-dependent, anomic, or temporally disorientated as a result of their obsessive online behaviors. Whether such individuals (and their pathological behaviors) are best described in terms of addiction or whether it is more correct to say that they are suffering from, to use the terminology of the American Psychiatric Association, “hypersexual disorder” is a matter of debate.
From the early to mid-part of the twentieth century, pornography viewing was an essentially solitary, largely print-based activity. Today, privacy, fixity, and passivity are no longer necessary or defining characteristics of pornography consumption. The mass media, in many countries, have become sexualized, with soft pornography a commonplace in broadcast TV, cinema, public-display advertising, and the tabloid press. In many parts of the world, there has been a profound generational shift in attitudes towards sexuality and pornography, and, as already noted, children are being exposed, both accidently and by choice, and also earlier in life, to a much wider range of hard core pornographic imagery than was the case in even the recent past.
It is no secret that much of the Internet’s bandwidth is used to transport pornography around the globe. With the rise in pornography consumption, there has been a correlative rise in the production and distribution of do-it-yourself and alternative pornography (sometimes referred to as “indie porn”), ranging from the posting of a lewd photograph of oneself on a website to uploading a full-length, homemade video to a triple X-rated tube. Exhibitionism and self-disclosure are increasingly common in the broadcast media – witness the widespread popularity of reality and confessional TV programs, which combine self-revelation with voyeurism – and also in cyberspace. Moreover, such behaviors are seen as socially normal rather than deviant, as is, for instance, the viewing of pornography by couples and groups: for some individuals, pornography is an entertainment option, a lifestyle choice. Bulletin boards, listservs, newsgroups, chat rooms, blogs and microblogs, and social networking sites: with new tools to support computer-mediated communication (CMC) come new forms (and new degrees) of self-expression and self-revelation. Today’s CMC technologies make the early versions of Minitel and Usenet seem almost archaic and user-unfriendly, the behaviors of pioneering online pornographers comparatively tame.
Many teenagers exchange sexually explicit images of themselves or their friends (e.g., Mitchell et al. 2011; Livingstone et al. 2011), a practice that is hard to quantify and impossible to police. These images, once released into a networked environment, can be circulated widely and can “go viral,” without the consent of the creator/originator. A potentially disturbing consequence of sexting is that teenagers who send explicit images of themselves run the risk, in some jurisdictions, of being indicted as child pornographers under the letter of the law, as do recipients of the images. This is not just a moral gray area but a legal one, in that existing child pornography legislation was not enacted with the intention of trapping teens experimenting simultaneously with their sexuality and digital technologies.
The era of Internet pornography is distinguished by the capabilities offered by networked technologies. Connectivity, scale, self-organization, and sociality have emerged as defining features of digital-age pornography. Shoe fetishists can mix online with shoe fetishists. The sexually timid can engage in cybersex without fear or loss of face, while the uninhibited can expose themselves to random others around the globe on Chatroulette (http://chatroulette.com/). Amateurs of gay pornography can share their favorite sites and meet up online. In many regards, the Internet is a powerful instantiation of the old adage, “Birds of a feather flock together.”
With the development of ever more convivial information and communication technologies, the gathering spots for the many different flocks have become larger and more sophisticated in terms of design, social organization, and interactivity; the first generation of technical barriers to online participation and community building have disappeared. Living virtually is no longer the preserve of computer geeks, early adopters, experimentalists, or the affluent. The 1980s saw the emergence in France of Minitel, a secure online videotext service created by the French National PTT (Poste, Téléphone et Télécommunications), designed to make information widely available to the general public: the French government provided free terminals to accelerate adoption nationwide. It would have come as no surprise to historians of technology that Minitel users quickly came up with imaginative sexual applications, notably the adult (or “pink”) chat rooms, known colloquially as messageries roses, a development predating both Usenet and the web.
Usenet, a distributed, global electronic bulletin board system with both textual and multimedia content, was designed originally with the transmission of text in mind. There are still thousands of Usenet newsgroups in existence covering a multiplicity of topics area. Several hundred of these (usually referred to as alt.binaries) contain sexually explicit images covering many genres and subgenres of pornography (e.g., a.b.p.erotic.senior-citizens, a.b.p.e.bondage), and exhibit extremely variable traffic density. In the wake of Usenet came peer-to-peer (P2P) networks and therewith a ramping up of pornography exchange online.
The P2P distributed application structure allows peers (the users of a networked system) to be both suppliers and consumers of resources: there is no central server, no principal hub, and no easy way of monitoring who is trading what with whom. The resources in question can be music, as in the case of the popular file-sharing system Napster, computer files, Hollywood movies, or pornographic videos. Often the files being shared are pirated with the result that law suits or threats of litigation, whether against individuals or corporate entities, are common: the original Napster was closed by court order in 2001 as a result of extensive copyright infringement; Titan Media, a company specializing in gay pornography, complained to the US Congress in 2004 that the file-trading service Kazaa failed to block users from downloading and copying hundreds of its films; in 2007 Vivid Entertainment group, a leading US producer of pornographic videos, filed suit against PornoTube’s parent company for hosting unauthorized extracts of its long-form videos, claiming that the company’s revenue stream was being damaged.
More specifically, the anonymity afforded by P2P networks allows child pornographers to prey on unsuspecting minors and exchange images with near impunity, while children, for their part, run the risk of inadvertent exposure to the mass of pornographic material available on such networks (Rumenap 2009; Wortley and Smallbone 2006). There is concern that Tor (The Onion Router) software, designed originally by the US Navy to provide secure communications for, inter alia, scientists, intelligence personnel, and whistleblowers, is being used by a variety of criminal types, as well as pedophiles and purveyors of child pornography. The system (see http://www.torproject.org/) allows socially sensitive, confidential, or top secret national security information to be distributed safe from prying eyes and enables users to create websites without revealing the location of those sites. Of course, the anonymity afforded by Tor is just as appealing to felons and deviants as it is to civil libertarians and diplomats. This vast, penumbral world is variously referred to as the Deep Web or Invisible Web and is not indexed by standard search engines like Yahoo! or Google. As such, it provides the anonymity and security required by child pornographers to pursue their nefarious activities and poses considerable challenges for law enforcement agencies dealing with child abuse and related crimes.
It is widely assumed that only a small percentage of child pornographers are arraigned and prosecuted, which makes the risks associated with creating distributing, possessing, or viewing child pornography acceptable in the minds of many pedophiles. Even high-profile media coverage of child pornography rings being broken up as a result of covert police activity seems to have limited deterrence value. Smart software can help to some degree. Facebook, for example, uses Microsoft’s PhotoDNA image tracking software to sift through the billions of images that are uploaded every month using image signatures to weed out pornographic material. Parents and others may choose to install a commercial product to find and delete pornographic images on their (or their child’s) computer.
The scale of the phenomenon can be glimpsed in media reports of the breakup of a global online child pornography ring in 2011. The online community in question, Dreamboard, reached across 5 continents and 14 countries and had more than 500 members. Prospective members of the ring were required to upload images of children aged 12 or under and continually provide fresh material in order to maintain membership and improve their position in the community hierarchy. Members who shared images and videos of themselves molesting children received elevated status. In many cases, the children depicted were in obvious if not in fact intentional pain. Law enforcement officials estimated that this one online forum alone was responsible for distributing up to 123 terabytes of child pornography, the rough equivalent of 16,000 DVDs. One of the concerns with digital-age child pornography is that the victimization of the child who has been exploited or abused continues as long as images of the child remain in circulation.
There is little doubt that the Internet has increased greatly the amount of adult and child pornography in circulation. But that is not the whole story: it has also contributed to content change, in that online pornographic materials are more hard-core, more transgressive than before. To take a very specific example, the age of children featured in contemporary child pornography is dropping (Taylor and Quayle 2003, p. 12). In addition to these quantitative and qualitative changes, the Internet has enabled the creation of new, enlarged spaces for and modes of, interaction among individuals and groups whose activities in pre-Internet days were highly circumscribed. There exists a subterranean world of technologically savvy child pornographers “that represents a new type of social organization, made possible by new forms of technology and characterized by types of interaction that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago” (Jenkins 2001, p. 7). This is a good illustration of the unintended consequences of a new technology.
Web-based social networking services allow users to effortlessly exchange ideas, news, opinions, and information with friends, extended family members, peers, fellow hobbyists, activists, or complete strangers. Numerous such platforms exist, and they vary enormously in terms of size/membership. Most social networking sites cater to a specific interest group or demographic: popular ones include BlackPlanet (African-Americans), LibraryThing (books lovers), MyHeritage (genealogy), and LinkedIn (business), though district regional and linguistic preferences exist. Social networking sites allow users to communicate with whom they want, when they want, and how they want.
Social networking is not limited to the posting and exchange of text. Images, photos, and videos can be distributed and shared with ease. Facebook alone has literally hundreds of millions of users and billions of photographs, as accessible as those who post them wish them to be, while Google’s Hangouts are spaces that enable group video chat. How much one cares to reveal about oneself, via text, image, or sound, on Facebook, Flickr, or any other such platform, is, of course, a matter of personal choice, but it is clear that the present generation is much less exercised about maintaining separation between their public and private lives than were their parents. Some individuals make use of privacy settings to manage their virtual footprint, being worried about ways in which these commercial services might use or market personal data, but many seem blithely unconcerned about the possible longterm consequences, social and professional, of uninhibited self-expression and are quite willing to leave potentially damaging or incriminating traces of themselves scattered throughout cyberspace.
Services, such as Facebook and Flickr, and content communities such as YouTube – “the world’s living room” (Strangelove 2010, p. 63) – have policies prohibiting nudity in photos and videos. Nonetheless, images that are mildly erotic, lubricious, or blatantly pornographic in nature can be found. Lovers of hard-core pornography, however, will have to go to special interest social networking sites to satisfy their needs. Sex-related social networking sites have proliferated, providing inviting spaces for individuals with shared sexual interests or the same sexual orientation to congregate. FetLife, to take but one example, is a free social network for the BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Submission and Dominance) and fetish community (“Similar to Facebook and MySpace but run by kinksters like you and me.”), which boasts more than 1 million members, 4.7 million pictures, and almost 38,000 videos. To each his own is the inescapable message.
Social networks facilitate the frictionless distribution of soft, hard-core, and extreme pornographic materials, whether to a large audience (broadcasting), a carefully selected coterie of friends/devotees (narrowcasting), or an unwitting audience (miscasting – as a result of a hitting the wrong key/button). Impossible though it is to estimate with any confidence the amount of pornographic material available on all the world’s social networking sites, or the numbers of individuals sending/receiving pornographic representations of one kind or another using these platforms, it seems quite clear that social media have taken online pornography creation and consumption to another level, in the process either raising or highlighting anew a host of challenging issues. These include the following: definitions of pornography and the enforceability of antipornography legislation within and across national (and state) boundaries; balancing censorship and freedom of expression in open, hyperconnected societies; preserving anonymity and protecting confidentiality of personal information (identity, image) on the Internet; the management of intellectual property rights in an age of fluid, user-created/user-appropriated content; interdiction of child pornography across borders; and jurisdictionality and liability issues affecting Internet service providers, content generators, and consumers of pornographic goods and services.
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