Pornography as Culture Industry

“Adult Entertainment” in the Age of Obscene Reproduction
  • Gilad PadvaEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer Reference Sozialwissenschaften book series (SRS)


Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno distinguish between the “ascetic and shameless” works of art and the “pornographic and prudish” culture industry. This essay problematizes diverse contemporary ideological attitudes towards the “adult entertainment” and its interrelations with ruthless neo-liberal objectification of human bodies and minds, sexual emancipation and freedom of speech. This essay negotiates Horkheimer, Adorno and Herbert Marcuseʼs critical terminology in its reconsideration of different patriarchal, feminist and queer perspectives on commodified eroticism and pornography.


Culture Industry Pornography Sex Feminism Queer theory 

1 Introduction

No one denies that Pornography is one of the strongest and most popular, powerful, influential and profitable culture industries in the world. This problematic industryʼs global annual sales are 97 billion dollars, and between 10 billion and 12 billion dollars of that comes from the United States alone (Morris 2013). Nowadays, this division of the global sex industry is based on computer pornography but it also manufactures X-rated DVDs, adult magazines, commercial telephone sex and live sex shows. With newly erected pornographic genres and subgenres (e.g., amateur, sadomasochistic, anal extremist, “hidden” camera, interracial porn, gay porn, lesbian porn, bisexual porn, transgender porn, and all sorts of combinations between niched pornographies), pornography is presumably bigger now than any of the major league sports, perhaps bigger than Hollywood, as it is “no longer a sideshow to the mainstream,” as the New York Time Magazine speculates, “it is the mainstream” (Rich 2001, emphasis added).

Pornography, like many other profitable cultural industries, is based on mass production, mass consumption, mass media and massive objectification and commercialization of human bodies. Yet, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their 1940s critique of the Culture Industry as mass deception (1972 [1944]), rarely refer to pornography. In fact, they never analyze pornographyʼs particularities and peculiarities and its penetration to the most intimate aspects of peopleʼs life in late capitalism. Frankfurt School never discusses the interrelations between pornography and humans erotic fantasies and mundane sexual practices, and the pornographyʼs significant influence on gender hierarchies, sexualized power relations, class division, and subordination and emancipation of individuals and communities.

Notwithstanding, Horkheimer and Adorno (1972 [1944]) mention pornography in their critique of the culture industry that does not sublimate but suppresses peopleʼs lusts. They claim that “works of art are ascetic and shameless” whereas “the culture industry is pornographic and prudish. It reduces love to romance. And, once reduced, much is permitted,” they add, “even libertinage as a marketable specialty, purveyed by quota with the trade description ‘daring’” (p. 111). Hence, Frankfurt School undermines the pornographyʼs allegedly daring transgression of bourgeoisie prudence and conservatism. Adorno and Horkheimer clearly consider the pornographic as derogative, a notorious characteristic of the oppressive culture industry, rather than an emancipatory counterculture. Conspicuously, they never theorize pornography per se, despite its significant presence in contemporary mass society. This essay, however, negotiates Frankfurt Schoolʼs critical terminology in its reconsideration of pornography as highly influential yet controversial culture industry, “adult entertainment” and sexual “amusement.”

2 The Deceptive Culture Industry and Its Fabricated Joys of Sex

The term “adult entertainment” is a rather ambiguous term that collectively describes striptease, exotic dance, lap dancing, pole dancing, burlesque and, particularly, pornography, intended to sexually gratify, arouse, titillate and entertain (Bradley 2008). Phil Hubbard (2009) notes that such forms of entertainment have had a problematic history, “often facing vehement opposition from religious and morality groups concerned that the presentation of the undressed body as erotically charged might corrupt or deprave the viewer” (p. 722).

Although Horkheimer and Adorno (1972 [1944]) do not analyze “adult entertainment” per se, they do criticize the very concept of entertainment. They note that each single manifestation of the culture industry inescapably reproduces human beings as what the whole has made them (p. 100). Significantly, such dictated, non-autonomous, brain-washed and almost programmed masses of human beings quest for hedonistic escapism, light-hearted entertainment, and spectacular amusement. Horkheimer and Adorno associate escapism and entertainment by claiming that “Escape, like elopement, is destined from the first to lead back to its starting point. Entertainment,” they add, “fosters the resignation which seeks to forget itself in entertainment” (p. 113).

The Frankfurt School scholars maintain that amusement itself becomes an ideal, “taking the place of the higher values it eradicates from the masses,” they explain, “by repeating them in an even more stereotyped form than the advertising slogans paid for by private interests” (ibid, p. 115). Horkheimer and Adorno criticize the contemporary culture industry that by “artfully sanctioning the demand for trash,” this system “inaugurated total harmony” (ibid, p. 106).

In contrast to New Marxist and feminist critiques of pornography as patriarchal mass deception, however, Alan McKee (2012) refuses to regard pornography as a trashy characteristic of contemporary entertainment businesses. “Pornography is, in my favored definition, sexually explicit entertainment,” he contends. “Its nature as entertainment has, I think, been overlooked in previous writing – and it is, I would claim, the most important part of understanding how pornography works” (p. 541). McKee insists that entertainment has always been pornified, or rather the opposite is true – pornography has always been ‘entertainized’” (p. 542). McKee contends that pornography has always displayed the characteristics of entertainment, “because pornography is, fundamentally, a form of entertainment” (ibid). This scholar even suggests that “good entertainment is vulgar” (ibid, p. 543). He defines “good entertainment” as an entertainment that has a happy ending and is interactive, fast, loud, spectacular, fun, and provoking an emotional response in the consumer. “Analyzing pornography through this lens makes clear that the term ‘adult entertainment’”, McKee claims, “is not simply a euphemism. Rather, it is an accurate description of pornographyʼs nature,” he adds, “and a useful reminder that in understanding the work of pornography we should bear in mind its function as entertainment” (ibid, p. 543).

In contrast to McKeeʼs enthusiastic idealization of pornography, however, I suspect that seeing pornography as entertainment might legitimize or rehabilitate an extremely unethical enterprise. Rather, pornography should be problematized as a brutal, often merciless culture industry. In contrast to the notion that pornography naturally addresses human sexual needs, I argue that sexual needs can be easily obtained without “adult entertainments.” One can be sexually gratified, whether by sexual intercourse or masturbation, without watching pornographic films. Porn is not essential for sexual pleasure or amusing entertainment.

“Adult entertainment” does not reflect authentic sexual fantasies but rather fabricates lustful visions according to the ideology of the hegemonic male entrepreneurs. Pornography, like any other entertainment, creates its clientele. The “adult entertainment” designates sexual sceneries according to conventional, never natural or biological, codes of dressing, accoutrements, positions, camera angels and typical shots. The pornographers, as cultural industrialists, try to please their clients by reproduction of industrialized sexual conventions of porn aesthetics.

While porn actors are usually required to have big dicks, hair (only on their head), shaved genitalia, white skin and muscular (or at least not overweight) bodies, porn actresses are usually required to have long hair, big (often implanted) breasts, heavy make-up, red hot lipstick, high heels, white skin, shaved genitalia, subordinated gestures and orgasmic facial expressions, particularly when they are in pain and humiliated (including “money shots” in which their male partners ejaculate on their face). Both porn actors and actresses are required to moan and groan loudly to emphasize their fabricated enjoyment. They pretend to ignore the camera which documents their allegedly natural passion, on one hand, and to constantly arouse their assumed spectators, on the other hand.

Such requirements are never natural, authentic, real or sincere. The pornographers reproduce these theatrical, often ridiculous and demeaning codes of sexiness in order to attract their accustomed clientele, like they know better what porn viewers really need. Horkheimer and Adorno (1972 [1944]) criticize the rhetorical question “what do people want?” They explicate that “the shamlessness of this question lies in the fact that it appeals to the very people as thinking subjects whose subjectivity it specifically seeks to annul” (pp. 115–116). In other words, the pornographers apparently seek to satisfy their audiences while treating their audiences as objectified, dehumanized clientele, expected to be automatically aroused by the objectified porn players on screen. In this process, the pornographers, as culture industrialists, do not regard the prostituted human beings on the set and their customers as subjectivities. Indeed, as Horkheimer and Adorno (1972 [1944]) note, the more strongly the culture industry entrenches itself, the more it can do as it chooses with the needs of consumers – producing, controlling, disciplining them; even withdrawing amusement altogether. “Here,” they add, “no limits are set to cultural progress. But the tendency is immanent in the principle of entertainment itself, as a principle of bourgeois enlightenment” (p. 115).

Furthermore, Horkheimer and Adorno (1972 [1944]) explain that the very need for entertainment was largely created by industry, which recommended the work to the masses through its subject matter. In this framework, “entertainment has always borne the trace of commercial brashness, of sales talk, the voice of the fairground huckster. But the original affinity between business and entertainment,” they add, “reveals itself in the meaning of entertainment itself: as societyʼs apologia. To be entertained means to be in agreement” (p. 115, emphasis added).

In the case of pornography, the need for “adult entertainment” was largely, if not solely, created by the sex industry, which recommended the sex work to the masses through its subject matter: eroticized inequality, sexed subordination, sexualized violence, libidinal exploitation. In its quest for maximized profitability, it idolizes physical omnipotence, exaggerations, powerful conquests and contests. The original affinity between sex business and adult entertainment reveals itself in the meaning of adult entertainment itself: as societyʼs sexual apologia. To be entertained by pornography usually means to be in agreement with brutal, uninhibited patriarchal ideology.

3 Industrialized Subordination of Prostituted Bodies

The exploitive nature of “adult entertainment” is interrelated with its marginal status, positioning itself out of ethical order, uncommitted to human dignity, compassion, solidarity and well-being. Horkheimer and Adorno (1972 [1944]) note that entertainment makes itself possible only by insulting itself from the totality of the social process, “making itself stupid and perversely renouncing from the first the inescapable claim of any work, even the most trivial: in its restrictedness to reflect the whole” (p. 115). When porn viewers are amused, aroused and stimulated, their enjoyment is exploitive. “Amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display, its root is powerlessness,” Horkheimer and Adorno explain. “As it is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality. The liberation which amusement promises is from thinking as negation” (pp. 115–116).

“Adult entertainment,” in particular, never negates but glorifies a social reality based on severe gaps between sexes, genders, classes, ethnicities and physique. Notably, Pornography, derived from the ancient Greek porne and graphos, means “writing about whores.” Porne means “whore,” and Andrea Dworkin (1981) notes this sort of whores is specifically and exclusively the lowest class of whore, which in ancient Greece was the brothel slut available to all male citizens (p. 199). The pornē was the cheapest (in the literal sense), least regarded, least protected of all women, including slaves. She was, simply and clearly and absolutely, a sexual slave. Graphos means “writing, etching, or drawing” (Dworkin 1981, p. 200).

Hence, the word pornography means the graphic depiction of women as vile whores. Likewise, contemporary pornography strictly and literally conforms to the wordʼs root meaning: the graphic depiction of vile whores, “or, in our language,” Dworkin notes, “sluts, cows (as in: sexual cattle, sexual chattel), cunts” (ibid). Dworkin remarks that cunt is the most reductive word; whore adds the dimension of character – greedy, manipulative, not nice. “The word whore,” she concludes, “reveals her sensual nature (cunt) and her natural character” (p. 204). According to Dworkinʼs gendered perspective, men are those who have created “the group, the type, the concept, the epithet, the insult, the industry, the trade, the commodity, the reality of woman as whore. Woman as whore exists within the objective and real system of male sexual domination” (ibid, p. 200).

Catherine A. MacKinnon (1982) insists that male power, combining legitimation with force, makes women (as it were) and so verifies (makes true) who women “are” in its view, simultaneously confirming its way of being and its vision of truth. The eroticism that corresponds to this is “the use of things to experience self” (p. 539). MacKinnon cites a coerced pornography model, “You do it, you do it, and you do it; then you become it” and she concludes: “The fetish speaks feminism” (ibid).

Aura Schussler (2013) criticizes the patriarchal character of late capitalism, in which “sexuality takes the shape of a consumer good, where the main stake is the objectification of the body (especially the female body) and its submission to a process of continuous discipline and aestheticization, mechanism leading to the emergence of ‘sexual solipsism’, whose consequence is sexualityʼs transition to pornography” (p. 8).

Whereas Rae Langton (2009) claims that “sexual solipsism” manifests itself by the fact that people are treated as consumer objects, and pornography as the sexual partner, MacKinnon (1982) emphasizes the gender aspect of the sex industry – a division between male pornographers and female pornē, power relations between men and prostituted women. MacKinnon insists that pornography, just like rape, incest, sexual harassment and prostitution is sexual “because these social phenomena “express the relations, values, feelings, norms, and behaviors of the cultureʼs sexuality,” she explains, “in which considering things like rape, pornography, incest, or lesbianism deviant, perverse, or blasphemous is part of their excitement potential” (p. 533).

Both feminism and Frankfurt School object oppression and they heavily criticize the manipulative greediness of the culture industry. MacKinnon stresses that sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism: “that which is most oneʼs own, yet most taken away. Marxist theory argues that society is fundamentally constructed of the relations people form as they do and make things needed to survive humanly. “Work,” she notes, “is the social process of shaping and transforming the material and social worlds, creating people as social beings as they create value. It is that activity by which people become who they are. Class is its structure, production its consequence, capital its congealed form, and control its issue” (MacKinnon 1982, p. 515).

Likewise, sexuality is that social process which creates, organizes, expresses, and directs desire, “creating the social beings we know as women and men, as their relations create society” (ibid, p. 516). Moreover, Marxism and feminism are theories of power and its distribution: inequality. “They provide accounts of how social arrangements of patterned disparity can be internally rational yet unjust. But their specificity is not incidental. “In Marxism to be deprived of oneʼs work, in feminism of oneʼs sexuality,” MacKinnon explains, “defines each oneʼs conception of lack of power per se” (p. 516). Both criticisms argue that the relations in which many work and few gain, in which some fuck and others get fucked, are “the prime moment of politics” (ibid, p. 517).

In politicizing the so-called “adult entertainment,” feminist critics note that “pornography has been considered a question of freedom to speak and depict the erotic, as against the obscene or violent” (MacKinnon 1982, p. 531). In Latin, the accepted meaning of the obscene is quite literally “offstage,” or that which should be kept “out of the public view.” “On/scene,” Linda Williams (2004) notes, “is one way of signaling not just that pornographies are proliferating but that once off (ob)scene sexual scenarios have been brought onto the public sphere” (p. 3). Williams contends that ‘on/scenity’ marks both the controversy and scandal of the increasingly public representations of diverse forms of sexuality and the fact they have become increasingly available to the public at large” (p. 3).

Inspired by Williamsʼ reconsideration of pornography as cultural industry, Aura Schussler (2013) criticizes the industrial formation of the obscene as a new form of manifestation of values with the purpose of undermining the ones already in existence and to bring forth a new system of values, “where the appreciation comes from this direction if the ob-skene, with the possibility of becoming on-skene” (p. 15, emphasis added). Schussler notes that where nothing that used to be hidden from sight remains becomes the scene, “but gets on the scene offered by the pornographic apparatus” (ibid). In this way, “the obscene gains the symbolic value of a lifestyle, where pornography represents the reference code” (p. 22).

The spectacular obscenity, however, primarily mediates the pornographers' conventionality and their clientsʼ expectations. Horkheimer and Adorno (1972 [1944]) note that under the ideological truce between cynical manufacturers and the customers of standardized cultural commodities, “the conformism of the consumers, like the shamelessness of the producers they sustain, can have a good conscience,” they note. “Both content themselves with the reproduction of sameness” (p. 106). Specifically, Horkheimer and Adorno argue that the mass production of sexuality “automatically brings about its repression” (ibid, p. 112).

In contrast to Williamsʼ praising of the transgressive nature of obscenity, out of the straight and narrow sexual normativity, Adorno and Horkheimer (1972 [1944]) are explicitly discontent with the prevalent sexual vulgarity in the culture industry. They suggest that by praising genital and perverted sex to the disadvantage of unnatural, immaterial, and illusionary sexuality, the libertine throws herself in with that normality that belittles and diminishes not only the Utopian exuberance of love, they maintain, „but its physical pleasure, not only the happiness of the seventh heaven but that of the immediate reality.

4 The Shocking Truth about Straight and Gay Pornographic Gratification

Jörg Metelmann (2010), in his elaboration of Frankfurt Schoolʼs criticism of the capitalist formation of “free love,” explains that for Adorno and Horkheimer, romantic love is still powerful as a higher concept of love that cannot be reduced to the act of sex, and furthermore as incorporating a whole tradition of physical experience. Metelmann, however, suggests that Frankfurt Schools’ notion of tenderness as transformed sexuality – linking kiss to coitus – is compatible with the basic idea of Linda Williamsʼs book, Screening Sex (2008), in which she suggests “a dialectic between revelation and concealment that operates at any given moment in the history of moving-image sex” (Williams 2008, p. 7).

Still, Metelmann stresses that we can describe the cultural processes of pleasure and modernity as “alternations between disembedded sex (pornography as the fiction that sex simply exists) and re-embedded sex (with a range of expressions, from equilibrium between lust and tenderness to the cultural restriction of libido, as in Victorianism)” (p. 275). Metelmann contends that pornography as a broad cultural phenomenon only arose around 1800. Arguably, in the late 1810s, after de Sadeʼs death, “pornography developed from being a politically committed, yet secret form of pleasure, into a customer-oriented, publicly debated and regulated genre” (Metelmann 2010, p. 276).

MacKinnon (1982) stresses that nowadays, pornography becomes difficult to distinguish from art and ads once it is clear that what is degrading to women is compelling to the consumer:

Prostitutes sell the unilaterality that pornography advertises. That most of these issues codify behavior that is neither countersystemic nor exceptional is supported by womenʼs experience as victims: these behaviors are either not illegal or are effectively permitted on a large scale. As womenʼs experience blurs the lines between deviance and normalcy, it obliterates the distinction between abuses of women and the social definition of what a woman is (p. 532).

Under the patriarchal cultural regime, industrialized and systemized as it is, objectified, permeable, deviated, and victimized women are presented as merely entertainment. They are worked and directed by the male producers to fulfill the commercialist imperatives. In many respects, the pornographersʼ ideology is business. Their “adult entertainment” is the prolongation of work under late capitalism. It is sought by male masturbators who want to escape the mechanized, automated labor process so that they can cope with it again. At the same time, however, “mechanization has such power over leisure and its happiness,” Horkheimer and Adorno (1972 [1944]) points out, “determines so thoroughly the fabrication of entertainment commodities, that the off-duty worker can experience nothing but after-image of the work process itself” (p. 109). The screened work process, in the case of pornography, is often involved with particularly cruel, heartless employment and deployment of sexual subordination.

The Swedish documentary film Shocking Truth (2000) exposes women being passed naked, except for high heels, from one man to another in pack rape situations in which penises are thrust violently into all their orifices at one or several men all thrust their hands in and out of a womanʼs vagina. When the women are interviewed, one with semen running out of her mouth, their eyes are blank from the trauma, and their faces expressionless (Jeffreys 2003, pp. 79–80). The woman who is the focus of the documentary suffered savage sexual assault in her teens and was abused in pornography for 2 years, from age eighteen. Horrifically, on one occasion, when this porn actress was bleeding, she asked to be taken to hospital, only to be told not to make a fuss. Sheila Jeffreys (2003) notes that this woman was wrapped in a nappy to soak up the blood so that the penetration could continue. “The pornographers,” she adds, “would tell her to ‘smile’ and ‘giggle’ for the camera” (p. 80).

Such mistreat of sex workers in the so-called “adult entertainment” businesses demonstrates a banal evil. Horkheimer and Adorno (1972 [1944]) maintain that the enjoyment of violence done to the film character turns into violence against the spectator: “distraction becomes exertion,” they explain, “No stimulant concocted by the experts may escape the weary eye” (p. 110). In the case of the aforementioned porn film, the spectatorʼs sexual arousal, maintained by an exhausted and wounded female sex worker, glorifies patriarchal violence.

In been stimulated by the suffering, bleeding woman, the spectator who convinces himself that this woman is anxious to be used and abused for him, actually collaborates with the criminal entrepreneurs who manufactured this cinematic product. Indeed, as Horkheimer and Adorno note, the culture industry is corrupt, “not as a sink of inquity but as the cathedral of higher gratification. At all levels” (ibid, p. 114). The pornographic abuse (or abusive pornography) is harmful for the wounded adult “entertainer,” of course, and also for her viewer whose voracious eyes dehumanize a suffering human being. In this vicious circle, masses of desensitized spectators intensively fuel a lucrative culture industry; without its devoted costumers, this sort of “adult entertainment” has no reason to exist. Without pornography, masses of male viewers will not rehearse and eroticize degradation and humiliation of womenʼs bodies and souls. In this respect, viewing heterosexual pornographic movies, as masturbatory practice, symbolically perpetuates a violent gender hierarchy.

4.1 The Phallic Pleasures of Gay Men’s Pornography

Jeffreys (2003) claims that the power of the penis, and male dominance in general, can be gained only at the expense of women. “Without womenʼs subordination,” she notes, “penises might just be bits of anatomy” (p. 88). Arguably, gay male pornography, in its fetishization of the phallus, contributes to the phallic subordination of women. “The phallic cult that gay porn provides for gay men is in contradiction to the liberation of women,” Jeffreys contends, “because the liberation of women would remove all the fun” (p. 88).

Apparently, this attack on gay porn is problematic because it ignores the different perceptions of the phallus and its uses and gratifications among straight men and gay men. In contrast to straight porn, women are never degraded, exploited, brutalized or raped in gay porn. No matter how much penises are adored or even worshipped by gay porn, they never penetrate female bodies. Whereas straight pornography perceives and presents gendered inequality as nothing but entertainment, gay male pornography is centered on all-male sex.

Most gay scholars agree with Robin Griffiths (2006) who stresses that in stark contrast to the heterosexual adult film industry, gay male pornography, and gay porn stars in particular, hold a rather privileged position in postwar gay culture. “Free of the stigma and marginalization of their ‘straight’ counterparts,” he explains, “gay porn has played an invaluable political role in both affirming gay male sexuality and simultaneously making visible that which for so long had either been suppressed or denied. The gay porn star has therefore risen to the iconic status of celebrity royalty in contemporary gay culture” (p. 458). Griffiths adds that the gay porn star is also revered, albeit contentiously, as the acceptable erotic ideal to which all contemporary queers should aspire (ibid, pp. 458–459).

Nevertheless, in stark contrast to Griffithʼs glorification of gay porn stars, most feminist scholars, including a few gay male scholars and activists, heavily criticize gay pornography for its apparent brutalization of effeminate men. The opponents of gay porn often highlight the sordid life and tragic death of one particular porn star, Joey Stefano (born Nicholas Anthony Iacona Jr.), who was regularly penetrated on screen. Arguably, Stefano experienced considerable abuse in “adult entertainment,” including pornography and prostitution. “I try so hard and I do too much sometimes!” he admitted, “Iʼve done things on stage that I never do myself. Iʼve been fisted, taken two dildos up my ass, and I would never do that in my personal life” (cited by Isherwood 1996, p. 103).

Stefano became HIV-positive. He ended up taking a drug overdose in 1994 at age twenty-six after a previous suicide attempt. Stefanoʼs martyrdom, in feminist eyes, is based on his receptive role in anal intercourse. Jeffreys (2003), for example, rebukes the gay community for ignoring Stefanoʼs angst. She describes a scene in which the penetrated Stefano seems more likely that he was in pain, “but that is an inadmissible idea in a male gay culture committed to seeing porn modelling as an illustrious occupation” (p. 96).

Of course, exploitation and degradation of porn actors and actresses exist not only in straight porn but also in gay porn. For example, men in gay pornography, like women in prostitution and pornography are requested to engage in cosmetic surgery to look young and extend their careers. Matt Adams (1999) claims that the most common forms of plastic surgery are liposuction, chest implants, hair transplants, and facial surgery (p. 152). This cult of beauty should be criticized, but other accusations of gay porn, particularly the equation of sissyness with “bottoms” (men who are penetrated by other men or objects), and the instant association of permeability and exploitation, are inaccurate and stigmatic, and in certain cases, these criticisms can even be interpreted as homophobic.

Christopher Kendall (1999), one of the prominent opponents of gay porn, contends that though, in theory, gay men have the choice to be either top or bottom, “it is the top who is very much the focus and idealized masculine norm … Thus, he has the liberty to refer to those beneath him as ‘girlie’, ‘whores’, ‘bitches’, ‘sluts’ – read ‘female’ socially defined” (p. 165). Kendall not only ignores the often ironic, parodying and campy manner in which effeminate adjectives are used by gay men, but he also insists that there is always a top and there is always a bottom, “carefully articulated so as to differentiate between those with and those without power,” and he adds: “What proponents of gay porn are really advocating is that gay men participate in a rather bizarre form of mutuality based on reciprocal abuse” (ibid, p. 163). Kendall (1997) blames gay porn for creating, packaging and reselling sexuality that epitomizes inequality: “exploitation and degradation of others; assertiveness linked with aggression; physical power linked with intimidation; and non-consensual behavior advanced, and sexually promoted, as liberating” (p. 33).

Penetrated men, however, can be empowered, rather than disgraced, by their permeability. A “power bottom” can take charge of a sexual situation, playing a more dominant role in sex encounters. A dominant bottom can reject submission, challenge the penetratorʼs authority and maintain control over the top and the penetration. A power bottom joyfully celebrates and satisfies his bodyʼs orifices. According to the blogger L. Bunny B. Woods (2012), a “power bottom” has a long, strong sexual drive and can endure being penetrated for extended lengths of time, particularly when he is inserted by a very well-endowed top. Furthermore, in mainstream gay pornography of the 2000s and 2010s the penetrators are not more muscular or manly than their penetrated counterparts. Usually, all sex partners look muscular, white, smooth, young and handsome with impressive genitalia. Significantly, the top-bottom division is usually not signified by the porn actors' physique, and the gay porn actors often shift sexual roles in a dynamic and passionate spectacle of mutual delights.

John Burger (1995) notes that the claiming of pornography for gay men was part of a desire for the same privileges that heterosexual men possessed by virtue of their dominant status. Burger sees gay pornography as “an attempt by gays to rewrite themselves into American history” (p. 4). He even claims that by documenting the sexual and erotic trends and practices of gay men, pornography serves as a form of historiography (ibid, p. 21), and gay pornography particularly serves an important function for men who are just coming out, in teaching them what they can do sexually. It functions as sex education (ibid, p. 24). Moreover, Carl F. Stychin (1995) notes that in legal terms, gay pornography becomes protected speech, “but based upon its role in securing the political rights of a subject forged from a marginalized political experience” (pp. 62–63). Although certain issues about gay porn are still controversial and debated by the gay community (e.g., “barebacking” or sex without condoms, sadomasochistic pornography, violent and abusive pornography etc.), most gay men (as most straight men) embrace pornography as the most pleasurable masturbatory practice.

5 Controversial Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Pornography

Pornography that targets lesbian women as consumers, however, receives less attention than its gay male counterpart. This is because examining this niched “adult entertainment” contravenes the pervasive stereotype of “asexual, lesbian highmindedness” (Henderson 1992, p. 176) and because lesbian pornography, as an industry, “has little commercial currency or public profile” (Ross 2000, p. 285). On Our Backs, a low-budget publication which is one of the first pornographic magazines by and for lesbian women, for example, had no more than 40,000 readers before its closing in 2006. Becki Ross (2000) indicates that, in North America, there are approximately 40 lesbian-produced pornographic videotapes and fewer than eight sexually explicit magazines targeting a lesbian readership.

Within lesbian cultures, however, debates have raged over what constitutes an obscene objectification of women and what constitutes acceptable sexuality and sexual representation. These debates were most notably during what has come to be known as the sex wars in the 1980s and 1990s. During this period, “sex-radical” lesbians created a wealth of pornographic texts that challenged lesbian feminist prohibitions against pornography.

Rebecca Beirne (2007) notes that this era had a substantial effect on not only lesbian cultures, but also lesbian cultural representation. “The investments in sex and style, together with the reclamation of lesbian femininity,” Beirne claims, “have arguably contributed to the mainstreamʼs contemporary interest in lesbianism and willingness to display lesbian images in mass-cultural forums such as television” (p. 90). Todd G. Morrison and Danni Tallack (2005) note that if one considers this medium not in terms of profitability – but, rather, in terms of the insight it provides into sexualities that are woman-centered, “the importance of studying lesbian pornography becomes apparent” (p. 7). Morrison and Tallack add that by presenting sexualities that are not male-defined in terms of body size, ethnicity and age, lesbian pornography may assist “in liberating all women from androcentric models of sexuality” (ibid, p. 7). Arguably, the existence of this medium challenges the male-centered culture and criticizes core assumptions of feminist inquiry such as “the gaze,” in which it is presumed that females are objects scrutinized by men (Kipnis 2000).

Another branch of contemporary “adult entertainment” is the growing bisexual porn industry. In its situating of a male fucking another male and a female (or been fucked by the male and by the femaleʼs fingers or dildo) at the same session, for instance, bisexual pornography transgresses the heteronormative “monosexual” hierarchy of male dominance and female subordination. Queerly, such multi-sexual encounters eroticize the existent power relations (man-fucks-a-woman) and traverse them at the same time. Such duality also characterizes other sorts of queer pornography, including transgender pornography.

Eliza Steinbock (2014) notes that pornographies of “trans sexualities” continue to involve forced feminization narratives and tribadism (sex between women). With mass video accessibility, previously niche she-male/travestie fantasies entered the mainstream market. At the same time, transwomen filmmakers like Mirah-Soliel Ross and Stephanie Anne Lloyd as well as transmen Les Nichols and Chance Ryder began making porn addressed to the emerging transgender community and its erotic admirers.

In contrast to the belief that trans porn is sensationalized and freaked by the voracious gaze of straight men who are looking for the most bizarre and kinky porn images, transgender pornography is mainly advocated by f2m (female to male) and m2f (male to female) communities. Finn Jackson Ballard, a transman (female to male) scholar and porn actor, praises this particular culture industry: “Not only does transmale porn provide a source of titillation,” he notes, “but it also operates as a heavily politicized subgenre that engages with the politics of gender identity,” he adds, “and that derives for its subjects a significant striving towards visibility unprecedented in other pornographic representations – one of the most important elements of which is that is so often produced within the transmale community” (Ballard 2014, p. 91). Yet, as Steinbock (2014) points out, the trans pornographic ideal appearing in most queer porn has become mainly aligned with either transmasculine or post-operative transfeminine bodies. Consequently, “The marginalization of transwomen in queer sex scenes echoes the status of transfeminity in queer erotic communities,” she notes. “A new queer normativity set by porn conventions continues to exclude certain forms of trans sexuality” (p. 157).

Hereby, even the apparently transgressive gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pornographies, as niched “adult entertainment” industries, are unnecessarily free of gender hierarchies. In particular, these pornographies, just like diverse heterosexual pornographies, hardly escape the capitalist pyramid which is primarily based on bosses and sex workers, porn producers and their employees. Whether the actors in pornographic films are men or women, transmen or transwomen, straight or gay or lesbian or bisexual persons, penetrators or rather penetrated by their sexual counterparts – they are all priced, tagged, objectified, commercialized and reproduced by a powerful culture industry and its “adult entertainment” businesses.

A few years ago, I attended a feminist conference in Tel Aviv, where a lesbian colleague had proudly showed a video excerpt in which the performer Annie Sprinkle was penetrated by female sex workers who probed dildos into her body. In about seven minutes, Sprinkle got an orgasm. My colleague was thrilled about this “arthouse” pornography as she interpreted the film as queer celebration of womenʼs right for sexual satisfaction. I asked my colleague if this film is on sale, and she confirmed it. Then I asked her if, in a way, it doesnʼt make this video a visualization of a woman “prostituting” other women. A senior feminist scholar interrupted: “Maybe we should reconsider prostitution?” and I cynically replied: “Shall we also reconsider pimping?” The audience was silenced and a young lesbian woman stared at me: “Would you say the same thing if this scene was played by men instead of women?!” “Yes,” I replied.

This is because I believe that as long as pornographic images are commercialized, cinematic “adult entertainment” presents human beings who are (at least) symbolically traded, merchandized, marketed and trafficked. Even if legal porn acting is not synonymous with prostitution, and porn producing is not be analogized with pimping, all commercial or “arthouse” pornographies are basically about humans who are hired for masturbating or having sex with other people or objects in front of a camera. In this respect, pornographic scenes are dubiously emancipatory. Staging and recording sex intercourse for profit can be hardly regarded as liberating.

6 Conclusion

Herbert Marcuse, in his book Eros and Civilization (1974 [1955]), critically analyzes the subtractive, socially produced, sexual body. Marcuse emphasizes the importance of sexual pleasure in establishing a new reality principle that will promote human freedom. This is primarily a social process that Marcuse refers to as “the transformation of sexuality into Eros” (p. 209). Indeed, to understand sexual liberation merely in terms of the private satisfaction of individual desires, or as the realization of an inherent sexual identity, is to fail to break free from the instrumental rationality of the performance principle (Garlick 2011, p. 229).

Marcuse stresses that non-repressive order is possible “only if the sex instincts can, by virtue of their own dynamic and under changed existential and societal conditions,” he adds, “generate lasting erotic relations among mature individuals” (p. 199). Marcuse sees the difference between eroticism and pornography as a difference between celebratory and masturbatory sex. The latter one is associated with “adult entertainment” and its notorious commodification of human physique, desire, sexual intercourse, orgasms and ejaculations. Pornography is never natural but socially structured, aesthetically stylized, ethically deformed and commercially produced and reproduced.

This can be interpreted as the application of the performance principle to the sphere of sex, with specific inferences to menʼs bodies: “The libido becomes concentrated in one part of the body, leaving most of the rest free for use as the instrument of labor,” Marcuse notes, “The temporal reduction of the libido is thus supplemented by its spatial reduction” (ibid, p. 48). Marcuseʼs criticism could well be referred to the male body, reduced to the erect phallus (or dildos), as idolized by all sorts of pornography. “Adult entertainment,” as sex industry, reduces humanity as a whole, like each of its elements, to this exhaustive formula.

Horkheimer and Adorno (1972 [1944]) note that “as employees, people are reminded of the rational organization and must fit into it as common sense requires. As customers, the culture industryʼs clients are regaled, whether on the screen or in the press, with human interest stories demonstrating freedom of choice and the charm of not belonging to the system. In both cases,” Horkheimer and Adorno conclude, “they remain objects” (p. 118).

Pornography, in particular, with its symbolic transformation of human beings into sex machines and fetishized objects is aimed to arouse its audiences by mechanical stimulations, erections, insertions, orgasms, ejaculations, uses and gratifications, is probably the most uncompassionate and apocalyptic culture industry. While the pornographers are laughing all the way to the bank, some of their employees are bleeding all the way to a drug den, a barred brothel or a dirty street corner. These workers of the “adult entertainment” businesses do not experience pornography as an entertainment but rather as a nightmare.


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Copyright information

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Social and Cultural SciencesBeit Berl CollegeBeit BerlIsrael

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