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The Rise of Pornography in the United States

Pornography, although hated, feared, enjoyed, fought for and against, has seen enormous
proliferation in the last three decades. No matter what position one takes on it, it is quite clear
that the scale of pornography has increased beyond imagination in a relatively short time. Even
though usually it is not debated in public, and is seen as merely controversial, private, and
secretive pleasure, Laura Kipnis argues that “pornography is central to our culture” (118)1. The
proliferation of pornography can be traced to a variety of events, tendencies, and circumstances.
However, several important factors, including the cultural-economic context of the rise of
neoliberalism, and political-technological such as MPAA ratings, cheap technology, state and
self-regulation of the adult industry contributed to the rise of porn.

The reasons for the rise of pornography are various. Anti-porn activist Catharine MacKinnon, for
example, would argue that the rise of pornography reflects simply another method men subjugate
and degrade women. It is a patriarchal tool to strip women of their humanity, and turn them into
a commodity to be used and abused. She argues that “pornography makes rapists unaware that
their victims are not consenting” (MacKinnon, 97)2. Another idea, expressed in the anti-porn
documentary Not a Love Story3 suggests that porn has been a reaction to feminism and rising
gender equality. Men felt their masculinity threatened and their power diminishing. Porn served,
at least on the level of fantasy, as a return to the age of the male domination. On the other side of
the porn debate, Laura Kipnis, argues that pornography, in many ways, is a liberating and
meaning-rich cultural text, which should be given a serious attention. It also can be seen as a
“political speech” or even an “oppositional political form” (Kipnis, 311)4. It is an imagined,
fantasy world where everyone’s deepest, socially unacceptable dreams, can resurface in the
otherwise repressed social order.

More tangible explanations for the rise of porn can be found in examining historical
developments which took place in the 1960s. The sexual liberation, women’s, gay and minority
rights, various radical movements and countercultures were proliferating. These opened space
for pornography as well. However, cultural shifts cannot be examined without larger trends of
economic restructuring which started to take place in the 1960s and 1970s. What is now known
as neoliberalism – the economic, political, and cultural shift towards deindustrialization, free
market, self-regulation on the social and political level – dates back to the early 1970s. Lisa
Duggan also articulates the shift towards the compartmentalization of social world into discrete
and autonomous categories of economy, politics, and culture (xiv)5. The economy was being
constructed as a technocratic realm, independent from society, while in reality “neoliberal
policies have been implemented through culture and politics, reinforcing or contesting relations
of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or nationality” (Duggan xiv).

Deindustrializing cities and their downtowns could be now used for porn theaters and sex stores.
The state’s overall control and authority was constantly challenged by various movements,
which opened up a space for porn entrepreneurs, whether for simply commercial purposes or
because they perceived their activities as another sphere of liberation, sexual transgression, art,
and rebelliousness. Kipnis states that “historically, pornography was defined as what the state
was determined to suppress” (312). The state, which was going through major transformations
itself, did not have the ability to suppress pornography. MacKinnon would argue that the state
might not have interest in suppressing pornography because it serves as a tool for maintenance of
the patriarchal status quo. This can be illustrated through the legal framing of the obscenity laws
which in reality are very subjective and rarely reinforced. Obscenity needs to be proven as
violating community standards and having no artistic value, etc. As a result, this leaves a lot of
room for interpretation and becomes a difficult task to challenge through courts.

Another important rationale for the rise of porn was the institution of the MPAA rating system
on film production. It was a precautionary measure to avoid state intervention and censorship on
movie production and consumption. The movie theater audience was in decline and the youth
market was discovered as a target audience which could save the industry. Justin Wyatt argues
that “the youth ‘revolution’ served to feed the increasing freedom in terms of subject matter,
further enhancing the marketability of the adult/porn feature” (239)6. MPAA system eventually
segmented into various ratings still suitable for the mainstream audience and separate X category
which lead into ‘adult’ only, porn classification. Although movies in general became more
liberal in depictions of nudity and sex, the category of porn was greatly popularized by the X
rating. Wyatt argues that the rating system became great “marketing tool” for the rising porn
industry (245). The MPAA rating system and various government interventions (such as
obscenity charges against the ‘Deep Throat,’ which only increased the film’s popularity) can and
do create space for porn proliferation.

The proliferation of pornography also needs to be tied to technological advancements. While


various industries were being outsourced in search for cheap labor abroad, certain technological
inventions became more easily available and affordable. The movies, which previously were
done largely by the capital intensive big studios, now could be produced on a low budget by
virtually anyone. The porn market and consumption exploded with the invention of VCRs, which
allowed porn consumption in private, as opposed to semi-public spaces of sex stores and movie
theaters. With the advent of internet porn production and consumption proliferated beyond
imagination.

Although it is impossible to determine with certainty which factors are solely responsible for the
rise of pornography, it is clear that several intersecting forces have paved the way. The political
and cultural climate influenced by 1960s and 1970s radicalism and various liberation movements
surprisingly evolved into a powerful neoliberal cultural, political, and economic system with
capitalist and individualist values at its core. The rise of pornography needs to be situated within
that shift, since it drew inspiration and found use in both of them. The rise of porn also could not
be achieved so successfully without the movie industry; their rating system serving as an opening
of niche market and introduction of idea of porn into the mainstream of American life.
Technology also served an enormous role and continues to do so to this day. In some ways, the
state with its relatively small role in regulation of pornography can be explained as operating
according to the free-market neoliberal ideology, leaving the industry alone for self-regulation.

1 Laura Kipnis, “How to Look at Pornography,” Pornography: Film and Culture (Depth of Field), ed. Peter Lehman
(Newark: Rutgers University Press, 2006), 118.

2 Catherine MacKinnon, “Equality and Speech,” Prostitution and Pornography: Philosophical Debate about the Sex
Industry, ed. Jessica Spector (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 97.

3 Bonnie Sherr Klein, Dorothy Todd Hénaut, Kathleen Shanon,. Not a Love Story: A Film
About Pornography.. Videocassette (68 min.). (New York : National Film Board of Canada,
1991).
4 Laura Kipnis, “Desire and Disgust: Hustler Magazine,” Prostitution and Pornography:
Philosophical Debate about the Sex Industry, ed. Jessica Spector (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 2006), 311.

5 Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on
Democracy. (Boston : Beacon Press, 2003), xiv.

6 Justin Wyatt. “The Stigma of X: Adult Cinema and the Institution of the MPAA Rating
System,” Ed. Matthew Bernstein. Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the
Studio Era. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 239.