Back in September, I received a query from writer Aisha Hassan at Quartz/ Qz.com. Hassan was working on a story about porn and the internet, with the following stated premise:  

This story will part of a larger series about the internet as we know it today, and whether or not we would change it, if we had known in the past what we know now. My thinking is that if there is an internet, porn is inevitable, but I’m curious as to how the industry has changed in the last ten years, and what the future of it will be as technology and the internet continue to evolve.

And going back to the beginning, could we have avoided a porn monopoly if people spoke more openly about the subject? Could we have build a feminist porn industry from the beginning? And what are some of the most profound ways that free internet porn has affected society?

Hassan used some of my insights in her story “Porn sites collect more user data than Netflix or Hulu. This is what they do with it” (December 13, 2018) published on Quartz/Qz.com. You can read the story in full here, and you can read Hassan’s questions and my full responses below — what do you think?

Aisha Hassan: MindGeek, like many other companies such as Spotify and Netflix, deal with vast amounts of user data and use it to provide targeted content. Do you think most porn-watchers know this? And if they found out, would their attitudes towards being so free with their sexual curiosity change?

DrCT: When people rationalize not paying for adult content, there are several frequently touched upon themes. The most common is the “I thought porn was free…?” rationalization, which says so much about our culture — from the devaluation of labor to the exploitation of workers – but another frequently cited issue is not wanting to include payment information. This is almost always related to the fear of data breaches and the potential reveal of personal information and sexual proclivities.

I am not sure that the consumers who participate in labor exploitation and sex worker dehumanization via frequenting piracy-based tube sites are necessarily thinking about their data – this might be because they are generally not inputting anything personal.

People who login to something like Spotify or Netflix can certainly see their browser history being “used against them” (so to speak) via their matches and suggestions and even ad placement. And if you are logging in to something, you have created some sort of proverbial paper trail – though pinning down that paper trail may be challenging.

Since most people don’t actually login to piracy based tube sites and since those same people may not be as familiar with porn as they are with, say, mainstream film content, they may not be as aware that they are being data tracked in similar ways… But I would imagine that anyone who was cognizant of the tracking that comes just from visiting a homepage would be leery of it for the same reason people claim to not want to put down their credit card information. We as a society are so sex phobic still and a reveal of a person’s sexual interests (on whatever level – from casual browsing to connoisseur) is certain cause for concern in a culture that demonizes basically everything related to sex outside a very narrow “normal” margin.

AH: Accurate data on the porn industry (e.g. its worth) is hard to find, and the industry itself is also fairly unregulated (e.g. MindGeek’s monopoly and the huge amount of pirated content/copyright violations). Do you think this is the case as with any tech giant, or can the porn industry get away with more because it is stigmatized?

DrCT: It is not “hard to find” data regarding the adult industry’s net worth, etc. It is impossible to find because it does not exist (and never has). Though obviously organizations have their own internal records and data keeping procedures, there has never been a rigorous, representative gathering of such data (not currently, definitely not longitudinally).

Further, what’s included in the industry is also unclear. Is the industry limited to content generation? Where does that begin or end? Is fetish content that features no nudity also porn? And are ancillary and support business – marketing services, for instance – also part of the industry? Because mainstream squeamishness and stigma causes businesses that are tertiary at best to content creation to be treated in a manner on per with porn – “othered “ in some way. All this is to say that we don’t even know what the adult industry consists of, much less what it’s worth.

And aaaall that said, the porn industry is not actually “getting away with” anything in this regard. Privately held companies in all industries are entitled to data privacy, though certainly the stigma associate with porn makes both data gathering and data provision dicey. MindGeek’s propensity for copyright infringement and the public’s tacit approval of their practices are a unique issue.

AH: Online porn has had a significant impact on expanding people’s sexualities. While the industry comes with a lot of dark corners, do you think this is, in essence, a good thing, and part of sexual liberation?

DrCT: People having access to various forms of sexual expression is a good thing. People having access to various forms of sexual expression without context and/or accurate, relevant sex education complicates that though.

Porn is not educational material, and it does not pretend to be. The Fast/Furious films are not educational material either, but we have enough understanding of the wider context of that type of media generation to know that they are not to be taken literally. We don’t have/know that with porn. As a consequence, we have a sex uneducated (also, miseducated) population that is inherently sexually curious – as humans are – looking to the most accessible sex-looking material for answers… all within the context of a sex-phobic world that stunts (rather than welcomes) sexual curiosity

Got a sociology question? Need some social justice informed life advice? Contact Dr. Chauntelle right here.

Get your copy of Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment on Amazon here.

Image via alfonso diaz.
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