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Pornography is a left issue

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Let 's analyze pornography not as sex, but as media. Where would that lead?

Corporate media

Critiques of the power of commercial corporate media are ubiquitous on the left. Leftists with vastly different political projects can come together to decry conglomerates ' control over news and entertainment programming. Because of the structure of the system, it 's a given that these corporations create programming that meets the needs of advertisers and elites, not ordinary people.

Yet when discussing pornography, this analysis flies out the window. Listening to many on the left defend pornography, one would think the material is being made by struggling artists tirelessly working in lonely garrets to help us understand the mysteries of sexuality. Nothing could be further from the truth; the pornography industry is just that -- an industry, dominated by the pornography production companies that create the material, with mainstream corporations profiting from its distribution.

It 's easy to listen in on pornographers ' conversations -- they have a trade magazine, Adult Video News. The discussions there don 't tend to focus on the transgressive potential of pornography or the polysemic nature of sexually explicit texts. It 's about -- what a surprise! -- profits. The magazine 's stories don 't reflect a critical consciousness about much of anything, especially gender, race, and sex.

Andrew Edmond -- president and CEO of Flying Crocodile, a $20 million pornography internet company -- put it bluntly: "A lot of people get distracted from the business model by [the sex]. It is just as sophisticated and multilayered as any other market place. We operate just like any Fortune 500 company. "

The production companies -- from big players such as Larry Flynt Productions to small fly-by-night operators -- act predictably as corporations in capitalism, seeking to maximize market-share and profit. They do not consider the needs of people or the effects of their products, any more than other capitalists. Romanticizing the pornographers makes as much sense as romanticizing the executives at Viacom or Disney.

Increasingly, mainstream media corporations profit as well. Hugh Hefner and Flynt had to fight to gain respectability within the halls of capitalism, but today many of the pornography profiteers are big corporations. Through ownership of cable distribution companies and Internet services, the large companies that distribute pornography also distribute mainstream media. One example is News Corp. owned by Rupert Murdoch.
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News Corp. is a major owner of DirecTV, which sells more pornographic films than Flynt. In 2000, the New York Times reported that nearly $200 million a year is spent by the 8.7 million subscribers to DirecTV. Among News Corp. 's other media holdings are the Fox broadcasting and cable TV networks, Twentieth Century Fox, the New York Post, and TV Guide. Welcome to synergy: Murdoch also owns HarperCollins, which published pornography star Jenna Jameson 's best-selling book How To Make Love Like A Porn Star.

When Paul Thomas accepted his best-director award at the pornography industry 's 2005 awards ceremony, he commented on the corporatization of the industry by joking: "I used to get paid in cash by Italians. Now I get paid with a check by a Jew. " Ignoring the crude ethnic references (Thomas works primarily for Vivid, whose head is Jewish), his point was that what was once largely a mob-financed business is now just another corporate enterprise.

How do leftists feel about corporate enterprises? Do we want profit-hungry corporative executives constructing our culture?


It 's long been understood on the left that one of the most insidious aspects of capitalism is the commodification of everything. There is nothing that can 't be sold in the capitalist game of endless accumulation.
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In pornography, the stakes are even higher; what is being commodified is crucial to our sense of self. Whatever a person 's sexuality or views on sexuality, virtually everyone agrees it is an important aspect of our identity. In pornography, and in the sex industry more generally, sexuality is one more product to be packaged and sold.

When these concerns are raised, pro-pornography leftists often rush to explain that the women in pornography have chosen that work. Although any discussion of choice must take into consideration the conditions under which one chooses, we don 't dispute that women do choose, and as feminists we respect that choice and try to understand it.

But, to the best of our knowledge, no one on the left defends capitalist media -- or any other capitalist enterprise -- by pointing out workers consented to do their jobs. The people who produce media content, or any other product, consent to work in such enterprises, under varying constraints and opportunities. So what? The critique is not of the workers, but of the owners and structure.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)

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