All images courtesy of Erika Lust

The Future of Porn Is Only Getting Worse

We interviewed award-winning feminist adult film maker Erika Lust about the impact of FOSTA/SESTA on porn, the problem with age verification checks and the value of education over regulation.

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Aug 15 2018, 1:36pm

All images courtesy of Erika Lust

When we're all reading books aloud to each other for entertainment again, it's possible that 2018 will be remembered for the death of the internet. Going beyond GDPR and the debate over whether or not Alex Jones should be allowed to explode on Twitter like everyone else, recent and forthcoming legislative changes are spelling bad news for the future of the porn industry.

On the 4th of July, YouTube banned an independent erotic film production company after it posted interviews with sex workers. In a blog post, feminist adult filmmaker, Erika Lust, wrote that her eponymous channel was removed after they uploaded their doc-series "In Conversation With Sex Workers", in which sex workers discuss their experiences, social stigmas, relationships with clients, law enforcement and the relationship between sex work and feminism.

Despite being non-explicit videos of people talking, YouTube terminated the channel, citing "violation of community guidelines". The problem, YouTube claimed, wasn’t to do with sexual content but the links in the descriptions of the videos which drove traffic to Erika's site, ErikaLust.com, which YouTube considers a porn site (even though it's a hosting site for paid-for content, and therefore clean).

Erika Lust

YouTube's decision seems to be another knock-on result of FOSTA/SESTA. Signed into US law in April, FOSTA/SESTA is intended to curb sex trafficking by making websites liable for what users say and do on them. In addition to harming consensual sex workers while pushing sex trafficking further underground, the legislation's broad language means that sites now seem to be over-censoring their users to ensure they're not liable for anything problematic. This has already led to sex workers' Google Drive files being locked or deleted, Patreon changing its terms of service to exclude pornography and Microsoft prohibiting profanity and nudity on Skype.

Needless to say, this affects the livelihoods of already vulnerable sex workers first and foremost. Additionally, sex bloggers and smaller, independent companies – like feminist, body-positive and fetish sites – which rely on social media to attract traffic will struggle, while inherently misogynistic mainstream sites can afford to weather the storm.

I spoke to Erika Lust about the future of the porn industry in the wake of FOSTA/SESTA, the problem with the Digital Economy Act in the UK – which will require porn sites to use age checks before the end of 2018 – and the value of education over regulation.

VICE: So, obviously YouTube is a massively popular platform, especially for young audiences. How do you think the landscape of pornography will change if access to material that approaches sex and sex work from a feminist perspective is restricted?
Erika: It means that younger viewers, such as Gen Z, who use YouTube a lot more than older generations, and who may be curious about alternatives to mainstream adult content, won't be able to discover alternative, indie, feminist porn, but they will still have mainstream porn shoved down their throat in every single outlet.

YouTube is targeting smaller, indie businesses and allowing the big mainstream outlets to continue unscathed. Look at the WoodRocket channel, for example. They drive traffic to their porn site in every single video and can speak explicitly about porn and different sex acts – anal poop stories, double penetration, etc. But my channel was closed because of a doc-series on sex work and non-explicit trailers for indie, feminist adult films which show consent and female pleasure. It's easy to see which type of content young people are going to have the easiest access to.

What impact do you think this form of censorship will have on our ability to have progressive dialogues around sex and sex work?
Progressive and healthy conversations around sex and sex work are already being censored. Online sex educational platforms have already been affected by shadow banning [where a user's content is blocked without the user being informed], demonetisation and hashtag censorship. Great channels, such as the female-focused sex-ed Come Curious, have been shadow banned and demonetised by YouTube. Other LGBTQ, BDSM and sex educators have noted the same problems. These channels are so important for teaching a more inclusive, diverse sex education and covering topics that schools neglect when it comes to sex. And they are especially useful for young people growing up with thoughts or desires not shared by the people around them, it can show them that they are not alone and their feelings aren't abnormal. If access to their channels becomes increasingly limited, many marginalised or queer communities won’t be able to benefit from their often live-saving advice

Shadow banning and demonetisation was already taking place before FOSTA/SESTA, but how do you think the bills will make things worse for sex educators and workers online?
The bills will force platforms to over-censor any material related to sex, even if it isn't explicitly sexual. And in terms of dialogues around sex work, refusing to speak about sex work at all. Look at the video sex-ed platform O.School, which removed all sex work content from its programme in the wake of FOSTA/SESTA. This will only help perpetuate the negative stereotype that sex work isn't real work and make the stigma even stronger.

From Erika Lust's 'XConfessions' series

Which issues arise when big corporations like YouTube and Google start to blanket-remove adult content from public and private accounts?
We end up with internet overlords who won't let us speak about anything. Sites are too frightened to be held accountable, so they censor their users and any content they deem to be "problematic". On a personal level, this is an attempt to silence sex workers' voices online and control their behaviour – as seen in Google Drive removing content from sex workers' own private accounts without warning. In terms of wider problems, we already know that censorship hits the most marginalised communities the hardest; look at Facebook's hate speech censorship last year, which disproportionately censored LGBTQ people and people of colour. Similarly, FOSTA/SESTA is disproportionately affecting trans, LGBTQ and POC sex workers.

At the end of the day, the legislation boils down to the belief that "sex work is bad" and an underlying sexist notion that women can't make their own decisions about what they do with their bodies. Of course, there are sex workers of all genders, but cases such as Instagram censoring #woman and #femalestripper, and not #man and #malestripper, shows that this is a patriarchal desire to tell women what they can and cannot do with their bodies.

What do you consider to be the main issues facing the porn industry at the moment?
A huge issue is the whole pirating business model operated by the free tube sites. Sites such as Pornhub are not making their own material, they're stealing it. They traditionally rely on "users" uploading content to the site, who should declare that they have the rights to do so, but it’s clear that amid large quantities of fully licensed material, content exists on Pornhub that is infringing copyright. But because they claim to be a completely user-generated content site, they're protected by the provision that they can't monitor copyrights of every video uploaded.

When a filmmaker finds that their content has been illegally uploaded they can report it and the tube site is served with a DMCA takedown notice, upon which they remove the stolen content. However, the next day the same video is often re-uploaded by another – sometimes the same – user. Obviously small porn studios do not have the time to be trawling through tube sites looking for their content every day. Therefore, content goes up faster than studios can issue demands for it to be taken down.

Do you think more controls need to be put on these websites?
Definitely. Above all, users need to be made aware of the ethical implications of watching pirated material. When we talk about professional and ethically-made adult cinema, there are many reasons that the content is behind a paywall. It costs money to make. It costs money to pay performers, crew, post-production and the director; legal contracts that protect all of their rights as workers, lunch for the day, comfortable accommodation if required. Sex work is a real job, and performers deserve to be paid. By paying for your porn, you're helping to ensure that smaller companies that are committed to some of these labour practices are able to continue making the porn that they want to make, and that sex work is done in a safe environment. I always recommend the same: do your research, and when you go to porn websites see who is behind those websites. Can you see their names, their faces? Are there credits for the team behind the camera?

What are the main concerns facing you as an independent erotic filmmaker in the wake of FOSTA/SESTA?
Ultimately, these policies boil down to anti sex-work politics, so I think the real focus and concern should be looking at how these bills are going to affect sex workers. The legal persecution of sex workers is justified by an ideology which has painted them as either victims or undesirables. And as a result, legislators indiscriminately crack down on sex workers by imposing their own values and judgments. Sex law is already very harsh, and quite often the penalties are out of proportion to any social or individual harm. This has led to a climate in the US where sex workers are more likely to be murdered on the job than police officers, 400 percent more likely to face violence than the average worker and largely unable to access the justice system when they are victimised.

And now, with FOSTA/SESTA?
Sex workers are being forced out onto the streets to find clients. They're losing online advertisements, bad date lists, online client screening and their voice. Pimps are exploiting and abusing them, and bad clients are taking advantage of the situation. The bills are literally killing sex workers and nobody seems to care.

Does it come as a surprise that FOSTA/SESTA fights against sex work?
Not really. One of the main proponents of the bill was the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which was founded as "Morality in Media" in the 60s to fight porn. On their website they state, "Pornography is a social and physical toxin that destroys relationships, steals innocence, erodes compassion, breeds violence, and kills love." FOSTA/SESTA is as much about a hatred towards sex work than it is about stopping sex trafficking.

We should also all be concerned for the people these laws claim to be helping – sex trafficking victims themselves. Web platforms are being forced to over-censor by removing any postings related to sex. So, the words and phrases that a victim of trafficking would use to try to share their experiences or get help would also be picked up by a filter in an attempt to delete sex trafficking content. Plus, censoring these platforms also takes away an important resource for finding victims – the open internet. If traffickers were using these sites before, the bill has pushed them out of the spotlight and onto the dark web. Even the US Department of Justice urged against passing FOSTA-SESTA, advising that it would make prosecuting sex traffickers harder.

The UK is currently moving to implement age verification checks for "adult content" online. What problems do you see arising from that, both for mainstream and independent porn sites?
Oh god, there are so many problems with the age verification plans, I don't know where to start! Aside from the extreme risk of privacy loss for any person using the service, there are a number of problems that arise for porn sites.

The UK government has basically handed all powers over to MindGeek [which owns almost 90 percent of the popular tube sites, such as Pornhub, RedTube and YouPorn], which now stands to increase their huge market share even further by offering age verification services to smaller sites. I knew this would happen when I read that MindGeek were in meetings with government officials about the plans to create age verification laws. Smaller low-traffic sites and independent sex workers who cannot cover the costs of installing age verification tools will be disproportionately affected.

How do you think it will impact smaller sites?
It will give MindGeek even more dominance in the adult industry. The BBFC draft guidance does not enforce sites to offer more than one age verification product, so all of MindGeek's sites and studio brands – again, 90 percent of the tube sites – will only offer their own product: AgeID. The BBFC have also stated that users do not have to verify their age on each visit if access is restricted by password or a personal ID number. So users visiting a MindGeek site will only have to verify their age once using AgeID, and then will be able to login to any complying site without having to verify again. Therefore, viewers will be less likely to visit competitor sites not using the AgeID technology, and simultaneously competitor sites will feel pressured to use AgeID to protect themselves from losing viewers.

It's also very interesting – and not at all surprising – to see that MindGeek made AgeID to monopolise on the new age verification law, but, of course not wanting to lose their own under 18 viewers, they have now created their own VPN! VpnHUB will allow underage users in the UK to bypass the age verification controls by avoiding being detected as a UK viewer.

A press release from the BBFC read that their "priority is to make the internet safer for children", so as with FOSTA-SESTA the justification is ostensibly about protecting the vulnerable. Do you think there are better ways to help young people understand the material they’re watching, beyond simply making it harder to access?
I understand the government concern, and on the surface age verification seems like a good idea – protect children from seeing porn too young. However, there is a huge lack of credible evidence supporting the effectiveness of age verification checks to protect children from sexual content, and research has now been released to show that these plans will not work. The Oxford Internet Institute published their findings from Internet Filtering and Adolescent Exposure to Online Sexual Material, which shows internet filters for sexual material online are not an effective preventative measure with young people.

For as long as there has been online pornography, there have been calls to give government censors the power to shut it down, and this is usually for the "sake of the children". But this type of censorship is a poor answer to the sexual dysfunction of our society. In this internet age it's inevitable that children will see things they probably shouldn't, but we shouldn't try to fix a social problem with technology. We need to ask ourselves why children are searching for sex online? What are they looking for answers to?

How do you think we could approach those questions and answers better?
The problem we have right now is that good, useful sex education is lacking, pretty much everywhere. We know that a huge percentage of schools are not providing adequate sex education. At no point in a child's education does anyone teach them about consent, which seems pretty important, no? Our kids aren’t oblivious to sex; they hear about it from the society around them and go straight to Google to find answers. And unfortunately, pretty much every time you type something sex-related into a search engine, you’ll be greeted by something like PornHub, where you'll be bombarded with a lot of bad, degrading, disrespectful sex or kink, which doesn’t always appear to be consensual.

We can't stop kids from finding these sites, so instead of ignoring it, let's educate them. By acknowledging porn, it immediately becomes less shameful and opens up a dialogue, which leads to healthy, active learning.

What do you think are some ways we can start to open up that dialogue?
We need government-funded compulsory sex education in schools that addresses porn, given by independent experts rather than untrained teachers. We need to give young people space to ask questions and explore their sexuality without shame.

My husband, Pablo, and I have been working to provide parents and teachers with the tools they need to talk to teenagers about pornography. It’s called The Porn Conversation and it’s full of practical, useful guides to encourage parents to talk to their kids about what they are going to see online. To tell them that it’s normal to be curious, but what they are going to see is a performance of sex and not what real sex is actually like. That many of the people they see are not representative of the average body and that you shouldn’t treat women the way they are treated in a lot of the problematic porn on the free tube sites.

How do you think this will help in the long run?
Porn is always going to exist, so giving kids the tools to be critical and aware of what they’re watching is unbelievably important. They should be able to differentiate between the types of porn and also understand what respectful, equal sex is that consenting adults can enjoy. When they are old enough, they will see that certain porn can promote gender equality, intimacy, diversity, affirmative consent, safety, pleasure and sexual freedom and exploration.

By learning to distinguish between different types of sex they see around them, kids will develop much healthier attitudes towards sex and relationships. By having open and honest conversations, they’ll have the opportunity to discuss their feelings, communicate their sexual desires and be happier people for it!

In 2014, the BBFC created a list of "content that is not acceptable" in porn, which included a wide range of sex acts, from strangulation to female ejaculation. All things considered, do you think it's a positive thing for adult content to be regulated by a NGO that’s also responsible for regulating video content in general?
Firstly, this list is ridiculous. It divides sex acts into good and bad, and in doing so contributes to the rhetoric of shaming natural body functions, natural desires and fantasies. It completely goes against sexual freedom, specifically female sexual freedom if you see the list of acts deemed not acceptable, like squirting. It also shames people with these desires, silences their sexual autonomy and excludes them from the porn narrative.

But, to get to your question, I don't think it's a positive thing at all for porn to be regulated by an NGO that doesn't have any understanding of the adult industry. The BBFC regulates porn in the same way it does with blockbuster films, and their guidelines for what constitutes the R19 label are based in part on what is judged obscene under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. This act is well-recognised as completely out-of-date and difficult to interpret.

My thoughts are that the BBFC are not equipped to moderate adult content. Bear in mind that these are the people who classify a rape scene as appropriate for a 12A, but a flaccid penis as only appropriate for 18+. The BBFC was founded in 1912, back when the "C" still stood for "Censors", and not "Classification" as it is now. I think it's time to find a new way of regulating video content. It's been years since we reassessed art and literature and decided that they did not need to be regulated, so why are we not putting more thought into the regulation of film?

How do you think porn should be regulated, if at all?
In the US, the laws on pornography are regulated by the state, and some pornographers have been imprisoned for obscenity charges, while some others have been charged with obscenity violations. I do find it worrying that all sorts of extreme and violent content is available so openly for young people to see, but I don't believe in censorship. Should porn be harder to access? Probably. With the internet, porn is so widespread as a genre worldwide that it's hard to imagine how strict regulation would even happen. To regulate internet porn would probably push it to the deep web, and you don't want that at all.

The same as with age verification, I think it's ultimately more important to educate than regulate. Porn is everywhere and it's all available online for free, so we need to take responsibility for this and start educating young people how to navigate this. For me, this means making sex-positive films that show consent, mutual pleasure and a range of desires and sexualities.

What about in terms of guidelines and regulations to ensure performer safety?
I think it would be great if there were laws surrounding implementation of an ethical production process, compulsory sexual health testing and stricter laws to ensure that no one under 21 can perform. Unfortunately, this is not something I can easily change as one filmmaker. But what I can do is make sure my ethos, production standards and values on set stand up to my own beliefs and scrutiny and stand by them 100 percent.

The trouble with FOSTA/SESTA, the proposed similar bill in the UK, and age verification checks is that the legislation is so broadly worded. It sweeps all conversations to do with sex and sex work under the carpet – pushing it offline, rather than opening it up. What could be done to push the porn industry and cultural attitudes towards sex in a more positive direction?
We need comprehensive sex education programmes that teach about sex and sexuality, not abstinence. Studies have shown that countries in Europe that are more open about sex have lower rates of STIs and teen pregnancies than countries like America, where they are taught abstinence. We need to speak openly to young people about sex and sexuality. And for the sex industry, we need full decriminalisation of sex work to improve working conditions, give sex workers rights, remove the stigma and show that sex work is real labour, reduce sexual violence and all together improve the wellbeing, safety and working conditions of sex work.

Thanks, Erika.

Find out more about Erika at ErikaLust.com.

@emmaggarland

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

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