Cyberporn & Society Intro

Cyberporn & Society

What follows is the introduction to a collection of readings for a course by the same name. The reader is available from Amazon; buy a copy and help boost the sales rank up above 1.8 million. (Who says sex sells?)


The reaction to scholarly pursuit of issues surrounding pornography is paradoxical. On the one hand, many see it as being far too trivial to be a valid interest for the social researcher or student. On the other, some see it as being one of the most important—often negative—influences of modern society. This paradox is familiar to those who study popular culture. Television, video games, the internet—all are seen as being too trivial to be worthy of serious study. Pornography, as we now know it, has helped shape ideas of sexuality in culture, freedom of expression, feminism, and public policy throughout much of the twentieth century, and the influence of sexually-related communication and symbolism goes back much further.

That influence has become even greater over the past two decades. In a song from the 2003 Broadway show, Avenue Q, a puppet sings this chorus:

The internet is for porn,
The internet is for porn,
Why do you think the net was born?
Porn, porn, porn.

The prevalence of pornography on the internet comes as a surprise to almost no one. Indeed, many were probably introduced to the internet through the controversy surrounding the Communications Decency Act, which aimed to protect children from pornographic images online. Those who have followed the development of the net have noted that adult sites were often the first to try new ways of using the technology, and experimented with things like video streaming and online payment that eventually diffused to other sites. This intimate relationship between pornography and technology extends beyond the internet itself, to home video recording, photography, and other technologies.

The wider availability of pornography has led to a greater prominence in mainstream culture. In fact, it is increasingly difficult to treat adult entertainment as anything but mainstream. Adult stars are widely known, and appear in music videos and daytime talk shows. The adult industry represents a significant proportion of total entertainment revenues each year. (Just how much this may be is treated in one of the readings in this collection.) Though the majority of sales of pornography remain outside of the internet, there are indications that the greatest impact of pornography is in its adoption of new technologies; thus the title of this work. “Cyberporn” indicates the social dynamic that emerges when communication technologies are exploited to transmit and exchange pornographic materials.

A critical understanding of pornography in society is sadly lacking. It remains an issue you just do not talk about in polite company. This, however, is no excuse for it being ignored by social scientists. Cultural critics have, in the last few years, introduced undergraduate courses and texts that address some of the cultural impacts of the new pornography, though this has not spread as quickly outside of the humanities. In this short reader, I hope to provide those with an interest in how pornography now relates to society with a set of core introductory readings to help them to understand this relationship. These short readings, while providing little depth, will expose the reader to some of the questions and problems that social scientists, cultural critics, and policy-makers face in understanding cyberporn.

Though some of the readings take a clear position in favor of or against cyberporn, on the whole they are intended to present several perspectives. If there is any unified message at all, it is that there is no clear consensus at to whether pornography represents a problem, how significant that problem may be, and how it is best solved. Feminists stand on different sides of the issue, many seeing pornography as exploitation of women, while others see it as a venue in which women possess and exercise power. Psychologists and sociologists tend to believe that viewing pornography has effects on behavior, but it remains unclear what those effects are, and how pornography relates to other influences on behavior. Public policy in the United States has continually worked within a tension that considers adult materials “free speech” and protected from censorship, and at the same time, pornography is among the most frequently censored material. In sum, the only clear answer at this stage is that the relationship between pornography and society is a complex one, and a clearer understanding can only come with a more informed perspective.

Indeed, the term “pornography” itself has come under fire, and the use of alternative terms serve as a kind of signpost of position in the debate. What is pornography, and how does it differ from “smut,” “erotica,” or “adult content” Justice Stewart’s definition–that he knows it when he sees it–seems trite, particularly when applied to those who do not have the Justice’s self-admitted exposure to varying types of porn. I tend to use the word pornography as an overarching term, inclusive of artistic nudes as well as explicit fetish videos. No doubt, the vagueness of such a definition is troubling, but identifying pornography is often the most direct step in staking a particular position, often declaring anything that constitutes pornography to be morally or legally unworthy of defending. In the articles that follow, I encourage the reader to come to terms with how each author defines her object of study, and what this means to her argument.

The readings represent an overview of a range of areas, from the place of technology to the psychology of interactive pornography, to the challenges of public policy. In some ways, cyberporn is a window into the larger social changes brought about by new networked communication technologies. By comprehending the challenges brought by pornography, it is also possible to have a better understanding of the broader relationships between technology and the public. I hope that the reader finds these short introductions interesting, and that she goes on to read the larger works that many of them are drawn from, as well as the larger literature related to pornography and technology.