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Kelsy Burke on the Culture Wars and Pornography


Red staters and blue staters are not always as far apart as people think. When you look at the positions people actually hold and not their posturings about who they are with and who they are against, there are often deep levels of agreement.

A fascinating take on this can be found in Kelsy Burke’s new and utterly fascinating book, The, Pornography Wars: The Past Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession (Bloomsbury, 2023). This is at the same time a history of pornography in America, a history of censorship in America – and most importantly, a set of interviews and participant observations with everyone one could possibly think of who is involved with pornography, either as a participant, a sympathizer, or a principled opponent. On the participant side, you not only have the in-front-of-the-camera performers, but the producers and distributors as well. Almost every kind of adult porn you can think of is covered, both mainstream, gay and alt-gender, feminist-for-women and BDSM. (She draws the line at child pornography.) On the critics’ side, she covers both the traditional 70’s-era feminist opposition and the historic-but-never-went-away conservative Christian opposition. Her historical work is comprehensive. On present day issues, she has done fieldwork in almost every relevant setting you can think of, both pro-porn and anti-porn. The collection of interviews she has put together is formidable.

Most of the book involves ethnographic details of the world of pornography producers and the world of anti-pornography advocates. Those details are fascinating. But that is not why I am discussing Kelsy Burke on this website. I am covering The Pornography Wars because of the shock twist ending that occurs in the book’s final chapter. There is no need for spoiler alerts here. The book is fantastic even if you already know what happens in the final pages. That conclusion, however, is super-important.

Underneath the potentially titillating subject matter is a serious discussion of the culture wars in America. More importantly, there is also a serious discussion of how people who have seemingly irreconcilable differences can actually find meaningful common ground. If there are actually avenues for the most extreme blue-staters and red-staters to work together, there is even more hope for people who are only “kind of” blue-state or “kind of” red-state to find compromise in the middle.

Because the making of pornography is still considered to be somewhat disreputable, sex workers who make commercial graphic images live in an isolated and distinctive world. In earlier periods, isolation may have come from fear of legal prosecution. In more tolerant periods, confinement to small social networks may be the result of belonging to a niche artistic community within the porn world. Gay porn, BDSM porn and feminist porn all have their own social networks and distinctive occupational subcultures. Labor organizing tends to produce small, pragmatically paranoid social networks. The San Franciso sex-positive scene is marked by significant labor organization and activism.

Isolation, persecution and mobilization tend to produce an us-versus-them mentality, often combined with a crusading world view. Pornography makers typically see themselves as being on a fringe, where they are “fighting the good fight”. In the 1960’s and 70’s, the fight was “prudery vs liberation”. During the AIDS epidemic, the fights were over saving the industry while maintaining health protection for sex workers. Today, labor organizers and feminists want more humane treatment for performers in front of the camera. Many groups are fighting an aesthetic battle over what is sexy, what is beautiful and what kinds of experiences need to be preserved on media.

What unifies the various sex industry niche groups across time is a firm belief in the good of what they are trying to accomplish. This is combined with a generalized despair that they are fighting alone. Few people in the rest of the world seem to share their vision.

In contrast to this are the anti-pornography crusaders. The anti-pornographers tend to be Christian and very conservative. However, 1970’s era secular feminists also had deep-seated objections to pornography. The forces of opposition had many different reasons to oppose pornography. Nineteenth century and early twentieth century moralists simply felt that pornography was obscene. Feminists were concerned about women being reduced to being sexual objects and the promotion of a generalized rape culture. There were increasing concerns about sex trafficking and about sex workers actually being the victims of rape. More recently, there has been a new concern among conservative Christian reformers that pornography destroys marriages and families. The Christian activists argue that young people addicted to pornography lose the ability to create meaningful long-term relationships, which in turn, impedes family formation. Married men who abuse pornography withhold intimacy from their wives which may create cold joyless households. This could be the basis for divorce or for inadequate parenting. Pornography also draws emotional energy away from spiritual life and creates distance from the church. A strong point of Burke’s analysis is that she argues that regardless of whether these negative trends affect non-religious households, they are particularly salient in some relationships where both spouses are devoutly Christian. Deeply religious Christians are particularly likely to have conflicted feelings about pornography and report pornography interfering with the viability of their relationships.

There are statistically more Christian crusaders than there are sex industry crusaders. But these Christians share porn workers’ sense of isolation from mainstream society. They view secular society as being commercialized, driven by a mass media that fetishizes premarital sexuality and is hostile to spiritual and family values. The fight against pornography is a fight against a society with “trashified” culture; this is a battle these Christians feel they are losing.

So what is Kelsy Burke’s coup de theatre? She argues, and to my mind extremely compellingly, that both sides have the potential to find very substantial room for agreement. Almost by definition, sex workers, anti-porn feminists and Christian moralists would have little occasion or desire to talk to each other. Each perceives the others as being morally questionable and factually poorly informed. Sitting at a table together is very, very unlikely to happen.

And yet, Burke shows that many policy positions that could be put forward to reform the world of pornography, that could actually be consensus points among all three groups. In many cases, these would be consensus points with the general public as well. I will intentionally be coy about the exact points of agreement. Kelsy Burke does a great job of explaining these herself. But her list of agreement points is quite long, and nearly every argument she makes is sensible.

To show that I am not just making this up, I will address just one of her many fine points.

Conservative Christians argue that pornography addiction is a real thing. They claim that pornography addiction destroys lives. The Christians themselves acknowledge that incidental exposure to sexually explicit images is not likely to produce an addiction to pornography. But Burke agrees with the Christians that addiction to pornography is a real phenomenon. This is no different from addiction to shopping or addiction to alcohol or addiction to gambling. Many people suffer no ill effects from pornography. However, there is a set of people for whom pornography is very dangerous indeed. In some cases, it is inconsistent with their moral values, giving them unresolved issues involving hypocrisy and contradiction. In other cases, pornography is being used to avoid dealing with real issues involving work, schooling or intimacy. Burke argues that this subset of people requires protection from pornography. One could argue from her book that the Christian reformers have the best institutional programs for dealing with addiction to pornography, although these programs won’t be suitable in every case.

Burke also makes a set of fascinating arguments about the price of pornography. Neither feminists nor Christian conservatives discuss porn pricing policies explicitly. Some sex workers do raise the issue, particularly those involved with advocating workers’ rights. Burke argues – and I think she is right – that if you raised the question of free porn with any of the three advocate groups, no one would be in favor of it. Don’t expect any of these three groups to march down Main Street tomorrow, all holding up signs demanding taxes or high minimum prices on pornography. But, in theory, this is something every group could agree on.

You can read the rest of her recommendations yourself.

What is intriguing in her book are the potential solutions that COULD, in theory, bring people together. Sadly, these are highly unlikely to happen. The isolated groups simply do not talk to each other. And if they were to talk, they would stick to institutional “talking points” from the canned speeches they make all the time. You would not have the free dialogue, improvisation or give-and-take that would allow these groups to find common solutions.

But Burke is right that common solutions exist. Sincere dialogue would open up possibilities, if such dialogue could actually happen, and the talk could move beyond empty posturing. Joint problem solving, with the idea of finding innovative plans that all sides could support – would produce bona fide incremental improvements.

Kelsy Burke is telling us that no matter how extreme your lifestyle and world view may be – and no matter how isolated you may feel from the other human beings in society – there is still the potential for finding common ground.

These days, we seem to have very little real dialogue among people from different groups.

We make very few compromises with anyone who is not one of our close allies.

But if it is theoretically possible to bridge the gap between people on the issue of pornography, maybe we can bridge the gap on other awkward issues as well.

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