Culture

Lessons from the Porn Wars

(Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Welcome the new anti-porn allies on the left. But remember, they are no friends of the Right in the larger culture wars.

When OnlyFans announced that it was banning hard-core pornographic material last month, conservatives greeted the news as a welcome surprise. The popular content-hosting service’s prohibition on “sexually explicit conduct” was widely attributed to a series of successful Christian activist-led campaigns. These efforts pressured major credit-card companies such as MasterCard, Visa, and Discover into cracking down on in-network banks doing business with porn producers. In a nebulous August 19 statement, OnlyFans implicitly attributed its new content restrictions to “the requests of our banking partners and payout providers.” To many, the decision looked like a rare conservative victory in the culture war — a salutary counterexample to corporate America’s broader leftward trend. “The pornography empire continues its collapse,” reported a triumphant headline in the American Spectator. “OnlyFans has fallen.”

But the Right’s celebrations were short-lived. In a swift backlash to OnlyFans’ announcement, the porn industry’s well-funded assortment of media propagandists, activists, advocacy groups, and think tanks attacked the updated content guidelines for capitalist greed (attempting “to shed the stigma of pornography to lure in major investors,” according to MSNBC), censorious puritanism (“they want to remove discussions of sex and sexuality from the public sphere,” a pro-porn activist told The Verge), and, with nary a hint of irony, the “exploitation” of “sex workers.” By August 25 — less than a week after its initial announcement — OnlyFans had buckled. “Thank you to everyone for making your voices heard,” its official Twitter account conceded in a statement. “We have . . . suspended the planned October 1 policy change. OnlyFans stands for inclusion and we will continue to provide a home for all creators.”

In a microcosm, the reversal seemed like yet another disappointment in a long line of defeats for the traditionalist Right. As they continue their decades-long rearguard battle, social conservatives have been forced to reckon with an environment in which the forces of the sexual revolution hold an increasingly powerful monopoly on the centers of cultural power. Viewed in this context, OnlyFans’ capitulation was frustrating but not entirely unexpected. “I wasn’t incredibly surprised that they reversed, considering the public outrage from the people who are promoting the sex trade,” Haley McNamara, the vice president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), tells National Review. “The public backlash was being pushed by the whole pornography industry, which is realizing that it’s facing a lot more scrutiny than it used to.”

Yet at the same time, “the story with OnlyFans is not over,” McNamara says. Groups such as NCOSE — a nonpartisan group that is historically Christian, and one of the major players in the slate of recent credit-card company restrictions on porn producers — have worked for years to document the regularity with which child porn, rape videos, and scenes featuring trafficked women appear on OnlyFans and other major platforms. These revelations have not gone unheeded: The content-hosting platform Patreon banned “pornographic material” in 2018 in response to pressure from payment processors such as PayPal, and the prominent blogging site Tumblr followed suit later that year after being briefly kicked off Apple’s App Store for sexually explicit content involving children. In addition to the new regulations on porn-related material that precipitated the OnlyFans controversy, MasterCard, Visa, and Discover announced they were cutting ties with Pornhub altogether in December 2020, after revelations about the ubiquity of content involving underage minors. These companies now prohibit cardholders from making any financial transactions with the $1.6 billion porn giant.

Thanks in part to the work of groups such as NCOSE, anti-porn activists have logged a number of major recent victories in the ongoing war over porn and sexual exploitation on the Internet. “Every year we’re seeing progress on the issue of pornography, raising increased awareness about its public health harms or about the trafficking and abuse within the industry,” McNamara says. The publicization of the industry’s rampant abuse and exploitation has mobilized an energetic grassroots movement; just last year, the influential Christian activist Laila Mickelwait gathered nearly 2 million signatures on a petition to shut down Pornhub. “The public backlash against OnlyFans wasn’t really only about OnlyFans,” says McNamara. “It’s more a backlash against the whole industry itself — there’s just more public awareness about the exploitation they’re facilitating.”

Some of this is simply a result of campaigns “to have the pornography industry be recognized for what it is, which is sexual exploitation,” McNamara says. But she argues that the “primary reason” for the movement’s recent success is its ideologically diverse character, which cuts across party lines. This is a long-standing characteristic of the anti-porn coalition. It has always been an odd combination of cultural conservatives, who object to the proliferation of hard-core pornography from the standpoint of traditional morality, and radical feminists, who see porn as the ultimate example of patriarchal exploitation and objectification of women’s bodies. These politically disparate groups have been “able to sit across the table from some of these business executives and explain that they recognize that sexual exploitation is wrong, and that more protective steps need to be taken,” McNamara says. That has been “a really key part of why we’re seeing so much progress.”

This strategy has been undeniably effective. But it also illuminates a stark imbalance in the way the Left and the Right wield institutional power in today’s culture wars. The corporate crackdown on porn producers is a salutary win for conservatives, to be sure. But it’s notable that right-wing activists, unlike their left-wing counterparts, were able to pressure major financial conglomerates into taking action only after mainstream progressive institutions acquiesced. The anti-porn movement’s recent success is largely indebted to left-leaning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. In December 2020, he wrote an influential essay,The Children of Pornhub,” which appeared on the front page of the Times Sunday Review. In this, he cited Mickelwait’s work but neglected to mention her religious or political background. The essay quickly made him “the mainstream writer most responsible for establishing the terms of the sex trafficking debate for liberals and conservatives alike,” according to The New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant. Kristof’s imprimatur, along with a series of subsequent high-profile BBC investigations showing that OnlyFans executives knowingly allowed highly profitable accounts to post illegal content, have applied more pressure on Big Porn in the last year than conservatives have in the past decade. Moreover, the conservative Christians driving the anti-porn movement behind the scenes were able to enlist the help of these mainstream institutions only insofar as they maintained the appearance of a bipartisan coalition — and deflected accusations that their cause was explicitly “right-wing.”

Kristof’s New York Times essay, after a long and grueling series of interviews with the young survivors of porn-related abuse, explicitly called for Mastercard and Visa to stop doing business with Pornhub. By the end of that month, the two major credit card companies had done just that — and a panicked Pornhub had announced the addition of new content restrictions, to boot.

In contrast, conservative anti-porn groups such as NCOSE have been fighting Internet porn since its rise to prominence in the early 2010s. In its own estimation, NCOSE and its allies had been lobbying for legislative action against sex trafficking for “nearly twenty years.” But those efforts culminated in victory only in 2018, when the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act were signed into law on the heels of another Kristof endorsement. Decades of conservative lobbying are apparently no match for one well-timed essay in the Times. Without the approval of America’s legitimating institutions — now uniformly controlled by progressives — conservatives often find themselves powerless in the face of the cultural Left.

Perhaps it is true that, as McNamara tells National Review, “the only way to have lasting change is to find allies in unlikely places” — and maybe you don’t agree with them on everything. But there are limits to what the Right can expect from this kind of “bipartisanship.” We should celebrate when sympathetic BBC and New York Times reporting help the fight against pornography. But a brief glance at the ideological proclivities of those organizations should make us skeptical that the Right can count them as allies in other battlefields of the culture war. When possible, conservatives should work to advance their goals within hostile institutions, even as they simultaneously build new institutions and apply pressure from the outside wherever they can. They should be open to working with progressives when their interests are aligned. But beware any long-term political strategy that relies on the cooperation and goodwill of hostile actors who have no track record of either.

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