In Pornocracy: The New Sex Multinationals, a new documentary playing at SXSW, French filmmaker Ovidie argues that the rise of free porn online has ruined the industry, forcing performers into rough and degrading acts in order to stand out and corrupting the sexual expectations of our youth. She blames this development mostly on the folks behind clip sites like XVideos, XHamster, YouPorn, RedTube, and Pornhub—the last three all properties of Luxembroug-based Mindgeek.
"Up until 10 years ago, the industry consisted of a constellation of smaller producers who produced and sold their own content directly on DVD or via VOD," Ovidie told Marlow Stern at The Daily Beast. "Within the past 10 years, the entire industry has been taken over by big tech companies, multinationals managed by businessmen based in tax havens who don't have any real connection to the porn industry. These people are not there on-set during shooting; they have no contact with the workers or the actual production process. What is happening in porn is exactly what's happening in many other sectors: an 'Uberisation' of the workforce, with huge platforms who have no consideration for performers."
But Ovidie—a self-professed "proud femporn director for 17 years, now mainly documentarist"—seems confused about porn's past and way too pessimistic about its future. Yes, the industry has changed, but it was way less rosy to start with than Ovidie portrays it and things are way less dire than she says they are now.
For one thing, porn's yesteryear was hardly filled with non-exploitative, mom-and-pop producers. A core group of directors and producers may have reigned for a while in porn's "golden era," but this was the same time period in which the mafia controlled adult movie theaters and distribution (or later the bootleg videotaping), and female performers were seldom permitted much self-determination. There was little diversity in porn performers' looks, race, or sexuality, and when there was it was often highly stereotypical and exploitative. Whatever degree of mainstreaming or art-washing of porn happened in the 1970s, it didn't much change the inner dynamics of the industry. And by the '80s, the home video industry had seriously hampered production quality and artistic pretenses.
There were certainly non-mainstream adult filmmakers who did diverse, interesting, and non-exploitative work in these earlier eras, but they were just one part of the industry. And yes, later female performers like Jenna Jameson who managed to rise to the top would could command high rates and multi-picture contracts, but there were very few Jenna Jamesons, and still a lot of "extreme" sex acts depicted in porn.
There's no doubt that the rise of the clip-sites, the emergence of the web-camming industry, and the democratization of porn-production tools have changed porn-industry economics over the past decade, and in ways that have not always been good for porn studios and stars. But there are upsides to some of this, too, and the YouPorns of the world aren't quite the pure villains Ovidie makes them out to be. They make money off of traffic, and "the traffic the tubes can direct towards pay [porn] sites means that their relationship has evolved from hostility to close, if grudging, co-operation," the Economist noted in 2015.
What's more, the clip sites have nothing to do with the type of content that gets produced, the atmosphere on porn production sets, or performer pay rates and structures. Ovidie only pins the rise of rough porn on them through the circuitous route of depressed mainstream porn-studio profits leading the launch of new companies (like Kink.com) that cater to more niche markets (such as the BDSM community), or leading to lower performer pay rates that thus lead to women willing to do more "rough" or "extreme" acts to differentiate themselves/make more money.
Beyond that, the rise of "rough porn" is certainly less one-dimensional than Ovidie makes it out to be. Sure, there are predatory sites and producers out there. But a lot of the rougher stuff is made and enjoyed by women. It is fantasy, not some sign of unconscionable patriarchy.
In any event, the ostensible rise of rough porn is just a symptom of a larger truth: that there's more porn of all kinds out there. More female-produced and women-friendly porn. More lesbian porn aimed at lesbians, not straight men. More "radical transgender kink." More political porn parodies. More "amateur" porn studios. More web-camming sites. More web-savvy women making money on their own websites and social media accounts. More virtual reality porn and gadgets. More fetish porn of all sorts. And so on.
This not only means that there's more erotic entertainment out there for a diverse range of tastes, it means we see a much more diverse range of people represented in erotic entertainment. As Cosmopolitan notes, "the public perception of what a porn star looks like is shifting." A busty, blonde white woman who likes men will still do well in today's porn industry, but so can people with a range of body types and sexualities, from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. There's a lot less plastic surgery, a lot less cookie-cutter sex appeal. By many accounts, racism and other forms of discrimination still permeate the porn industry, and this isn't to discount that. But at the very least there's also evidence that representation is getting better.
Meanwhile, the shift from a few major porn stars and studios to an industry full of independents and niche purveyors has also provided performers with the opportunity to control their own careers, image, and earning potential in an unprecedented way. After all, the same online forces that allow industries to cannibalize themselves online also democratize entry into and ascent in these industries, and so it goes in porn as much as music, journalism, etc. There may well be more opportunities for enterprising exploiters in porn these days—be they petty "producers" targeting women on Craigslist or Ovidie's "multinationals managed by businessmen based in tax havens"—but there's also way more opportunity for independent, ethical porn to flourish; for niche producers and consumers to find one another; and for anyone with a laptop to launch their own porn career. Or for someone simply looking to make a little extra cash to do so on their own time, from the safety of their own homes.
We shouldn't ignore exploitative practices in the porn industry just because there are more female producers, etc. But greater government regulation of the porn industry—the solution Ovidie calls for—would only serve to stymie these small or solo entrepreneurs and saddle ethical producers with more onerous requirements, while doing nothing to touch the tax-dodging, mystery-shrouded, multinational corporations that Ovidie and Pornocracy fault for the adult-film industry's decline.