Pornocracy: The New Sex Multinationals premiered today at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festival in Austin, TX. It’s a must see.
The documentary film was spearheaded by French feminist filmmaker, author, and former adult performer Ovidie. Via Pornocracy, Ovidie investigates changes in the international adult entertainment industry, focusing on how a group of programmers hijacked porn -- and consequently, also reshaped the general public’s relationship with erotic entertainment -- via piracy-based tube sites.
From the outset, Pornocracy makes one shocking point clear: early innovators knew tube sites would decimate the adult industry. And according to the founder of YouPorn, one of the first tube sites to hit the web, they went ahead and did it anyway -- all as a way to make big money from advertising using other people's stolen content.
To me, as a member of the adult industry for over 25 years -- an industry that is routinely stigmatized by wider “civilian” (as we say) society -- the idea that members of our community had even an inkling that tube technology would impact the adult industry as it has is absolutely galling. And Pornocracy has this declaration on record.
According to press material, Pornocracy came about completely by chance. Ovidie discovered that, when typing her name into Google, videos featuring her were freely available on piracy-based tube sites, and it was (apparently) impossible to get them taken down. Some of the videos were from films she’d performed in toward the end of the ‘90s -- films that had had only a few hundred hard copies made were now being seen by millions of people. What began as a small personal inquiry became an international investigation about a “band of geeks” who created a mysterious multinational corporation -- first known as Mansef, then Manwin, and now MindGeek -- that has managed to stranglehold porn production and distribution worldwide. Also, just so you know, MindGeek acquired YouPorn in 2011. They also own PornHub.
The film first looks at “the prey” -- porn performers and adult industry workers from around the world -- and then attempts to trace the evolution of MindGeek to present day. This is a near-impossible endeavor as Ovidie delves deeper and deeper into global business and internet law (also, lawlessness), all of which seem to have a shelter or loophole for piracy-based tube sites around every corner. And the social impact of this mysterious evolution is, in no uncertain terms, hugely significant.
Pornocracy explains piracy’s impact as multi-dimensional, rooted in the synergistic relationship existing between porn production and porn consumption. Its thesis is two-fold. In terms of porn consumers, as piracy-based tube sites have made adult content more and more accessible during the last decade, consumer appetites are whetted for increasingly hardcore content, thus increasingly hardcore content is made. Simultaneously, viewers are also conditioned to believe that porn is something they are entitled to access for free. This operates in conjunction with what’s happening inside the adult industry. As more and more content is stolen and it becomes increasingly difficult for producers to recoup costs associated with content production, companies close and/or consolidate. This makes work increasingly difficult to come by for performers, which increases workplace competition and drives performers’ rates down.
As a producer and director who has worked in porn since the ‘90s, I am painfully aware of the deleterious and destructive impact piracy has had on the adult industry. It seems, however, that most people who consume content via piracy-based tube sites have no idea what’s happening behind the scenes. Pornocracy will be an eye-opener to tube site viewers and people not within the industry.
Consuming stolen content, however, is a multifaceted two-way street. Consequently, I wish that the film had addressed the social aspects of piracy -- namely that, though tube sites definitely put the candy in front of the consumer, social forces also play a huge role in the cycle of piracy. Among other things, sexual shame, stigma, and a culture of entitlement that has rendered many types of creative media “not worth paying for” in the eyes of consumers are all key players in the porn industry’s ultimate shambles.
We all have the tendency to reflect on previous parts of our lives through rose-colored glasses, but I hesitate to romanticise pre-piracy porn too much.
Ovidie herself was a performer from 1999 to 2005 and a director from 2000 to 2010, creating a niche collection of artistic erotic films. And though all individual experiences and perspectives are significant, “erotic artistry” is not exactly how I would characterize the general glut of content that was created during porn’s second Golden Era -- the late ‘90s to about 2006.
This was a time when the Internet was in full swing, and porn was in intense demand. In those days, like today, performers were also under pressure to work in increasingly hardcore scenes -- but not because the work was slim. Instead, the pressure to work in increasingly extreme scenes was because there was so much content available. Consequently, the stakes were high to stand out and content strove to push limits within an intense, competitive environment. Double vaginal, double anal, DVDA, airtight -- these were not uncommon depictions in mainstream porn produced during the early 2000s. Today, though the reasons why are not the same, we see performers intensifying their work in a similar fashion.
Context is important here. I am most directly experienced with the U.S. industry, and I raise this point to also highlight differences within global porn. Though the industry may look the same to the casual viewer, there are actually dramatic differences in porn produced around the globe. These content variabilities, which are not unlike cultural variabilities in any other social artifact (think food, clothing, polite behavior, etc), are important to consider. The makers of Pornocracy may recall a more progressive and positive porn past because the porn past they experienced was more progressive and positive -- but that was not what I saw.
No matter the hows or whys, no matter a whimsical past or a graphic future, piracy is a hugely significant problem in 2017, both within the industry and throughout wider society.
According to Nate Glass, owner of Takedown Piracy, a service that (among other things) issues DMCA notifications to pirates, which are copyright holders’ only legal recourse when their content is being illegally broadcast online, “We've taken down 950,000 [infringing videos] in the past two years alone, and I currently have a backlog of nearly 300,000 videos that our system has already identified as our clients' content -- I just have to verify that [these videos] are not affiliates or sponsors or that there is any fair use issues with them.”
Glass added, “On top of all this, our system identifies an additional 5,000 videos every day for our clients that I have to check.”
But in spite of these efforts, piracy isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s intensifying via automation. According to Glass, the larger trend they’re seeing is that human uploaders are no longer going to the big “legacy” tube sites -- PornHub and YouPorn, for example -- and uploading as much high-quality content as they used to. “In order to meet the consumer demand for that type of premium content, a whole new crop of 'tubes' have popped up without any pretense of users. These are just sites where the admins upload content themselves and then hide everything in offshore companies,” he explained.
If we learn nothing else from Pornocracy, the key takeaway is simple. Our actions, no matter how small, have collective consequences. From the most inadvertent to the most cunning, piracy-based tube sites have reshaped everything from sex work to sex education. And our inability to talk about sex in a frank and forthright manner has fed these sites, fanning the flames of the situation we are in today. Pornocracy takes significant steps to bring that conversation to light. Like I said, it’s a must see.
Do your part to support the ethical adult entertainment industry. Visit companies’ and performers’ official websites, get your movies on legitimate adult retail sites, and -- above all else -- pay for your porn. Would you work for free?
What do you think? Let’s talk about it — @AngieRowntree.