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  1. Culture
22 March 2023

Netflix doesn’t understand why people watch porn

The documentary Moneyshot grapples with the adult industry’s biggest problems – but not those who consume its content.

By Magdalene Taylor

Every good documentary, regardless of topic, demands nuance. Its central questions must be approached from a variety of angles, addressed by opposing voices, synthesised in a manner that guides viewers to a cohesive conclusion without being too forceful about what that conclusion ought to be. The porn documentary, by its nature, struggles to grapple with this demand more than most.

Porn is typically only approached from two perspectives: it’s either good, or it’s bad. Moneyshot: The Pornhub Story is a rare documentary that attempts to walk a line between these sides – and largely succeeds. Directed by Suzanne Hillinger, it explains how the website grew to become one of the world’s largest pornography websites; its recent controversies, such as the allegations that it hosted videos featuring sexual assaults of adults and minors; and the uncertainty of the adult industry today.

Moneyshot is a success in that it tackles the history of Pornhub and who has been harmed. But though documentaries should acknowledge ambiguity, there will always be ways they fall short. Hour-and-a-half-long productions can’t address every question or speak to every possible opinion. Moneyshot is no different. In its careful weaving of interviews with performers, Pornhub employees and anti-porn activists, there remains one demographic we do not hear from: the porn watcher. 

[See also: Inside the mind of Andrew Tate]

Anti-porn organisations used the publicity around controversial videos to generate backlash against pornography as a whole, impacting the wellbeing and livelihoods of consenting, legal adult performers. And in Moneyshot, we hear at length from members of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), one of the largest anti-porn groups, as well as current porn creators such as Siri Dahl and Gwen Adora.

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It’s these two performers who are the most compelling figures – neither are naive to the problems of the industry, nor do they excuse Pornhub. Yet they remain clear-eyed to the ways in which their profession has become evangelical Christianity’s bête noire, and how this ferocious hatred is manipulated in the public discourse for political gain.

Both Dahl and Adora are examples of the independence that today’s performers have in the industry, able to make money on their own terms through platforms like OnlyFans without being required to work with studios. “One of my favourite things about the industry that I work in is that we care about consent, and the fact that I have full bodily autonomy at all times in this industry,” says Dahl. “But if we admit that [there’s a] moderation problem [on Pornhub], we have to admit it’s a problem that’s internet-wide, which it is. Because there’s far more instances of child sexual abuse material being reported on Facebook and mainstream social media than there is on actual porn websites.” Like many other performers, both Dahl and Adora have frequently spoken out against the attacks on porn, and have experienced censorship online due to their work, while also being targeted by anti-porn activists. 

But though we hear these performers defend their right to participate in the adult industry and the activists who decry it, we understand very little about how porn and Pornhub more specifically play into ordinary people’s lives. Much of the world’s population has just as close a relationship to the site as its employees, content creators and the activists. Pornhub alone receives 2.4 billion monthly visits in the US. We hear about the viewership in terms of sheer numbers, we hear anecdotes about the familiarity of the site’s drum-beat theme, of the popularity of certain porn genres depending on location – in 2021, for example, the most searched term in Arkansas was “divorce”. Yet, we never hear anything from actual porn viewers.

[See also: The “Hacienda” review: BBC documentary neglects the culture around acid house]

Perhaps this is because it’s too broad a category. To exhaustively portray the different types of porn consumers and their perspectives would be impossible, assuming any of them were willing to talk about it. That doesn’t mean they play no role in this story at all, however. As is so often the case when discussing porn, the burden of responsibility for every fault of the industry is placed in the hands of the individual workers.

Why not instead question who exactly are the people both uploading and consuming illegal content, or pornography that otherwise perpetuates harm? Or more innocently, who are the people keeping the website afloat by routinely visiting the site or purchasing Pornhub subscriptions? What is it that drives them to do so? What would they say about their relationship with the website? 

There may be an assumption that many of these answers would come down to something obvious: people watch porn because they’re horny. But there remains so much more to interrogate here, and much we could learn about ourselves in doing so. Moneyshot is a successful documentary that achieves a rare sense of equitability, and rejects shame without resorting to an uncritical promotion of Pornhub.

Yet it seems afraid to question how we got here, as though desire is so obvious that it needn’t be analysed. If this were true, though, why would porn still be so controversial?

[See also: Netflix’s “Scoop” is part of a cheap trend of sensationalist docudramas]

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