A dark economy's web of desire

Has a sexualised net brought democratic freedom or digital exploitation? Alison Adam mulls the issue

July 29, 2010

A recent BBC poll showed that almost four out of five people around the world believe that internet access is a basic human right. Indeed, the vision of "Digital Britain" was predicated on the provision of super-fast broadband for all. It is ironic that the technologies we have rapidly come to regard as fundamental to life in Western societies should owe so much to online pornography. Feona Attwood's edited collection,, argues that much of the trajectory of modern information and communications technologies rests on technological developments attributable to the pornography industry - although, precisely because it is a dark economy, how much we cannot know. Lest we imagine that the development of internet pornography represents a radical break with past means of production, the authors of remind us that 'twas ever thus. From the printing press to Web 2.0, sex and technology have made strange bedfellows, and so it continues.

Pornography is a difficult subject for academics, but they manage to write plenty about it, albeit less so in relation to online pornography. Where, exactly, should you leave your critical sensibilities? Traditional concerns - freedom of speech; censorship; the link with violence, exploitation and abuse, especially of women and children; a hidden history of technological innovation; a substantial, albeit underground, economy; erotica and enhanced ways of creating it - are all still current, and possibly enhanced and exaggerated in the digital world. The digerati must be wary of unqualified enthusiasm for a digital world where democracy and equality supposedly erupt spontaneously. Studies continue to show that inequalities in the real world are often writ large in the virtual.

Where does stand on these issues? The writing style is level-headed. It is easy for the topic of online pornography to inspire a moral panic, but the contributors here never succumb to this temptation. Readers will find a wealth of information across the whole spectrum of the subject that is simply not available elsewhere. A wide range of authors contribute to this volume and it is heartening to see a number of new voices.

The book's first part discusses the online pornography industry, and in particular, its significance as a form of production. Adam Stapleton's chapter on child pornography is particularly significant, not least because of its balanced approach to the increasing complexities of a very problematic subject. Further chapters in this section discuss the development of the pornography industry to the extent where it can be seen as part of a mainstream adult entertainment sector. Sharif Mowlabocus raises the question of whether Web 2.0 can be seen as democratising pornography in that it becomes increasingly easy for users to produce and sell content. The second part of the book deals with styles of online pornography, and shows that it reaches beyond traditional heterosexual desire to gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and shock or horror genres. The final section considers virtual communities including porn fan communities, blogging and chatrooms.

No book can do everything and it is to its credit that this volume does so much. No doubt its emphasis on online pornography more as a cultural phenomenon and less as a political phenomenon will not appeal to all. Legal and criminal aspects do not figure strongly. And one could imagine that feminist scholars would have expected more discussion of how exploitation in the offline world translates into exploitation in the online world.

Nevertheless, its approach makes for an original, richly detailed work that is replicated nowhere else. gives a fascinating insight into a world that is generally hidden from view but that is an important part of our digital economy. Making Sense of Online Pornography

Edited by Feona Attwood

Peter Lang, 287pp, £69.70 and £19.10

ISBN 9781433102066 and 02073

Published 28 December 2009

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