When the World Wide Web went live in 1991, it was slow, text-heavy, and used primarily for information exchange among scientists. But it was free, except for the cost of a computer, a modem, and phone service, and it was vast, connecting computers and people around the globe. Users “surfed” the web, sent electronic mail, built personal websites, and shopped. And, as with all new technologies, they created, shared, and accessed pornography. Porn was distributed online via Usenet groups, peer-to-peer file sharing, and a few explicit websites. By the mid-nineties usage of the term “cyberporn” had exploded. It’s a word we rarely hear anymore, now that the internet is the default method for accessing pornography.

Today streaming platforms such as Pornhub and XVideos, which feature user-uploaded content, dominate online pornography and have changed the economics of the industry. In October of 2023 Pornhub saw more than two billion site visits per month worldwide and ranked thirteenth on a list of most-visited websites in the United States—ahead of the social-media site TikTok (twenty-ninth), the entertainment streaming service Netflix (twenty-seventh), and video-call platform Zoom (thirty-fourth). Yet few public conversations about pornography address the topic thoughtfully or examine what this level of access means in a broader sense.

A professor at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Clarissa Smith has written and spoken extensively about porn and has served as an expert witness in criminal cases concerning illicit materials. She studies sexual media and technology, pornography, and censorship—topics she became interested in as a graduate student in the 1990s. “We were having lectures about how women had no interest in pornography or were not really interested in sexual matters generally,” she says, “but it was the time of Chippendales and other dance troupes. Romance publishers were spicing up their content with explicit scenes, and films like Fatal Attraction depicted women with sexual appetites. There was an odd disconnect between what was happening around me and what was being said in theory. And that posed a lot of questions.”

In 2014 Smith cofounded the academic journal Porn Studies with Feona Attwood after they’d been frustrated in their attempts to publish research that examined pornography without condemning it. Smith sees the way we talk about pornography as a microcosm of the issues we’re grappling with as a society: privacy, free speech, religion, public health, sexual education, the economy, and addiction. She also acknowledges that there’s a stigma to studying porn. As I was preparing for this interview, one of my friends asked if my husband was helping me with my “research.” Even though I knew she was using the joke to hide her unease, I couldn’t help but blush.

Pornography tends to elicit strong opinions: Porn is violent. Porn is art. Porn is disgusting. Porn is sexual expression. Smith points out that we have a tendency to talk about porn as if it were singular, in a way that we don’t extend to other media. “I don’t want to fall into the trap of arguing either you’re for porn or you’re against it,” she says. “There’s so much that we miss when we don’t take pornography seriously as a media form.”

Smith and I spoke via Zoom, and because of the time difference between Newcastle upon Tyne and North Carolina, our call began at 8 AM for me, an hour that Smith called “uncivilized.” She was warm and inviting, laughing freely throughout our conversation, and though we were talking about topics that are often considered taboo, she put me at ease with her cheeky demeanor: “When I went to university for the first time, there were cinemas in Soho, private clubs, that you could go to and view porn,” she said. “So I did—like a safari.”


Photograph of Clarissa Smith.


Kleinmaier: I have two daughters, twelve and fourteen, and they ask me each night at dinner how my day went and what I’m working on. When the topic of this interview came up, their first question was “What is porn?” I found it very difficult to define.

Smith: I don’t actually have a definition. It’s one of the things I’ve thought about a lot over the years. Audience research finds that people don’t have a settled agreement about what pornography is. Some people want to focus their definition on obscenity, or elements of taboo, or the explicitness of the sex. But there isn’t consensus, and you can’t find people who’ve all watched the same thing. When I did a research project about moving-image pornography, none of the women had seen the same pornographic clips or videos. Some labeled a Hollywood movie like 9½ Weeks as pornography; for others, only materials that were marketed and regulated as pornography met the requirement.

We can’t base our definition on sexual excitation, because you can be excited by a scene out of a classic Hollywood film that has no explicit sex or even nudity. Is pornography in the eye of the beholder? Clearly governments don’t think so, because in the UK we have lots of regulations that attempt to limit physical access to porn. It can’t be regulated on the internet, but if you’re on the High Street and you want to purchase something legally, you’ll need to go to a licensed sex shop. Any film you buy will have been classified by the British Board of Film Classification as either suitable for eighteen and over, or it’ll be an R18, which means that it contains explicit imagery of sex. Films with that rating have only been available in the UK since 2002, when a court case allowed for images of actual sex between partners to be sold in shops legally.

A bare-bones definition of porn is that it will contain explicit sexual content. It will give maximum visibility with an intention to provoke a bodily response. But here in the UK materials that have no nudity, no explicitness, and no centering on genitals or other sexual parts of the body have still been seized as pornography. So maybe it is in the eye of the beholder. You do know it when you see it. Still, we’re entitled to ask someone to justify why they’ve designated something as pornography.

Kleinmaier: So much of the language that you’re using—“in the eye of the beholder,” “maximum visibility,” or “know it when you see it”—indicates a visual element of pornography. Does porn have to be visual?

Smith: No. We do talk about it as primarily a visual medium. But that’s fairly recent. I went to a fascinating exhibition in the Netherlands just before the coronavirus lockdown. It was a private collection of pornographic literature, and there were explicit stories in tiny books that fit into women’s pockets under their big skirts and handwritten pamphlets circulated amongst friends during the world wars. Some had illustrations, but it was mostly written content.

These issues with definition are really why it’s so hard to design an algorithm to filter pornographic content from the web, as some have suggested. Sex-education content often gets caught up in a filter. Even materials that just use medical language are being caught by algorithms searching for porn.

For some commentators, showing anything other than heteronormative forms of sex makes something pornography. They still have a category of literary erotica that they want to protect and preserve.

Kleinmaier: How has published pornography changed over time?

Smith: Some of that history is being studied only now, by people like Lisa Sigel, an American scholar who has looked at porn from the Victorian era, or Sarah Toulalan, who has explored all kinds of pornographic writing from the seventeenth century. There have been phenomenal changes since then. Some are linked to technological developments in printing presses and in distribution networks, enabling the movement of publications across countries and continents. Almost every way in which stories have been told in the past has been utilized to tell erotic or pornographic stories: pamphlets, postcards, illustrations, even song sheets. As we moved through the twentieth century, the pornographic magazine emerged, and there are still people who like to read porn rather than look at a moving image. Sites like Literotica thrive online. In Japan there’s a market for boys’-love publications, which are explicit sexual stories written for women that feature gay male relationships or sex. There are also pornographic versions of manga and anime, which speak to all kinds of sexual desires and interests and across different gender reading publics.

American magazines like Playboy and Penthouse used to be very popular in the UK. We had our own equivalents like Whitehouse and Razzle. Pornographic magazines are no longer bestsellers, but some are still sold in newsagents near an airport or a train station or a ferry port: the kinds of places where people are passing through and might be on their own.

There are still novels with explicit content, and as we saw with Fifty Shades of Grey, they can occasionally have a massive moment. But printed porn is much less important than it used to be for sure. The internet is the key place.

Kleinmaier: What does porn tell us about the society that produces it?

Smith: There are kinds that are particular to a certain nation. British porn tends to focus on breaching class boundaries. It’s not all “the aristocrat has sex with servant girls,” though that was a narrative. Others have tapped into more recent flash points around class in the UK. There is porn about the “chav”—an unrespectable, working-class young person. And “dogging”—when people go to beautiful spots outdoors to have anonymous sex. It’s generally heterosexual and called “dogging” because guys will walk their dogs near these spaces, and then either watch or join in. That does fit the stereotype of the British psyche: that we are somewhat ashamed of sex and our only way of really letting go is anonymously.

Kleinmaier: Pornhub has more visits each year than Netflix. Nearly everyone I know talks about shows on Netflix, but I never hear people talk about watching porn. If so many people are consuming it, why isn’t it discussed more?

Smith: Well, you are saying an awful lot about yourself if you tell anybody that you view porn. It’s like when somebody makes a smutty joke and people judge you on whether you think it’s funny. Think of all the people who have been condemned for making rape jokes—not that I think they’re particularly funny, but it’s an indication of how, when sex is involved, we tend to judge people and perhaps rethink our relationships with them.

Being honest or open about your Pornhub habits is not the same as telling someone, “I’ve just seen Call My Agent! on Netflix. I think you’d like it.” Part of the reason for that is that most people don’t spend terribly long on Pornhub. You might spend the entire day watching Netflix, but time spent on Pornhub is comparatively fleeting: you’re typically in and out within minutes. [The average visit duration is nine minutes, forty seconds.—Ed.]

People also don’t talk about pornography because it comes freighted with lots of other assumptions about them. If you’re in a marriage and you say to your coworker, “I watched an hour of porn yesterday,” they’re not just thinking, Oh, this is somebody who likes explicit sexual content; they’re probably also thinking, What’s wrong with their marriage? Is this person a bit of a pervert? How come they spent so long on there? Should I be telling their spouse? Whereas you can tell somebody that you’ve just been watching Glow Up [a competition reality show for aspiring makeup artists—Ed.] on Netflix, and people don’t assume you’re vain.

Kleinmaier: One of the top searches on Pornhub is for incest or stepfamily sex. What does that tell us?

Smith: I think it’s an interesting phenomenon that has not been properly looked at. But I suspect that deploying the taboo around incest is a means of restoring the riskiness and the frisson around sex. We live in a world where it’s much easier to engage in sexual activity than it used to be, and porn is readily available. So how do you generate viewer interest in this particular couple on screen? One way is to insert a narrative that speaks to a taboo. The injection of a taboo, the idea that these people aren’t supposed to have sex, creates a sense of danger. So there’s quite a complex thing that’s going on when it comes to incest narratives. Often those are about things like “stepmom seduces stepson.” So actually it’s more a social taboo, not a biological one; it’s a transgression of established boundaries.

Kleinmaier: Would you say that, for porn in general, part of the appeal is that transgression or risk-taking behavior, the idea that you’re doing something you’re not supposed to do?

Smith: That’s part of it. And the transgression doesn’t have to be terribly extreme. The boundaries that get breached may be about generational divides, or they may be a bit about the social relationships in a business: a boss seducing an intern or the other way around. Narratives about teachers and pupils are common. It’s the sense that something illicit is occurring, which generates the question: How is this going to work out? It’s actually not much different from any other form of storytelling. There are always these questions of What if? Why? Could they? Will they? to bring us in. I’m not sure how exciting it would be to watch two spouses have sex for the fifty-fifth time this year. It’s not much of a hook, is it?

Even the common trope of the pizza-delivery guy or girl is crossing a boundary. They’re supposed to be working and might get sacked, or the homeowner’s partner could walk in on them having sex or whatever. It adds an intrigue that you want to see play out. It’s like a striptease: you’re not just presenting naked bodies; you’re building excitement with the possibility of seeing someone undress. How is someone’s shoulder shaped? How do their arms move as they take off a shirt? These are all aspects intended to spark the imagination.

Almost every way in which stories have been told in the past has been utilized to tell erotic or pornographic stories: pamphlets, postcards, illustrations, even song sheets.

Kleinmaier: In preparing for this conversation, I read about other people’s desires, ranging from “vanilla” sex to burping fetishes. What shapes an individual’s turn-ons, and what happens when those turn-ons collide with society’s limits?

Smith: We do a lot of shaming around sex and talk a lot about what’s appropriate. Our bodies are policed from our earliest years. I’m not a psychoanalyst. I’m not trying to diagnose anybody. When I do research, if a subject says, “This is why I have an interest in this,” I take that at face value. I’m not going to probe them about whether it’s from some deeper hurt.

Obviously childhood experiences mold certain aspects of sexuality. Desire can grow through exploring possibilities. I wouldn’t suggest that people come to porn fully formed and understanding precisely what their desires are. And pornography does speak to what possibilities might be out there. Marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ+ individuals, talk about the ways pornography is a space in which they see themselves as not alone; it often exposes them to the possibility that their sense of desire for a person of the same sex is not unnatural, the way they might have been taught it is growing up. There are an awful lot of spaces in which heterosexuality is offered as the norm. We don’t really ask, How do people become heterosexual? How do you know that you’re heterosexual? It’s an awful lot of pressure to actually conform to that.

So porn can speak to desires that are not spoken to elsewhere. In my own research, people have talked to me about how pornography helped them develop a sense of themselves. One woman told me how viewing porn made for women allowed her to feel that her own desires for sex were not unusual. Her partner was saying to her, “You’ve got a child, and we’ve been married for six or seven years. Why are you interested in sex?” She realized this was not going to be a relationship that would last precisely because her sexual appetites were different than his.

Who knows where we get our desires from? That’s a question feminists were asking back in the 1960s. And also: Would it be possible to exorcise patriarchal or heteronormative desires from a feminist sexuality? There are quite considerable debates right now about whether we can identify healthy or authentically feminist sexual desires, because how do we know which ones are created by the patriarchy? A young woman’s interest in romantic heroes, for example, could be entirely dependent on a patriarchal fantasy. But how do you get rid of that particular fantasy? I don’t think it’s possible.

Kleinmaier: Why is the topic of sex so loaded?

Smith: There is no one reason why we’re uptight about sexuality, but there’s lots of evidence that Judeo-Christian religions are a source of our worries about sexuality and the unruliness of it—the idea that emotional and other kinds of complications arise as a result of people having sex outside of approved circumstances. Of course, in different centuries there have been different ideas about what constitutes good or bad sex and who should be having sex and who shouldn’t be. The stereotype is that the Victorians were really uptight, but history has demonstrated that they were absolutely obsessed with sex and talked about it all the time. And in all that talking, they were laying down rules about what was and wasn’t appropriate. Because we have to reinvent ourselves every couple of generations, we tend to look back on the Victorian era and say, “We’ve moved on from that. We’re much more enlightened and sexually free.” But the sexual liberation of the 1960s only happened to some people, not to everybody. Certainly where I’m based, in a small market town in the northeast of England, it still hadn’t arrived by the late 1970s.

Those political campaigners who keep talking about going back to “traditional values” don’t know what they’re talking about. Which traditional values do they mean? There’s a whole range of things intersecting there—class, gender, race—and no one set of “genuinely” traditional or proper values. They’re invoking something they only think existed.

Kleinmaier: Are sex and desire treated differently in Christian versus non-Christian cultures?

Smith: I’m not a theologian, and I stopped going to Sunday school quite early on [laughs], so I hesitate to say that I really know the difference. The idea of slipping and giving in to “temptation” is really connected—certainly in the West—to a Christian past. But Christians aren’t totally anti-sex. Desire and sex are thought to be a good thing in a monogamous marriage. Obviously there are many Christians who are pro-sex. Unfortunately the anti-sex ones seem to talk louder, and they lack compassion for people making mistakes.

Kleinmaier: Orgasm is sometimes described as “transcendent” or an “out-of-body experience.” Those are both religious concepts.

Smith: [Laughs.] Yeah, they are. Even the most prudish Christians talk of sex being a sacred union between two people that can be spoiled somehow. Abstinence education teaches children about this using a sticky-tape metaphor to suggest that if you have sex with more than one person, it starts to lessen your ability to form meaningful relationships. You have less stickiness than a “virgin” piece of tape.

Kleinmaier: You’ve written critically about porn literacy: the idea that young people might be taught about porn so they have more awareness that it is not “real sex” and so they can be on the lookout for abusive or misogynist porn. Could you explain why the idea of teaching porn literacy is problematic for you?

Smith: I don’t think it’s a good idea to draw a distinction between “porn sex” and “real sex.”

Kleinmaier: Why not?

Smith: In its current guise porn literacy treats porn as entirely literal and assumes that young people look at it to understand what sex might be, but it’s not as straightforward as that. You wouldn’t feel a need to say about a Hollywood film, “That love story isn’t like real love. That car chase isn’t like real car chases.” I also think it assumes that young people are completely tabulae rasae when they first come to porn, that they have no understanding of bodies, sex, or anything else. If we want to teach young people about the misogyny in pornography, we’re going to have to also teach them about the misogyny in everyday life. Because in that respect, actually, porn sex can be like real sex. It’s not as if porn invented misogynistic sex.

So maybe we teach kids, “Not everybody has enormous boobs.” Well, most teenagers will know that already. Our society divides people up based on their bodies, and we all encounter that from very early on. And here’s where parents are responsible for a lot of their kids’ attitudes. The parents are maybe driving along in the car, and they see somebody who’s spilling out of the outfit that they’re wearing, and they say, “She’s too fat to wear that,” or, “Look at his gut.” These are ways in which kids learn about body shaming. So it doesn’t come from porn; porn is a symptom.

The conversation around porn literacy needs to be more nuanced. The problem is that we can’t have that discussion because there would be so many accusations from political-campaign groups that we might be teaching classrooms of three-year-olds how to give blow jobs, as if people who are pro-porn or pro-sex have absolutely no limits themselves. [Laughs.]

The British government’s advice about what kids should be taught about porn is that it’s not real and depicts sex that is quite often violent and unpleasant to be engaged in. That’s just not very helpful. First of all, if a young person encounters porn and thinks, This is very pleasurable. I like this, they’ve got no tools for understanding what it is they like about it. Or maybe they think what they’re seeing is a problem, but in what way is it a problem? And pornography can become an important resource for sexual minorities in cultures that exclude them. Various gay writers have talked about porn as being a space in which gay sexuality can be explored and celebrated.

Kleinmaier: There’s virtually unlimited free porn online. What effect does this access have on people’s lives and relationships?

Smith: There’s no point in pretending that it’s entirely positive, because I’m sure many people struggle with it. Perhaps they’re religious, so it runs counter to the values with which they were brought up. Or maybe someone is looking at forms of porn that they find disturbing, yet they keep looking. It could also be causing issues in relationships where one partner engages with porn and the other doesn’t like it. But for many it’s entertainment. It’s reassuring. It confirms that their desires are not abnormal. I don’t want to suggest that morality is simply “What I want to do is done by other people, therefore it’s OK.” But just seeing people having sex can provide reassurance about bodies, about attractiveness, about being open.

Kleinmaier: One argument that used to be made against porn was that it too often presented a white, blond, large-chested woman with a stereotypically attractive man, having heterosexual sex. Has the internet changed that?

Smith: Some will certainly make the argument that “online porn is not your father’s Playboy.” But that presupposes everybody was looking at Playboy. There were other magazines available. There was lots of gay porn in print and VHS. You might not have seen it, because it wasn’t as easy to find as it is online. Now if you want gay porn, as a heterosexual, you don’t have to go to a specialist shop in a different part of town. You can go to Pornhub and ask for it. So alternatives are more accessible, but that doesn’t mean that those materials weren’t available before.

I think in terms of representation—not just of a variety of sexual orientations, but also in terms of bodies, like older bodies, or the visibility of the Black body, for example—porn was probably better than other media forms back in the 1960s and ’70s. Certainly better than TV.

I do think the algorithms used by online platforms are increasingly narrowing some of what we get to see. If I type in some act that I want to see, then it’s going to offer me the most popular and most predictable videos that match. You may still have to dig deeply to find the things you like. I suppose the algorithm can learn your preferences, but that’s only if you log in, and you may not want to identify yourself that way.

I think there’s a problem with saying, “Online pornography is this,” because what you get to see may well be channeled through what you tell the website about yourself. And a site like Pornhub really narrows the search. It’s no different from Google in that regard, or any other search engine. Because it’s the market leader, it has tremendous power over what viewers get to see. To find the material that you are keen on, you’ll have to spend some time clicking and searching for it.

There’s still so much we don’t know about people’s relationships with porn. We haven’t even started to scratch the surface because it’s difficult to get research funding for it. Most of the existing studies were done on student populations. Is that really research into how the majority of people engage with pornography? It’s rather skewed, I think.

Kleinmaier: Are some scholars just reluctant to study porn?

Smith: Sure. There is a stigma around pornographic research: “Why are you looking at porn? What’s your interest in it?” Someone who may have done a PhD on pornographic film, for example, will likely be encouraged to stop writing about porn and focus on other areas of cinematic production. There is a reluctance to do some of the dirty work, which involves watching a lot of porn. So there’s not enough robust information out there, and often policymakers are relying on outdated research—for example, a piece written in 2010 that has been repeatedly critiqued but gets cited anytime someone wants to say that porn is bad. Most governments do say that porn is bad, while groups that fund research don’t see a real need to study porn. From their perspective, we know what it does; we know what it is. All the claims about pornography being increasingly violent are considered to be so well-known that no one wants to even examine how they arrived at that conclusion.

Some recent research from the UK looked at the titles of films available on the front page of Pornhub as a way to discern their content. This would be like deciding what the contents of films on Netflix are just by looking at their titles. Of course, porn has much more literal titles and marketing that relies on hyperbole, expletives, and racialization, like “Watch this tiny Asian girl get banged by a big Black cock.” But that hasn’t told you everything that happens in the five- or ten-minute clip. And you can’t assume from the fact that the word banged is used in the title that this is going to be violent porn, because even the most romantic sexual intercourse will be advertised as “banged” or “fucked” or whatever. That’s how you get your video moved to the top of the recommendations. And no one is willing to pay an army of researchers to actually look at the content of the top one hundred films on Pornhub. I’ve done a deep-dive analysis of a number of porn films; it takes days, months, because this is film. Even two- or three-minute clips take time to view and to think about and to understand. To do a proper piece of analysis requires more than just looking at the titles.

If we want to teach young people about the misogyny in pornography, we’re going to have to also teach them about the misogyny in everyday life. . . . It’s not as if porn invented misogynistic sex.

Kleinmaier: A lot of school-based sex-ed classes are being gutted right now in the US. There are so many things that teachers are not allowed to say or talk about. Twenty-eight states require sex-ed teachers to emphasize abstinence. Given the general taboo around talking about sex—in school and at home—how can kids learn about sex?

Smith: It’s a great failure not to engage with young people around sex and relationship education. For anyone saying, “Oh, it’s terrible that porn is the de facto sex education for young people,” the answer is to create sex-education materials that young people would rather engage with than porn. There’s been quite a lot of research done to find out what young people want to know and what their problems are with existing forms of sex ed. They don’t want to be lectured about all of the problems about sex. They want to know about pleasure. They want any discussion of protection to be open and honest and detailed, not just about prohibiting them from having sex. And when we ask young people what they turn to pornography for, they say it’s about being prepared for sex. They say things like “I don’t want to be terrified by the sight of a naked body” or “I want to know what naked bodies look like,” not just the blond, big-chested kind, but all the vast varieties they might encounter in their lives. They also want to know how bodies move or how they might respond during sex.

Now, that’s going to be very difficult to present in a classroom. But other nations have managed to offer explicit sex ed to kids. The Netherlands and Germany both have more comprehensive sex education than has ever been envisioned in the UK or, I’m sure, in the US. Just being open about our bodies would help. It’s still the case in the UK that there are girls who don’t even know what a period is—something that’s going to happen to them every month for thirty years or more. It’s utterly crazy that they can’t get that information. It’s also impossible to say what you want or how you want it or to protect yourself from unwanted sexual advances if you don’t have the words to articulate it.

With a lot of the young people we talked to, we found that engaging with porn was about being able to test how their body would react: What are my responses? Does my body work properly? What things arouse me? What is it like to be aroused by things I’m not sure I even like? Do I have normal responses? They might be too ashamed to experiment with friends, because all sorts of bad things could happen. So porn does offer them a space to explore and discover without worrying that they could lose friendships or get pregnant or get a sexually transmitted infection.

My kids are grown, but when they were young, I wouldn’t have thought that porn would make a great sex educator, because it doesn’t set out to educate. I know there are some small providers of sex-ed porn, but those may be quite difficult to find, given the algorithms. I don’t think that porn should be the first stop for young people who want information, but in the absence of good sex education, I don’t blame them for looking.

Kleinmaier: You mentioned race. How does race influence cultural expectations of sexuality?

Smith: There’s a really complex history of Blackness in porn, and some amazing research on it has been done by Black scholars like Mireille Miller-Young, Jennifer C. Nash, and Ariane Cruz. There’s a long-standing racist history around sex, so obviously a whole area of pornography is predicated on some really unpleasant racial tropes: ideas about the “big Black cock,” the hypersexualization of Black women, and the sexual quietism but also willingness of Asian women, for example. Other stereotypes are about nationality. The French think most Brits are into BDSM. These racial and national stereotypes often get placed front and center in porn. Some companies specialize in interracial narratives about Black men with white women and the idea that this would be disgusting to the white woman’s father. There’s gay porn that features Asian men as submissive partners to white men. Porn’s engagement with racial issues is hugely problematic—but, of course, it reflects a wider culture. Porn didn’t invent racism.

The work by Miller-Young and Nash really celebrates Black women in porn, and both researchers explore and subvert the idea of hypersexuality and control in pornographic narratives. It’s really important research and should be more widely known, because it challenges the idea that porn is the only space in which this happens. There’s also something very empowering about Black female hip-hop stars’ embrace of their own sexuality. Beyoncé, Megan Thee Stallion, Janelle Monáe, and others are claiming the Black sexual body as their own and refusing the racist tropes that have been projected onto it. It’s a really complex argument, and—I suppose this is my white guilt coming through—I don’t feel particularly comfortable speaking to it. It’s very easy to say, “Well, this is just racist,” and move on. The ways in which porn wants to play with some of those taboos around miscegenation and what’s appropriate are much more complex. Porn has been a space in which racial divides have been challenged, and it actually will speak explicitly of the kind of racial stereotypes that exist more implicitly in the wider culture. There’s also just the very fact that porn presents Black bodies as being sexual and erotic and desirable and beautiful. It isn’t just offering a kind of a spectacle of the Black body; it’s saying these bodies are sexy in a world in which our standards of beauty still revolve around the white body.

Kleinmaier: How did the “sex wars” among feminists in the 1980s shape the movement?

Smith: It led to enormous splits that have never been fully resolved. But there is a problem with thinking about feminism as a singular movement, because it was always composed of different factions: traditional feminism, radical feminism, socialist feminism, and so on. And they have taken very different approaches to pornography and sex more generally. Some of them were virulently anti-porn, while others were explicitly pro-porn. Some prominent voices from the 1980s would say that the whole “sex wars” thing was a distraction that actually derailed many of the discussions about women’s sexuality and reproductive health.

Kleinmaier: Let’s back up a bit. What started the sex wars?

Smith: Various histories have been written about this, but most agree that an argument developed out of the Barnard Conference on Sexuality, held at the New York City women’s college in 1982. The idea was that feminism needed to really engage with women’s experiences of sexuality outside of reproduction. The conference was boycotted by various feminist groups. [Women Against Pornography, led by Andrea Dworkin, was one such group.—Ed.] This led to a big division between feminists who wanted to explore the possibilities of sex, sexuality, pornography, and BDSM, and various sexual orientations for women, and others who wanted to focus more on protecting women and removing various risks and dangers from their lives. It was a question of priorities. It’s not as if the “pro-sex” factions were arguing that there were no dangers or risks to women, or no need to protect women. They simply didn’t think that all sex was bad for women or that women needed protection from sex. And the feminists who became labeled as anti-sex weren’t completely anti-sex, but they were certainly anti-porn. The arguments got vitriolic and personal.

The controversy didn’t really translate to Europe. Those debates had some small purchase in Scandinavian countries, and places like France and Spain and Germany saw more—maybe more in Germany than elsewhere in Europe. But it was really an Anglo-American debate.

Kleinmaier: When you say it didn’t translate, do you mean literally or figuratively?

Smith: Both. Some Europeans didn’t bother to translate the authors on both sides. But it’s also true that in Sweden, say, feminists were more concerned about other aspects of women’s rights, such as equality in the workplace and in social life. There was much less focus on sexuality than in the States and in Britain. We could probably link that to the puritanical history of the US and the UK, as well as to the kind of intellectual life we had, with women’s rising roles in academia and the forms of publishing available to feminists. At that time if you went to a conference in Europe, there was no point in talking about key figures like Andrea Dworkin, because that just wasn’t a part of the debates there. What we think of as universal debates are actually not. Different questions are asked in different spaces.

Kleinmaier: We hear a lot about how porn supports the patriarchy, but could it be used to subvert it?

Smith: Porn might undermine certain kinds of institutions. For example, there are genres of porn that poke fun at religious groups: the idea of priests and nuns engaging in sex, violating their vows of celibacy. And you can poke fun at political leaders through pornographic representations of them in compromising positions. In Spain, under Franco, pornography was explicitly banned, but once Franco was out of power, the pornographic output rose in Spain and was viewed as a kind of expression of liberation from the dictator. I visited Russia in 1992, and there was suddenly porn for sale there—it had been very much repressed during the Soviet period. Pornography often appears as a kind of shorthand for radical discourse. Certainly in the 1960s it was used in that way in the UK—though how radical and antipatriarchal it was is up for debate.

Porn that’s made for women is often positioned as an explicit rejection of patriarchal views of women as not sexual, as not having desire, as the gatekeepers of morality. That focus on women’s pleasure, on just a really outrageous interest in sex, is a kind of challenge to patriarchal norms. So are sex toys: the idea that a woman could be interested in pleasuring herself. Exploring bodily autonomy and expressing oneself sexually can be a form of small-scale rebellion. It may feel really important to a person who grew up in the Bible Belt, for example, to be able to express herself sexually outside of marriage.

Kleinmaier: In several countries, like Saudi Arabia and Thailand, sex toys are illegal to own. Even in the US, it’s illegal to sell them in Alabama. What is the intent behind these regulations? Who are they supposedly protecting?

Smith: I think it is an attack on bodily autonomy and sexual expression arising from the notion that sexual pleasure is in itself immoral or indecent. That doesn’t mean that people who want to regulate sexual behavior don’t think that anybody should have sexual pleasure, but they want it to be controlled. Unfortunately that need to control is nearly always aimed at women’s sexuality. And those arguments for regulation are usually couched in terms of protecting women. Personally I don’t understand why we should even entertain the arguments that such laws are protecting anybody. We all have the capacity for orgasm and masturbation. What’s wrong with it?

Kleinmaier: Are there different expectations for men and women regarding masturbation and sexual desire in contemporary society?

Smith: I remember conversations with contemporaries at university about whether they’d ever orgasmed or masturbated. We all accepted that the men must have, but women didn’t: “Nice girls don’t; nice girls are responsive, and they wait for someone to awaken their sexual desires. They don’t have them on their own.” That was the story that was told. I’m sure it wasn’t true. Some sex-toy shops were around in the early 1980s, but they hadn’t made an appearance in small towns in the UK.

That protection of public morality is really about policing women’s explorations of their own bodies. I think we see similar problems around women’s reproductive health, more generally, such as the fact that many women are still seeing male doctors who don’t believe women’s testimonies about certain problems such as endometriosis. All the debates currently happening around abortion suggest that we haven’t moved past arguing about women’s rights to choose about their bodies. And look at how rape is reported or sexual-assault stories are told: In the era of #MeToo, there’s a much more receptive atmosphere for stories of sexual assault, yet they’re still quite easily demolished by comments like “Oh, but she’s a bit of a slut, generally, isn’t she?” As if having said yes once means you’re not entitled to say no ever. And particularly if it’s someone who’s sexy or someone who’s important or popular.

And then, of course, there are the sex toys that speak to forms of desire that are not heteronormative. They open up the possibilities of other ways of relating sexually to each other that are just too scary for some people.

For anyone saying, “Oh, it’s terrible that porn is the de facto sex education for young people,” the answer is to create sex-education materials that young people would rather engage with than porn.

Kleinmaier: In what ways are regulations around sex toys and censorship of pornography disproportionately affecting the LGBTQ+ community?

Smith: The debates we’re seeing about trans people’s right to exist are an indication that tolerance is not the same as acceptance. These kinds of debates highlight societal fears around nonheteronormative sexual practices and relationships. Limiting access to LGBTQ+ friendly resources—sexually explicit images, sexual-health messages, or sex toys—stigmatizes individuals who don’t conform. Regulation of porn is often about saying, “This kind of sexual interest is abhorrent,” as in the 2014 UK government regulations that banned face-sitting, fisting, and squirting in video-on-demand, which targets nonheteronormative sexual practices while also ruling women’s bodily fluids obscene.

I feel like we are in a dangerous moment and moving backwards in terms of sexual rights. It’s often women’s rights that end up being thrown under the bus, so it is concerning that there’s such an odd amalgam of protest against trans people—with people on the Left, and from within LGBTQ+ groups, joining some women to say, “We don’t believe that trans women are women,” and making alliance with causes and groups that are now limiting abortion in the US and who would not protect women’s rights going forward. We’re seeing a rise of that here in the UK, with Christian groups looking to the example of the US and thinking, That’s where we want to go.

I think that LGBTQ+ individuals are test cases for groups looking to limit sexual rights more broadly: How much can we push back on their rights, and what can we do to ban other expressions of sexuality that we don’t like? And other forms of bodily autonomy—who gets the right to choose? It reminds me of those debates from the sex wars. State intervention in decisions about what happens to people’s bodies is really quite scary. I’ve seen a pregnant ten-year-old rape victim in the US described as a “woman”—therefore, her body is designed to give birth. And at the same time, debates around pornography, or access to sexual-health information or other kinds of sexual-health interventions, have people as old as twenty-five being described as “children.” It’s like a movable feast around the willingness to oppress different bodies.

Kleinmaier: Talking about the LGBTQ+ community makes me think about how, in heteronormative porn, sex is defined as penile-vaginal intercourse or penetration. With our expanding views of sexuality and gender today, this definition feels narrow. What is a more contemporary definition of sex, and why is it needed?

Smith: There are various kinds of pornography that have no or very little focus on genitals. BDSM porn is rarely genital-focused—as are BDSM approaches to sex. We do need new definitions because moments like the #MeToo movement indicated that, if sex is defined as a penis and a vagina, then sexual assault will be defined that way, and some jurisdictions will say you’ve only been raped if it’s penis in vagina. That doesn’t recognize the multiple ways in which someone can be sexually assaulted or the complexities of what it means to consent. Nor, on the flip side, does it recognize the multiple ways that someone can be sexually excited or feel pleasure or how that can be connected to our emotional, mental, and physical well-being.

Public discourse about sex absolutely used to mean heterosexual sex. Now we acknowledge that sexual expression takes many forms, and penis in vagina probably never described the majority of sex that was occurring across the world anyway. We seem more prepared today to recognize sexual orientations that don’t fit any idea of sex between two people. There are those who are celibate or asexual. When a single person masturbates, that’s sexuality. But modern culture hasn’t entirely lost its interest in classifying some sex as “good” and other sex as “bad,” or in presenting sex that results in babies as culturally and morally superior. Pornography sits right in the middle of those debates.