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  • Writer's pictureGEM LAB

The Boob Tube: Tracking Pornhub's Emergence w/ Susanna Paasonen, Heather Berg, and Becky Holt

As part of the GEM Lab’s seminar on Video/Art/TV: Digital Aesthetics and Politics, we are holding a virtual workshop focused on online pornography.

//Mar. 24th, 2023

//11:00 AM-1:00 PM

//Online Event

//Register on Eventbrite

This workshop explores how the centralization of online pornography platforms has changed the adult industry as a whole. Where digital media scholars have paid considerable attention to content streaming platforms like YouTube, the pornographic platform has been largely ignored despite the undeniable popularity of websites like Pornhub. Through a series of talks and exchanges of ideas, Susanna Paasonen, Heather Berg, and Becky Holt discuss how questions of work, desire, and representation have been rearticulated in the era of the boob tube.


Susanna Paasonen

Convenient profits, inconvenient branding and disposable users

Throughout the history of pornography, intermediaries such as distributors and vendors have reaped notable financial benefits from the work of performers and producers through hefty markups in the sales of print, VHS and DVD porn. The dynamics changed in the 1990s as pornographers could directly market their goods: online payment systems grew key to these economies of mediated sex, making it possible for credit card companies to develop their services for emergent e-commerce while charging higher processing fees from such “risk” customers. Video sharing platforms have become a novel branch of intermediaries, the profit margins of which are often opaque and many of which have been excluded from online payment systems as a response to anti-pornography lobbying.

This talk inquires after the position and perceived value of sex workers within the platform economy through the analytical lens of in/convenience, asking for whom centralised platforms are convenient and how, what vulnerabilities they yield and what is at stake in corporate policies impacting the infrastructural affordances of mediated sex on a global scale.

Susanna Paasonen is professor of Media Studies. After finishing her PhD in Media Studies in Turku in 2002 she acted as lecturer in Media Culture at University of Tampere (2003), as an Academy of Finland postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Women's Studies in Turku (2004-5), as senior research associate in Digital Culture at University of Jyväskylä (2005-7), as researcher at the Collegium for Advanced Studies at University of Helsinki (2007-10) and as professor of Digital Culture at Jyväskylä (2010-11) before starting in her current post in August 2011. Paasonen was appointed docent in Media Culture at University of Tampere in 2004 and as docent in Feminist Media Studies in Turku in 2006. She was the first recipient of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters' Jutikkala Award in Humanities in 2011 and the Association of Internet Researchers' Nancy Baym Annual Book Award in 2020. She spent part of her sabbatical research leave in 2016 as visiting scholar at MIT's department of Comparative Media Studies and at Microsoft Research New England's Social Media Collective and was briefly visiting professor at University of Florence during the covid-19 spring of 2020, as well as a Hunt-Simes Visiting Chair in Sexuality Studies at University of Sydney in 2022.

Heather Berg

The Disappearing Porn Industry

This talk explores the disappearance of the porn industry from the perspective of workers on the set shop floor. Digitization and mass Internet distribution dramatically democratized porn production at the same time as piracy made it harder for traditional producers, directors, and performers to get paid. The result meant increased autonomy for performers together with undermined access to steady work. Workers today navigate new challenges and also apertures for resistance in an industry that isn't one.

Heather Berg writes about sex, work, and social struggle. Her book Porn Work (UNC Press, 2021) takes readers behind the scenes to explore what porn performers think of their work and how they intervene to hack it. It tells a story of crafty workers, faltering managers, and shifting solidarities. Her second project, "Sex Workers Against Work," is an intellectual history of the sex worker left. It engages anti-capitalist sex workers' critiques of straight work, unpaid sex, and state violence and explores their experiments with alternatives.

Professor Berg's research and teaching interests include sexuality studies, Marxist feminist and queer thought, and resistance studies. Her research appears in Signs, Feminist Studies, Women's Studies Quarterly, and Porn Studies, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and El País. At Washington University, she teaches courses on Sexuality and the State, Sex and Money, Everyday Unruliness, and Feminist Theory.

Becky Holt

The Boob Tube: Tracking Pornhub’s Emergence

From YouTube to RedTube, the word “tube” pops up throughout the early history of user-generated content websites. YouTube was coined as a reference to television, or the “tube.” When the pornographic versions of YouTube launched just one year later in 2006, they adopted the word too. But what is a tube? Is it a format? A fleeting moment of branding? Or something else altogether? This talk analyzes the pre-history and early years of Pornhub to answer that question. Examining gossip, archived forum posts, and screen captures, I frame the tube as a keyword to describe an in-between phase in the rich—albeit short—history of online pornography. Tube ultimately describes a moment when emergent technologies and the burgeoning attention economy took hold and transformed the pornography industry.

Becky Holt is a researcher who focuses on the intersections between Internet technology, digital culture, and adult content. A doctoral candidate in Film and Moving Image Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, her dissertation centers on MindGeek—the company responsible for Pornhub and most other popular pornographic platforms. Becky locates MindGeek alongside other tech giants and tracks the impact of online pornography on emergent digital economies and the web at large. Her work is forthcoming in Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture. Becky is also working as a coordinator of the Global Emergent Media Lab at Concordia University.


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