The Plague of Pornography: Exploitation in the Time of COVID-19

by Emma Barrett

The current coronavirus pandemic has caused a broad range of harms. The most obvious have been physical: the virus has infected more than 1.6 million people and killed more than 100,000 in the United States alone. But there have been intangible harms too. The coronavirus has caused a mental health crisis, forced the elderly to face death without loved ones, and exacerbated the many disparities within our educational system.  And, quietly alongside the novel coronavirus, another plague–one that is unfortunately not novel–has accelerated its spread: the use of pornography.  

In the last several months, visits to the website Pornhub have hit record-highs worldwide. On March 25, as stay-at-home orders induced isolation, Pornhub reported a 41.5% traffic increase in the United States, its largest market, compared to an average pre-pandemic day. Pornhub also reported trending searches for “coronavirus” related pornography, a subset of pornography that features people in masks, hazmat suits, and surgical gloves. Searches for this new genre spiked at close to 1.5 million. Outside of Pornhub, a platform called OnlyFans, which allows users to subscribe to premium content from its models, reported a 75% increase in sign-ups during the pandemic, totaling around 3.7 million new users. Of these 3.7 million new sign-ups, 60,000 were from new creators–the cam models who broadcast their personal photos and videos to their subscribers, in the hopes of collecting tips and new monthly subscriptions. 

These statistics are alarming because pornography’s well-documented harms are not short-lived. At the Catholic Women’s Forum’s 2018 Conference, entitled “The #MeToo Moment: Second Thoughts on the Sexual Revolution,” experts in the fields of law, medicine, psychology, and social sciences detailed its danger. Mary Anne Layden of the University of Pennsylvania described pornography as a “breeding ground for miseducation.” It teaches its viewers that sex is non-intimate, that violent sex is common, and that women enjoy rape. Viewers then incorporate these beliefs into their own sexual relationships. And the problems don’t stop there. Dr. Suzanna Nortier Hollman of the Institute for Psychological Sciences said that pornography distorts even non-sexual relationships by further normalizing our society’s gendered cultural script, which is a “deeply internalized cognitive framework that is a powerful influence on decision-making and behavior.” Pornography adds to this gendered framework by enforcing a lopsided power dynamic, in which men hold physical and emotional power over women. This presents itself in misogynistic beliefs that infiltrate the workplace and the home. The #MeToo movement highlighted the extent and extremity of this cultural script.

The consumption of pornography teaches that the body is an object–one that can be bought. It teaches that the body, particularly the female body, is an instrument for sexual gratification. This idea can be seen in the continued existence and popularity of sites like OnlyFans, where users can subscribe to their favorite “cam model,” for sometimes as little as $4.99 a month

Many have speculated how the coronavirus might alter our social behavior. Will we trade handshakes for elbow bumps? Will more employers permit remote work? Will salad bars become a thing of the past? But there are even more pressing questions about the post-coronavirus world: how will the dramatic rise in pornography use affect women? How many more women will be objectified, with their value priced at a $4.99 monthly subscription fee? How much more violence against women will be excused because pornography taught men that women liked it? The dramatic spike in pornography usage during the coronavirus pandemic has revealed another plague that endangers our emotional and physical health. And because pornography is so addictive, the patterns set over the last months are likely to persist for years to come.

Image: Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash