This research summary was co-authored by Lisa Thompson (Vice President and Director of the NCOSE Research Institute) and Jordan Marshall (Research Assistant).
Meghan Donevan, “‘In This Industry, You’re No Longer Human’: An Exploratory Study of Women’s Experiences in Pornography Production in Sweden,” Dignity: A Journal of Analysis of Exploitation and Violence 6, no. 3 (2021): 1-26, doi:10.23860/dignity.2021.06.
This study provides insights about pathways into, experiences within, and barriers to exit from the pornography industry. Interviews with nine women in pornography production in Sweden found young age, financial insecurity, previous experiences of sexual violence, and poor mental health preceded entry into the pornography industry, similar to pathways to other forms of commercial sexual exploitation. This study also demonstrates the common overlap between pornography and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation like prostitution, stripping, and sex trafficking. Women reported experiences of manipulation, coercion, and violence within the industry perpetrated by both pornographers and sex buyers.
This qualitative study explored women’s experiences in pornography production through in-depth interviews conducted in 2018 with nine women in Sweden who were 18 or older at the time of the interview. Their age of entry into pornography production ranged between 16-26 years, and the time span of their involvement ranged from less than a year to more than 20 years. The women sold either self-generated or third-party produced content on third-party websites, where so-called “fans” or “sex buyers”i (i.e., those who consumed their content or performances) either pay for individual photos or videos or purchase a monthly subscription. Women retained a certain percentage of their earnings, while website owners took a 20-30% cut on each transaction. One woman was sex trafficked for purposes of pornography production.
The study reported:
- Young Age, Financial Insecurity, Previous Experiences of Sexual Violence, and Poor Mental Health as Factors Leading to Entry:
- Young Age: All participants reported a relatively young age of entry (median age of entry was 22 years). Participants explained that pornographers are aware that young women are more vulnerable and thus easier to groom, recruit, control, and exploit, and are also in higher demand, translating into larger profits for pornographers. Participants explained that one platform, Scandalbeauties, intentionally targets young women and girls with images of a seemingly glamorous lifestyle (e.g., limousines, parties, exotic travel) and actively recruits them by writing on their social media accounts referring to pornography production as “blogging” or “glamour modelling” in an attempt to disguise the true nature of the content they are expected to produce.
- Financial Insecurity: Four participants identified financial difficulties as the main reason they and many others entered the industry. Pornographers use women’s financial insecurity as a means of coercion into the industry by portraying pornography as an “easy” way to earn “quick money.” But the growing number of women in the industry has increased competition, leading to lower earnings. Thus, women must sell not only more content, but also more extreme content to earn the same amount.
- Sexual Violence: Four women stated they were survivors of sexual abuse and other forms of violence either during childhood or by an intimate partner as a young adult.
- Poor Mental Health: Five participants had pre-existing mental health problems before entering the industry. They explained that many women enter the pornography industry because of low self-esteem and seek the affirmation and acceptance they lacked at home.
- Manipulation, Coercion, and Violence in the Pornography Industry: Once in the industry, women find it difficult to maintain personal boundaries because of manipulation and coercion of pornographers and sex buyers. Pornographers, like other pimps/traffickers, know that it is easier to push the boundaries of women facing multiple vulnerabilities. Additionally, platforms like Scandalbeauties allow sex buyers to interact with women uploading and selling content, and women are expected to interact with their “fans” regularly. Buyers regularly harass women and request to purchase specific sex acts both online and offline, sometimes escalating to obsession, stalking, and threats. These demands are more difficult to resist for women with greater vulnerabilities. One woman commented:
- Overlap within the Commercial Sex Industry: Women in pornography production commonly have experiences in other forms of commercial sexual exploitation. Five women in this study reported experiences in other forms of commercial sexual exploitation: four in prostitution, including “sugar dating,” and three women were previously in stripping.
- Barriers to Exiting the Industry: A significant barrier to exiting the industry was the distress of having one’s pornographic images remain online indefinitely. Experiences of shaming and victim-blaming by family, friends, employers, colleagues, and society also present a considerable barrier to exiting the industry.
Commentary from the NCOSE Research Institute
Those who engage in on-screen pornography production are a much under-studied group. This study helps address that very wide gap. While the findings of this investigation do not provide proof of direct causation, it nevertheless provides an important contribution to the literature about pathways into, experiences within, and barriers to exit from the pornography industry.
Performing sex acts for something of value is, by definition, prostitution. Thus, performing pornography is a form of prostitution—prostitution for mass consumption.ii Not surprisingly, this study shows how the trajectory for entry into the pornography industry follows the well-worn path for entry into other forms of prostitution. Histories of sexual abuse, economic insecurity, young age, and poor mental health were the major factors identified in this study that precipitated entry into the pornography industry, risk factors strongly associated with entry into other forms of prostitution as well. This study further corroborates the fluidity of movement between pornography and other overlapping arms of the commercial sexual exploitation industry such as stripping.
Importantly, this study also noted how newer pornography websites share similarities with social media platforms, in that they allow sex buyers to interact with performers and request performance of sex acts on or offline. Thus, this study can be viewed as also providing insights into what is popularly referred to as “camming”—cyber prostitution.
Finally, the author also urged that buying sex acts be treated as a crime regardless of whether it occurs online or offline and called for prostitution legislation in Sweden to by updated accordingly. The author concluded, “Most importantly, women in pornography should be granted the same rights to protection and support as other survivors of prostitution.”