Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Setha Low

Committee Members

Michael Blim

Murphy Halliburton

Faye Ginsburg

Subject Categories

Social and Cultural Anthropology


Sexuality, Regulation, Pornography, Los Angeles


This dissertation examines the regulation of sexually explicit media in the United States – specifically in Los Angeles – and the site used to understand it is the modern pornography industry at its points of production. I argue that since the industry's formation in the early- 1970s, regulatory efforts have focused on controlling porn worker’s bodies as a way of enacting broader social transformations and reshaping the domains of erotic life. Drawing from eighteen months of ethnographic research, I explore several interlocking forms of regulation. I begin by examining the formation of pornographic production cultures during what I call the "pre- Freeman" era. During this period (roughly 1969-1988) the production of pornography was illegal and a variety of regulatory efforts – including obscenity cases, morally driven anti- pornography coalitions, and vice cops – sought to curtail the production and distribution of pornography in Los Angeles. I describe how porn workers self-consciously coopted regulatory efforts, using them as tools for economic advancement, and fostering networks of community that, in some cases, have endured for decades.

In a more contemporary context, I examine how porn work in the digital age is divided between "mainstream" and "niche" pornography. I argue that these are not mere market categories, but instead these divisions exist within the porn industry to regulate workers along the axes of sexual and bodily normativity. In essence, there are a variety of informal practices and belief systems that prevent “niche” porn workers from crossing over into mainstream porn. Additionally, I examine the role that payment infrastructures play in regulating online porn work. Payment processors have the authority to remove content that they find morally distasteful and are not legally bound to provide context or explanation as to what motivates their decisions. I assert that the regulatory authority invested in private payment processors is equivalent to obscenity regulation, and I outline the stakes in having private financial institutions determine the kinds of sexually explicit content that is allowed to circulate. Finally, I highlight how struggles over the mandatory use of condoms became the political issue within the porn industry over the past several decades. I suggest that the conflicts around condoms can be productively compared to the feminist “sex wars” that were sparked during the twilight of the twentieth century; I coopt the term to describe these struggles as the “condom wars.” I use the term to signal a similar rhetorical style in which two perspectives on sexual representation are in direct opposition and invoke different kinds of bodies to push forward a moral agenda. To make this case I provide a cultural history of condom-use and health regulation within the pornography industry and outline the competing stakes and interests of the organizations at the heart of this ongoing debate.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Saturday, September 30, 2023

Graduate Center users:
To read this work, log in to your GC ILL account and place a thesis request.

Non-GC Users:
See the GC’s lending policies to learn more.