The Moral Economy of Pornography

Pornography-spelled-in-computer-keys-via-Shutterstock

by Randall S. Frederick

A few days ago, a friend put an article to me by Naomi Wolf and asked my thoughts on porn. Privately, a small circle of friends know that an academic mentor of mine held a doctorate in Cultural Studies, with an emphasis on media. This amounted to a large

First off, there needs to be some context. All of these friends attend a seminary/religious school in Southern California. We come from different places – one from Arizona, one from Oregon, one from Minnesota, and then me from Louisiana – and have been heavily influenced by both education, upbringing, and our respective faith traditions.

Second, there is always a lot that gets lost in translation. Facebook “flame wars” are so easy to start because there is only so much that can be said 1) in a small textbox, 2) in a broad and public setting, and 3) we can’t typically express our thoughts in their full majesty while cuddled up with a laptop, one window watching Hulu, another talking about the complexities of Feminism, after 9pm.

Third, where it relates to porn I’m torn between my own psychosexual and religious dynamics. Porn is, I feel, both something we should challenge and question periodically like any other part of the communal experiment. But it is also the largest industry on Earth today, making more money per year than the largest corporations combined.

Put another way, it is easy for me as a (now 31yo) male WASP to sit on the second-story balcony of my apartment outside of Los Angeles and criticize porn, without admitting that yes, I have seen porn; yes, I watch porn; and yes, I would encourage my little brother to watch porn when it is legal for him to do so. When any one of us approach any part of society and make sweeping statements,

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Breaking Apart the Idea of “Porn”

There are a few ideas here that need to be addressed to “speed up” this discussion.

  • There are, generally speaking, three aspects of sex work – hooking, porn, and stripping.
  • “Sex workers” has traditionally meant hookers – those individuals who seduce, lure, and “hook“, but over the last decade the term has become broad enough to include many other individuals involved in the supply-side of the sex industry. For brevity, “sex workers” are the “talent” end of supply – the most visible side of the sex economy: hookers, porn stars, and strippers.
  • If we went further, however, “sex workers” could also mean sexual slaves and kidnappers, producers and directors, researchers and analysts, erotica authors, and even the accountant or website owner from which adult films are purchased.
  • “Porn” or pornography is the common label for visual forms of adult entertainment. The suffix -ography means “image”, so there is a rightful particulation that needs to be made from sex work in general.

You will notice in the middle two points a few ideas which are important to this discussion – One, that sex workers are only the “talent” or most visible end of adult entertainment; Two, that there is a stickiness to the sex industry which seizes individuals who diversify their business enough that they never bat an eye when disassociating themselves from ‘the sex industry’ (ex: accountants, shipping companies, etc); and three, that there is a dark side to porn.

The confusion between the light or “good” and the dark or “bad” side of porn lies at the heart of this discussion and is a tremendous great area where unsubstantiated opinions are made. If I were to categorically say, “Porn is bad and evil, a great and terrible injustice in our time, because of the many women who are coerced and forced to have sex for money – and often, worse, forced without money,” I think the majority of us would agree that porn is bad, and evil, and must be stopped at all costs. At least this is my hope. Surely, the human project is not so far gone yet as to think rape is entertaining, and that we gladly pay rapists and murders to do to others what we wish we could do to them. Surely, again, it is my hope that we are not that far gone.

But, in making such a claim, I am still within a gray area. It is not that simple, for you see I would be overlooking those who choose to go into adult entertainment. There exists an overarching narrative that the people who go into sex work are “broken” or immoral. Surely, we reason, they were sexually abused and children and their lives have been corrupted ever since. Which is an odd statement, when you think about it. If you really believe sex workers were abused as children, then why are you judging them so harshly and talking about how they are destroying society? I don’t think calling them names after they’ve been abused is the best way to help them – but maybe that’s too liberal of an opinion. Perhaps we should compound the pain of former trauma by criticizing them even more.

But, liberal as I am, I don’t think that is the case. Some people do sex work because they like it. James Deen has said on numerous occasions that he simply likes sex, is physically able to do it, and enjoys getting paid to do something he’s good at. Sasha Grey, a former pornstar turned educator and author, has said many times that she chose to go into pornography because she enjoyed sex very much and was good at it. Why not get paid for what you’re good at? And what you enjoy? Deen and Grey have been dismissed as a statistical anomalies – sex-crezed deviants and outliers whose sex addiction cause them to say such outlandish things. Though shamed for her outspokenness, Grey led the way for many other porn stars who broke from the traditional script that childhood trauma and abuse compelled them towards sex. Put another way, Grey broke from the script that all women hate sex, and all “good guys” have sufficiently suppressed their desires to shun sex. Deen is “just a guy”, saying “what you’d expect a guy to say.” He’s easily dismissed as a rogue, a rake, and the worst kind of human. Men with strong sexual urges are either perverts or “real men” depending on who you ask. But women who enjoy sex? Always, in all places, she is “a slut, a whore, and trashy.” There is no place in Western society for women who enjoy sex, and it is no wonder that porn has found an ever-expanding clientele in devoted female followers. While not a majority, they exist in strong numbers – as this author can attest to. I have known many women who either enjoy or feel “addicted” to porn, and this perhaps skews my opinion. I believe women have strong sexual desires as well, and that those desires are sometimes not being met, or are being “privatized” when they are met with rejection by partners, friends, family, communal affiliations, and society at large.

Underneath this critique that men and women shouldn’t want sex, and shouldn’t have strong sexual desires, is the idea that relationships shouldn’t be about sex. That it is morally “better” to not have sex with your partner, to be abstinent except for infrequent copulation with  life-partners for procreative purposes. By pointing to 1. their enjoyment of sex, and 2. natural skill set / talent, adult entertainers challenge our ideas about porn. Maybe porn isn’t evil. Maybe we’ve made it that way. This idea, when given full blossom, changes the way many people see porn and sex, in general. The moral umbrella under which we grew up and under which out concept of sexual expression was formed, tends to skew how we see our own sex lives. Sociologically, we must learn through patience and time that the baseline “norm” by which we judge others is just as right as anyone else’s. Where I grew up, the “norm” was for men to marry by the age of 27 and women to marry by the age of 23. Something was “wrong” if you did not follow this social script. But these ages are not the norm across America, or even across the world. When we narrow and focus our scope, we see the world in many different ways. Hard as it might be for Americans, and especially Christians to understand, “We” are not always right.

Porn, An Escalating Evil

To some extent, both Grey and her detractors are right. Women aren’t always coerced or forced into sex work. Many choose this line of work, and the reasons are not always simple. Or sometimes, it is shockingly simple. In a 2009 interview, Grey says

For me, pornography is performing – it is what it is and I am an extension of myself, I am hyper me.

One of the things people have a hard time grasping when it comes to porn is that, at the end of the day, a form of entertainment. People watch porn because they enjoy it. But as an “act” of performance, it also represents and plays into reality – cause and effect. What is more, the lines between art/entertainment and reality are often blurry. This has led many to dismiss the positive claims of porn stars like Grey, believing that their celebration of sex is an act as well. As James Deen points out, Sasha Grey broke from the script of how porn should be positioned in culture.

Sasha Grey has not engaged with anyone in pornography for a really long time. That’s, like, the name that is not said in this business. I don’t have anything against her, but in the adult-film world she has a very bad reputation for many reasons.

Deen, when pressed, elaborates.

The reality is that she was 18 when she started doing porn and between 18 and 23 her goals changed, and she wants to do different things now. Actually, my ex-girlfriend and her have the same manager, and her manager dropped her because in the Entourage meeting, apparently she had this whole freakout about how porn ruined her life. The second they left the meeting, in the elevator, she was like, “I think I’ll get the part now.” And the manager was like, “Are you serious? You just said that porn ruined your life and you’re just laughing about it now? What was that, fake?” You know, when she was 18, she wanted to be Belladonna, and she pushed the envelope and got dirty and nasty and all of this stuff, and then she wanted to be like Jenna Jameson and be glamorous, and then she wanted to do acting. I’m sure that in the time between I’m 27 and 35, I’m going to have a bunch of different goals and change my opinions on things. Maybe when I’m 50, what’s going to make me happy is making balloon animals on the beach.

But, while porn is indeed a form of entertainment and while many can leave the industry, there are many who cannot. This is a blunt reality. Rather than try to compact the issue, I strongly urge you to read (or at least skim) the following articles.

“Sexual Slavery” – Wikipedia.org

It Happened to Me: I Was Forced Into Sexual Slavery – by Jillian Mourning

Diary of an Escaped Sex Slave – by Abagail Pesta

The Women Who Sold Their Daughters – by Tim Huma, Lisa Cohen, and Mira Sorvino

I present these articles, rather than info graphics, for three reasons. One, I have a very low tolerance for abuse to children and would be unable to complete this article if I started writing about it. Two, I believe stories are better than “hard numbers.” There are no “hard numbers” when it comes to sexual trafficking – the truth is, there are only estimates based on what has been reported. The sex industry is often so secretive and so well-insulated by organized crime that we may never know the truth of “hard numbers.” And three, I believe these stories show that it can happen to anyone – from children sold by their parents to the cheerleader on the Honor Roll. Sex workers live continually on the beveled edge of “I am enjoying this, on my terms” and disappearing. I surmise this is why so many adult entertainment stars age so quickly – a life of tension and exhaustion wears on your body.

Finally, I would again recommend the documentary I mentioned in my Facebook chat earlier – After Porn Ends. It chronicles what happens to former adult stars. While some went on to a healthy life, most did not. Sasha Grey, went on to guest star in a few episodes of the HBO series Entourage. She also starred in The Girlfriend Experience, directed by acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh. But this is very uncommon. Most adult entertainers have a difficult time transitioning into “normal” life.

Cont. in pt. II

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