I am a person whose march into adulthood directly coincided with the rise of the internet access in this country. As with most people who for whom the awfulness of puberty directly paralleled the proliferation of high speed internet, I am also one of the untold mass of individuals who has/is a consumer of pornography. This fact might have been a slightly taboo thing to admit only a few generations ago, but in today’s modern society pornography is pretty much everywhere. Porn stars have a brand recognition that reaches almost every household in this country, they have billboards in Times Square, and even mainstream media outlets examine the various economic aspects behind this behemoth of an industry. With Porn’s greater acceptance, the entire sex industry has become (or is becoming) mainstream, and we are just now beginning to see what its impact will be in society.
Given the arguably universal acceptance of some degree of pornography in this country, it is time to start critically analyzing the work of this industry in the same vein as we would other forms of popular media. Like radio, TV, and print/online journalism, porn should be held to a high standard in terms of what its impact is on the social values of its consumers. We are frankly past the days of the constitutionally problematic and meaningless Miller Standard definition of obscenity (where something must have a serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value and NOT apply solely to the ones “prurient” interests). Porn has multi-generational presence in popular zeitgeist, so the time where it could be subjected to questionable forms of censorship without a popular uproar is basically over (even the Department of Justice has basically abandoned its efforts to regulate non-child porn outside of a few notable cases).
But I when I talk about a need to uphold social values in porn and the wider impact of the sex industry, I am actually being specific to the issue of gender politics and feminism. The obvious media fuck ups that have occurred during this year’s chapter in the never-ending conservative “War on Women” have renewed the fight for a more socially responsible look into issues of sexuality and female empowerment in politics, labor, and the bedroom. As a supporter of those who condemn assholes like Rush Limbaugh, it is harder for me as a heterosexual male to defend porn- especially transgressive or violent BDSM as somehow less awful than the everyday slights and commonplace misogyny that goes on in non-sexually explicit media.
To be told this reason for upholding social value in our media should be obvious, but it bears repeating. While porn and the presence of adult book stores do not demonstrably correlate or cause sexualized violence (in fact the opposite might be true if you check on the science), media in general does have an affect on the psyches of its consumers. Feminist bloggers this year have rightfully taken on the rampant misogyny within the video game industry (and suffered some disgusting consequences), on the basis that many popular games are creating a level of acceptance for a stylized form of sexualized violence within its growing number of users. Even porn defenders like Dan Savage believe that “kabuki sex” at a minimum leaves its viewers at least initially with unrealistic expectations concerning the likes and dislikes of future sexual partners (although Savage also blames the shitty state of sex-education, which is undoubtedly an issue).
So here is my problem. I like most people (not named Mike Pence or Bryan Fischer) want to reduce the abysmally high levels of sexual violence amongst all people, particularly children and women. I am also someone who believes that porn and other forms of erotica are not only constitutionally protected, but also have a net benefit on society. Finally I am someone who believes in empowering the social and political voice of women as a group, and I want to do whatever possible to break the grip of institutional sexism.
Given these problematic issues to resolve, I have employed the assistance of a few feminist “pro-sex” individuals of my generation and asked for their opinions for how we can as a society address these complicated topics. Today’s contribution comes from my friend Stephanie, who was a sex worker and is currently writing a collection of short stories based upon the individuals she met in the industry.
Q: In your opinion as someone in the sex industry, is pornography helping or hurting combat anti-feminist “rape culture?” Also, how would you define “rape culture?”
I can’t answer for male homosexual pornography, of which I know very little, but I can speak for the lesbian and heterosexual varieties. Over the past couple decades so much dialogue regarding pornography has opened up that you’ll be hard-pressed to find an individual with a well-thought out argument rigidly for or against it. Like many, I’m not against porn in theory– I’m glad to see that there’s been a greater demand for “feminist porn” in recent years that depicts authentic lesbianism (without the constant 180 degree leg split); a wider array of body types, including women au naturale or menstruating; and does not gender pleasure (showing females penetrating men, for example.)
Unfortunately the current mainstream of porn abstains from these feminist elements. The fact that a woman can get ahead in her career as an adult performer through allowing violence such as punching or gagging is rather telling, especially given that the same does not hold true for men. It is this mainstream that reflects rape culture rather than anything inherent to porn as a whole.
Through dialogue with my clients as a sex worker, I quickly learned that many men turn to the escort as a means of having an experience they could not have– or would not want to have– with a significant other. Perhaps people use pornography similarly, as a way of watching something that piques their interest but would make them uncomfortable in the bedroom. This is a rather optimistic plausibility, and would still lead to the question of what makes such violent gender dynamics attractive. Another problem too is the resulting social stratification: are some women more deserving of violence than others? Most of us would answer no, but if sex workers (including those in porn) are being used for what men fear with others, this is the general belief.
Q: How do you personally define being a “pro-sex feminist?”
‘Pro-sex’ does not mean hyper-sexual. It means we have taken the taboo out of sexuality. By placing so much moral weight on sex (it should be noted that I am not referring to assaults or rapes- I don’t call those ‘sex’ but violence) we are setting up a dichotomy of good versus bad, particularly with young women. This is dangerous; it leads not only society into thinking that a girl’s sexuality is a major component of her identity, but the individual herself. Her sexual preferences are seen as a public identity rather than a personal preference, overshadowing what should be the more interesting, the more important attributes they may have.
How is one benefiting society by sitting around being monogamous? Not that I have anything against monogamy, for those who desire it– but it is not as great a reflection of their character as the quality of their relationships.
Q: What are the negative aspects of working in the sex industry?
I am not alone in feeling that the worst aspect of being a sex worker was becoming a professional liar. I had to lie to my family, to strangers, even to a number of friends about how I spent my time and sustained myself financially. Not once did I feel comfortable enough to tell someone I just met when they asked me “what do you do?” I am typically a very open person, so it was hard to keep this inside me.
I was surprised by how many of my friends are unperturbed by it and know it did not change my character, but this may be simply because I associate with a more progressive crowd, not a reflection of where our culture at large is headed.
Another problem is that no matter how much money you earn as a sex worker, it is never enough. I could fly across the country for vacation on a whim, using a $2,500 apartment in New York City as a closet, and still I would wonder why I did not have more money in my wallet. If one customer left a $300 tip, why didn’t everyone else? It’s a negative way of thinking that’s too easy to fall into.
At the place I worked, an incall location, the men always knew which girl they would be seeing ahead of time. But there was one time that, for whatever reason, our manager let a client come to our location to choose between me and another girl. He chose her, Melissa. I had always thought myself to be prettier, more desirable than her, as narcissistic as it sounds, but naturally I felt rather insecure then. Or, some days I would be working with a girl who got so many more phone calls than me that I would be uncomfortable then, too.
Q: When would you begin teaching comprehensive sex education in public schools? Would you teach aspects concerning achieving pleasure?
That’s a tricky question. No matter how early we teach it, the knowledge will trickle down to younger ears and excite the children simply because it is something forbidden to them. It’s that idea of sex being something inappropriate, that we are indoctrinated with at such an early age, that needs to be overcome. I would say that it should be discussed with children whenever they begin asking how life comes about, but of course, many are too uncomfortable with that.
Just as it shouldn’t be treated as something obscene, leaving sex as something cold and mechanical is no better a solution. If schools are teaching how to have safe sex then they ought to also teach how to have pleasurable sex– this includes a knowledge of the clitoris and prostate, just as it includes knowing one’s boundaries. Again, pro-sex does not inherently mean promiscuity.
Q: What (if any) part of popular culture is most liable for the spread of “rape culture”
I think that capitalism as a whole is responsible for rape culture. So long as we see people all around us being used for the profit of a small number of individuals, we will believe it justified to treat others as commodities. That is not to say that progress cannot be made within a capitalist system and we should give up entirely– I just don’t imagine it could ever be solved completely.
Before I started to work I talked to a former sex worker who said that the scariest times for her were with men strung out on cocaine. Often they wouldn’t even want to sleep with her, they just wanted to flaunt all the money they had to feel a sense of glamour– what a capitalist would call “success.” I mentioned this to a couple of the managers, or “pimps” I worked with and they saw it too. It became evident rather quickly when I began working.