Technology has, in the words of sex columnist Dan Savage, “put a porn studio in everyone’s pockets.” That’s not to say that other, more traditional forms of pornography have been eradicated and replaced by amateur productions: there are, of course, still porn studios, still women who either voluntarily or through coercion, act in more produced pornographic films. But consumption and production of porn has radically changed. While pornography has always existed, we are living in an unprecedented era. Far gone are the days of debating obscenity laws: amateur porn is now considered an integral piece in the seduction process between romantic partners, as would-be lovers send one another ‘nudes,’ often before first meeting.
The current conversation around porn is primarily anchored in voluntary consumption and production. To the consumers, we speak often of removing the stigma that surrounds sex—allowing people their sexual outlets. This ranges from everything from the garden variety to more “hardcore” expressions of pornography, with conversations around “kinkshaming” being a recognizable part of public discourse.
After it was revealed that the actor Armie Hammer had a cannibalism fetish, the conversation went a little something like this: he has every right to his fetish, he doesn’t have a right to force people who aren’t also interested in it to participate.
On the production end, the mainstream lens has moved away from women who may have been coerced (either through their economic conditions, or by another party) into porn to ‘voluntary sex workers.’ Even the language we use to describe porn production has collapsed, where cam girls and other kinds of amateur ‘content creators,’ are discussed in the same breath as professional pornographers, exotic dancers, and prostitutes. They all exist under the umbrella of ‘sex work,’ and the assumption is that all participation is voluntary and enthusiastic. Here, stigma comes under attack again, seen as the sole reason sex workers suffer. I recall a debate I got into with a sex positive feminist sometime last year, where she vociferously claimed that the “real problem” that prostitutes who work primarily at truck stops face is that people shame them. She claimed that there is no reason why anyone would feel humiliated by knocking on cab doors and selling oral sex other than society-imposed policing of sexuality.
It’s well-trodden ground that for any of these arguments to be coherent, you must accept that sex is morally neutral. It exists somewhere between “consumer product,” “just labor,” and “just another bodily function,” like using the restroom or eating. In fact, the latter is another analogy that often gets evoked: even though many of us eat at fast food restaurants like McDonald’s regularly, that will never take away how special it is to cook a meal, at home, for yourself, for someone you love. Or, put another way, some people love to cook for themselves, other people don’t mind cooking for strangers.
A third commonly referenced analogy deals more specifically with labor. It goes something like this: Any job you work causes you problems, emotional, physical, and psychic, so why does sex work get extra scrutiny? No matter how sex is described, advocates aggressively deny that there is a possible world where sexual intercourse could have any intrinsic meaning or value. To them, the idea that sex could be sacred in and of itself is considered a preposterous idea. Curiously, though, a contradiction emerges. The very same people who assert that sex is 'morally neutral,' will also shout that rape is among the worst crimes you can commit. In a worldview that promotes rehabilitation for criminals, sex crimes are both nebulously defined and seem to constitute being banished from society permanently. But why this special focus if sex is 'morally neutral'?
The answer, according to them, is because it violates the person's consent. But ostensibly, any crime is a violation of consent, so why the special focus on sex? One has to wonder if it's an incoherent argument or if continued probing would reveal that sex is considered a type of property that can be bartered with, sold, or offered for free, but never stolen. But even that would, at least, suggest it's a valuable type of property. This perspective, ultimately, collapses onto itself.
Another curious piece missing in the pro-pornography arguments around production—how empowering it is—is the very real ramifications of the labor. “Sex work is work,” until you get into the nitty gritty of what that means. Even morally neutral arguments evaporate in public conversation, often minimized under the ‘that’s just stigma’ banner. Let’s accept the narrative terms here: there is nothing morally wrong with producing pornography. Not only is there nothing morally wrong with producing pornography, one can voluntarily engage in it and enjoy it. But what of the conversations around the potential emotional and psychological impacts of people analyzing your body with the precision one might with any other purchased consumer product? Just as we carefully examine our new cars and mobile phones, consumers of sex work of any variety, including but not limited to porn, do the same to women’s bodies. A rogue pimple or stretch mark suddenly comes under a critic’s eye—is the solution here to never read reviews of your work? What if it starts impacting your income? What are the psychological ramifications of knowing that your appearance is “worth” $2.50 a month whereas other women are “worth” thousands?
Any line of questioning is framed as “anti-sex work,” and quickly silenced. People will argue that questions are a slippery slope, that will open the door to people who don’t want sex work to exist, or at a bare minimum, people who don’t want it to exist to this extent. But if your position can be so easily weakened by questions that accept your premise, then how strong is your position in the first place? How empowering can something be if any whiff of negativity removed from the narrative that porn producers are a victimized class is shut down immediately?
Now, if that’s how they react to people throwing softballs—think about what happens when harder questions like, “What do we do with trafficked or coerced women?” pop up.
It’s a system that only works if all flaws are obfuscated.