Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Not a Monolith

Renegade Evolution had a thoughtful post the other day comparing the supposed "harm" caused by the sex industry with the harms caused by other industries who's products many of us regularly consume, wondering why people didn't get nearly so up in arms about consumption of these products.

It reminded me about how much people are able to draw fine distinctions about all other aspects of consumption, and yet view the entire sex industry as one big monolith – "pornstitution" as anti-porn feminists have come to call it over the last couple of years. I also hear a great deal of rhetoric that the sex-industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that escapes criticism from otherwise-progressives supposedly blinded by a sex-positive ideology.

The problem with this line of thinking comes when we look at a range of concrete examples of what makes up "pornstitution". The production end of the sex industry might include:

  • Companies like Larry Flynt Publications who make annual profits in the tens of millions.

  • A self-employed model like "SilkyKitty", who's set up her own porn site and webcam that she operates out of her home. Still has her day job, working as a bookstore clerk.

  • FataleMedia, a small adult video production company run by a lesbian couple, making videos primarily for a lesbian audience.

  • The Lusty Lady, a worker-owned San Francisco peep show.

  • Tom Hunscher, a Portland-based photographer. Shoots explicit nudes of freelance models for his own websites and as stock adult content.

  • Jet Set Productions, a gay porn production company, best known for an online porno soap opera, Wet Palms.

  • Abby Winters, an Australian "independent porn" producer, highly regarded for girl/girl videos that are considerably more erotic than the typical "hetlez" formula.

  • Feck, a company that operates sites like IShotMyself and BeautifulAgony featuring content shot and submitted by the models themselves.

  • Girls Gone Wild a company that's made a small fortune selling videos of drunk women publicly flashing and making out, and occasionally going back to a hotel for paid sex. Owner Joe Francis has recently received a great deal of negative publicity as a bully and alleged rapist.

Workers in the sex industry (past and present) might include:

  • The above-mentioned "Renegade Evolution", a stripper and fetish model. In her spare time runs a blog defending, among other things, her choice of profession.

  • "Markedformetal", also a stripper and blogger. Sometimes writes about how much she hates her chosen profession

  • Jenna Jameson, who became rich and famous as a porn star. Appeared in 120 videos over the course of 12 years, but yet claims she dislikes watching her own sex scenes.

  • The late Linda Lovelace, the first "porn star", who entered the industry while under the control of a severely abusive husband. (Whether she loved, hated, or was ambivalent about porn in general depends on which of her five often-contradictory authorized biographies you choose to believe.)

  • Nina Hartley, who's still working in porn after 22 years and 717 films. Still a major name at an age (47) when the "Porno Valley" studios she often works with don't exactly encourage actresses to stick around. (No need to recount her history of sex education and activism yet again.)

  • SilkyKitty (see under producers, above)

  • The worker-owners of the Lusty Lady (see above).

  • A woman illegally held captive and trafficked from China to the United States and forced to work off her "debt" in a massage parlour.

  • Kira Milan, a Portland-based freelance porn model active several years back under several any of several names. Did solo and girl/girl porn for a handful of porn sites and adult videos, but soon dropped it in favor of nude art photography modeling. Still a cult favorite on the internet several years later.

  • Eve Angel, a Hungarian freelance model working in Prague and Budapest (the present centers of the Eastern European porn industry). Appears on scores of videos and websites under any of a half-dozen names.

  • A woman who prostitutes to feed a drug habit, working the stroll in places like San Francisco's Polk Gulch, generally between 2AM (when the bars let out) and dawn.

  • A young woman I met once who worked as a porn model and sometimes escort (primarily answering Craigslist ads from men offering sex for money). When not taking a semester off to earn money this way, is a Women's Studies major at one of the "Seven Sisters" women's colleges.

  • Wanda, a Stockholm-based escort who's website quite openly advertises what services she provides and for how much. (Yes Virgina, there is still prostitution in Sweden – it just moved indoors.)

  • Goddess Athena, a San Francisco dominatrix who started the "dominatrix collective", Sirens.

(I'll note here that Dim Undercellar of the Biting Beaver blog has written a post claiming most of the "First World" sex work of the kind I've mainly discussed above is done by trafficked women from poor countries. This contention, however, is based on little evidence and much supposition on his part and on the part of the anti-prostitution organizations from which he gets his "facts".)

Clearly there are some people on this list who clearly fall into the categories of exploiters and victims to varying degrees. There's also a large number of people who don't fall into either category. What's quite clear is that the above list, on both the producer and worker ends, includes some very different people under very different circumstances. Trying to get justice for the most downtrodden sex workers by wiping out "pornstitution" is a bit like trying to obtain justice for exploited farm workers by wiping out not only agribusiness, but small organic farms, farmworkers' unions, and restaurants all together. Yes, this would be the "radical" solution, but only in its sheer overkill.

At this point I should mention another anti-porn contention – that if anybody is hurt at any time under any circumstances in what can be broadly called sex work, then its best to uproot the whole thing. If there's the slightest demand, the argument goes, someone will inevitably be exploited to fill it. (See Dim Undercellar again on his ideas about the supposed "acceptable losses" of the sex industry for a fuller exposition of this idea.) To me, this is simply an argument for blanket repression, for not looking at context, and for a rather extreme application of the precautionary principle. Its a bit like banning clothing in order to get rid of sweatshops or uprooting all religion to deal with any manner of religious abuse.

To the protest that "porn liberals" don't treat the sex industry like any other industry, I say its the "anti-pornstitution" crowd who fail to treat it as such. The proper way to deal with the sex industry is to oppose those manifestations of it that victimize or exploit people while encouraging those parts that meet peoples needs, both as consumers and as workers. The same way we treat issues around the production of food, the production of media, or the production of anything.