Within and Against: Empowered Porn in Capitalist Patriarchy

I was asked to do a debate with a (thankfully polite and sensible) radical feminist about ethical pornography- could it exist, and what would that look like- for the New Internationalist. While I enjoyed the discussion, I found the format (3 statements of 250 words each) to be incredibly difficult to engage with. This is a complicated issue with a lot of nuance, and the call-and-response methodology meant we had to both respond to the other AND embrace our own pet issues at the same time. I, being me, focused on my experience in the porn industry rather than academic citations, something I kind of regret now.

I’ve written about ethical pornography in the past, and it’s a topic I think about a lot. I am personally of a mind that a set of standards would be useful, as it’s easy to label something as “feminist” or “ethical” when there’s no clear definition of what that entails- I don’t see a company that only hires slender white women as particularly feminist, or a site that tells performers they have the right to safer sex supplies, but then will get a kill fee for insisting on them, as particularly ethical, for example. Yet of course when “feminist porn” or “ethical porn” become marketable points, you’re going to see the quality be pretty varied across the board. That’s similar to other areas where politics meet an industry- the food industry with “organic”, for example, or what “fairtrade” actually means in practice for  those making handicrafts.

I have my own checklist for what makes porn ethical, and I know that over in the UK the Ethical Porn Partnership is forming to address this issue.  I think having some basic agreements, especially ones that address sexism, racism, transphobia and safer sex allowances, would be a first step towards making the adult industry an ethical workplace. It’s one of the reasons I’m excited about performers maintaining their own sites, creating and selling content on their own terms. Personally, I feel creating ethical porn also involves a safe workplace – making sure that people are expected to be sober on set and not employing people who are abusive, though I acknowledge that can be more difficult to enforce when the behaviour isn’t witnessed on set.

Anyway, the debate (which will be posted at some point I hope) brought up some issues that I wanted to address here in my blog, as I feel now that I didn’t address them as well as I could have there.

One of the things I brought up was that the discussion of ethical pornography needs to acknowledge gender diversity. The adult industry is one of the only areas where women are often paid more than men, and is therefore a path of potential upward mobility, especially useful for those without degrees yet. When even entry level jobs seem to require you have multiple years experience, as well as a Bachelor’s, is it any surprise that some people turn to pornography to pay the bills? This is not only true of cisgender women, but trans* women, who struggle to get employed or keep their jobs if their trans* status is outed. To stigmatize porn performers is often to further marginalize people who are already marginalized.

I think it’s frustrating that this is true of the adult industry, to be honest. I’ve written about my own desire to leave the industry and move on to other employment, as I entered sex work like many do, to pay bills while going to school. Even though I have excellent references and know what I’m doing, it’s been incredibly difficult to get past my searchable porn history. I’ve particularly noticed that women who have a history with the adult industry are, over and over again, punished for it while simultaneously being told they need to be “saved” from it. This stigma keeps people who are unhappy doing porn unable to do anything else. That’s not a great basis for any type of ethical work… when you have no other options. Considering these people offering to “save” people from the adult industry often fall short of practical support in getting another job, I’m not buying it.

It’s interesting to me that an 18 year old male high schooler was kicked out of school for being a porn performer… and then taken back thanks to the support of the other students and his mother. Would it have been different if he wasn’t a cisgendered male? We already know how teachers are treated, even if revenge porn of them is posted online and they have no agency over the images being released, even if it’s a racy photo. Once you’ve been an adult performer, you’re given the scarlet letter for life. As the aforementioned student said, ”It’s just (my mom) trying to feed me and the dogs and pay bills,” so he went into porn, a job with flexible hours, a good time-to-money ratio, and constant demand. Who can blame him, or anyone else struggling to get by in this economy, for taking that step?

I think there’s a difficult chicken and egg situation with pornography. In order for porn to be recognized as work like any other, it would help for it to be a workplace like any other- with some health and safety rules in place and clear contracts. But in order for the mainstream porn industry to make that kind of step, social stigma of porn performers would need to be a thing of the past. Currently if porn performers try to bring legal action against their treatment at porn companies, or organize the workers, they can get fired and might be blacklisted as “troublemakers” at other companies. Culturally we need to support porn performers who are mistreated in their workplaces get justice rather than shame them for their employment.

Under capitalistic patriarchy, there are multiple strategies to fight back. I believe ethical pornography is capable of being a strategy that can be financially sustainable within patriarchy while also against it by challenging institutionalized oppression within the work itself. Porn has been a source of extra money that I can work into my schedule while doing other activism, working at other jobs, and taking time for the things I care about. As I have the financial privilege to do so, I choose to work with companies that care about showcasing all different types of diversity- sexual expressions, gender identities, ethnicities, body types. The places you see me naked tend to be places that don’t employ oppressive language in their marketing, that pay performers based on things other than gender, where I can use the safer sex techniques that feel comfortable for me. As a fat queer woman, I don’t see a lot of pornography that represents me, so I perform in it myself. If people get any part of their sex education from porn, I want them to know that sex looks different for everyone, that non-penetrative sex is fun and ok, that pleasure doesn’t center around the penis. I think creating a space where all bodies and sexual expressions are valued , where consent is seen as part of the process, is vital to combat the effects of capitalistic patriarchy on self esteem and on our desires. I’ve been told that seeing my body and my enjoyment of sex has helped other fat women feel comfortable in their bodies, and that’s fucking revolutionary.

I don’t think that this is just about sex, mind. I think we need more positive examples, not only of diverse sexytimes, but also of people deciding they don’t want to have sex and not being shamed for that, either. Ethical pornography to me means that I, as a performer, can feel safe talking about the ebbs and flow of my libido. I don’t feel I have to pretend that I’m turned on all the time, or that I have no politics or opinions. Ethical porn can make space for the myriad, real experiences of people fucking, and that’s awesome. Showing people they aren’t alone (and that they’re ok!)is important, not just when they’re kinky, but when they’re celibate. Thanks to where I live, and the people I know, I can create beautiful erotic videos with people I enjoy playing with and then go back to knitting and writing about capitalistic patriarchy. That’s fucking awesome, and that’s how porn performers should feel- empowered, healthy, multifaceted, and safe. And yes, I think we *can* begin that work right here, right now.

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All images via Lesbian Curves: Hard Femme (co-star Betty Blac) available from TROUBLEFilms