2012 6 Nov
A writer named Justin Cascio just interviewed me for an article about porn. I enjoyed answering his questions, so I thought I’d share my answers with you, too.
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How do you define pornography?
A famous lawmaker was once asked to define porn. He said: “I know it when I see it.” That definition makes me uncomfortable because it’s so unclear. Unclear legal definitions only serve the interests of people in power, and they create a bad environment for everyone else. Unclear definitions force creative people to guess whether their work will fall into an illegal category, and thus they create what activists call a “chilling effect” on free speech. This means that people censor themselves even when they aren’t doing anything wrong, because they basically don’t want to go anywhere near things that might be illegal.
It’s especially important to note that anti-porn legislation and censorship has consistently been used to silence a broad array of people, including sex writers like me who create theoretical or political material. Here is one very mild example: I get tons of emails from people who can’t access my blog because I’m censored by their university or whatever. That’s messed up; I mean, for God’s sake, I’ve lectured at some of these universities! If we must legislate porn differently from other types of media, then it should have a clear legal definition.
However! For everyday folks who aren’t lawyers or judges, the definition of “porn” is quite fuzzy. (Definitions are often fuzzy with sex-related issues.) I don’t see a big difference between porn and erotica, or between porn and romance novels for that matter — except that they have different target audiences. In that sense, I suppose that I think of “porn” as “visual media showing explicit sex, which is usually (but not always) aimed at stereotypical heterosexual cisgendered men.”
I’ve been talking about my new anthology a lot lately, but I want to mention it again because it’s totally relevant here. I just collaborated with an amazing tech writer, Julian Dibbell, to create an anthology called Violation: Rape In Gaming. The anthology collects different essays and perspectives about sexual assault in all kinds of games — video games, roleplaying games, etc. (I also wrote an introduction that explains different types of games, so if you’re not a gamer, you can still understand the anthology.) I think that this volume really gets at the heart of some porn-related issues, and hints at some of the definitional problems; if you’re interested in problems of porn, you should definitely check it out.
What is the ugly side of the porn industry, and how are regular users responsible?
The important issues of porn are the same as the important issues in all types of sex work. Did the participants consent? Are they working in a respectful, safe environment? I recently read an excellent article about cam girls by Sam Biddle, and I love that article because it talks about both the super-empowered wealthy Western women who make great money and live a fairy-tale life … and also the women, often in the Third World, who are clearly unhappy and exploited.
One thing I particularly appreciate about that article is how it points out that exploited cam girls are much harder to speak with directly than rich, self-employed cam girls. I firmly believe that there are many sex workers who freely chose and enjoy their jobs, but the following facts must be acknowledged:
1) Less privileged sex workers — people who are at a disadvantage because of their race, class, gender identity, or whatever — are more likely to be exploited and abused and silenced, because their disadvantages will be used against them. For example, a poor person is obviously more likely to do work that they hate because they’re desperate for money.
2) Less privileged sex workers are less likely to have the time, education, or knowledge to effectively articulate their experience. Sidenote: please check out the Speak Up! trainings, which are intended to educate sex workers on how to deal with the media, and help sex workers describe their own experience.
3) As a result of these factors, the discourse is often dominated by privileged sex workers. This is a serious problem. The activist Audacia Ray, who is a personal hero of mine, has an article about this. When you look at porn, this means that a lot of the sex workers we hear from around the online gendersphere — maybe most? — are having an awesome time.
And I certainly think that privileged sex workers should talk about that as much as they want! Shout it from the rooftops! But I also think we must be cautious about drawing conclusions based solely on those voices. I particularly appreciate privileged sex worker writers who both love their jobs and make an effort to highlight less-privileged voices.
So, what are a porn consumer’s responsibilities? I would be absolutely thrilled if more porn consumers would boycott porn whose employees are exploited. I acknowledge that it’s not always easy to tell whose employees are exploited, and whose aren’t — especially given the three considerations I listed above. Years ago, I published a two-part interview with a BDSM pornographer named Tim Woodman, and the most interesting part was the second half, because that was where he responded to audience criticisms from the first half. Tim received questions like: “If some porn models are being paid hush money, then how are consumers supposed to know which porn is okay?” And his answer was, honestly, that it’s often difficult and nuanced. (The male feminist writer Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote a response piece called “I Can Never Tell.”)
I have often thought that it’s past time for “fair trade sex work,” where ethics becomes a selling point. I have also often thought the most feminist thing I could do would be to open a brothel where the employees are treated well. Honestly, if it weren’t illegal in my home country, I might have done this already. (Which, incidentally, highlights one of the problems of making sex work illegal: making sex work illegal mostly chases away ethical people, whereas unethical ones don’t mind so much.)
In the meantime, there are feminist pornographers who work really hard to put out ethical porn. I couldn’t possibly name them all, but it’s worth checking out the Feminist Porn Awards, as well as the documentary Hot ‘n’ Bothered: Feminist Pornography. Here’s a nice piece called “The Five Hallmarks of Feminist Porn.” And for those with an interest in BDSM, I recommend the challenging documentary Graphic Sexual Horror — it really gets at the meat of these issues.
Extra credit: the male porn star Tyler Knight has some excellent writing about his emotional difficulties, like this piece. Just in case you were thinking that everything is peaches and cream for male porn stars.
Can porn use become a problem?
Anything can become a problem. I don’t have time for people who claim that sex-related stuff is more likely to become a problem than other stuff that feels good.
When I’m with people who are capable of starting the conversation from an agreement that “sexuality is not necessarily bad” and “people have different sexual preferences,” I sometimes have interesting conversations about porn use being a problem. But you have to start there.