Saturday, November 15, 2008

Working Conditions (by Phila)

There was a bit of debate here, a few weeks back, over the amount of support (if any) that progressives and feminists should give to the porn industry. For the record, I argued that at least some types of porn should be viewed (and regulated) as a manufactured product rather than an act of self-expression; and that the idea of "consent" to certain acts is based on an untenably idealized (and, I'd argue, inherently capitalist) notion of free will and rational choice that ignores virtually everything we've learned about human psychology, sexuality, and gender over the last century.

I also made the point that there's a difference between paying people to simulate degrading or violent acts on film, and paying people to perform them, and that the latter transaction can't necessarily be treated as nothing more than a First Amendment issue.

In other words, the violent porn industry is one to which I'm fairly hostile, and the standard liberal boilerplate that sanctifies the rights of porn producers to their profit margin strikes me as pre-critical (when it's not striking me as childish and deluded).

Which is why I'm very sympathetic to, but ultimately unconvinced by, this argument from sex worker Audacia Ray:
When I present the idea that its not the aggressive anal/choking/cum splattering that makes porn unethical or unfeminist, but the conditions under which the performers are doing said acts, people say...‘Its impossible to know what the working conditions are.’ It isn’t impossible....Just as people research textile factory conditions and then put pressure on corporations—-the same could happen with porn.
One difference, it seems to me, is that there's a basic need for textiles, and the role of textiles in society is essentially positive. While I'd never hold utility up as the standard to which artists or even sex workers must adhere, I do think it's worthwhile to make that simple distinction: no one needs to see someone else eat shit, and the fact that one can make money by producing this imagery says something interesting about our culture (as surely as, say, Hummers or foreign-made patriotic magnets do).

As I've argued elsewhere, money warps our sense of options the way gravity warps space-time. Things being as they are, the fact that people might someday be degraded in improved working conditions isn't comforting; we still have to face the the central issue that for many people -- and women too, of course -- the fact of financial duress (to say nothing of misogyny) comes before the decision to be choked or pissed on or smeared with shit. What Audacia Ray is recommending reminds me a little of California's Proposition 2, which will improve conditions for animals in factory farms: it's definitely more humane, and it's certainly worth supporting, but in the end it does nothing to change the basic relationship between predator and prey, which remains almost too obvious to notice.

I'm strongly resistant to what I see as the paternalism of telling people what's best for them, sexually, not least because it often ends up pathologizing or infantilizing women in the name of protecting them. At the same time, the point that I think Audacia Ray misses is that money is coercion. Which is a strange point to miss; that money is power, and that everyone has a price, are central narratives of our popular culture. And yet, the financial power it takes to produce and distribute violent porn is usually portrayed neutrally by its apologists, as though it were some widget-based example out of an Econ 101 textbook: there's an offer, acceptance, and consideration, so everything's fine.

Virtually anyone on the left can see through this argument instantly when someone like Tom DeLay uses the ideal of economic empowerment to defend paying a woman in Saipan a dollar a day to assemble some sort of consumer gadget; even the woman's heartfelt assurance that she's just grateful to be working will not necessarily convince us that she's there of her own free will. But sex is different, apparently; in this case, it's fine to exalt the form of liberation over its content. Sexual empowerment is simply a matter of doing whatever you want, sexually; why you want it, and who profits most from that desire -- financially and socially -- are questions we seem to be learning not to ask.