September 2009


This post is about a very powerful documentary called The Price of Pleasure, of which you can see a full length preview here. I advise caution before watching this documentary as it contains sexually explicit material as well as very degrading examples of porn. At the same time, it makes you aware of the intense exploitation of the sex workers in porn and the effect it has on viewers and society.

A lot of the debates about porn center around its potential effects on viewers. While that’s certainly an important issue, I first want to discuss the effects on the sex workers themselves. I’ve heard ignorant comments like “they’re getting paid to do it” used to justify degrading acts of porn. But getting paid to do something degrading does not justify it. It’s called EXPLOITATION. How many dollars would you want to be paid for each of these acts: 1) being waterboarded, 2) having your face forced down a toilet and flushed on, 3) being penetrated by a car gearshift, 4) having sex with an animal, or perhaps 4) having 10 guys cumming on your face/in your mouth? These are all acts in certain porns, and not totally uncommon. Even if you can put a price on these acts, do you think a porn actress is getting paid that much? I don’t think so. Assuming that the actresses are getting paid for their work and forgetting the pain they may be going through for the viewer’s pleasure is ignorant.

As for the effects porn has on viewers, I for one don’t believe it causes all viewers to perform degrading acts, but it certainly normalizes it. A lot of violence against women happens in countries where porn is not widely available – South Asia being just one example. The porn makers aren’t the only ones thinking of ideas to degrade other humans (mostly women). However, porn brings certain degrading or unhealthy acts towards women into the mainstream. It even makes degradation seem desirable, as in the Girls Gone Wild videos. Whatever we might consider disgusting suddenly becomes acceptable if being done for profit.

Not all porn aims to degrade women. There are feminist porn films too, which some people prefer to call erotica. Banning any form of sexual images is certainly not the solution. But like any other industry, porn needs to be regulated. It needs to be regulated on the basis of human rights and public health. I’m not hopeful that it’ll happen anytime soon, as Americans don’t even seem to be interested in regulating a corrupt, failed financial system, or a corrupt healthcare system that let’s people die. But that’s the direction we should go for.

I wanted to write some kind of post on this issue after hearing a friend talk about how her boyfriend watched porn with friends. She didn’t seem to have a problem with it since her boyfriend only watched it to laugh at the absurdity. But any kind of pleasure from porn, sexual or entertainment, comes with a price. It comes at the expense of porn actresses, and at the expense of women in general.

Advertisements

One the things feminists have to deal with a lot is the issue of “choice.” We are told all the time, everywhere, that somehow we restrict women who “choose” to be housewives, sex workers, or women who “choose” plastic surgery to enhance their looks or women who “choose” not to breastfeed their infants. Many times we know when someone is making a “choice” that is not really a “choice,” but we don’t have the words to explain logically why we’re right.

While working on my senior thesis on American women’s choices about childbirth, I came accross this little gem by Barbara Katz Rothman that put into words what I had known all along:  “There will never be ‘free’ choice, unstructured reproductive choice. But the structure in which choices are made should, and I believe ultimately can, be made fair, ethical and moral.” It’s so true! Every choice that we make in life is constructed, whether it’s constructed by our skills and interests, resources, social expectations, or a desire to defy social expectations, or usually a combination of all these factors. And all these factors provide the structure in which our choices are made. Hence, it’s really important to examine these structures in which the choices are made to decide whether it is a “free” choice or not. “Free” is a misnomer because really what we’re implying is “happy” or “satisfactory.” But anyways, if a structure is oppressive, then a happy choice really can’t be made in it. That’s why some privileged women might experiment with sex work and find it empowering, but it’s not really empowering for poor, abused women who were unaware of other options in life, or never had any. That’s not to say that all these women need rescuing or can’t be empowered by the money they make from sex work, and it’s also not to say that the misogyny in the sex industry doesn’t exist in others, but what I’m saying is choice is really context dependent.

This is also apparent in the area of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Are women really “choosing” a C-section because it’s healthy and cool? Or are they choosing it because they’re not fully informed about the risks to both themselves and their babies from a C-section, and that labor pains need not be excruciating, and vaginal tears are unlikely if their births are attended by a good midwife and supportive system? Are they aware of the better systems other countries use? With the issue of breastfeeding, did the women just wake up one day and decide they didn’t want to breastfeed? Or did they find it annoying because our employment structure doesn’t allow enough flexibility, and our doctors aren’t encouraging enough of an option that is clearly superior to the best formula out there? Worse yet, are the women “choosing” not to breastfeed because they hold on to the notion that it’s poor and uncultured to breastfeed, or that breastfeeding will make their breasts sag which will make their “boys will be boys” husbands unattracted to them?

The “choice” to be a housewife is only a “free choice” for those women who are privileged enough to not worry about earning money or housework (done by a maid). Even then, I guess their choices are constructed by the misfortune of not having and interest or skill they could explore rather than just spend money. Being a housewife is not a “free choice” for a woman who decides that childcare is actually more expensive than what her job can afford. Getting plastic surgery is not a “free choice” when a woman is getting it to conform to society’s standard of beauty. How many white women in America choose to be paler? How many choose to be a size 10 if they can be a size 6? I’m fine with women conforming to certain expectations of society, because I do to, but don’t tell me you’ve made a “free choice” to get Botox in a culture that doesn’t like wrinkles!! Recently I heard friends discussing about how a certain woman’s choice to get breast implants was “awesome” because “she did it for herself.” Some people think that a woman is doing something for herself as long as a man is not directly involved, but I don’t think that’s correct. Where did that woman get the idea that getting breast implants was cool? Where did she get the desire to get the implants in the first place? And why didn’t she have the desire to get flat breasts, or artificial wrinkles, or extra fat injected in her tummy? It’s because the society she lives in considers fake breasts to be beautiful, and even though she didn’t get implants to please any particular man, she got implants because she felt better about herself as she fit society’s beauty standards.

In Bangladesh, many women don’t shave their legs because most women don’t show them. In America, many women shave their legs because they have to appear smooth when appearing in public. That choice is cultural. Most women may not mind it, but it is still not a “free” choice. I myself shave my legs and tweeze my eyebrows, but I wouldn’t have done it id hairy legs and bushy eyebrows were in vogue. Would women have gotten breast implants if the beauty standard was to have flat breasts? I don’t think so. The only kinds of choice that might be considered “free” are the ones a person makes for themselves despite unpopularity and resistance from society.

And finally, this concept of choice is important to be a global feminist. Some ignorant Americans tend to question whether third world women have “choice.” The implication is that third world societies are less equal than Western societies. While that might be true, it’s true because third world countries have been exploited and depleted by the West so now we have to deal with another set of problems. Both men and women have fewer choices in the third world, it’s not just that third world men are more sexist. It annoys me to no end when some American women think their choices to put of make up everyday, wear uncomfortable shoes, or get plastic surgery somehow make them “freer” than third world women. Yeah right, they’re freer now to put more toxins in their body like Botox and now Latisse (for “inadequate” eyelashes). Some ignorant women take it a step further and assume that because America is a land of opportunity, it’s a woman’s choice to do porn. Somehow getting a few bucks for having your head forced down a toilet is a “free” choice.

Hardly any choices we make in our lives is a “free” choice by itself. But it can be a happy choice when made in a free structure that doesn’t have preset standards for what is beautiful or what is acceptable. I realize that is utopia, but until we get such flexible standards, please don’t tell me that you made a “free” choice to use Latisse.