A modest proposal: the case for fair trade porn

This post was originally published at Huffingtonpost.com.  It was also published, in a slightly different form, in the Boston Globe.

We have fair trade coffee and humanely raised pork. So why can’t we create a market for ethically sourced pornography? A couple of decades ago, people didn’t give much thought to their food’s provenance. We didn’t care about carbon footprints or the working conditions of the poor Africans who sold us our coffee beans. Slowly, however, consumption habits began to shift under the weight of scientific evidence and cultural change. We’re becoming a little more selective in our consumer choices.

Yet not with that multi-billion dollar white elephant: pornography. We hear rumblings here and there about the sexual trafficking of women and children, and it’s always a relief when a criminal ring is busted for what’s euphemistically called “abuse.” It’s reassuring to know that whatever was going on in the far reaches of a few sick minds has little to do with our own primitive — but relatively harmless — impulses.

But do porn consumers ever think about where their porn is sourced? What a downer! No one wants to hear about drug-addicted runaways or Albanian teenage sex slaves. Nobody wants to imagine STD infections on movie sets or the life circumstances that would impel a woman to engage in physically punishing sexual acts on camera. (And just Google the word “bukkake” if you want a quick education in the mainstreaming of fringe sex acts.)

Part of the problem is our reluctance to acknowledge the pornification of contemporary life. If we can relegate porn to the margins of our cultural conversation, we can pretend it only touches a small minority of adult men, rather than the vast majority of Americans, many even in their first or second decade of life.

Maybe it’s just too embarrassing to admit the extent of our obsession, but people of all stripes really like watching sex acts. For example, surveys of Evangelical Christians report porn viewing rates similar to the general population. Utah leads the nation in per capita subscriptions to online porn. Technology has produced the ideal Petri dish for the biggest sexual market in human history, providing easy access, affordability, and anonymity in one appealing package.

Calls to regulate the content of pornography, like Tipper Gore’s ratings system for music lyrics, are missing the point. One person’s degradation may be another person’s kink, and we don’t need more Rick Santorums policing our fantasies. Moreover, sanitized desire, like a lot of so-called “feminist porn,” can be a buzz-kill.

But shouldn’t consumers have some context to evaluate what they are viewing? Shampoo bottles and Tuna cans assure us that animals were unharmed. Shouldn’t we know if porn actors are subject to out-of-control STD rates, or are forced to do things against their will? At a minimum, a Porn housekeeping seal of approval would tell us by, and for whom, the porn was made. It might make you think twice before downloading that random YouPorn video or chatting with a “horny Russian slut” at LiveJasmin.

There probably are attractive, uninhibited people who are excited by the rewards of porn careers — people who are untroubled by the ethics or lifestyle limitations of making a living as sex workers, or who at the least may consider it the best of their uninspiring options. But there are probably relatively few of these people, and consumers should know who they are so they can make informed choices.

Making such informed choices would have a few collateral benefits. If we knew for sure that porn production was free of coercion and desperation, for example, we might find there are fewer women willing to be gagged, choked, and “triple penetrated” on camera.

Fair Trade porn might also finally allow us to call a moratorium on assertions that women aren’t aroused by visual imagery or don’t sometimes fantasize about anonymous, unemotional sex. And market forces could eventually affect the aesthetic standard of pornography, which might, in turn, shift the skewed gender balance of viewership. If you think this is a fairytale, recall that a generation ago, no one talked about animal abuse or the case against corporal punishment. Cultural norms do change.

Pornography is a fact of life, and parental controls and moralizing spoilsports won’t make a dent in its exponential growth. But the bar needs raising. The sustainable food movement hasn’t eliminated factory farms or our inexhaustible craving for junk food. But it provides an alternative model of consumption that we can aspire to. Organic and fair trade practices are leading us, gradually but inevitably, to a better relationship with food. Maybe Fair Trade porn could reconnect us to a better relationship with the human body.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
This entry was posted in Entertainment/Pop culture, Huffingtonpost.com, Women-related and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to A modest proposal: the case for fair trade porn

  1. aheram says:

    I was so confused when I read this. I was expecting something satirical, but after reading this it is obviously not.

    The Swift-esque “a modest proposal” will throw some people off….

    • It was not satirical, that’s true, though I thought it was mischievous to play off the word “modest,” given the subject matter. I also thought it would be interesting to reference a famous satirical piece because I knew that many people would assume my proposal was a joke. But, as you noted, it was not. Sorry to confuse you! But part of my aim was to create a conversation, to prompt more questioning, even to cause a little discomfort, for myself and for others. Maybe the title plays into that: Is she serious or not? Based on the extensive feedback I’ve received, from people on all ends of the political spectrum, people don’t know what to make of what I proposed. They think I am either hopelessly naive or a pervert. Thank you for reading it and commenting!

  2. Mel B. says:

    The “porn” coming out of Australia seems to (generally) fit in this “free range porn” category. It’s pretty enjoyable stuff and doesn’t leave any nasty aftertaste.

    • David says:

      I presume you are talking about what goes on behind the scenes — if so, how would one know that the porn from Australia is made under better conditions

  3. J. Meyer says:

    I like this concept, but do you have any thoughts on how to verify that a production was free of coercion and desperation? Seems tricky unless no money is exchanged and the performers are participating entirely for their own pleasure.

    • In all honesty, the advantage of being a writer, and not a policy maker, is that I can propose outlandish ideas and not have to figure out how to implement them! But I will say that there are markets for absolutely everything. The Atlantic has a wonderful article by Michael Sandel about the commodification of our culture and it’s everything-for-sale mentality. So I’m quite confident that a market for fair trade porn could actually be created and sustained, even where money is exchanged. I admit it would be difficult to monitor would of course be subject to a lot of corruption. The main point of my article was to create conversation and awareness, to encourage people to think about pornography in a different way, ie as a choice that has moral implications. A first step is to get people talking, just like has happened in the food industry, about how things ARE. Then, things can change. Thanks for commenting!

  4. VanessaVaile says:

    I’m posting the link to Contingent Faculty Discussion List with comment, “Off the beaten (no pun intended) track, but what about creating ‘a market for ethically sourced’ college teaching?”

    Somewhere I cannot remember, I came across a post about how a reading of a particular Talmud passage implicitly called for ethical consumption extending to how goods are produced and workers treated.

  5. terriredor says:

    This article makes a very useful, thoughtful connection between responsible consumer practices and the porn industry. I would argue that a follow-up article could actually name a few companies which are known for best practices in the adult industry already: Wicked Pictures, Digital Playground, Vivid Video and many smaller companies owned and operated by former/current performers who were unwilling to follow the usual path of desperation and degradation for work.

    I was glad to see this referenced on The Dish as well. I’m posting the introduction to this with links on my own site.

  6. Kevin says:

    I’m not disagreeing with the points you made in the article, or the desirability of creating such a market. However, doesn’t the utter failure of the “condoms only” videos of the late 80s/early 90s indicate that the market for such “ethical porn” just might not be there?

    I guess the answer to my question lies in the answer to the question as to whether any of the participants involved in some of the more off-the-beaten-path material falls into your “relatively few” who are actual free agents; I get the impression that such material makes up a larger share of the online market than the more mainstream stuff.

    One other point of interest – I just read an article recently (and I wish I could provide you the URL) on how there won’t ever be any more big-name female porn stars like Jenna Jameson. And one of the reasons cited by a female in the industry was that there are so many young women who are willing to perform in porn these days. I don’t have any numbers – and the article didn’t give any that I recall – but that may be a factor to consider in this whole dynamic. Not that it refutes your main point in any way; just thought I’d throw it out there.

  7. Tom says:

    Call me old fashioned, but what porn performers need not some airy, vague “fair trade” balm for the conscious of guilty porn consumers, but a union, just like other Hollywood and Broadway actors have.

    Sex workers in other countries have them. The lack of one is only a reflection of the abject position of collective bargaining in this country, which could be likened to one of the poses described above.

  8. Jay says:

    The overall scope of your argument presumes that we, as consumers, SHOULD care about how porn (straight OR gay porn) is sourced. (“But the bar needs raising,” you wrote.)

    My question to you is this: WHY should we care?

  9. Mike says:

    I have always preferred porn where i was given the strong impression that the lady seemed to be enjoying herself and wanted to be doing it. For example check out the work from Bree Olson, Jenna Haze or Bobbi Starr. If they are not enjoying what they are doing then they are Meryl Streep caliper actresses.

    Right now you see porn having to notify the viewer that they are registered under Section 2257 showing that the performers have been verified as being of legal age. Like food labeling requirements getting more thorough it would be nice to see information that the production was ethically made. Right now you sometimes get a BTS interview where the director asks the performer questions such as if they were comfortable doing such and such extreme sex act but it would be nice to see independent verification of this. The director is not exactly a disinterested observer.

  10. Well, fair trade porn does exist. I’m happy to report that I work with my fiance at MeetTheMayhems.Com and I’m proud to be a part of a sustainable and supportive erotic film/porn community here in the bay area. A lot of what I shoot with other people is done as “trade for content” which means I am an equal collaborator with anyone who lends their time and talent to a production. Rather than paying people, we often work with one another and we maintain ownership of our images. This is important because a performer will be paid once and only once by a studio; someone who owns their own images can sell them as many times as they might like. It means your work continues to work for you rather than someone else.

    Also, it does matter what kind of conditions porn performers work in when you buy porn. It’s important to remember that before the Screen Actors Guild came into play in Hollywood, performers had a lot of problems in the studio system. It’s worth a brief historical review to remember that *sex* isn’t the problem, labor conditions are.

    Images don’t provide very much information about whether or not a set was ethical. Sometimes the scariest looking fetish porn has the most upbeat, ethical, and friendly sets you could imagine where a romantic looking porn might have had exploitation, bad faith negotiation, or worse off camera. Whether or not a porn performer is deeply and personally fulfilled by their work doesn’t have to be your gold standard–do you worry about whether or not any of your other entertainers or service personnel are personally fulfilled by their jobs? What’s important is whether or not there was exploitation, abuse, or bad faith negotiation.

    In general, independent performers are great places to get porn if you’re worried about fair trade sources. It’s also worth checking out the feminist porn awards (http://goodforher.com/feminist_porn_awards) or reviews by sex positive feminist writers like Violet Blue (http://www.tinynibbles.com/) or (http://www.msnaughty.com/blog/).

    There’s a lot of porn out there and a lot of people who are working hard and challenging industry standards about who and what should be seen in erotic films and how they should be made and distributed. Like any other consumer good, making active and intentional choices about where your money goes does make a difference.

    Cheers!

  11. Jangali says:

    An excellent proposal. I am just not sure if you have a basis for the claim that relatively few people performing in the industry are doing so of their own free will. I would personally doubt that is the case, at least if you weight production by viewer numbers. But that unpleasant segment, whether it be fringe or mainstream, should be cleaned up, I agree. I don’t think you are naive, this could certainly take off as all it needs is a credible label.

  12. Si says:

    I appreciate your core idea about ethical porn, and I’m sorry you didn’t have time to question some of the premises you made about the manufacture and consumption of porn. I worked for what you might consider an ethical porn company for about a year. I am also a Ph D scientist, but I ended up mostly working in the music industry. I have made a hobby of learning about and trying out all the ethical alternative sexual practices I could find.

    The porn company I worked for had the idea that couples would like to see porn made by people who were couples in real life doing what they really did. They interviewed the couples about how they met, their sex practices, and how they felt about each other for about 10 minutes at the beginning of each film. I think a lot of this was hot, and some of it was endearing. The company went broke, we think partly because of distribution problems, but also because there is so much free stuff on the web. But the real surprise was that many of these couples didn’t want to do what they normally did. They wanted to do what they saw porn actors doing in the porn they watched. It was hard to direct them to be “real.”

    Like sex work in general, some porn is made under conditions that may be as bad as those in iPhone factories, but a lot is made in a sort of humdrum commercial way, and some is made by imaginative, creative people. US law required porn makers to put contact information in each film so authorities can see the releases and age verification records that producers are mandated to keep.

    You, like most people, assume that anybody who does a variety of sex you don’t like must have been coerced into it. Wrong. You can find people doing for fun any of the acts you outline above as unpalatable, including hard core bdsm and bukkake, In fact they pay admission fees to sex clubs so they can do them and meet others who are like minded. I have a friend who is a drop dead gorgeous blond who got so heavily into bukkake that she and her husband opened a web site and made some money from it. Money they didn’t need by the way because they were early retirees from a Fortune 500 company.

    Most people don’t grasp the uses of porn Porn. Certainly it is used for masturbation by both men and women. And it is used for couples to turn them on, perhaps to segue from their work and family stresses to a more erotic frame of mind. People also get ideas for new things to do from porn, so in that sense it is educational. Most people who have thought about it will acknowledge that mainstream porn tries to have a little something in it for everyone. Generally, out of a 90 minute film, most people only find a few 30 second sequences “really hot.” But for each person it is a different 30 seconds.

    Real sex is actually often boring to watch since orgasms are often achieved by 10 to 30 minutes of fairly repetitive, small movements. So the porn industry uses standard positions that are interesting to look at, but maybe not all that much fun to do. Usually what might be 30 minutes of foreplay is cut to a montage of maybe a minute or so. I think the porn industry may be a bit of a victim of it’s own folklore. I don’t know many women who like having their partners pull out and cum on their face, but this is considered the “money shot” in porn. The shot that the male actors have to be able to pull off, as it were.

    One last shocker. The much bandied about idea that porn is “bad” for kids us utter crapola. Anyone who does sex to children should be locked away for life, but children are not harmed by learning about sex or seeing depictions of it. For example, in Sweden porn stills are posted at the entrance to theaters that show children’s films in the afternoon. It hasn’t harmed Swedes to any extent. See Marjorie Heins book “Not in Front of the Children: Indencency, Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth” if you don’t believe me.

    I recently came across the hottest porn I’ve seen in decades. My wife and I were rummaging through some boxes we hadn’t looked at in decades and came across a couple of rather vanilla nudes of her taken about 40 years ago. She is joking about hiding them because they turn me on so much. Oh, and yes, she has been my partner in sexual exploration, among other things, for the last half century.

    • Thank you for your long and thoughtful reply. But I wonder if you are protesting a bit much. If we both can agree that at least some porn is made under less than ideal working conditions, including coercion, I don’t see why it matters what I may or may not view as acceptable, appealing etc.. You’ve made quite a few assumptions about me, while accusing me of making assumptions about others! I think this is a distraction from the point of my essay, which was to argue for greater transparency for consumers. I don’t particularly care what consenting adults do but I do care a lot about understanding whether and how consent is negotiated. I am not at all surprised that there are women who genuinely want to be gagged/choked etc. onscreen. The question is: how many? And in a world of different norms and practices and opportunities, would they feel differently? I believe this is an entirely legitimate question. And I believe it’s unrealistic to view “consent” as detached from social realities. Put another way: beautiful women with college degrees and job prospects are, I would argue, statistically less likely to become porn actors than beautiful women who are poor and uneducated. (And, yes, there are exceptions.) I have received heartfelt responses from young women who were victims of abuse and drug addiction who have a very different view of the porn industry than what you describe. Clearly, it’s a complex issue that gets to the heart of many basic (and sometimes conflicting) societal values, and I don’t think the concerns I raised reflect mere ignorance.

      I feel what’s missing in your response is an acknowledgement that the vast majority of pornography caters to heterosexual male tastes and norms – which have evolved over the last couple decades, as tastes and norms do. Do women like this changed landscape? Some do, some don’t. Is it possible to imagine a world where greater or fewer numbers of women would want to perform certain sex acts? Of course it is. Behaviors change. Power structures change. There was a time when oral sex was considered outre, now it’s mainstream. But it seems disingenuous to downplay the reality that most – not all! – pornography privileges men’s financial, sexual, physical, and cultural power. Whether or not this assymetry is a turn-on to most women performers and viewers, I can’t say. It’s an open question whether women would so happily sign up for particular sex acts (paid or unpaid, recreational or work-related) if they lived in a different world, where those norms about what is sexy and financially rewarding were different. I honestly don’t know the answer. But I suspect, as you suggest, that not all women “like having their partners pull out and cum on their face.” I think greater attention to the “sourcing” of pornography would force a more honest discussion of the pros and cons of the product the industry is selling.

      I appreciate your perspective and thank you for your feedback. My intention was to generate conversation, and I have learned a lot from all the responses to my work.

  13. Si says:

    First, I really appreciate your long response to my post. I take your concerns with these issues as genuine and heartfelt. And I want to think that your motivation is similar to mine, in wanting to end slavery and abuse. It appears to be well documented that slavery exists in many kinds of work and must not be tolerated. Economic coercion is less clear. There are likely office, factory, and mine situations that are worse to work in than a porn set. And remember, cinema is the grand illusion. Some of the things that may look horrific in a film really aren’t. Seeing someone being “choked” doesn’t mean that they are actually being choked hard enough to harm them in any way. Elementary school age children can see much more horrible things happen to people on network TV than are depicted in most porn films. In both cases no real harm is done to the actors. Sweden, by the way, has much more stringent laws about how much violence children can see than sex. They even censor the old Tarzan films.

    I stand by what I said, which was that some of your statements don’t appear to have research to back them up. I did not talk about “what if’s” or “a different world.” I talked about what I have personally witnessed and experienced. I would rather look at these issues in terms of testable hypothesis instead of “arguments.” For example, you state: “Put another way: beautiful women with college degrees and job prospects are, I would argue, statistically less likely to become porn actors than beautiful women who are poor and uneducated.” This sounds plausible, but the best information I have is that many people who get into sex work have been sexually abused in childhood. In other words, abuse, not class may be the determining factor. I don’t know if there are studies that have looked at this. My information comes from a woman I know well who managed an adult peep show. She worked with hundreds of women who were strippers and some who had done prostitution as well. I got to know some of these women and a few became close friends. My friend felt that some of these women were trying to work out issues around their sexuality as well as make much better money than they could in the business world.

    Many other women who get into sex work are college students who are attracted by the high hourly wage and the thrill of doing something a little transgressive. They do sex work for a while and then have other careers. It is a pretty complex world, and making generalizations about sex workers being victims who can’t help themselves is patronizing at best.

    Some were addicts, which might be expected since abuse may be a principal gateway to addiction. The few sex workers I got to know who were also addicts told stories of childhood abuse.

    By the way, here is an announcement that came across my screen today:
    http://www.sexandculture.org/events/icalrepeat.detail/2012/04/01/3783/-/watching-porn-with-integrity-10-week-series-with-zachary-schlosser.html

    It shows that men are trying to figure out how to use porn responsibly. Although it may seem like a digression, I think the messages in porn are just as important as working conditions in constructing ethical porn. Almost anyone who watches porn will tell you they could make better porn than they can buy. And they agree that a lot of it is silly or gratuitously stupid or mean. But we are stuck with a society that doesn’t educate us on how to do sex safely, let along pleasurably. It is no wonder the standards for porn are so low. Ethical porn might be more educational, but it would be important to make it hot to be marketable. (The same could be said for video and computer games, which could also be more educational.) I still think one could make hot porn that was sex positive, and there is a little bit out there that is.

    Well, enough for now, and thanks for broaching this subject.

    Si

  14. Steve says:

    If anyone would like to hear from the people who make porn – check out our podcast. It’s all verbatim, performed by actors. Taken from interviews my team conducted in the LA porn business. I did see some sets that made the making of porn look unpleasant, but I’ve also seen the sets of TV shows and theater that were also unpleasant. I do think many people in the industry would say that if you’re interested in consensual non-coerced porn go to the work made by real companies established in the industry. And maybe even pay for it. But with everyone wanting free porn the viewer opens herself/himself into viewing all sorts of stuff made by amateurs. I can say from experience that all the sets I visited whether totally pleasant or a bit grim were all professional and everyone was there by choice doing what they did with full consent. Podcasts are here, anything “Pretty Filthy” is about the adult industry: http://www.thecivilians.org/programs/let_me_ascertain_you_podcast.html

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