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Entries in pornography (4)


Demanding Abuse-Free Porn Is Great—But What About Everything Else We Buy?


Earlier this month, the European Parliament rejected a proposed ban on “all forms of pornography,” including online porn, throughout the continent. This news elicited a variety of reactions, including a piece by The Guardian contributor Tanya Gold, in which she argued that porn should be certified by a committee of “authentic feminists” before it is published—or, at the very least, consumers should learn how porn is made and where it comes from.

I am not sure what an “authentic feminist” is, and I do not particularly like the idea of someone with a specific mindset deciding what I get to see or read. I do, however, agree with the notion that we, as consumers, have a duty to try and ascertain if the products we buy are made in abusive or coercive situations.

But why only porn?

What about diamonds? Watchdog groups have long reported torture, slave-like situations, and the use of child labor in diamond mines in several countries, including Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone. Profits from diamond mines have fueled conflicts for decades, contributing to the deaths of thousands of civilians. Yet the diamond market continues to grow, both worldwide and in the United States. In the United States, this is likely linked to the fact that many women, for reasons I cannot fathom, find getting married without a sizeable diamond engagement ring objectionable, if not impossible. In fact, over 80 percent of U.S. women who get married receive a diamond engagement ring, averaging over $3,000 a piece. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the most frequent question women ask about engagement rings is “How much did it cost?”—not “Was anyone harmed while producing this?”

And how about shoes? A recent study released by Stop Child Labor examined 28 shoe-producing companies and found that at least eight used child labor at some point in their supply chain. Moreover, the study concluded that none of the 28 companies could guarantee that child labor was not used in their production chain, because they only supervise the final link in that chain. But how many of us first think about child labor when we see a gorgeous pair of heels or go shopping for new sneakers?

The same is true for chocolate. As a recent Oxfam campaign documented, women who pick cocoa beans used in products manufactured by the world’s largest chocolate companies are regularly subjected to labor rights abuses, including low pay, excessively long hours, and sex discrimination. Cocoa sold with the Fair Trade label, which guarantees a certain level of pay and labor rights, represents only about 0.5 percent of the current cocoa market worldwide. So it’s fair to assume that very few people think about such worker conditions before they buy a candy bar.

I’ve deliberately mentioned products that are indulgences, because none of us needs diamonds, chocolate, or multiple pairs of shoes. So in these cases, it would be possible for us to ask the right questions and refrain from buying products fueled by abuse. But most of us do not. Why is that?

One reason is transparency. As in the case of the shoe suppliers, it’s not always possible to determine whether a shoe company sources its products using child labor, because watchdog groups cannot always see through the multiple supply chain links. Sometimes even the companies themselves have a hard time with that.

Another reason is convenience. I know environmentalist vegans who smoke, ignoring what tobacco farming does to the environment and farm workers. And I know Fair Trade lobbyists who drink Diet Coke like it’s water, even though Coca-Cola and its subsidiaries have had their share of alleged child labor issues. In short, I know any number of people who choose to examine some of the products they consume in detail but leave the rest alone. I am OK with that. As someone clever once said, the examined life is no picnic. We all choose our battles.

This does not mean governments can abdicate their responsibility to implement and enforce human and labor rights. And it does not mean that we shouldn’t demand transparency in sourcing for everything we consume. Pornography, like shoes and diamonds and chocolate, should be abuse-free.

It does, however, mean that it is hypocritical to demand abuse-free products only for things we don’t use or like. In her piece, Tanya Gold compares porn to meat (another product we don’t really need), arguing that we should demand the same transparency for both. I say we should demand transparency for all products and then leave people to decide which, of the abuse-free alternatives, they want to consume.


A Theory on Gendered Effects of Insecurity, Or Why Men Tweet Their Penis Pix


Last Mother’s Day, news had just broken that then-Congressional Representative Anthony Weiner had tweeted a picture of his erect penis to a woman, thinking the tweet was private. The blogosphere immediately erupted in debates over the relative merits of women over men, the moral weight of adultery (Weiner is married), and the need for public officials to stop thinking they understand new media.

For me, however, a central question raised by the event was never fully addressed: what is it with men and photos of their erect penises?  

In the 12 months that have passed since the Weiner incident, I have received unsolicited penis pictures from several men I wasn’t dating, didn’t plan on dating, and in some cases didn’t even really know.

And I am not alone. Only just this week, a friend of mine received an erect-penis picture via text from a coworker who said he had intended it for his girlfriend but had thumbed in the wrong number.

In fact, a quick poll of those of my (male and female) friends who cared to answer the question shows that un-solicited penis pictures are not all that uncommon. Interestingly, the women I asked all said they had never sent photos of their genitalia to anyone. Absent more representative polling (and somehow I don’t think this question has ever made it into a survey), let’s just say for now that men are more likely to take and send photos of their genitalia than women.

The question is why? And... so what?

Here’s my theory.

Men and women are taught to deal with social situations differently. Men and boys are overwhelmingly taught to depend on themselves, to be direct, and to celebrate their physical strength. Women and girls, on the other hand, are taught the value of social coherence and politeness, and are often not encouraged to celebrate their bodies at all. Whether these are innate sex differences or acquired characteristics is an open question, but socially, for most people, and in varying degrees, the sciences agree that gender (i.e. learned norms), if not sex (i.e. biological distinctions), makes a difference.

This is the framework that makes a man more likely than a woman to think a photo of an erect penis is a good way to communicate something positive about a man’s body. And it is the same framework that makes a woman more likely than a man to worry if she is overweight or unattractive (which according to prevailing norms often is seen as synonymous).  

Like most internalized behavioural patterns, the difference is the starkest when the individual feels threatened.

In the context of an inter-personal relationship this means — to be slightly clichéd about it— that men are more likely to react to insecurity by reasserting their physical superiority (“You have never seen a bigger dick than mine!”) and women are more likely to react by begging for approval (“Does this dress make my ass look big?”). Both proclamations get old fast, not least because anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of either knows there is only one appropriate answer, regardless the truth: “Of course not.”

But even if you transplant this dynamic to a professional or other public arena, these somewhat primitive reactions are problematic. Men are more likely to assert their superiority — despite and often because of any insecurity they might feel — whereas women are more likely to phrase statements as declarations of submission — despite being experts in their field and sometimes precisely because they are.

This very real gender difference is at least partially at fault when it comes to companies and society more generally valuing women’s work less than men’s: women, themselves, tend to play down their own value.

To be sure, there is no research on the relation between penis pictures, gendered social cues, and how it relates to job performance and pay rates. Moreover, I am certainly not trying to blame women for the discrimination they suffer. And I don’t believe any of these tendencies are universal, absolute, or inevitable.

However, there is more than enough science to support the existence of gendered reactions to threats and insecurity, and to point out the different ways in which boys and girls are taught to think about and enjoy their bodies, even today.

Perhaps more to the point, male (sexual) aggression — even when solicited, welcomed, and enjoyed — is part of a gendered framework that, if imposed in a general and mechanical manner, hurts us all. In fact, research shows that gendered norms make men much less likely than women to seek medical or other help for physical and mental health issues, with very real consequences for their health and happiness.

So, gals, next time you put on your favourite dress, ask yourself how you feel, not how someone else might think you look. And guys: if you find yourself about to snap a picture of your junk, ask yourself if that really is your best side, and if you wouldn’t rather be known for who you are.


Women CAN Earn More Than Men - But Only In One Industry. Porn.


This month, one of Belgium’s women’s rights organizations, zij-kant, caused quite a stir with their annual “Equal Pay Day” message. Instead of merely high-lighting that women in Belgium, on average, earn 22 percent less than men, the organization launched a video starring porn actress Sasha Grey with the message “Porn is about the only way women can earn more than men; find a better alternative.”

The campaign has not surprisingly garnered quite a lot of interest, ranging from outrage that Sasha Grey is supposedly presenting herself as a victim, to amusement with the video’s explicit content, to applause. I find myself in the third camp, for three main reasons.

First of all, it is getting more and more difficult to garner outrage over the continued fact that women almost uniformly and in every single country in the world earn less than men for similar work. In June 2011, the US Supreme Court narrowly decided that it would not even hear a case regarding pay and promotion discrimination against women, because “women” are not a class. The plaintiffs had argued that, while there surely are many differences between women, when it comes to pay and promotion we share one key characteristic: we tend to be under-valued at work. The Belgium video short-circuits the glassy-eyedness that often follows a comment about entrenched gender pay gaps. If only because the protagonism of a porn actress titillates, at least the ad has people listening, including potentially a few who would otherwise have resisted sitting through a minute and a half of “feminist propaganda.”

Secondly, the core message—that porn is one of the very few professions where women consistently earn more than men (sex work being another)—is more likely to jolt people into action than a more generic “isn’t it awful” comment about continued pay inequity. Porn and sex work, generally, are still relatively stigmatized professions in many countries. Moreover, even for those who understand that sex work, including as a porn actress, can be a choice, the point is precisely that no one should be forced to carry it out. Therefore, the notion that women would have to have sex for money in order to overcome pay discrimination is a stark reminder that something has to be done.

Thirdly, the ad impressively strikes a balance between presenting Sasha Grey as an empowered woman who is choosing to work as a porn actress, and using the stigma of pornography and sex work to get a crucial message across. This is all the more remarkable because subtle messaging around pornography and sex work is so rare. A recent article in The Atlantic highlights how politicians’ reluctance to even talk about sex work keeps policies in place that seriously hamper the effectiveness of HIV prevention initiatives. While New York City distributes free condoms by the millions, for example, city police have destroyed or confiscated thousands of condoms found on suspected sex workers, and use condom possession to justify arrests.

The Sasha Grey ad is bound to make some people uncomfortable, even very uncomfortable, because of its explicit language and peripheral nudity. But what really should make us uncomfortable is the continued undervaluing of women in the formal workplace. I am thrilled that Sasha Grey has thrown her fame behind this message.


New Pornography Regulations In LA: Are They Addressing the Right Problem?


On January 25, the mayor of Los Angeles signed regulation that requires the use of condoms by all performers in adult movies filmed within the city’s borders. The regulation conditions the issuance of film permits for adult movies on compliance with existing California worker safety rules, which already require barrier protection for workers exposed to blood and other potential contaminants (including semen). The ordinance spells out what these state safety rules mean in the context of the adult film industry, and requires producers to pay enough for film permits to finance workplace safety inspections.

Public health advocates have not surprisingly celebrated the regulation. Adult film producers have equally predictably been less enthusiastic, citing safe sex films as being less popular with viewers and actors alike, and threatening to move their filming elsewhere. This would not be too hard since the ordinance applies only to Los Angeles City and not to the broader Los Angeles County.

But there are other reasons the ordinance may not be as effective as one might hope.

The first is that fewer adult movies are filmed and produced professionally than was the case ten years ago. Over the past decade, free internet sites driven by home videos and other amateur content have taken over a growing slice of the porn image and film market. While it is clear that these sites are not posting free content for philanthropic reasons—indeed, online porn is said to be worth $5 billion a year—it is equally clear that the majority of US-produced porn content streamed online is not and will not be subject to filming permits.

As a corollary to this, the ordinance will not be very effective at influencing the overall depiction of sex in imagery and media. This outcome is all the more lamentable because encouraging condom use is so important. Let’s look at the facts.

Fact number one: young people in the United States act particularly clueless about the cause-and-effect links between unprotected sex, the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and unplanned pregnancies. In the United States, about half of the 19 million individuals newly diagnosed with an STI every year are between 15 and 24 years old. In addition, about 800,000 girls and young women between 15 and 19 years old get pregnant every year, mostly unplanned. Only about 60 percent of sexually active high school students say they used a condom during their last sexual encounter.

Fact number two: frighteningly few teenagers and pre-teens in the United States receive effective information and guidance about sex, despite the fact that 9 out of 10 kids in public secondary schools will receive some form of sex education at least once during their time from 7th to 12th grade. This is partially due to the fact that the federal government has invested several billion dollars in abstinence-only programs since 1997, including $5 million in the 2012 federal appropriations bill alone. Abstinence-only sex education teaches sexual abstinence until marriage as the only viable option for teenagers to avoid STIs and pregnancy. Under this logic, condoms are not only ineffective but also immoral because they “make” teenagers have sex. (Study after study has proven abstinence-only sex education to be ineffective at best and harmful at worst).

Fact number three: the internet is where kids go for the information they feel they need, including about sex. Successive Youth Internet Safety Surveys have shown that children between 10 and 17 years old are increasingly exposed to sexual content on the web, and, in fact, that to a growing extent they seek this content out. This is not surprising. Teenagers will always be curious about sex, and the availability of internet viewing on portable computers and other mobile devices such as MP3 players makes it easier for them to seek out sexual content in privacy.

The scary bit is that those children and adolescents who depend on the internet for information about sex—that is, those who do not receive effective sex education at school or at home—are more likely to be influenced by what they see. Already a desk study commissioned by the US Department of Health and Human Services notes that the general effects of pornography on the viewer include more permissive sexual attitudes, including a heightened tolerance for unprotected sex.

Which brings us back to condom use in pornographic movies and imagery. We cannot really prevent children from seeking out or inadvertently being exposed to explicitly sexual content online, including from porn sites. And we cannot mandate parental support for comprehensive sex education or even just an understanding attitude towards sex. As a result, if most online porn content depicts unsafe sex as the norm, a scarily large proportion of teenagers will see it as such.

We are not, however, as powerless as the Los Angeles City ordinance. We can think of creative ways to support adult content that features safe sex—for example, government-sponsored awareness campaigns or guidelines for amateur porn, potentially supported by financial incentives. And, by mandating comprehensive age-appropriate sex education in all schools, we can make sure that no teenager will have to depend on the internet for information on sex.