1. Sex Trafficking

The word pornography comes from pornos, prostitute, and grapho, to depict or write, meaning “depicting prostitutes.” We seem to be waking up to the possibility that the word’s etymology may very well be a description of reality. Pornography is fundamentally an experience of bought sex.

In the purchase of pornography, we pay for sexual arousal. We do not simply pay money for a video — though it is precisely this idea that allows us to remove ourselves from the possibility that we are engaging in sex trafficking — we also pay for the incidence of sexual use that the video depicts. The money spent on pornography does not disappear, it goes to pornographers, thus supplying and encouraging those who’s job it is to get men and women to have sex for money, that is, to prostitute themselves. In this regard, there is very little difference between the pornographer and the pimp. He arranges the experience of sexual gratification for a client by paying a woman the client doesn’t know to have sex. The American feminist Catherine MacKinnon, in a 2005 speech, made some very indicting claims regarding the relationship between pornography and sex trafficking:


Pornography then further creates demand for prostitution, hence for trafficking, through its consumption.Consuming pornography is an experience of bought sex, of sexually using a woman or a girl or a boy as an object who has been purchased. As such, it stimulates demand for buying women and girls and boys as sexual objects in the flesh in the same way it stimulates the viewer to act out on other live women and girls and boys the specific acts that are sexualized and consumed in the pornography. Social science evidence, converging with testimonial evidence of real people, has long shown the latter. As observed…in the hearings on the anti-pornography civil rights ordinance that Andrea Dworkin and I organized for the Minneapolis City Council at its request: “Men witness the abuse of women in pornography constantly, and if they can’t engage in that behavior with their wives, girlfriends, or children, they force a whore to do it.” On the basis of the experiences of a group of women survivors of prostitution and pornography, she told how pornography was used to train and season young girls in prostitution and how men would bring photographs of women in pornography being abused, say, in effect, “I want you to do this,” and demand that the acts being inflicted on the women in the materials be specifically duplicated. Research by Mimi Silbert and Ayala Pines on prostituted women in San Francisco also reported that the women spontaneously mentioned being raped by johns [those who purchase prostitutes] who said, essentially, “I [have] seen it in all the movies … . You know you love it,” referring to a specific pornography “flick.” Melissa Farley and her colleagues found that forty-seven percent of prostituted women in nine countries were upset by someone asking them to perform a sex act that had been seen in pornography. Forty-nine percent reported that pornography was made of them in prostitution. Mary Sullivan’s research in Victoria, Australia, where prostitution has been legalized for a decade, reports women describing pornography videos running constantly in brothels – to set the tone and mood, apparently – making safe sex more difficult. Pornography is documented to create demand for specific acts, including dangerous and demeaning ones inflicted on prostituted people, as well as for bought sex in general. If this is right – and Melissa Farley’s preliminary results show that it is – the more men use pornography, the more they use prostitutes.

In shortening the word “pornography” to “porn,” or “porno,” we are performing etymologically what arguably occurs in reality — moving from “depicting prostitutes” to an engagement with just “prostitutes.” In essence, pornography is associated with prostitution because pornography — insofar as it is the purchase of a person for sexual gratification — is already is a form of prostitution. In watching pornography, we cannot pretend that the consequences of our actions are limited to us and our browsing history, for we are supporting an industry, creating a demand for the exploitation of human beings, creating jobs for pornographers, and thereby creating incidences of sexual use. (And to be absolutely clear, there is no such thing as free porn. If you are not directly giving money to a pornographer, you are giving it to him through an advertiser.)

But surely — I imagine a complaint could go — this is only a problem if you take as an a priori the idea that porn is abusive and bad. Then yes, it is bad to watch pornography and thereby fund an industry that sells sexual acts for gratification. But what if you take the enlightened, modern view that the only morally limiting factor of a sexual act is that it be between “consenting adults”? Pornography, after all, is consensual. Women and men perform sexual acts for pornographers out of their own free will, flaunting their lifestyle, calling themselves “pornstars.” Why then, is it any evil to fund an industry which people join by choice?

2. The Illusion of Consent

From the point of view of the person watching pornography, there is no way to establish that any of its members are consenting to the act reproduced. How could you possibly know? From the point of view of the person watching pornography, there is likewise no way to know that it’s members are all legal adults. Could you with certainty distinguish a 16-year-old girl, the trafficking of whom is an incidence of child pornography, condemned by the law and by society, with an 18-year-old, the trafficking of whom is supposedly harmless, consensual, and absolutely legal? Given that there is no way we can affirm that the already inadequate moral minimum of “consenting adults” is being adhered to, we should shake from ourselves any semblance of confidence in the “consensual” nature of pornography.

MacKinnon notes that, “as with all prostitution, the women and children in pornography are, in the main, not there by choice but because of a lack of choices. They usually “consent” to the acts only in the degraded and demented sense of the word (common also to the law of rape) in which a person who despairs at stopping what is happening, sees no escape, has no real alternative, was often sexually abused before as a child, may be addicted to drugs, is homeless, hopeless, is often trying to avoid being beaten or killed, is almost always economically desperate, acquiesces in being sexually abused for payment, even if, in most instances, it is payment to someone else.”

This is not consent. Furthermore, even if there is some semblance of consent in regards to an initial entrance into the pornography, it is not informed consent. Truly informed consent would allow a woman to consent not only to a life of having pornography made of her, but to the content of that life. Two ex-porn-actors Shelley Lubben and Jenni Case bravely detailed the fact that should probably seem obvious — women are lied to about the content of their lives as porn actors. They are told that they will be given attention, safety, glamour and money. In reality, they are made to work in filthy conditions, they are constantly exposed to disease, they are pressured into sexual acts that they do not want to perform, and the vast majority of “pornstars” must resort to drugs and alcohol to numb both the physical and emotional pain of their “work.”

A 2012 thesis paper by Chelsea Thompson looks at multiple studies and confirms this fact:

Many enter the industry with a distorted view of what it will be like, and many producers and agents take advantage of this innocence (Hughes, 2000). New performers are thrown right into brutal and traumatic scenes and performances. Even if one initially consents and has signed a contract, if he/she is not allowed to back out, this can be considered trafficking. Additionally, if one ignores a participant’s request to stop and uses force to make one finish a scene or continue working in the industry, then this is sex trafficking. Also, preying on an addiction, either from before one’s entrance into the industry or after, can be classified as psychological coercion according to the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), child pornography is always seen as coercive in nature even if it is not for commercial purposes because it is preying on vulnerabilities and the inability to consent to something as an adult. The third prong is fraud, which Hughes (2010) states is “tricking someone into something she didn’t anticipate” (p. 4). Therefore, it can be argued that fraud occurs in most, if not all, instances of pornography (Hughes, 2010).

Consider this: In watching pornography, you do not know that a participant is an adult, mature enough to fully consent. Even if you could know this, you have no way of knowing whether that “legal age” is appropriate to the person. (There are 18 year olds, for instance, who are nevertheless not mature enough to fully consent.) Even if you knew a participant was of a legal age and of a level of maturity in which the life of a pornography could be freely chosen, you do not know whether she consented with full knowledge of the consequences, that is, whether she gave informed consent to her working conditions and the sexual acts she is exposed to. Also, given the massive use of drugs and alcohol, you have no way of knowing that a participant had the capacity to consent to a particular pornographic scene. I suppose one could argue that if a porn actor consents to taking drugs and getting high in order to better handle the pain of the pornographic shoot, she implies a consent to the pornographic shoot, but annihilating your ability to feel out of a fear of being fully present for a pornographic scene is not choosing in true, human freedom. And underlying all these objective uncertainties is the knowledge everyone watching pornography must have, that those women displayed in pornography are — in all likelihood — there out of desperation and poverty. To call a grasp at survival “consent” might satisfy the law, but it should not satisfy us.

If all these uncertainties are valid, this means that every time we sit down to watch pornography, we are willfully watching what has every possibility of being rape — a scenario of nonconsensual sex. Perhaps the ex-porn-stars exaggerate. Perhaps there’s not really so many possibilities of a porn video being a display of non-consensual sex. But to this I would ask my readers to imagine the following scenario:

You are walking in alley, when you see in the darkness a tussle of bodies that is probably not rape, rather it is probably real, earnest, sexual passion. Is this probability enough to justify ignoring the possibility that it is rape? Would you be comfortable going to sleep that night, on the basis that you ignored what only might have been rape? Of course not. The mere possibility that a porn video could be a document of rape — coupled with the impossibility for us to discern whether that is the case — should be enough to make us abandon watching all porn, for it is precisely in all porn that the rape-possibility is contained.

And to those who would argue you can “tell” the women involved in pornography are consenting, I would simply point out that the “actress” part of “porn actress” is no misnomer, and that my research into this matter has revealed that, after a while, the majority of female porn actresses are faking the pleasure they display.

3. Novelty

The idea that we can avoid the darkness of pornography and its underbelly of coercion and dominance by only dabbing our toes in porn which looks nothing like rape — making sure we aren’t watching anyone near the minimum age and using only porn that doesn’t seem to support an industry that makes it impossible for women to give informed consent — is a stupid idea, for two reasons. First, this certainty cannot be attained. Secondly, the act of watching pornography lends itself to wanting to watch “dark” pornography.

Scientists have been happily documenting what’s known as the Coolidge Effect, in which our brain releases dopamine — a chemical that causes pleasure in the brain — in response to a novel sexual scenario.

Watching the same “safe” pornography will be arousing at first, but as it becomes habit, the brain will respond by producing less and less dopamine until that pornography no longer arouses. What’s needed to get the dopamine hit that the porn-viewer seeks is novelty — something new. And as an article in Psychology Today points out, the internet provides us with seemingly endless opportunities for pornographic novelty:

Today’s Internet porn…offers endless fireworks at the click of a mouse. You can hunt (another dopamine-releasing activity) for hours, and experience more novel sex partners every ten minutes than your hunter-gatherer ancestors experienced in a lifetime. Dopamine hit after dopamine hit can induce a drug-like altered state. (Cocaine, for example, owes its high to excess dopamine circulating in the brain.) It’s powerful enough to override your brain’s normal sexual satiation mechanisms after orgasm.

This can lead to

…increased restlessness, irritability and dissatisfaction, desire for kinkier sex, finding your mate less attractive or compelling than the Internet, or a need [for] more extreme material. Experts call such effects “tolerance.” They can indicate an addiction process at work in the brain.

Because of the Coolidge Effect, watching “safe” porn lends itself to a need for more “extreme” material. More extreme material is usually more violent, more dominating, more painful for women, and more degrading. In short, it is far more likely to be an incident of rape. Men manufacture an artificial desire for porn that from the outset seeks arouse its viewers by injuring, humiliating, degrading and even endangering the life of women, not because they began by wanting to see women humiliated and hurt, but because they developed an addiction that urges them on to “extreme pornography.” A testimony from the website Your Brain on Porn shows what I’m talking about:

The relationship I have with every woman in my life (even just friendly coworkers) has improved since getting off porn. Porn corrupts and brainwashes what you think about women. It got to the point to where I would search for rape scenes because regular porn wasn’t enough anymore, and I would daydream about rape/torture all day long. Obviously I would never do something like that to another human being, it was just a fantasy. But I finally realized how disgusting that lifestyle is, and as much as I may have fooled myself into believing I enjoyed it, it won’t be something I’m returning to.

I look at women like human beings now, as opposed to sex toys, and they respond positively.

The support of pornography is a support of extreme pornography. To watch “light” porn is to open yourself up to the possibility of an addiction that will needle you into delighting over the humiliation and torture of women. To watch “light” porn is to give money to the pornographers who are in no way limited to making “light” porn. To watch “light” porn is to contribute to a society in which people are initiated and invited into watching extreme porn, for by paying for any and all porn you a) allow those who look up to you to consider watching porn excusable, b) contribute to the overall desensitization of your society, in which a child may be initiated into the world of hardcore porn because we passively use soft-core porn as advertisement in his presence c) help to create a demand and a market for pornography which has pornographers supplying, marketing, advertising and promoting pornography, thereby increasing the likelihood of an individual’s initiation into watching pornography, which includes a possibility of his eventually becoming hooked on extreme pornography.

In conclusion, even if we drastically limit our ethical responsibility to a mere “don’t support rape,” we should — guided by reason — still come to the conclusion that watching pornography is objectionable. This is an inditement, of course, of super-hip sexual health organizations that support a pornographic culture. Planned Parenthood, in their guide for discussing pornography with kids, are only concerned with “unrealism” in pornography, ultimately arguing that watching porn can be a benign, harmless and healthy issue, saying that “any healthy, caring adults use pornography. Most of them use it to enhance their sex lives knowing that it is much more about fantasy than it is about reality.”

But given the above, I would argue that now is the time for the religious and the irreligious alike to stop watching pornography. By refusing to be a slave to pornographers and a market for the sale, humiliation, and degradation of women, we starve those who make their living by exploiting the weak. By repenting of our involvement in the pornography industry, and doing penance to amend the harm pornography has wrecked on our culture, we can be free.

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