Those Yalies who attended the Sex Week porn debate for Nightline saw firsthand an attempt by the religious right to disavow pornography, without any admittance that the reason, came judgment and not concern.
Together, we watched as two men, a pastor and a reformed porn director, claimed that porn creates unrealistic fantasies and expectations about sex. Their faces were powdered every five minutes, but they missed the hypocrisy in creating a fantasy of their faces. We watched as they claimed that the porn industry was universally and inherently demeaning to women. And we saw Monique Alexander, the actual porn star seated to their left, waving her arms, stating quite certainly that she was not demeaned. Clearly, they knew something she didn’t.
The idea that jobs in the porn industry are universally demeaning forces a victim status on women who don’t want it and who aren’t asking for it. This is not to deny that porn has the potential to be demeaning, or that some porn stars do feel oppressed. Rather, it is to state that the proclamation, even when made by feminists, is in itself demeaning. We weaken women when we deny their power of choice and when we make sweeping and moralistic judgments on the choices they do make.
The arguments of both men were logically defective. But even that became irrelevant as their opinions were based on one thing: moral distaste.
It is moral distaste that causes many people to claim that women working in the porn industry are demeaned or forced into it. It is easier for them to justify a woman’s choice to work in porn if they believe that she didn’t actually make a choice at all — that she was somehow forced into it by economic circumstances, by single motherhood, childhood abuse … or by any of a list of “poor-her” stereotypes. Yet, economic factors also lead people into jobs that are not always considered ideal, such as fast-food jobs or tough manual labor. (People ask retrospectively: “Is that what you hoped to do when you were a little girl?”) The difference between a fast-food job and a job in porn is that the latter is subject to moralistic judgment. But often, women are not forced into porn any more than they are forced into putting on a hairnet.
This same “lack of a choice” argument is widely used when discussing sex work, an occupation that many still resist labeling it as such. We are a sex-saturated culture that remains largely uncomfortable with sex. For many, it is difficult to stomach that a woman would willingly choose to sell sex, and many feminists will argue that prostitution is not a choice at all. The hidden undertone to this argument, of course, is the question, “Who would ever choose to do such a thing?”
Gov. Spitzer’s infidelity has given sex-work an avenue to the front and center of the media’s consciousness. And we can see how sex workers are portrayed — either as morally bankrupt whores or as poor souls who were, whether out of need or ignorance, forced into this occupation.
Now, after the Spitzer scandal broke, we look to the plight of Silda Spitzer, who not only has to deal with a public scandal, but is faulted, by feminists nonetheless, for making the decision to stand beside her husband in his public admission of infidelity. The problem here is that her power of choice is being questioned, just as was Ashley Dupre’s and Monique Alexander’s.
Regardless of intention, the message that the critics send is that these women are not competent enough nor self-aware enough to make the “right” choice. It is time to recognize a woman’s ability to make well-reasoned decisions and to respect those decisions without letting moral distaste masquerade as compassion.
Molly Green is a junior in Pierson College. She is a regular columnist for scene.