Right to agency does not engender right to respect

In the past five years that I have spent at institutions of higher education, I have witnessed three visits by Ron Jeremy. That figure alone says something about the cultural impact of pornography. However, Molly Green’s treatment (“Respect women’s right to reasoned, free choice,” 4/10) of the Sex Week debate between porn stars Ron Jeremy and Monique Alexander and two anti-pornography representatives, Craig Gross and Donny Pauling, left much to be desired.

Green claims that Gross and Pauling offer “logically defective” arguments. However, if anything can be called defective, it is Green’s conflation of having respect for one’s right to make a decision, and having respect for the decision itself.

She argues that to characterize the pornography industry as demeaning “forces a victim status on women who don’t want it and who aren’t asking for it.” Whether or not the majority of women who enter the industry do so as a result of making a rational decision is an empirical question, albeit one better left to a sociologist to answer. It is also completely irrelevant to the issue at hand.

I am not a conservative; I am not a prude. I am certainly not a member of the bogeyman-like “religious right,” invoked in Green’s column as if to transfer guilt by association to anyone who might criticize any aspect of pornography. Yet I still find something objectionable or at the very least undesirable about pornography.

Do I respect Monique Alexander’s right to choose to be a porn star? Certainly. Do I respect her actual choice in becoming one? I hold it in utter contempt. Green will brush off my contempt with the argument that it merely represents an irrational “moral distaste.” But that opinion is misguided on several counts.

First, the distaste is not merely moral. As was argued during the debate, pornography does create and sustain unrealistic stereotypes of body images and sexual relationships, much in the same way that the entertainment and fashion industries create and sustain unrealistic stereotypes of physical attractiveness. I believe these stereotypes are harmful in themselves.

Second, the sort of mainstream pornography that comprises the bulk of a $14 billion a year industry has been rightly criticized by many feminists for its androcentricity and hetero-normativity. It is not the new, liberating, gynocentric form of pornography that some feminists support. As Marilyn Corsianos, a sociologist who has written on pornography, says, “ ‘Women’ do not have an equal voice in mainstream pornography. Most of the scripts are written by straight males catering to a predominately straight male audience.” Monique Alexander has appeared in films with such titles as “Jailbait,” “18 & Easy,” “Whores R Us” and “Young Sluts.” Does anyone really believe that by participating in these films, Alexander is somehow asserting her femininity? Given the response to the recent use of the epithet “slut” on this campus, those who want to argue that the women acting in these titles are somehow being empowered have their work cut out for them.

Furthermore, “moral distaste” cannot simply be discounted. My contempt for porn stars stems from the opprobrium associated with selling oneself. But that opprobrium is not limited to selling one’s body: I feel just as much contempt, if not even more, for the corporate lobbyist who fights to pass a bill he knows is contrary to the interests of the public. Selling oneself, whether physically or mentally, is justly deserving of contempt.

Green’s arguments become even more absurd when she switches from pornography to prostitution. She accuses people of buying into “poor-her” stereotypes, but fails to realize that she herself has bought into a different kind of stereotype: that of the autonomous, rational prostitute who freely chooses to sell sex. This mythical individual, divorced from the society that makes his or her work possible and necessary, has simply chosen sex work as one career among many others. It makes me wonder if Green has ever seen a real prostitute. I have, and I have a hard time believing they wouldn’t rather be doing something else if they had the choice.

No one is questioning anyone’s right to make decisions, but it’s simply ridiculous to expect everyone to respect you regardless of what decision you make. If anything, women (or for that matter, men) who freely choose to enter the pornography industry ought to be more comfortable dealing with the moral distaste others express towards their decision. As Alexander herself stated during the debate, they have made their choice, and thus accept the consequences. It may be rational to sell your body or your mind, but that doesn’t mean I’ll applaud you for it.

Gabriel Michael is a graduate student at the Yale Divinity School. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.