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.


  • A.C.

    "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."

    You try to sneak that comparison by us, but it doesn't make any sense. The lobbyist's actions are immoral, as you say, because they go against the interests of the public. A porn star or prostitute who plies her (or his -- it's not like there's only women in either field) trade is harming…who, exactly? I suppose you could make the argument that they're harming themselves, but, personally, I don't like telling people I don't know what's good for them. And while you can (and do) claim that they're harming society through negative stereotypes, so is 99% of mainstream media and you don't see this kind of moral outrage directed at them. Besides, that argument against porn is basically the same as the argument against violent movies: that we shouldn't show things that might give people the wrong idea and lead them to act in bad ways. So should I assume you also feel "moral opprobrium" towards Die Hard?

    In the end, I think Molly is right after all. Your dislike for "selling oneself" isn't tied to any sort of actual negative repercussions like in your lobbyist example. You just think selling sex is wrong. And while you're entitled to that opinion, don't try to equate your distaste for it with the rightful distaste we should all feel towards true injustice.

  • strached collar

    Mr. Gabriel's "whores r us" analogy falters. Did Boris Karloff demean himself by choosing mosnter roles much of his life? Isn't Mr. Michael really uncomfortable with pronography because he resents its ability to excite him and thereby threaten his self-control? Look at what fools Elliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton and Wilbur Mills (to name three major politicians) have made of themselves when they dabbled in the losing of self-posession,becoming blobs of protoplasm in heat.

    Mr. Michael is apparently the latest avatar of the good old fashioned American icon: the stuffed shirt.

  • TC

    While you can do what you choose to (becoming a pornstar or prostitute in this case). Nobody has to respect that decision or you for that matter (I certainly don't respect prostitutes). It just so happens that most would consider such a career path as morally distasteful. Argue what you will that "selling yourself" has no negative repercussions (disease), but the moral decay of our nation certainly has negative repercussions.

  • christopher shelton

    My name is Christopher Shelton and I am the writer/editor of "CHEEERS Soundboard" (www.cheeers.org) located in Phoenix…. My point to my real name is that I have no shame for dating a legal prostitute for 5 years (we remain good friends today) and there are differences between legal and illegal prostitution - and legal prostitution and American pornography. Some women just have strong sex drives - due to God's genetics than poor morals - and they choose 'swinging' or legal prostitution as an alternative to "cheating" on their personal relationships or breaking up families.. Most of these women are Mexican moms - and the guy abandoned them and the kids.. I feel it AWFUL that the women are called every name in the book - but remained with their kids - and the irresponsibe men who are unloving parents are off the 'moral' hook… I don't pretend to be an expert on American porn - but the argument would be better made that it is mainstream film personas that teach that good looking people are 'stars' and that sex without condoms between unmarried persons is normal and lacks risk… The greater enemy for porn actresses (and mainstream) is clearly speed drugs… If someone avoids speed drugs - they remain relatively normal - and they take speed drugs - they mess up their life… Gabriel Michael seems VERY TROUBLED with his own sexuality - the need to be near prostitutes (since that is what he wrote) so that he can 'condemn' them… There is a troubled divinity student at Yale University… The good news for him - or anyone at Yale - is all the money that Mom/Dad kick for education has entitled students to multi appearances of Ron Jeremy..