Pornography will always be exploitative
I recall a few years ago being interviewed (read ‘debated’) by two young men on an Adelaide radio station, on the issue of prostitution and trafficking. After cataloguing a litany of harm caused as a result of the global trade in the bodies of women and girls, the boys came up with what they thought was the perfect solution. Each woman in prostitution could carry a document declaring she was “traffick-free”.
Caroline Norma is a lecturer in the School of Global Studies at RMIT University. I’ve published her before here.
In ‘The ethical dilemmas of Cocaine and bottled water’ (The Australian, Monday), Minister for Human Services and Minister for Social Inclusion Tanya Plibersek calls on Australian pornography consumers to ‘ask themselves about the circumstances of the manufacture of what they’re watching’ so they can start to make better decisions about the materials they masturbate to.
She asks them to more closely consider the ‘life choices available to the participants’ in pornography so that they can ‘ethically’ choose ‘non-exploitative’ materials to download. To her credit, Plibersek makes this argument within the context of a general discussion about the benefits of the government’s “clean feed” internet regulation initiative of which I am a supporter.
However, I am concerned that Plibersek appears to align herself with the ‘dolphin-free tuna’ crowd of pornography apologists when she makes the argument that men’s consumption of pornography is acceptable, as long as the women in it are found to be willing. There are various groups that defend the production, consumption, and distribution of pornography in Australian society, including the Eros Foundation, the Sex Party, and Scarlet Alliance. However, different to the crowd Plibersek aligns herself with, these groups are generally blunt in their public pronouncements that pornography, prostitution, and all other parts of the sex industry should be celebrated and legalised.
Most defenders of pornography cannot afford to be so upfront about their support of the sex industry. The industry worldwide is too closely associated with organised crime, trafficking, the exploitation of women and children, callous forms of sexuality, and drug addiction among people in the industry. So, people like Plibersek who have to defend pornography in a family-friendly way, alternatively rely on the ‘dolphin-free-tuna’ strategy.
‘Dolphin-free tuna’ was created as a marketing gem of the commercial fishing industry to respond to declining public consumption of canned tuna because of concern that dolphins were being killed in its production. There is, of course, no possible way that the canning industry can ensure that dolphins do not become ensnared in the nets of trawlers that supply tuna to them. But canning companies nonetheless get their suppliers to sign a ‘pledge’ that the tuna they sell has been caught with no loss of life to dolphins.
Similarly, there is no possible way that pornography consumers can know that the pornography they are masturbating to has been produced using women who are not exploited or have ‘life choices’, as Plibersek puts it. On the contrary, just as the production of canned tuna inevitably causes loss of life to dolphins, the production of pornography inevitably causes psychological and physiological harm to the women and girls who are used to make it.
The women who have their bodily orifices pounded, poked, and prodded during the production of pornography are facing pretty grim ‘life choices’. If their entry into the sex industry wasn’t paved by incest, mental illness, poverty, drug addiction, or homelessness, then their exit from the industry will be shadowed by these problems and more.
The women who must live, work, and interact with men who consume pornography are also facing less than ideal ‘life choices’. They must acquiesce to the blueprint of female sexuality that pornography imposes on them through their husbands’ and boyfriends’ expectations in the bedroom, and they must put up with an overall lowered status in a society where men think that ejaculating on a woman’s face is an acceptable and normal activity.
Girls, too, suffer the effects of male pornography consumption, regardless of how many ‘life choices’ are enjoyed by the women who are used to make it. They must grow up in a society where the practices of pornography—anal sex, pubic hair waxing, turkey slapping, and deep throating—have become normal sexual behaviour for a whole generation of boys. Girls are also caught up in the harms of pornography when they are groomed for sexual abuse by men who normalise their crimes by showing them ‘erotic’ pictures.
Instead of teaming up with the dolphin-free-tuna crowd of pornography apologists, Plibersek should reconsider the significant harms of pornography and support an increasing number of women’s organisations in Australia that are standing up against the sex industry. These organisations, including the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia and Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation, reject the idea that the sex industry can ever be anything but an institution that promotes women’s second class social status.
The only ‘ethical’ choice in relation to the sex industry is to shut it down in the same way the tobacco industry in Australia has been forced to face imminent demise.