I recently noticed this image come up in my Facebook feed. To me, it is immediately apparent that there is something fundamentally wrong with the premise of this argument. However, in a brief discussion with the person who posted it, it became clear that she couldn’t see the problem, and insisted that pornography is an issue of male exploitation of women. By the time I typed out a reply, I found that it was long enough to warrant its own article.
I’m not interested in a world where men really want to watch porn but resist because they’ve been shamed; I’m interested in a world where men are raised from birth with such an unshakable understanding of women as living human beings that they are incapable of being aroused by their exploitation.
I spent some time thinking about why she might feel about this as she does, about the differences in perspectives that lead to opposite interpretations of the same situation. After deliberation, I may understand a little better where she is coming from, and in the spirit of philosophical charity, and to try my best to avoid straw-manning the issue, I’ll try to phrase it in the most generous way I can.
Given that Christina (not her real name) is a steadfast Republican Christian, she has developed in an environment such that she places a great deal of value on what she considers to be her sexual integrity. If a woman like Christina were to ever find herself participating in pornography, it would almost certainly be against her better judgment, if not entirely against her will. She would find it shameful and degrading, and would not consider the work to be worth any amount of pay. In her case, should she ever find herself in such a situation, it would likely be exploitation.
Thus, in the case of a hypothetical porn actress, Christina calls it exploitation because she is, in a move which credits her capacity for empathy, putting herself into the proverbial shoes of the actress. She believes that the actress feels, or should feel, that the activity is degrading, that she is losing much more than she is gaining. If this were the case, Christina would likely be correct.
However, all of that hinges both on the values of the person in question and the circumstances of their participation. It would not be correct to assume that a porn actress shares Christina’s personal values or her perception of sexual integrity.
The porn actress does what she does voluntarily. She could choose another career, but she instead chooses to use her physical properties to take advantage of others’ sexual desire in order to get them to pay just to look at her. If we are going to call any part of this exploitation, then we should consider that in the scenario suggested by Jonah Mix*, there’s someone taking a fat check to the bank, and it’s not the viewer.
Now, if we take this situation and call it a case of men exploiting women, what we’re saying is that women aren’t responsible for their own actions. We have dismissed the woman’s ability to decide her own beliefs and values, to make her own choices, and to pursue her own goals. We’re putting women on the same level as children or invalids, such that men have to take responsibility for them and make their decisions on their behalf.
However, if I am to respect women enough to consider them equals to men in terms of personal sovereignty, then I cannot accept that there is any exploitation going on here. It’s a nonviolent and mutually voluntary** exchange of what one person considers valuable for what another person considers valuable, between people who are perfectly capable of making and being responsible for their own decisions.
One may consider pornography to be morally wrong, or argue that it has negative consequences, but that’s an entirely different discussion. I will add, however, that if one’s critical judgments against the viewing of pornography are justified, then they can be discussed honestly and frankly, on their own terms, without the need to use emotionally charged and rationally inapplicable labels like “exploitation.” Such an erroneous categorization weakens one’s argument, in that the natural conclusion is that if one must resort to manipulation, then the objection is likely motivated by personal factors, rather than any appeal to a greater morality.
Be careful how you use words.
* Conversely, there are plenty of male porn stars and female audiences who appreciate them – I wonder if Mr. Mix (awesome name, by the way) would consider that to be female exploitation of men.
** There are many cases in which porn is created against the will of the subject participants, but here I am using the typical example of studio-production pornography (2022 edit: OnlyFans has come up as a much more apt example) to discuss, specifically, whether or not pornography is, in-and-of itself, exploitation. In the case of forced participation, it is not so much the viewer of the material who commits the exploitation, but the creator.