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Oct 05 2010

When Porn Goes Bad: “Girls Gone Wild”

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Girls gone wild I am hereby changing my mind.

I am officially and publicly declaring that I was mistaken, and am shifting my position.

Not about porn in general. But about one particular brand of porn.

Specifically, the “Girls Gone Wild” videos.

And the way I’m changing my mind is illustrating one of the most important points I’ve been making about it.

You may have already heard: A woman who appeared in a “Girls Gone Wild” video recently sued the producers. In the incident, the woman, identified only as Jane Doe, was dancing at a bar where “GGW” was being filmed: someone else pulled down her top and showed her breasts, and the footage was put into a video. In the original footage, Doe was heard saying “no” when asked to show her breasts, shortly before another woman suddenly pulled her top down. But the GGW producers argued that, simply by being in the bar and dancing where the video was being filmed, she was giving consent: not just to appear in the video, but to appear bare-breasted. Inexplicably, a jury ruled in GGW’s favor. As jury foreman Patrick O’Brien said, “Through her actions, she gave implied consent. She was really playing to the camera. She knew what she was doing.”

Sluts just have it coming to them, I guess.

Now, on top of being evil on GGW’s part, this was just plain dumb. I mean, how hard would it have been to simply not use the footage of this one woman? They must have thousands of hours of footage of women pulling up their shirts and showing their boobs. Why on earth didn’t they avoid the bad publicity and the ugly court case, and just leave the few minutes of the girl who said “No” on the cutting room floor?

Given their history of legal problems and bad publicity, wouldn’t they be a little more careful about consent?

Which brings me to the part where I’m changing my mind.

Girls gone wild bad girls In the past, I’ve defended the “Girls Gone Wild” videos. I said I could see the appeal in them; I said it was legitimately exciting to see people take sexual risks and push their own sexual boundaries, doing dirty things they never imagined themselves doing. I argued that, whatever you might think of the company producing the videos, the patronizing, pitying attitude towards the women performing in them that’s so common is absolutely unwarranted. I said that the women in them were clearly aware of the cameras, indeed happy to have the cameras on them; and that while many of them certainly seemed, shall we say, tipsy, none of them seemed intoxicated to the point of obliterating consent. And I pointed out that the GGW producers were — they claimed — very careful to get consent from the women in their videos… and in the videos I saw, this claim seemed entirely plausible.

But this case is making it clear that this claim is bogus. It’s become clear that the producers of the “Girls Gone Wild” videos are sloppy at best about obtaining consent from the women who appear in them. Clearly lots of women are willing and even eager to be in these videos… but it’s becoming clear that the producers are careless, to say the least, about making sure that this number is 100%.

So I’m retracting even the ambivalent support I gave them in the past. New evidence had made my previous position unsupportable, and I am therefore changing it. The “Girls Gone Wild” producers are sleazebags. They are not a trustworthy source of consensually- participated- in porn. Don’t buy their videos.

So what’s the important larger point about porn that this case illustrates?

*

Consenting adults One of the most common critiques of the video porn industry is that the women who perform in them aren’t consenting. (Concern about male porn performers seems, for some reason, to be largely absent.) The more moderate versions of this critique assert that female porn performers go into it for bad reasons, out of economic necessity or poor self-esteem or desperation for attention. The more hysterical versions of it claim that the mainstream video porn industry is inexorably tied to human trafficking, and that women are literally threatened and forced into having sex on camera.

And I don’t dismiss these critiques out of hand. I think it’s very possible, likely even, that some porn performers aren’t entirely self-actualized, that some of them go into it for unhealthy emotional reasons or because they need a paycheck. I think people go into a lot of industries for unhealthy emotional reasons (acting and modeling leap to mind), or because they need a paycheck (pretty much everyone who works for a living leaps to mind). And while I think the more hysterical critiques are, well, hysterical — at least as far as the mainstream American video porn industry is concerned — I’m open to being persuaded otherwise. If there really are problems with consent in the video porn industry — as there obviously are with the “Girls Gone Wild” videos — I want to know about it.

I just differ with these critics about what the appropriate response is.

If there’s evidence that a video porn company is being careless at best and callous at worst about the consent of its performers, then shouldn’t our objections be aimed at that company — not at the very concept of video porn?

Boy collecting cacao Here’s an analogy. Labor abuses in the cocoa farming industry are very well documented, including extensive use of child labor. It’s not just an isolated incident here or there — it’s endemic to the industry. And it has been for years.

So what is an appropriate response to this? Should we be selective about what kind of chocolate we eat, only buying fair-trade chocolate that we know is not supporting child labor, and boycotting any chocolate companies that won’t abide by those standards? Should we be encouraging restaurants and bakeries and other consumers to do the same? Should we be publicizing this issue until non- fair- trade chocolate is sufficiently unpopular that it’s no longer profitable, and fair trade becomes the industry standard?

Chocolates Or should we be condemning the very idea of eating chocolate? Should we be treating the entire chocolate industry, and indeed the very substance of chocolate itself, as irrevocably tainted? Should we be treating anyone who enjoys chocolate with moral repugnance, as callous, child-hating villains, more concerned with the gratification of their sybaritic hungers than they are with abused children? Should we be tying in people’s specific concerns about abuses in the chocolate industry with their general shame about food, using that shame to make them feel guilty about their physical desire for chocolate and the pleasure they take in it?

And if we think the former approach is both more effective and more just… why should we be applying the latter strategy to video porn?

If there’s evidence that a video porn company is being careless at best and callous at worst about the consent of its performers, then shouldn’t our objections be aimed at that company — not at the very concept of video porn?

And I’ll point out again: In the chocolate industry, these abuses are endemic. They’re not exceptions. They are the industry standard. They’re very well-documented. And the victims are, I will say yet again, children.

Annie sprinkle post porn modernist Which is patently not true of the video porn industry. I’ve seen some individual, anecdotal accounts from people in the porn industry who say that they went into it for bad reasons, that drug abuse in the industry is common (unlike, oh, say, the music industry), that they felt pressured to perform sex acts they didn’t want to, or that they were pressured into it by abusive men in their lives. (Linda Lovelace is the most famous example of this last one.) I’ve also seen individual, anecdotal accounts from people in the porn industry who say that they freely chose it, that they love it, that they feel empowered by it, that they feel perfectly capable of accepting or rejecting roles and sex acts, that in fact video porn is one of the few industries where women have more status and earning power than men. I’ve seen porn videos where the performers were clearly bored and phoning it in at best, detached and unhappy at worst. I’ve also seen porn videos where the performers were clearly inspired, excited, joyful, and wanting nothing more than to be doing exactly what they were doing. (As a porn critic, I have consistently endorsed the latter and excoriated the former.)

What I have not seen is good, careful, independent documentation of endemic or even common labor abuses across the industry.

And until I do, I’m not going to stop watching video porn.

Evidence If there’s strong, well-documented evidence from independent sources that a particular video porn company is being lax or callous about the consent of their performers — as the “Girls Gone Wild” producers have shown themselves to be — I want to know about it. I don’t want to support companies like that; I want to encourage other porn consumers to remove their support. And if there’s strong, well-documented evidence from independent sources that the video porn industry as a whole is being lax or callous about the consent of their performers, I want to know about that, too. If that’s true, then I will readily denounce the industry, and stick to the equivalent of fair-trade porn: amateur and indie porn, from small, labor- of- love porn producers, whose performers are clearly in it for something other than the money.

But when I see poorly- supported accusations of labor abuses in the commercial video porn industry getting tied in with standard sex-negative hostility towards porn in general — scorn and trivialization of the desire for porn, shaming of people for wanting it, the stubbornly willful failure to distinguish between the basic idea of porn and the specific ways it sometimes plays out in our culture, the patronizing assumption that no woman could possibly really want to perform in porn and therefore any woman who does must be self-loathing at best and coerced at worst — it renders these accusations considerably less credible. It makes them look less like genuine concern for the well-being of performers in the video porn industry, and more like… well, more like standard sex-negative hostility towards porn in general. It makes me take these accusations with a large grain of salt.

A handful of salt, in fact.

But give me some better evidence, minus the sex-negative axe-grinding, and I’ll change my mind.

After all, I changed my mind about “Girls Gone Wild.”

Thanks to Bacchus at ErosBlog, for his classic piece Evil Porn Werewolf Enslavers Debunked, to which I am indebted for this line of thought.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    yokohamamama

    “So I’m retracting even the ambivalent support I gave them in the past. New evidence had made my previous position unsupportable, and I am therefore changing it.”
    And that, ladies and gentlemen, is called integrity.

  2. 2
    Reproductionfails.wordpress.com

    Seconded.
    This is why I like this blog. Greta Christina is so obviously thoughtful and honest; she can change her mind, which in the mainstream USA is considered ‘waffling’ or a bad thing. On the contrary, changing you mind when new evidence presents itself is the surest sign of strength and integrity IMO.

  3. 3
    Inferno

    It is great to be able to change ones mind and also admit that your views may have not been exactly on the mark.
    As for porn and all the reasons people get into it… I have known a lot of people in the industry and I can say that a majority of them get into it because of economic stress.
    That however is not a bad thing.
    It is no different than taking any other job that may not have been a first choice simply to keep a roof over your head.

  4. 4
    Rebecca H.

    Truly well thought out and beautifully written, Greta. I wish other authors who write about ethics (NYT’s “Ethicist,” Randy Cohen comes to mind) were half as consistent and ready to reconsider previously-held opinions. (And it’s nice to see someone coming up with a new food-for-sex metaphor.)

  5. 5
    Valhar2000

    It makes them look less like genuine concern for the well-being of performers in the video porn industry, and more like… well, more like standard sex-negative hostility towards porn in general. It makes me take these accusations with a large grain of salt.
    I thought the same thing, and for this reason it took me a while to realize that the GGW videos were not up to code. I now realize that some things I heard about them should have given me pause, but they were embedded in so much anti-sexual bullshit that I simply couldn’t asked to wade through it.

  6. 6
    Tim M.

    Strong support for Greta’s views of the industry come from porn star and feminist Nina Hartley in her interview published in the current issue of The Humanist.
    http://thehumanist.org/humanist/10_sept_oct/Shaffer.html

  7. 7
    the chaplain

    Thanks for a very well written, balanced post about this issue. Porn is a negatively emotionally loaded issue for most of the people I know, so it’s difficult for me to have serious, sincere discussions about it with anyone.
    I greatly respect your ability to change your mind about GGW, and publicly declare the change and explain clearly your rationale.

  8. 8
    Pierce R. Butler

    Are there really no solid studies of the pornography business, its production, distribution, workers, consumers, etc?
    Start here (no endorsement of methodology or conclusions implied: just the first result of a Google search for “porn industry analysis”).
    … a $5 billion bailout from the government … ?!?

  9. 9
    Londonrakehell.blogspot.com

    When new data conflicts with the old, a person can change their mind.
    Good show and fascinating read.

  10. 10
    Daysbrew.blogspot.com

    That was very well thought out indeed. It’s not very often I come across such a good critique of something that makes most people blush to talk about.

  11. 11
    Scrawny Kayaker

    Your rubber stamp image needs a vertical flip on the stamp. The V and N should look upside-down, at least. Otherwise, yet another fine post.

  12. 12
    Caitlin

    Greta, I see that you dislike child labor, but have you considered that if these children did not work, they might starve and die? If you boycott companies that run factories where children are employed, what do you think those families will do to survive? The alternative to poor kids who work is not rich kids who don’t need to work. The alternative is poor kids who are starving.

  13. 13
    djd

    @ Scrawny Kayaker:
    I think the rubber stamp image is actually correct – the inverted stamping letters are out of sight on the bottom and the visible word “EVIDENCE” on the side is a label.
    FWIW I thought the same thing you did until I looked carefully.

  14. 14
    cosmopolite

    Most forms of porn have to be fully legalised. Only then will employment and business law protect those who work in that industry.
    The age of consent should be raised to 21. If states raised it higher, I would not complain. I decided some years ago that no real legal or moral issues are raised if a woman past her 30th birthday wants to expose her vulva on the internet. I would much rather have teenage boys learn what a woman looks like by looking at a 35 year old married woman than at a 19 year old whose web site screams “Teen! Teen!” over and over.
    A major positive development of the internet era is porn made, scripted, and distributed by women, who retain complete control and pocket all profits. Porn is like old time prostitution; the pimps are infinitely more disgusting than the working girls.

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