It’s easy to blame a globalized and systemic issue on “a few bad guys.” This is exemplified by cases like “dating advice consultant,” Julien Blanc. Blanc tours the world teaching men “pickup artistry.” He demonstrates the misogyny inherent in the pickup enterprise by teaching other men to use his violent and emotionally abusive techniques in their approach to women. After public outcry condemned his actions, Blanc was kicked out of Australia before he could run his planned seminar in Melbourne. His methods include choking women and pushing their faces into his crotch — behaviour that is typified in pornography. But while Blanc has been rightfully criticized, the institutions that profit from such imagery go unchallenged.
Globally, sexist violence has reached epic proportions with one in three women affected. While the social factors are often questioned, the economic and political drivers are less so. This violence must be understood in the context of the global economy. Until the institutional drivers of sexual exploitation are confronted, we will see more and more men like Blanc. In fact Blanc is hardly an exception to the rule; in a globalized and misogynist consumer culture, Blanc plays the game to a T.
In decades past, particular sexist trends could be potentially contained within national cultures or boundaries. Today, under advanced globalization, those boundaries are less clear. American-based men like Blanc can sell misogynistic pickup seminars anywhere in the world and, with few exceptions, be understood and rewarded. More than ever, women are unanimously viewed as objects for male conquest. Violence against women and sexual objectification flourish. Driven by colonialist systems like the military and “sex tourism,” sexual exploitation is not a coincidence of globalization; it is one of its very foundations.
The sex industry struck gold by globalizing, first through the American military complex, later via the international banking system and its economic policy, and then via the Internet and tourism. Misogyny is a universal language. Sex and pornography require no translation, no explanation and no particular vernacular. The US industry association “Adult Video News” may reward titles like “I Wanna Buttf*ck Your Daughter” or “Ass Blasting Anal Whores,” but globally these images speak for themselves. Global economic inequality has long played a role in sexual exploitation. Only with the proliferation of pornography have these issues been broadcast — increasingly in live feeds for huge profit. If the adage goes “sex sells” then sexual exploitation sells better.
Pornography provides the propaganda for global sexual exploitation and serves as a training ground for abuse. Most pornographic films include violent acts toward women. In 2010, research showed 88 per cent of the most popular porn videos depicted violence against women. Porn-led trends like “facial abuse” have encouraged a culture of dangerous sexual aggression, demonstrated by men like Blanc. The consequences are serious — in New Zealand, 25 per cent of girls under 14 who have had sex were forced or raped. Teen girls also increasingly report being expected to perform anal sex. This is part and parcel of the porn repertoire that seemingly has no limit. Snuff porn and BDSM porn, along with practices like “rosebudding” have driven a global narrative of necrocapitalistic practice. “Necrocapitalist” in that both consumers and merchants find their climax through suffering or death. Sexual violence is increasingly confused with mutually enjoyable sex. It is often seen as a consumer’s right to purchase, but as Sex Trafficking Survivors United founder Rebecca Mott said, “no man has died from lack of sex, but millions of the prostituted will and have died.”
We are living in a world wallpapered with pornographic imagery, but the link to wider exploitation is either ignored or outright denied. Users even argue the sex industry can actually reduce sexist attitudes and violence. This goes directly against 2010 meta-analysis, most recent experimental evidence, and Nordic state legislation review which shows the opposite.
Western consumer culture reduces these issues to a matter of individual “choice” but this fails on numerous levels. Firstly the sex trade is not a “sexual choice;” it is a globalized institution with significant economic and political power. Secondly, consumer choice may restrict or violate the rights of others. Some UN member states estimate between 60-90 per cent of women in the sex trade are trafficked and Thai estimates show 40 per cent of the sex trade is child sex abuse and around 90 per cent of trafficked girls are underage. Indigenous women are also highly overrepresented in areas of the trade.
While the US was enforcing its brand of sexual exploitation on girls and women in the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea and more, American liberal feminists were debating the role of choice and agency for those exploited. Those who criticize such issues may be framed as “anti-sex” or “anti woman,” even, but Western “choice” rhetoric actually works to legitimize exploitation of the economically vulnerable. Arguments for choice, agency, or “feminist porn” provide opportunities to expand sales instead of ethics.
Lydia Cacho’s investigations found that sex traffickers use “choice” rhetoric to justify their trade. At the age of 18, exploited children supposedly become free and willing adult workers. This creates a dangerously blurred line given that the “teen” genre remains the most sought-after porn, not to mention the epidemic of child sex abuse pornography. Buyer preference for younger women sets the scene for child sex abuse.
Developing economies have neither the resources nor the structural integrity required to indict child sex abuse. High levels of tourism are usually dictated by international economic policy and the laws against trafficking remain fragmented — Australia only implemented legislation in 2005. To make matters worse, male punters of the sex industry report they are not concerned if a woman is forced, trafficked, or otherwise. With the exception of a few Nordic states, the customer can buy sex anywhere in the world. Much like the pickup enterprise, the sex tourist trade congregates online. Entire search engines are dedicated to informing “sex tourists” on how to best exploit girls and women in any country.
Left-leaning sex trade supporters commonly argue that all industries are exploitative under capitalism and that, therefore, the sex industry is like any other. Those who survive the industry tell a different story — that the degradation and lifelong pain is incomparable, unquantifiable, and unimaginable; that the suffering continually recurs as their abuse is trafficked on film around the world, over and over. The rates of PTSD experienced by survivors of the sex trade attest to this, being equal to those of war veterans. Those who have done the soul-wrenching work of writing their sexual exploitation into memoirs may be derided as “anti-sex” and intimidated, harassed, or stalked online. Sexual exploitation is defended as though it were sexual liberation. This attitude is bolstered by mainstreaming the sex trade into wider culture, media and business, where men like Blanc thrive.
The industry exploits global inequality, frames abuse as entertainment, promotes violence and degradation, fosters racism and sexism and is, nevertheless, often defended as some kind of sex-positive utopia. Yet this is the academy for men like Blanc. While Blanc receives well-deserved criticism, the global industry behind his attitude and the practices he promotes also requires serious critique. What use is confronting one individual misogynist if a global economy of misogyny goes on condoned?
What’s more concerning than individual men like Julien Blanc is that these attitudes are not rare, they are proliferated by politically powerful transnational enterprise. Blanc and his ilk need to know they are not entitled to women, but they are unlikely to learn while our economic, legal, and political institutions reflect the opposite. Consumers need to take off the porn-coloured glasses and critique the industry for what it is: a global trade in human rights abuses that makes sexual abuse of women profitable and more men like Blanc inevitable.
Laura McNally is a psychologist, consultant, author and PhD candidate. Her current work draws upon critical theory to examine the limitations of corporate social responsibility and liberal feminism. She blogs at lauramcnally.com.