Prostitution legislation must include women in the porn industry

From left to right: Cherie Jiminez, Per-Anders Sunesson, Gail Dines, Julie Bindel, Clara Berglund. (Image: Gail Dines/Facebook)

I remember when I was first struck by the question: If prostitution is against the law in the US, why isn’t porn?

A friend of mine was telling me about an undercover sting operation at the massage parlour down the street from her apartment in New York, wherein police arrested some of the Asian women who “worked” there. This story made me wonder what kind of men would go to a “massage parlour” and exploit a woman’s desperation and marginalization as an immigrant in the US. Just the men should be thrown in jail for doing that, not those women, I thought.

I recalled the disgustingly racist way I have seen so many white men fetishize Asian women, imagining them to be extra-submissive. I thought about how there were probably hundreds of thousands of porn films promoting this view online, featuring Asian women “servicing” white men — many of which were probably even set in a massage parlour. Then it hit me: Why was it illegal at the place down the street from my friend’s apartment, but when the same thing is done with a camera, it’s considered totally legitimate?

It’s been years since this incongruity occurred to me, but I still don’t have an answer to that question… Because there isn’t one.

Last week, a panel held during the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York addressed this bizarre disconnect between pornography and prostitution in law, activism, and consciousness. Moderated by Clara Berglund, Secretary General of the Swedish Women’s Lobby, the panel featured pornography expert Gail Dines, writer Julie Bindel, prostitution survivor and abolitionist Cherie Jimenez, and Sweden’s Ambassador at Large for Combatting Trafficking in Persons, Per-Anders Sunesson. All panelists advocate for the Nordic Model (a legal model which decriminalizes those who are prostituted and instead targets the demand side of the sex trade, by criminalizing pimps, brothel owners, and johns). The panel was preceded by a screening of Gail Dines’ documentary, Pornland: How the Porn Industry Has Hijacked Our Sexuality.

“When I first saw this documentary, I did not know how bad pornography had gotten,” Jimenez said, referring to the extreme acts of degradation and physical violence (slapping, gagging, choking, prolapsed anuses) that have come to dominate online porn. As a survivor of prostitution who now does frontline work with women trying to exit the sex trade, Jimenez has noticed a parallel between the increase in the brutality of porn and the increasingly sadistic demands of johns experienced by prostituted women today. “It’s a whole different game now,” she said.

Through her journalistic research in Cambodia, Bindel found that the prostituted women she interviewed shared a similar experience. They told her the demands of johns had gotten much worse since gonzo porn had flooded Cambodia, becoming more accessible to men through smart phones. Men would even play this kind of porn on their phones during the encounter and make prostituted women re-create the brutal acts performed in it.

Pro-”sex work” lobbyists like to frame prostitution as something natural, that has always been present throughout history. However, the disturbing requests and acts prostituted women say are expected of them since the Internet porn revolution show otherwise. The demand for prostitution has changed, suggesting it is no more natural than modern cultural norms like the pressure on women to shave their vulvas bald as per porn standards.

“Do you think men are born johns?” asked Dines. “Do you think they just suddenly wake up one day and decide to go to a trafficked or prostituted woman? No! That takes a socialization process. And what is the biggest socializer of sexuality in the world today? Pornography.”

Dines argues that pornography is the ideological arm of what is essentially one and the same sex trade, facilitating the demand for prostitution by normalizing sexual violence, dehumanizing women, and killing empathy in johns. Nonetheless, a sharp legal distinction is made — while prostitution is illegal in many countries, porn is considered to be an above-ground industry.

Its legitimate status means that the porn industry is in a position to dump massive amounts of money into influencing politicians and legislation. Ironically, it also enables the industry to facilitate illegal actions, such as sex trafficking in minors. Dines explains:

“The porn industry has put a ton of money into fighting a law called 2257. All that law says is that, on a porn set, you have to prove with some form of ID that everyone is 18 or above. The porn industry has been fighting that for years, claiming that it inhibits their free speech.”

Although industry lobbyists claim pornography is simply “free speech,” what happens in porn happens to real women (and girls, apparently). The fact that the act is filmed does not make the prostitution disappear, but effectively ensures the trauma is captured for eternity.

After exiting prostitution, Jimenez says she struggled “for a long time trying to feel whole again.” Dines extended this to the experiences of women in pornography, citing research by Melissa Farley which found that prostituted women who had pornography made of them experienced even higher rates of PTSD.

According to Dines, this is most likely due to the fact that, for women in pornography, there is no way to ever truly exit the sex trade. Their exploitation is frozen in time, allowing millions of johns to re-victimize women endlessly, even after their deaths. “Think of the trauma of never again having any sense of bodily integrity or privacy,” said Dines.

Bindel attended the 2015 LA Porn Awards as a journalist and learned about yet another way the industry makes it impossible for women to truly exit porn. She explained:

“The biggest category in 2015 was ‘Milf.’ And it was because when the women were retiring at the age of 35 or 36, the industry wanted to get more out of them. And someone told me something about this that left my blood cold. When the women are about to drop out of making films, for the most popular women, they make a ‘real doll’ from her. And it’s anatomically correct in every way. So men are ordering these exact replicas of these women and their orifices. They mold from her body, inside and out, which means that whatever happens to her, wherever she goes, there are men literally fucking her replica and writing about it online, etcetera. And that to me is the height of sadism.”

Considering the impact of the industry on women prostituted through porn (never mind on women and girls as a whole), Dines’ delivers an impassioned plea to the anti-trafficking movement:

“Don’t forget pornography and don’t forget the women in the industry…The less we think about it, the more we ignore the women in pornography and say, ‘You don’t count. We’re not even including you in this.’”

In her final comments, Dines called upon governments like Sweden to incorporate pornography into the legislation that already exists: “Now has come the time, after so many years of the Nordic Model, that if you’re going to fine or imprison [men] for sexual exploitation, you have to also do that for the exploitation of women in pornography.”

As the Nordic Model continues to spread across the world, this landmark legislation for women’s rights could also be a huge blow to the multi-billion dollar porn industry. It may be some time before feminists can convince states to craft and implement specific policy that includes pornography within the Nordic Model, but it is imperative we push for it. Anything less would abandon so many women and girls, arbitrarily denying them their humans rights and the justice they deserve.

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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