Culture

Doing Porn: Is Consent Enough?

Neon signs in God’s Own Junkyard gallery and cafe in London, England (Russell Boyce/Reuters)
Young women deserve more than ‘it’s your body, your choice’ platitudes.

In a Jane Austen novel, a woman is bestowed with a fixed sum of (shall we say?) erotic capital which she can either save, invest, spend, or (in desperation) sell. The prudent woman considers carefully whether to accept or decline an offer of marriage and is kind enough to advise her sisters to avoid doing something foolish like running off with a soldier, marrying a pauper, or getting pregnant out of wedlock. Those were strange and frugal times. But human nature — including sexuality — has barely changed at all.

Today, there are those among us who, occupying new heights of mendacity or mercenary guile, argue that a young woman has little to lose, and perhaps even something to gain, from selling everything for next to nothing — behaving like a stripper, prostitute, or porn star. Consider, for instance, messages emitted from popular culture, like at this year’s Super Bowl halftime or as found in the pages of Teen Vogue (recent headline: “Why Sex Work Is Real Work”). Conveniently, for those holding such views, the only moral requirement is to ascertain whether the young woman gives “consent.” But what does consent actually mean? And what about the Internet and online pornography in particular, which have given these concerns a whole new dark dimension?

Earlier this year, a San Diego judge awarded $13 million in damages to 22 women who were defrauded by the porn company Girls Do Porn, which specializes in the genre of “amateur”-style porn. That’s porn featuring seemingly ordinary college girls having sex in seemingly ordinary locations. Finding enough willing participants with the right look of authenticity was a challenge for the producers, which is presumably why they resorted to fraud, placing adverts on Craigslist for beautiful “college-type” girls between the ages of 18 and 22 for “modeling” jobs.

The women from the lawsuit all said that they were initially unaware that they would be expected to participate in porn. Some said that when they tried to back out, they were threatened and told that they’d have to make their own way home. They were assured by the producers that the videos were only for a private collection in Australia and New Zealand and would not appear online. But that was a lie. The videos were posted on Porn Hub, the most visited porn site in the world, where they have since been watched billions of times and appear to be available even now (an investigation has found).

While the villain in this story is obviously the company and its founder, Michael Pratt, now wanted by the FBI for federal sex-trafficking offenses, and perhaps the added wrongdoers of those indifferent consumers — the psychology of the victims is a little more complicated than the “consent” narrative suggests. Indeed, it is hard not to wonder what, exactly, these young women were thinking when they (ostensibly) agreed to participate in the porn videos after realizing they’d been enticed under false pretenses. After being told that the job was porn, and not modeling, why didn’t they flee immediately? Was it that they were afraid to say no? Or that they found the experience, on some level, exhilarating?

We must be free to consider these questions without facing charges of victim blaming. How insidiously and thoroughly has porn culture infected the mainstream? Writing “A High-School Porn Star’s Cry for Help” for The Atlantic last June, Caitlin Flanagan noted:

The problem is that there are some very old human impulses that must now contend with porn. One of them is the tendency of deeply troubled teenage girls to act out sexually as a kind of distress signal, an attempt to get the attention of adults who may not be getting the message that they’re in a crisis.

She’s right — and, sadly, it’s a crisis we’ve gotten good at ignoring.

Imagine, for a moment, that we are talking about money: a young man bestowed with a great inheritance, who goes to an older relative for advice on how best to use it. Imagine that the relative has nothing to offer him but inoffensive platitudes such as “It’s your money, your choice.” Would it really be surprising if this young man then proceeded to blow his entire fortune by overspending and placing his trust in those who wished only to exploit and extort him?

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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