I don’t normally expect penetrating feminist analysis from the mainstream media, nor even that they’ll pay any serious attention to issues that affect women, but an article from last year (I really get on shit as it happens because I’m living in the age of the Information Superhighway and everything I do is in real time, dude) on MSNBC’s website highlights just how far off the mark the media can get when it comes to reporting on women’s lives. The AP article, entitled “More women going from jobless to topless,” explains that with the recent economic downturn, more and more women are turning to stripping, posing for pornographic magazines, or performing in pornographic films.
One would expect that such a trend would be considered worrisome, that the reporter responsible for writing the story might touch upon what it means that the economic crisis has resulted in such a reduction in options for women that many have resorted to stripping or pornography. Instead, the tone of the article borders on celebratory, and the author elides discussing the gender, class, and race issues that saturate every facet of the story in favor of presenting jobs in the sex industry as an opportunity for enterprising women facing hard economic times, claiming that these women are “attracted by the promise of flexible schedules and fast cash” and that “[m]any have college degrees and held white-collar jobs until the economy soured.”
That rosy view rests upon interviews with two strippers, Eva Stone and Rebecca Brown, both of whom work at the Pink Monkey in Chicago. Stone considers her foray into the world of stripping a temporary one and plans to enter a master’s program as soon as she pays off her student loans, whereas Brown plans to stick with stripping as she makes more money at it than she did as a bartender. This could just be a case of lazy reporting; both women featured in the article work at the same club, and both were willing to discuss their motivations with the reporter. However, careless journalistic method or not, the lack of analysis in articles like this one is incredibly irresponsible, as well as indicative of some pretty wack cultural assumptions.
A casual reader is likely to walk away after reading this article with several grave misconceptions. The foremost of those misconceptions is that all women who participate in the sex industry are doing so by choice. Sure, the article starts out by blaming the larger numbers of women turning to stripping and porn on the sour economy, but it presents stripping as some kind of opportunity that women are lucky to have. No mention is made of the women who resort to stripping or porn out of desperation. In the world of AP reporters, apparently, there’s no such thing as a stripper or porn performer who turns to the industry when she finds herself broke with kids to feed but lacking viable job skills, or who resorts to stripping or porn to support a drug habit. They’re all supposedly there because, presented with a wide variety of attractive options, they’ve decided the sex industry has the most to offer.
The reporter, in a hurry to convince us that strippers and porn performers are nearly all “empowered” middle class cubicle escapees, misses some of the very obvious implications of this story. First, economic downturns hit women harder than men because women are usually among the last people hired and the first fired. And as such, porn producers and strip club managers are able to take advantage of women’s economic oppression during times of economic crisis to an even greater extent than they normally do. Second, and related, the most vulnerable women in our society are hit the hardest by economic crises, and that means that poor women, poor women of color, and women with few job skills are more likely to find themselves in situations in which stripping or working in porn are their only options than women with college degrees or white collar jobs are. Third, the author, in explaining that strip club managers and porn producers are getting a bevy of responses to their want ads, makes no attempt at analyzing what that might mean for the women who come to these places seeking employment, and makes no mention of the exploitive working conditions and the obvious potentials for abuse. The article even goes so far as to quote Brown preempting those who might question the desirability of stripping for a living, saying, “I have job security.” What kind of job security does she really have when the second she gets too old or stops resembling the customers’ idea of fuckable she’ll be out of a job with no resume and no real skills? And since when is having to endure constant sexual harassment from one’s customers and, quite often, one’s employer a good trade-off for job security?
Which leads to my final point, that the author failed to ask the most important question of all: why do we even have a “sex” industry? Why are women’s bodies and sexuality being so aggressively commodified and exploited? Why is there a demand for a never-ceasing parade of women willing to take their clothes off and allow men to use them sexually? Could there possibly be a fundamental problem in a system in which this phenomenon can occur?
It appears that the aggressive marketing of women’s sexual exploitation and the cultural mainstreaming of pornography and the other sectors of the “sex” industry in recent years have reached the point at which the news media now feel it appropriate to present women’s economic and sexual exploitation as innocuous, unavoidable, and fun as fuck. Critical thinking, when it might stand in the way of the carefree use and abuse of women, gets jettisoned once again.