For some reason the end note on Porn Part 10 explaining my use of the phrase “commercial rape” has caused an uproar amongst several people who were apparently unable to understand the post itself or the difference between flipping burgers and letting people ejaculate all over you. One of the objections pseudo-intellectual Libertarian dudes like to bring to any discussion of porn and whether it amounts to rape is the fact that no one would consent to do their jobs were they not being paid to do so. This type of objector to feminist discourse casually saunters into an ongoing debate, barely skims the post, completely ignores the comments, plonks his point down in a single sentence surrounded by chimerical “gotchas” and the stench of unwarranted arrogance, and then dips out, assuming he has decimated decades of feminist theory with the epiphany-inducing proclamation he has blessed us womenfolk with.
Naturally, I delete the vast majority of these comments out of respect for the people on this site who actually read and think about what’s being discussed, but I suppose the argument that sex work is like all other work is raised often enough — even in radical circles — that I ought to address it.
In a capitalist economy, labor of any kind, whether physical, mental, or a combination thereof, is assigned an abstract value attached either to a set unit of time during which the work will be performed or to an individual task that is to be performed. All labor relations are considered by “free-market” capitalists to be contract relationships between the employer and the person performing the labor. The person performing the labor, as capitalist ideology goes, is a free agent who chooses the terms under which she or he will perform labor for recompense, limited in only the most basic of ways by federal labor and minimum wage laws. It is upon this idea of free contract labor that political participation and citizenship are founded in the US and most other developed countries.* The problem with the theory of free contract labor has been and always will be the reality workers face when making the decision to sell their labor. The value assigned to a given unit of labor is said to derive from its relative scarcity in a supply-and-demand driven market economy, rather than from the cultural context in which the value of the labor is determined, but that assessment relies on the assumption that markets operate in rational, predictable ways. Clearly, that is not the case. The value of a given form of labor is not set by the laborer in a vacuum, but is rather constrained by the social, cultural, and economic conditions in which the labor contract is negotiated. There is a reason that most economic predictions fail: economists generally can’t figure out how to account for the often strange contingencies of human psychology and culture.
One of capitalism’s central features, at least according to orthodox capitalist ideology, is universalism. To each according to his merit, as it were. The problem, however, is that capitalism has required racism and sexism as fundamental components of its ability to function on a global scale. The history of the spread of capitalism is inextricably bound up with the history of slavery, imperialism, and the general devaluation of the labor (and lives) of women and people of color for the sake of increased profit. Capitalist ideology is simultaneously universalist, sexist, and racist, because it grew out of and flourished in an intellectual and political climate characterized by all three.**
Most radical anti-capitalism theorists unfortunately fail to recognize that patriarchy has existed far longer than capitalism has and will likely outlast capitalism, and hence must be taken account of if one wishes to devise a politico-economic theory that will actually end group-based hierarchy. Despite the presence of a vocal contingent of purportedly radical men who are pro-sex work, the numbers of those who are anti-capitalism, though growing, are still relatively small, and there are far more regular old dudes who make the “all work is exploitation so porn ain’t so bad” argument.
I’ll pretend for a second that the dudes — radical or otherwise — who take that position are simply expressing an honestly-arrived-at objection to the argument that porn and prostitution are commercial rape.
The value of a given form of labor is determined by demand for that form of labor in a sense, but both demand and the value assigned to labor are socially constructed. In your average office job, the amount of money a worker is paid is determined by how much her employer has determined her set of skills and time are worth, usually about 75% of the amount they would pay a male worker for the same work. Were market forces to operate according to capitalist theory, that pay gap would not exist. “The market” doesn’t work as indicated in this scenario because the market operates within a social system of beliefs. US law, for the majority of the last century, treated women’s work as supplementary to that of a putative male breadwinner, and thus as deserving of a lower wage than men’s work, regardless of whether the female worker in question was married. Despite the 1963 Equal Pay Act, the pay gap persists because the social and cultural expectations that undergirded prior laws and court decisions upholding sex-based wage discrimination continue to exist. Law and economics are not extra-cultural. Because the social and economic gender roles of the wider culture defined manhood in large part as the ability to provide for a family through either wage work or business ownership and defined womanhood as caring for a home, husband, and children, the law and the market followed suit by restricting women’s ability to do as they saw fit with their own labor and by devaluing that labor relative to that of men.***
Women’s labor, then, is undervalued in the sense that they are paid less for work that both women and men do. In fact, there are only a few forms of labor for which women are not paid less than men, and they have a very important feature in common: jobs for which women are paid more than men require both self-destruction and complicity in the propagation of misogyny. For example, female fashion models are paid more than male fashion models because female fashion models, through starving themselves and posing for photo spreads that will later be edited to make their already rare looks even more unattainable, help inculcate a sense of self-loathing among women when they realize that they don’t measure up to an ever-changing and impossible beauty ideal based on the sexual desires of men. Women in porn are paid more than men are because the women in porn play an active role in communicating messages about women that a misogynistic world wants to hear and which help to solidify and expand that misogyny. Consent, in a scenario in which women can only out-earn men by offering themselves up as objects to be debased and consumed, means something far different than it does to the men who love the concept so much. Under non-commercial circumstances, consent’s already noxious definition is “I’ll allow you” rather than “I want to.” In a commercial context, it means, “Because you are paying me, I’ll allow you even though I don’t want to and it likely hurts and makes me feel subhuman, and I agree not to call the cops afterward.”
Porn and prostitution are qualitatively different from other remunerative activities because penetration has long been a metaphor for and a literal act of domination. Most men conceive of their bodies as impermeable, discreet, sovereign units. They are aware that penetrating another human being’s body has a deep psychological impact on the person being penetrated, and it is thus no surprise that men reared in societies that valorize violence, aggression, and competition would come to equate penetration with vanquishing the penetrated.**** Women who participate in the production of pornography not only allow themselves to be penetrated — often violently and often by many men — but they usually evince (paid for/faked/half-hearted) pleasure, which communicates a very clear message to the audience: women like to be dominated, humiliated, vanquished, and used by men; a desire to be dominated is an essential component of femaleness that inheres in women in the form of a vagina, which exists for men to penetrate. It is on this view of femaleness and the use of sex as a tool of domination that societal misogyny rests.
So, yes, allowing one’s body to be penetrated for money, even if it causes a pleasurable physical sensation, is a greater acquiescence to exploitation than agreeing to make $5 Footlongs for $7 an hour, even though it pays more. Participating in the making of anti-woman propaganda requires far greater emotional, physical, and political compromises on women’s part than any job men do for equivalent pay. The relatively high (for women) wage porn work and prostitution command does not represent our society’s great love for the female form, it signifies the fact that we are willing to pay somewhat dearly to uphold and jack off to misogyny.
Of those men who come here and make the simplistic and dishonest argument that porn isn’t rape because all work requires us to consent to things we wouldn’t do for free, I would like to ask how much your boss would have to pay you to let him fuck you in the ass while you blow his assistant before he, his assistant, and the janitorial staff ejaculate all over your face. Video of the event would, of course, be posted on the internet and would be available to anyone with basic internet search skills until the day you die. I am truly interested in hearing the figures, which are surely more than $1000.
* See Alice Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America.
** See Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Ideological Tensions of Capitalism: Universalism Versus Racism and Sexism.”
*** Kessler-Harris, chapter 1.
**** See Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse.