Monday, April 16, 2007

I'm a (Wage) Slave 4 U

In last week’s Savage Love, a reader says he thinks it’s never possible to watch BDSM pornography with one’s ethics intact:
Since [my roommate] has no way of knowing if the women in the BDSM porn enjoy the “erotic torments” they’re subjected to, I don't think it's fine to view. These women could have been forced or they could be doing it because they’re in financial distress. Not fine. Therefore, I say it is impossible to enjoy BDSM porn ethically. Do you agree?
Dan Savage responds, appropriately, by noting that “it can be ethically problematic to enjoy BDSM porn of unknown provenance” but that many BDSM porn producers take great care to assure its ethical production:
But today there is tons of fetish/kink porn being produced by and for fetishists of all stripes. Many of these smaller porn producers are hyperethical about the use and abuse of their models. That's particularly the case with producers of BDSM porn, most of whom are acutely sensitive to charges of brutality because, well, their products can seem so brutal.
But Savage doesn’t go far enough in exposing the bogus ethical notions buried in this reader’s letter. First, the reader implies that it’s ethically necessary for the women (not the men?) in BDSM porn to enjoy what they’re doing, not just to fake it. This is not a standard we would apply to actors in traditional porn, actors in regular movies, or workers in any other industry for that matter. Nobody has to enjoy their job; many people even hate their jobs. They do their jobs merely because the benefits exceed the costs, as measured by their own subjective scales of value. Do trash collectors enjoy the scent of rotting garbage? As long as there is valid consent, the fact that people may not actively enjoy their jobs does not, and should not, create an ethical problem for those who enjoy the services provided.

Second, the reader says some people may take part in BDSM porn out of “financial distress,” and this too constitutes an ethical problem. Again, the same thing could be said of many jobs: people take them because they need the money (or even really, really need the money). The availability of jobs in porn, however pleasant or unpleasant such jobs may be, does not make the participants worse off than they would be if those jobs were not available. As a general proposition, you don’t improve people’s lot by taking options away. If the concern is that some people are in dire financial straits and that society should give them a hand, that’s fine but irrelevant; it means that perhaps we ought to provide them with more options (through financial assistance, education, or whatever), not take options away. The story would be very different, of course, if porn actors were in financial distress because of the perfidious actions of the porn producers and consumers – but I don’t think anyone’s claiming that.

If the reader’s concern is that people may be irrational and therefore incapable of making wise decisions about sex (or BDSM specifically), that’s a much broader claim that should make him concerned about not-for-profit BDSM as well. But the reader explicitly says (read the whole letter) that he thinks BDSM is just fine for those who like it. Apparently, then, the reader is okay with bondage between consenting adults, and also (if he’s down with garbage collection) okay with capitalist acts between consenting adults – but for some reason not okay with the intersection of the two.


Anonymous said...

I think the ethical question the reader was trying to bring up is that, since BDSM is based on the idea of coercion , the viewer isn't exactly sure if the actor agreed at the beginning but then maybe changed his or her mind but found themselves tied up (not metaphorically). The reader says, "These women could have been forced.." True that it probably wasn't initially, but then perhaps during the shooting of the film, they were.

I completely agree that this concern is probably taken care of by the fact that "BDSM porn producers take great care to assure its ethical production." However, does the viewer really know? I genuinely ask. It seems like quite a conundrum. I suppoe it's similar to the "Can you sign a contract to bind yourself into slavery?" type of thought experiment.

That being said, I don't think a proper response is, "Well how do we ever know if someone first agreed and then later is coerced in ANYTHING they do." Well, that certainly doesn't apply to the other examples you brought up because there is obvious freedom to exit in those situations.

Yaron said...

@Anonymous - I believe there should be plenty of "freedom to exit" in BDSM porn movies as well. It's true that it's not as obvious, since after all the movie shows violence and coercion, but for someone who knows they are being filmed it should be possible, and easy, to be obviously non-cooperative.

Sure, there may be border cases where the entire film is shot looking like with a hidden camera, or where the "victims" are so immobilized they can't even put on an inappropriate facial gesture, but these should be the minority.
I think and hope, anyway.

And even seeing such a movie, one can be fairly certain it was with consent, or there may have been some lawsuits going around preventing the movie from coming out.

@Glen - I totally agree with your basic points that playing in BDSM porn movies out of financial necessity, and without enjoying it, isn't that different from any other job that people do because they need the money even if they don't like it.

But there could still be a sort of an ethical difference, relating to how direct the effects are:

The garbage collector may really not like the smell of garbage, but what his "consumers" enjoy is not his discomfort, but the secondary effect of not having old garbage lying around.

The viewers of a BDSM porn film theoretically enjoy directly the visible discomfort of the actors. Not a secondary effect. If the viewers don't see the actors suffer, it's probably not a BDSM film.

And that could create a moral difference. The garbage cleaner's consumers enjoy *despite* his discomfort, and the BDSM actors' consumers enjoy *because* of the discomfort.
Unless the discomfort isn't real.

Mukkinese said...

One of the strange things about dealing with porn, is that the presumption of innocence is generally reversed.

We watch very many mainstream films and T.V. shows that depict massive violence, yet never question if the actors were 'forced' or really hurt.

Once sex enters the equation, rational thought can be side-lined and assumptions often tend toward the worse case scenario.

While it is probable that some people are coerced into performing sex for the internet, we really have no idea how widespread that may be. I would postulate that if strong evidence of this happening were to come to light, we would all see it on our nightly news.

It would be a story the media could not resist, sex, slavery and the evils of the internet, this is a jounalists dream. Since we have yet to see any such stories, at least I haven't seen any, it is likely that coercion or abuse of adults for use on commercial sex sites is rare.