OPINION: Exploitative Porn

Isha Madan

In 2005, 16-year-old Marina Hantzis entered a relationship with a 29-year-old Ian Cinnamon. Eleven years later, Hantzis filed a restraining order against him. Cinnamon faced charges of sexual assault, domestic violence, faking military status, and coercion of a minor into pornography. According to Hantzis, he had “subjected to years of abuse and sexual assaults” and “convinced her a career in porn would be the perfect cover for his Defense Intelligence Agency position as a spy.” This story is not obscure, because the girl in question is rather well-known, but not by her birth name. She is the famous porn star Sasha Grey.

Previous advertising campaigns for porn have used Grey as their feminist icon, likely to dispel feminist criticisms of the industry. In these campaigns, Grey said that she loved her work and she encouraged feminists to seek out work in pornography. Perhaps most controversially, she claimed that pornography could be feminist. Turn Off the Blue Light is a similar campaign touting the advantages of the industry for Irish porn stars. While this campaign claims sex workers are behind it, convicted pimp Peter McCormick is actually the mastermind behind the pro-porn parade. These pro-porn campaigns were not feminist crusades. They were actually manipulative and misleading operations that used Grey and other abused workers to spread a facade of the “merit” of the pornography industry.

Grey’s campaign was notable in that she was portrayed as more than just a sex worker who enjoyed her job, but as a feminist who considered sex work to be empowering. Her words were taken at face value, public response to Grey rarely took into account the context in which she was speaking. She was bound by contract, had bills to pay, and depended on the industry. In light of all this, it is unsurprising that she lied about joining pornography of her own free will – her boyfriend at the time was blackmailing her.

Of course, now that Grey has publicly revealed the side of abuse she faced as a porn star, there are skeptics who cast doubt upon her and other former porn stars that choose to speak out about their experiences with manipulation in the industry. One commenter on Reddit argued, “She sucked and fucked her way into fame…this is just her way to gain some sympathy points…what better way to boost your fame by attention whoring?”

Grey was clearly a victim of horrendous exploitation when she defended violent pornographic videos of hers. Her more recent comments, such as those in an interview with TMZ, reflect her honest thoughts on pornography work.

The fact remains that Grey is not isolated in her experiences. Consider Miriam Weeks. More commonly known as Belle Knox, Weeks is a Duke student who became a porn star to pay off her college loans. While Weeks maintains that she does not regret her decision to join the industry and that she is grateful it has allowed her to pay off her loans, she has also come forward with accounts of abuse. She reports that she was forced to perform sexual acts that had not been outlined in her contract. She also admits that some of the acts she did agree to in contract were far rougher than she expected, and the acts left her terrified and shaken. “They try to figure out what makes you tick and fuck with you,” she commented in the interview. “I remember getting naked, and the guy said, ‘You have cuts on your legs. You’re a cutter.’ He could tell I had written the word ‘fat’ in my thigh, so he started calling me fat.” Jenna Jameson, Linda Lovelace, the list goes on; there is no shortage of women in porn who reveal their traumatic experiences later in their lives, perhaps after they felt that threats from the industry were less immediate. Porn consumers received sexual gratification from the abuse of these women before their stories of trauma became public – and many continue to watch the videos even after they know the truth.

Porn is an enormous industry, raking in billions of dollars each year. It is directly linked to an increase in violence against women and human trafficking. According to studies of convicted sexual assault perpetrators, consumption of increasingly violent pornography leads these people to act on increasingly violent urges. Pornography creates addiction and encourages sexual predators to take their fantasies to the next level. Some predators report becoming bored with their current choice of porn, eventually moving on to something more extreme. First torture, then pedophilia, and eventually nothing is off limits. Although every viewer of porn is certainly not a maniac waiting to attack an innocent person, research shows that porn warps the watcher’s perception on sex, love, and women. It is fact that many people are pressured and kidnapped into the industry, including young children. Homemade porn and porn made by women is not exempt from this. Unfortunately, at its current state, it is difficult to consume pornography without being complicit in brutal, wide-scale abuse. A common question in response to this is, why don’t they simply leave? People who have not been in this industry or otherwise involved in sex work do not consider the myriad reasons that a porn actress cannot, or may not, choose to leave.

It’s important that the public learns to respect the wishes, interests and humanity of trafficked women and sex workers. Criminalizing sex work will only make people in the industry more vulnerable to abuse, as their work is forced underground, although legal sex work is not currently safe or humane. Porn actresses do not all view their circumstances the same way. Some consider it sex work, others consider themselves trafficked.

Furthermore, the public must acknowledge that financial precarity is a huge motivator for joining the industry and that there are women who would not be in the industry if they did not need it to survive. But there are also women who prefer sex work to their other job options, and simply need the industry to be safer so that they can continue doing the work they enjoy. Sex workers must not be exploited for academic notoriety – for example, writer Andrea Dworkin collected Lovelace’s stories of abuse, only to ally herself with right wing organizations in her movement against pornography, and not credit Lovelace for her contributions The public can stop endlessly debating over whether their choices are feminist and instead shine a light on their abusers: the multi-millionaire men and women who are the force behind an industry built on kidnapping, coercion, and violence in the first place.

Isha is a sophomore legal studies major with a minor in history. She likes music, politics and food.

Check out more from this month’s issue here.