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Blog, Theory & Analysis

Porn, Sex Positivity, and Working Class Solidarity

hundreds-gather-outside-uk-parliament-to-protest-new-porn-regulations-1418409354The UK’s gradually expanding porn law restrictions have been going on for years and eventually came to a climax the end of 2014, when previously existing restrictions were applied to all pornographic material made in the UK. Though I still see the occasional protest against this, and a few campaigners are still trying to overturn it, the flurry of outrage has largely died down. My aim here is not to defend the ban, but to critique the way this has been discussed, so we might be able to distinguish in future between what some members of the public want the sex industry to be, and an expression of working class solidarity towards those of us who work in it.

It’s obvious to most people that the list of banned acts represents pure moralising, and that the people who made this list seem to have a particular idea of what normal sex is and should be (part of which, as a number of people have noted, seems to be based on the idea that sex is something that women do for men). The legislation is clearly not about what should or shouldn’t happen on a porn set, but is entirely about what should be depicted and how. This is no mistake, the changes are part of the Obscene Publications Act, designed to outlaw any material that “tends to deprave and corrupt”. The fact that some of the banned acts are also things that many workers will want to avoid at work is coincidental and not the purpose of the ban. This becomes apparent when we see that vomiting, for example from facefucking, is something that is acceptable “if it is not performed as part of the sexual act, and is not visibly enjoyed by the participants”. The important phrase is “visibly enjoyed”, as the issue is not whether or not the worker is actually enjoying having the back of their throat hit until they vomit, but whether or not they have the inclination or acting ability to portray someone who does enjoy it. And according to the OPA they should not appear to enjoy it as it might give people watching the idea that this could be fun. However if your work involves occasional uncontrolled vomiting and you look suitably unimpressed by it when it happens, then as far as this legislation is concerned that’s fine and nothing to worry about.

Whether consciously or not, a lot of the responses to this have mirrored the same attitude in the sense that they’ve not been about what the work is like for those people having sex on camera, but about what consumers think should or shouldn’t be depicted, and how it should be represented, and what porn should look like to portray sex in a certain way to society. Progressives all over the UK have complained that they want female pleasure to be depicted and so are against the ban on female ejaculation, that they want women to be shown as empowered in sex and so are against the ban on face-sitting, that they want a variety of sexual acts to be represented so we aren’t conditioned to masturbate only to the same tired misogynistic porn formula. This is fair enough. It’s not only films and high art that influence our society and how we think, but all the media we consume. Even if all the porn actors on set were to be bored out of their minds, hate each other, and feel disgusted by the thought of having to get it on for the camera, if they produce a work of fiction that depicts the healthy negotiating of consent, where the people having sex are smiling at each other while on camera, where women are portrayed as having their own sexual desires, that could have a positive affect on people watching it.

However, this perspective has also been presented as being pro sex worker rights. Don’t get me wrong, this legislation is a problem for a lot of sex workers. People making their own porn clips in the UK are no longer allowed to portray certain acts, which can affect their income. Cam sex workers can now cross a whole bunch of services off their list, and will likely lose custom to cam workers in other countries who can still provide those services. Whereas previously they could announce “Come and see me squirt!” now this could, under some circumstances, put them on the wrong side of the law. This legislation has real material consequences for people working in the sex industry, and should be denounced due to the restrictions it puts on the acts that workers are able to offer, whether because they enjoy them, or because they’re able to charge more for offering them. But the idea that it’s infringing on the otherwise fun sexy time we were having at work, is not the most fundamental and in my opinion not the most pressing issue.

Personally I’ve done some cam work and some porn but mainly what is referred to as “full service escorting” otherwise known as getting paid to have sex with people (off camera). Much of the responses I’ve seen to these legislation changes have been very reminiscent of my clients’ idea of being good to sex workers, ie wanting us to enjoy having sex with them. To be clear, if you want to have sex with someone only if they’re genuinely interested in having sex with you, and you want them to feel free to refuse if they aren’t interested, then that is a basis for establishing enthusiastic consent. If however you’d like someone to appear to enjoy the sex that they’re obliged to be having with you anyway, then you’re merely demanding an extra layer of work on top of what they’re required to perform, the “affective labour” or “customer service with a smile”. If additionally you expect this performance to be genuine, then you’re suffering from delusions as to how things actually work, and are demanding too much. Much of what I’ve seen written about this, has been, whether consciously or unconsciously, from the perspective of consumers, or at least people who want to believe the sex industry is a happy sexy place. Or pieces written by porn company owners pandering to the consumer in the name of sexually liberated empowered feminism. If you can accept that the fact that someone is at work means it’s very possible that they don’t want to be there, then you’re in a better position to support them than if you need them to pretend they enjoy their work because you can’t cope with reality. Sex workers can contribute a lot to the discussion on consent, and though I won’t expound on this too much myself, I would recommend Charlotte Shane’s article ““Getting Away” With Hating It: Consent in the Context of Sex Work”, which I found very relatable and insightful myself.

With the vomiting example, it’s vital to distinguish between the wish that it be legal for people to depict it as pleasurable, with the assumption that when they do so, it actually says anything at all about whether they’re enjoying it. They might, they might not. Equally when we discuss the fact that depicting spanking is legal if there is a slight reddening, but no longer legal if there are “bruises or welts”, it is not enough to just argue that some people enjoy it when they have bruises and welts after a flogging session. For people who are motivated solely by the money to take a beating, it is quite plausible that they would like their resulting injuries to disappear as soon as possible. For myself, if I’m given options during work sex then I try to avoid activities that put a strain on my body, and I particularly avoid those activities that I indulge in in spite of this strain when I’m having sex for fun. This is because I much prefer to be able to put that particular strain on my body later, rather than being too sore or tired after work to spend my time off doing something I enjoy. I am not at all fussed about trying to make my job a sexy experience for myself. The possibility that the work aspect of sex work might result in sex workers having different priorities than you would expect of people having sex just for fun, was, as is often the case, noticeably absent from the debate as sex (work) positivity and neo-liberalism joined forces again to demand that the sex industry be portrayed as sexily as possible.

Interestingly, much has been made of the ban on female ejaculation. Though it’s in the interests of many workers in porn to be allowed to depict it, often the pressure from bosses, clients, the market, etc to show physical signs of arousal, puts a particular strain on sex workers, as to authentically display them requires a certain amount of manipulation of one’s own sexual predilections. It’s one thing to have one’s sexual activity decided by market forces, but having to mould one’s personal desires to fit those activities goes a step further. It’s no coincidence that urination is often claimed to be female ejaculation, it’s not just those stuffy government ministers not understanding the difference. It is generally easier to urinate on demand than ejaculate on demand. A feminist view of porn should at least distinguish between the portrayal of female pleasure and the actual documentation of female pleasure! The portrayal of female pleasure is of feminist interest in as much as the stories told in porn affect it’s consumers and with that society, but aren’t of particular interest to the performers. And whether any pleasure is actually experienced is, frankly, not necessarily as much of a consideration for many workers as the rate of pay, how exhausting the work is, how damaging the work is and how long the hours are. A pro-worker perspective of porn should concern itself with these at least. The inability to comprehend that actors are acting, and the projection of aspirational middle class values onto sex workers, that forgets our more immediate material concerns and wishes only for our jobs to be fulfilling for us, is not helpful or realistic.

So what difference does it make if this law is detrimental anyway? Not so much in this instance. However, the “support” of sex workers on the basis of how people would like to imagine their work (because it’s what gets you off, or because you just need to believe it to feel comfortable supporting us) has wider implications. Supposing that porn performers at a company all hated having to perform a certain act, and organised to the point of having the leverage to collectively demand of their boss that they no longer had to do it, I would expect of people to support that demand as fellow workers. Working class solidarity towards sex workers is not based on what you would like the sex industry to produce for your own sexual pleasure, or what you think it should produce for the good of society, but on the recognition that sex work is work, and that sex workers are fellow workers.

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