Posted on | August 10, 2010 | 2 Comments
A couple of months ago, I got the following comment on the Goodreads feed for one of my blogs on pornography. The comment read:
What do you say about the statistics that show upwards of 90% of pornographic actresses have suffered some form of sexual abuse? That it’s a corollary of the intense — and hypocritical — moralizing?
He was commenting on this essay where I talked about why it’s important to understand the effects porn does or doesn’t have on viewers in actual fact rather than succumbing to hypocritical moralizing about it. After poking around for quite a while, the main thing I have to say about the 90% statistic is that I don’t think it’s a statistic. It’s taken me a particularly long time to respond to this comment because I just couldn’t find reliable numbers about how many porn actresses had suffered from sexual abuse. There are well publicized anecdotes about high-profile actresses and there are the accounts by actresses turned Christian, but the statistical claim, which is made many times on anti-porn sites, quite frustratingly never lead me to any kind of study or survey. Nobody who quoted the number, including the Goodreads commenter, pointed to any real examination of the issue.
On top of the lack of reference, there’s the issue of the number itself: In every place I found it, the number was always quoted at 90% or above, which reeks of a made-up stat that’s being repeated over and over by like-minded people. In the social sciences, I haven’t found any number on any topic to be this consistent, which makes it pretty suspect from jump. (If anyone knows of a real study, please direct me to it. I’ll try to find something next time I’m at UCLA. The internet is clogged with partisan junk on this topic.)
I’m always ready to be proven wrong, but I doubt that this number has a real origin anywhere. In lay-language, people say, “like 90% of the time” when they mean, “almost all the time.” They don’t mean to say that they’ve read a study that used any kind of sampling followed by any kind of math to draw any kind of conclusion. They throw out the number because numbers lend emphasis to declarations, as in my non-favorite, “I always give 110%.” Giving any percent over 100% is impossible. It’s just a turn of phrase based on a misunderstanding of the idea of percentages.
Having said that, it would not surprise me to learn that the percentage of molested women was higher in the ranks of sex workers than in the general population. As I discussed here, at the beginning of their productive lives, people with no training or education typically enter the workforce by monetizing “home skills” like yardwork or housekeeping. As disturbing as it might be to think about, if someone has been molested, sex is a home skill that a woman might choose to take into the world and make money from. But a sexually precocious teen who has only had experiences with peers would also count sex as a home skill and could well make the same choice with abuse being no part of it. A woman who grew up knowing that she was pretty and could manipulate men easily might also choose to put her body and looks into service as a money-making machine. (I’ll only talk about women sex workers from here on because while I care about male sex workers, that’s not who the “ninety-percenters” are up in arms about.)
One way that the ninety percent number might be true is if it relies on the modern definition of abuse. In our legal system, a 19-year-old having consensual sex with a 17-year-old is technically rape / abuse, even though neither party would identify it as such. I tend to doubt that a girl who starts acting in porn films at 18 or 19 has abstained from having sex with a man 18 or over while she was 17 or younger. But to call that relationship abuse or molestation is, as I see it, a hazardous dilution of the concept of abuse to the point where it verges on becoming a meaningless idea. I expanded on that here.
The belief in the ninety percent stat seems to derive from the notion that a woman must be damaged in order to choose to get into sex work. I find this to be a sketchy conclusion. What if a girl looks around and sees that she has the options of getting a part-time minimum wage job at a Subway sandwich shop or joining the army or marrying her high school boyfriend and pumping out kids? Does she have to have been molested by her uncle to look favorably on doing porn or stripping or even hooking? All choices that could pay her in a day what the others pay her in a month.
I don’t think those choices are necessarily signs of damage or depravity. If we’re really charged up about young adults making other choices, we need to work on giving them better choices to make. Alan Greenspan and Ronald Reagan, in their partly coordinated war on working-class America, have effectively outsourced and de-unionized the labor base that provided decent jobs for those folks, so if you’re really upset about women becoming whores and porn stars, write some hate mail to Greenspan. He and his incompetence and his dogmatic Ayn Randism have made more porn stars, strippers and prostitutes than abuse and loose morals ever could have.
And some porn stars just choose the life even in the presence of good options. Examine the case of Nina Hartley, for instance, who is a registered nurse and an incredibly bright woman who wasn’t abused in her youth. (I had a conversation with a high school classmate of hers who just ranted about how brilliant she was.)
Mainly though, regardless of the reasons a young person chooses to go into sex work, we need to do a better job treating them with love and compassion. If that employment choice makes them criminals and untouchables, they only become that much more vulnerable to the very real hazards of the work: trafficking, violence, drug use, unsafe sex and control by pimps, madams and video producers.
And as consumers we need to take our compassion to the marketplace. In this era of international free trade, it may be impossible to consume anything ethically. (Were your socks sewn by mistreated child laborers? You don’t know. And you’re kidding yourself if you think you do.) But as consumers of sex work, we fortunately can be a more aware than we can as consumers of clothing because the people doing the work are right there in front of us. There are laws that make sure we know their names. And there are ethical porn producers. Look at the titles sold at blowfish.com. I trust them to keep an eye out for the performers in the films that they sell.
I’ll contact a couple of folks I know in the porn industry and ask them what we as consumers can do to ensure that we’re supporting ethical porn and I’ll post the results of that conversation in a later essay.