Moral Hysteria as Public Spectacle
Firstly, I would like to make my position clear: I’m not a sex worker, I don’t produce pornography, nor do I habitually consume it. Over 20 years ago, I spent a short time working as a kind of sex worker. I didn’t find the experience degrading, and it was moderately lucrative, but it did not suit my temperament. Later, I spent half a year in Thailand researching Kathooey culture and, although many Thai Trans folks are not in the sex industry, the ones I spent the most time with were. These days, I’m an academic and a writer of erotic fiction with an interest in the way cultures view sexuality and eroticism. So, in approaching the two aspects of our society’s current appetite for public moral hysteria, I wanted to clarify where my allegiances stand. I probably know a little bit more about sexwork than an average person does, but not much.
Sexwork and pornography have become very much a part of the political and cultural debate. Two media darlings in this discourse are ‘save our children from the evils of pornography’ and ‘stop sex trafficking’. Now who in their right mind doesn’t think that a child’s early exposure to pornography might be problematic? And who in their right mind doesn’t oppose sex trafficking? So, on the surface, these seem like tremendously worthy causes. Until you start to prod at their underbelly.
When you do, you start to notice that sex-trafficking – i.e. people who are kidnapped, enslaved and forced into sexwork against their will – isn’t quite the massive global problem campaigners want you to believe it is. It does exist, of course, and it’s hideous. The difficulty lies in the fact that these anti-trafficking campaigners aren’t seeking to pressure law enforcement to enforce existing laws more forcefully (kidnapping and rape are already prosecutable crimes). They are blurring the lines between forced and voluntary sexwork, and it seems, when you examine their agenda critically, that their real desire is simply to criminalize all sexwork and label all sexworkers as exploited victims.
Meanwhile, the number of humans trafficked for non-sex-oriented forced labour is far, far greater – the global numbers are staggering. But it is the sex part that seems to garner public outcry and media attention. Why is that?
The A&E ‘reality TV’ show “8 Minutes” reflects our cultural appetite for simplistic narratives and moral outrage. The morality-laden plot featuring a cop-turned-pastor who ostensibly meets with sexworkers and has 8 minutes to talk them out of their profession seemed like it would hit all the populist buttons. The recent expose and cancellation of the program revealed that there was no ‘mission’ to rescue these women. Neither the producers nor the pastor really cared about the sexworkers they were using for public entertainment. Under that self-righteous surface of care, concern and humane outreach was the business of spectacle. The show left the sexworkers whose lives it touched in far worse situations than it found them. It was left to fellow sexworkers, like @MistressMatisse to rescue a sexworker from the disaster of those 8 Minutes.
8 Minutes invited millions of viewers to indulge in smug, vicarious titillation under the comforting masquerade of a witnessing a ‘rescue’ and paid those sexworkers the equivalent of a single client visit. I want to be clear about this: A&E acted as the most egregious sort of uberpimp: a manipulative agent, making false promises, humiliating and abandoning these women. The fact that they didn’t receive physical sexual services from these women should not confuse you; this was erotic spectacle for profit and the American public acted as voyeurs. For more on the reality of 8 Minutes, listen to an interview with Alana Massey of the Sex Workers Outreach Project.
The reality is that sexworkers, like any other labourers, have varying degrees of commitment or ambivalence to their jobs. Some really enjoy it, some simply see it as a way to earn a living, some would rather do other things but feel they have few other options, and some are indeed trafficked. What makes the general public view it as a profession apart from all other forms of physical labour is its sexual aspect. And it is our cultural ambivalence towards our own sexuality that leaves us open to being manipulated and tricked into participating the the sort of spectacle that 8 Minutes offered. What is more salient is that it is that very ambivalence and our kneejerk prejudice that makes sexwork more dangerous than other physical labour or other service industry jobs. The problem is not with sexwork, it’s with us. Our attitudes.
But the hypocritical erotic gaze doesn’t end there. Over in the UK, the Conservative government has been using the spectre of ‘damage to children’ as a way to severely curtail the pornography industry and to prosecute both producers and consumers. The newly instituted obscenity laws – ostensibly put in place to protect children – now prohibit the visualization of acts that are commonly practiced in the bedroom – like spanking, facesitting and female ejaculation. Once respectable charities such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) have resorted to using deeply flawed data from market research companies to bolster its assertion that British children are addicted to porn.
These campaigns to save the children, so embraced by both major UK political parties are populist and very superficial. After all, who isn’t a little worried about what little Johnny is doing up there on his computer for hours on end? But this does beg two questions: where is the hard data to show that most of the porn viewed by kids is dangerous to them? (We desperately need more good research in this area but are, ironically, hampered from getting it by our obsessive fear of dealing with the issue of childhood sexuality). And why are we hell bent on making the visualization of acts (specifically acts which involve women’s pleasure like facesitting and squirting) illegal?
Young people have always accessed and been fascinated by porn in one form or another, and there is a legitimate concern that young people are using porn as a sex-education resource. That might be because of the poor forms of sex education we offer – the remote, dispassionate and clinical rhetoric we use to de-eroticize sex when we talk about it with teens. Porn has traditionally been produced to satisfy the male gaze and this is a skewed and artificial view of real human sexuality. So why are we banning the visualizing of women’s pleasure? Since kids always have and WILL access porn, why aren’t we make an effort to encourage more realism and equality? Why doesn’t the government consider funding realistic and egalitarian porn?
Yeah, I know, you’re laughing at my last sentence, but consider: if our concern were genuinely for the deleterious effects of children accessing violent, misogynistic porn then wouldn’t our actions be different than the ones we’re currently taking?
Again, it is our own ambivalence with sexuality that is problematic here. Adolescents are sexual beings. Newly sexual and very curious. It is patently ridiculous to attempt to bar them from sexual content. So why can’t we be more creative about the way we attempt to control what they see?
Indeed, they make their own and then we prosecute them for it! There have been cases in which teens have been charged with distributing child pornography for ‘sexting’ revealing pictures of themselves to others, or passing pictures on. Yes, really. We don’t want kids to access porn, and when they make their own, we label them as ‘sex offenders’ and make them felons. For more on this, read Myles Jackman’s excellent post: Don’t Criminalise the Selfie Generation.
Can kids be victims of sexting? Certainly, but only because, as a society, we have such an unhealthy relationship with our own sexuality. The young girl whose ex-boyfriend sends her boob pic to his buddies or posts them on the internet wouldn’t be ashamed or depressed or contemplating suicide if she didn’t live in a society that was so hypocritical about our physical bodies or our sexual natures.
Whether it is the ‘rescue’ of sexworkers or the ‘protection’ of children, what becomes obvious is that the proponents of these approaches are disingenuous. They aren’t really interested in rescuing or protecting anyone. They are profiting – sometimes financially, sometimes politically – off our deep social ambivalence with the realities of sex.
They are selling us fantasy narratives about victimized sexworkers and innocent tender young teens WHILE victimizing sexworkers and criminalizing teen sexuality. But, and here is what is harder to swallow, it gets darker: the fevered pitch of moral hysteria about these issues actually serves to eroticize them in the public imagination. It turns people’s lived experience into spectacle. It invites us to indulge in voyeuristic intrusions into the private lives of individuals, exciting while encouraging us to condemn others.
It’s turning us into sadists.
This populist moral outrage is actively perverting our sensibilities. It is manipulating us into obsessions disguised as humane concerns. It works at a subconscious level to keep us pinned to the spectacle of condemnation and self-righteous moralizing. My guess is that you are not consenting to this form of eroticism.
Worst of all, it doesn’t help sexworkers who genuinely want to get out of the business or protect them from danger. It doesn’t help us to make rational and informed decisions on how to understand adolescent sexuality or ensure it our kids develop sane, healthy sexual psyches.
It’s really about ratings and money and power, and it’s our problematic feelings about sex that enable it. If we truly wanted to help people, we’d ask them if they need help, and what kind of help they needed, and do our best to provide it. Anything else comes with an agenda.