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The Human Costs of Pornography

November 21st, 2023 | 6 min read

By James Diddams

Some years ago while viewing pornography I unexpectedly noticed something I did not want to recognize: subtle signs of self-harm on part of the woman’s body known only in intimate contexts. There are different kinds of self-harm that imply different things about the sufferer’s mental state; vertical slashes up the wrist indicate active suicidal ideation while horizontal cuts, unlikely to be fatal, imply a cry for help. But, scars that are neither conspicuous nor lethal imply a desire for solitary suffering. Secret suffering, presumably hidden from those closest to her, but not her online voyeurs.

This heady mix of sex and self-mutilation proved such a potent concoction as to quickly render all porn irrepressibly repugnant, not unlike Alex’s fate in A Clockwork Orange. In the wake of my suddenly permanently altered thinking, new insights about what makes porn so bad began to emerge; instead of an isolated problem, the pornification of society seems increasingly central to the crisis of disintegrating relations between the sexes. One starting point to examine these issues is Elayne Allen’s Public Discourse piece “Sex Work is Scaling,” which references an “unintentionally revealing” interview between Reason magazine and Aella, a prominent sex worker, data scientist, and internet personality.

In her interview, Aella highlights the economic opportunity afforded sex workers by selling their bodies - opportunity without which she and numerous other women would be far worse off. Though Aella is a libertarian, her views are echoed by leftwing outlets who charge that restricting sex work effectively steals money from the most vulnerable, since poor women are the most likely to sell sex. Interestingly, when asked to “explain the class differences in types of sex work,” she responds:

I did a survey of a bunch of escorts and found that the amount of bad things they encountered, like sexual assault … was pretty strongly correlated with their price range. Basically, the more money you charge, you’re pricing yourself out of more sketchy clientele. The people who are going to be paying you $1,000 an hour are not going to sexually assault you. They’re a lawyer or a doctor or a politician or someone who just doesn’t want to mess with that.

Both the parallels between her own libertarian thinking and progressive views on prostitution as well as Aella’s description of the variance in violence against sex workers warrant further analysis.  

Though libertarians and self-styled progressives seem philosophically at odds, the underlying logic of why prostitution must be legal is essentially the same. As Milton Friedman would argue, anytime the state denies two people the legal ability to make a mutually beneficial transaction (a “Pareto improvement”), the sum total of human happiness is diminished: the buyer is worse off for not having their desired good or service and so is the seller for not having their extra money.

Applied to labor markets, this logic invalidates any state-enforced worker protections because they necessarily render some exchanges of money for goods and services illegal, regardless of what the buyers and sellers think.

The obvious rejoinder is that some work, even if “agreed” to by worker and employer, is intrinsically exploitative. If a business can only profitably operate with subminimum wages and working conditions then the political community demands it be shuttered, even if the owner, customers and employees disagree. Not that this is a panacea to inhumane working conditions; many people, like illegal immigrants, go to great lengths to work in environments that are deemed illegal or unethical.

Some arguments in favor of prostitution appeal to bodily autonomy and thus don’t necessarily reference loss of economic agency as a primary harm of illegalized sex work. But, at other times, progressive arguments in favor of legalized sex work are basically interchangeable with libertarian ones about economic liberty: Denying workers the right to sell their services, sexual or not, brings only impoverishment and, at society’s margins, is almost a death sentence. The libertarian framework for evaluating acceptable working conditions can be useful when utilized with other forms of labor, yet completely falls apart when applied to sex work.

Let’s imagine we could rank all the instances of women engaged in sex work from most to least exploitative. On one end of the spectrum would be escorts like Aella, who charges at least $3,000 per hour. At the other end would be the millions of sex-trafficked and otherwise impoverished women who turn to sex work as a means of survival for themselves and their families. Many women on this spectrum are clearly victimized while others seem to be profiting immensely, but where do we draw the line between exploitation and “fair trade” sex work? Society does so with all other forms of labor, so why not sex work as well?

The impossibility of a coherent answer to this question is, so to speak, a feature and not a bug of the intrinsic immorality of the sex industry. With any other occupation, the political community would decide on minimum wage, safety, and benefits to be ethically employed even if it means some businesses close. But how to apply that to sex work? We might pass a law saying sex workers must be paid at least x amount, receive x benefits, and be protected from x disgusting or abusive acts. This would, effectively, arbitrarily define the line between “fair trade” sex work and exploitation. But what of the women who need money enough to sell sex for exploitatively small amounts of money or in otherwise degrading fashion and men predatory enough to pay?

Reasoning from a libertarian position, this is actually a real problem: On one hand, if we set a floor to the treatment of sex workers then we deny income to many of the very worst off. Simultanously, the fact that the sex work these women want to engage is more exploitative than society can bear means it’s ethically unacceptable. No matter where the “fair trade” line is drawn for non-exploitative sex work, women are classed into two groups: those who are exploited, and those who benefit from being high-demand sex workers like Aella.

Returning to her interview, the idea that Aella and similar women can reap massive financial benefits from and promote the sex industry with no connection to the suffering of innumerable victimized women seems suspect. Sex is so central to the human experience that there is simply no just way it can be commodified as a marketable good to be bought and sold. The problem is not with the monetary value assigned to the “work.” The problem is that the category of “sex work” is itself inherently exploitative. To make of sex a financial commodity is inherently to enable abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women.

When the New York Times published Nicholas Kristof’s essay The Children of Pornhub in December of 2020, many were shocked to learn Pornhub “is infested with rape videos. It monetizes child rapes, revenge pornography, spy cam videos of women showering, racist and misogynist content, and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags,” among other terrible things. This was so appalling that Visa and MasterCard disabled their cards on the website, which Vice described as a “War Against Sex Workers.”

What’s worse, the loss of income for the sex workers who monetarily depend on Pornhub or the horrors committed against numerous exploited people so it could be posted on the internet? If Pornhub and the sex industry generally cannot exist without victimization, the suffering of the latter seems indelibly tied up with the income of the former. The unavoidable conclusion is that nobody can participate in the sex industry and avoid moral compromise, including the consumers of sex online and in real life.

The commodification of sex has always existed at the margins of society, but porn in the 21st century has taken an existing problem and made it shockingly ubiquitous overnight. Legislatively, there are encouraging signs that we have passed peak-porn: Politico recently reported that many states are passing age-verification laws on porn websites, with Pornhub ceasing to operate in some states rather than comply. But beyond passing new laws, we absolutely must impress upon men, especially young men, the active role they play in abusing, oppressing, and even raping women by their porn consumption. Christian men cannot be called protectors of women if they financially participate in systems of sexual exploitation.

Bearing all of this in mind, each man must ask himself: how many degrees of separation from rapists and human traffickers are you comfortable with? And how many degrees will it be in Hell if you don’t repent?

James Diddams

James Diddams is the Managing Editor of Providence Magazine.