THE BLOG
04/03/2014 04:24 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2014

A Porn Empowerment Model: SAG or Street

I've spent some time trying to wrap my head around a way that the porn industry can empower its performers. When I quit performing, I certainly didn't feel empowered by my participation and assumed that, as nothing happens once in this universe, I was not alone in my experience. However, this narrative of empowerment through sex work, specifically pornography, continues to arise. It deserves a good look.

Sex work is commonly defined as the sale/trade of sex for financial rewards. Sex workers range from the more socially accepted porn performer to the less socially accepted street walker. Porn people advocates like Nina Hartley on HuffPost Live are quick to distinguish between pornography and prostitution, and pornography enjoys a certain amount of privilege in that it is way more okay to be a porn star than it is to be a prostitute.

Though sex work is an occupation that can readily establish economic security, sex work research often examines the pitfalls of being a sex worker as well as the negative stereotypes associated with being a sex worker. No matter what the Duke freshman or any porn star may hope, she/he will encounter these stereotypes at some point. And because stereotypes suck for the most part, there are both short- and long-term negative impacts that stereotypes can have on people or groups of people. For example, if you tell a group of girls, "girls are bad at math" and then give them a math test, they will do worse than a control girl group who is not told "girls are bad at math." Even if that group of girls is Asian, who are stereotyped to be better at math, the group will still perform worse. So one stereotype doesn't necessarily cancel the other out.

Sex worker stereotypes are incongruent with Duke freshman Belle Knox. She's been the center of media attention because she doesn't fit the archetype of an economically insecure, uneducated and perhaps drug-desperate prostitute, i.e. our stereotype of a sex-worker. Now, enjoying a modicum of media success, she is being outed for not being porn enough -- for not having the experience necessary to address or even understand the real issues of being a porn star, like the issue of porn piracy, which extends beyond female empowerment. I'll probably be shot down by making this analogy but she is basically an upside-down Beverly Hillbilly: too privileged to be in porn but now dirtied with the stigma of being a sex worker.

It follows that even though porn stars aren't stereotyped as negatively as are their sex worker prostitute counterparts, they will still suffer from the negative stereotypes of being a sex worker. In light of these stereotypes, and the crushing weight of stigma (from inside and outside the industry) that the porn performer must occasionally bear, I'd like to pose a question bigger than "Is porn bad?" I'd also like to assert two possible and antithetical solutions that I think could diminish the effect of stereotypes associated with sex-work.

Question: What action can the porn industry take to empower porn stars suffering (men or women, both during and after their careers) from the negative stereotypes associated with sex work?

Solution One: Drop the label of "sex worker" and adopt the title of "adult film actor." This solution legitimizes the performer's role as an actor in pornographic films by severing it from the morally-loaded concept and illegality of prostitution. Claiming to be both an actor and a sex worker blurs the lines between socially acceptable and unacceptable sex work, and is hard for some people to compartmentalize. This solution starts with consciousness-raising made possible by op-ed pieces (kind of like I'm trying to do here), coupled with media darlings like Belle Knox, Sasha Grey, Stoya or James Deen advocating for the mainstream entertainment industry to respect and recognize their work done on the other side of Mulholland Drive. The end point of this solution is a newly created branch of SAG specifically catering to adult film actors, union protection, and tireless intellectual property litigators and watchdog groups to stop or help diminish porn piracy. Yes, Hollywood would have to give up some of the privilege associated with being a movie star, but wouldn't it be worth it to help it's awkward and naughty little sister?

Solution Two: Fight for the decriminalization or legalization of sex work. By drawing imaginary lines between sex work performed on camera and sex work performed behind closed doors, porn (unintentionally) debases the majority of sex workers: prostitutes, escorts and humans who have been trafficked for sex. This solution would legitimize the work that hundreds of thousands of sex workers currently do, bringing awareness to working conditions, health and prevalence while creating a more socially acceptable face for an age-old industry. The industry could create short-term, goal-specific coalitions with organizations like COYOTE or Free Speech Coalition. Porn company CEOs could use some of that porn money to grease the political wheels or elbows or whatever is in need of greasing. The end point of this solution would be the removal of sex work from the legal code (decriminalization) or enhanced health and safety regulations for all sex workers (legalization). Yes, porn stars would have to give up some of the privilege associated with being a porn star, but wouldn't it be worth it to help it's awkward and naughty little sister?

I don't know what will make life easier for the American men and women who are sex workers, whether they are porn performers or are your garden variety prostitute. What I do know is that the stereotypes that sex workers must overcome are often hurtful and debilitating, and sex worker's own belief in these stereotypes is one of the reasons why many continue to perform in sex work. Just like prohibiting the sale of alcohol was a colossal failure, the sale of sex is here to stay. Perhaps there are ways that the industry in charge of glamorizing sex work can help Americans change the way sex work is perceived.