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The Perfect Threesome? Porn, Patriarchy and Capitalism

02/27/2014 01:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2014
Photography and Design by Demi Cambridge via Getty Images

An article, written by a Duke freshman/porn star, has been circulating the Internet after being posted on xoJane. In this rant, she seems to assert that her choice to do pornography is an economic one and, the main point, that patriarchy is threatened by female sexuality.

Interestingly, her blanket statement that "society...sets up a norm in which women simply cannot win" fails to take note of the capitalist principles that affect all of us -- especially those within the labor ranks lacking a college education or union protection. At least five people have forwarded this article to me knowing I would take interest in and oppose her argument.

However, my opposition to the Duke freshman's argument isn't based on a moral judgment of female sexuality, and I wouldn't deny that women's empowerment is a threat to patriarchy. But her logic is inherently faulty: By participating in porn, she's perpetuating a patriarchal capitalist narrative by oversimplifying the process of women's empowerment. Basically, her actions as a sex worker actually feed in to and preserve systemic inequality within capitalist structures.

Capitalism requires cheap labor so that profit remains high. Historically, capitalism also depends on women as a disposable labor force; ask Rosie the Riveter in post-war America and men who wanted "their" jobs back. Capitalist societies assert that inequality is the force driving self-betterment, an argument I'm sure Milton Friedman would get behind. Capitalism demands educated citizens; a demand that creates conflict if you are poor and lack means to higher education. Capitalist principles explain the decline in cities like Detroit, where good jobs are off-shored to Mexico, and then India, and then China, demolishing the American Dream one neighborhood at a time. All of these demands are made in the name of the consumer.

So back to the freshman's claim about female sexuality (i.e. participation in pornography) threatening patriarchy. My issue resides in the cultural narrative of women as a disposable labor force: the Duke freshman's participation in pornography sustains this narrative. Let's review capitalism again, but using pornography's principles.

• Pornography demands a cheap labor force to turn maximum profit. Her rate for anal is two hundred dollars more than you want to pay? Hire another girl for cheaper.

• Pornography demands a disposable labor force to continue turning maximum profit. Don't like this girl? As a consumer, you click to the next one. She contracted AIDS after participating in an adult film? As a director, you hire another girl without AIDS.

• Economic inequality (or, according the freshman, Duke's incredible tuition) has long been a motivator for selling sex, and this inequality is a capitalist force that the adult industry exploits.

• Economic security requires an education, which is often offered as a reason women end up in porn.

The claim that selling sex can help a woman climb out of poverty, on a micro level, is a viable argument. Yet, why put forth selling one's body as a solution to high-tuition, instead of advocating for lowered education costs? When she claims that pornography is a good economic solution for women, she minimizes the systemic inequality that women still face -- minimizing issues like the 31.8 percent of single mothers that live in poverty -- downplaying the need for a social safety net while reinforcing the fundamentally capitalist principle of picking yourself up by your bootstraps.

Consequently, her argument that selling sex is a way of disrupting patriarchy, and thus patriarchal capitalism, falls short for me. Just like the price tag on her education, patriarchal capitalism and free market principles determine the price tag on her body. It's patriarchal capitalism that will determine she is "shot out" and should retire. And after she's retired from selling sex, she will have to re-enter a patriarchal capitalist society, "ashamed" or not of her economic choices.

If she chooses to stay in pornography, she has the capacity (and perhaps drive) to help organize performers in the adult business, to participate in the creation of protectionist and pro-labor unions. Listen, I'm not such a prude to tell this girl, "Don't do porn, it's not really gonna empower you like you think." But I will say, "If you're going to do porn, at least do something good for the people in porn while you're there." She sounds like an intelligent and articulate young woman. Hopefully, her education is worth the cost.