This month, one of Belgium's women's rights organizations, zij-kant, caused quite a stir with their annual "Equal Pay Day" message. Instead of merely highlighting that women, on average, earn 22 percent less than men, the organization launched a video starring porn actress Sasha Grey with the message "Porn is about the only way women can earn more than men -- find a better alternative."
The campaign has not surprisingly garnered quite a lot of interest, ranging from outrage that Sasha Grey supposedly is presenting herself as a victim, over amusement with the video's explicit content, to applause. I find myself in the third camp, for three main reasons.
First of all, it is getting harder and harder to garner outrage over the continued fact that women almost uniformly and in every single country in the world earn less than men for similar work. In June 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly decided that it would not even hear a case regarding pay and promotion discrimination against women, because "women" are not a class. The plaintiffs had argued that, while there surely are many differences between women, when it comes to pay and promotion we share one key characteristic: we tend to be under-valued at work. The Belgium video short-circuits the glassy-eyedness that often follows a comment about the entrenched gender pay gap. If only because the protagonism of a porn actress titillates, at least the ad has people listening, including potentially a few who would otherwise have resisted sitting through a minute of "feminist propaganda."
Secondly, the core message -- that porn is one of the very few professions where women consistently earn more than men (sex work being another) -- is more likely to jolt people into action than a more generic "isn't it awful" comment about continued pay inequity. Porn and sex work, generally, are still relatively stigmatized professions in many countries. Moreover, even for those who understand that sex work, including as a porn actress, can be a choice, the point is precisely that no one should be forced to carry it out. Therefore, the notion that women would have to have sex for money in order to overcome pay discrimination is a stark reminder that something has to be done.
Thirdly, the ad impressively strikes a balance between presenting Sasha Grey as an empowered woman who is choosing to work as a porn actress, and using the stigma of pornography and sex work to get a crucial message across. This is all the more remarkable because subtle messaging around pornography and sex work is so rare. A recent article in The Atlantic highlights how politicians' reluctance to even talk about sex work keeps policies in place that seriously hamper the effectiveness of HIV prevention initiatives: while New York City, for example, distributes free condoms by the millions, city police have destroyed or confiscated thousands of condoms found on suspected sex workers, and use condom possession to justify arrests.
The Sasha Grey ad is bound to make some people uncomfortable, even very uncomfortable, because of its explicit language and peripheral nudity. But what really should make us uncomfortable is the continued undervaluing of women in the formal workplace. I am thrilled that Sasha Grey has thrown her fame (some would say, her infamy) behind this message.
This article was first published on RHRealityCheck.