05/10/2010 01:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tales From the Census Trail: The Price of Peddling Porn

I may be a Census-taker now, but only a month ago, I was at your door, selling porn. The funny thing is, I didn't think much of it, despite my background working against the exploitation of women. I never imagined I'd be asking "Playboy included?" on a daily basis, yet there I was, in strangers' living rooms, asking it of my new customers as just another of many mundane questions. Some of the enumerators on my Census Crew think that inquiring about your race and gender is uncomfortable, but that's nothing, compared to asking people about their sexual preferences five minutes after meeting them.

When I took a job peddling Comcast door-to-door in Latino areas of Chicago, I did not realize that the question of pornography would be a routine part of my job. And even when I began asking each of my customers if they did want Playboy, I did not make an immediate mental connection between my principal career combating human trafficking and my involvement with Comcast. Well, I did make one connection when I made the decision to start selling Comcast services: I thought the job would keep my Spanish fresh, thus better preparing me to communicate with potential Latina victims I might encounter in my anti-human trafficking work. Little did I know that the vocabulary I would use to ask customers about "pay-per-view" channels would parallel only too closely the terminology I have used in strip clubs when conducting outreach to Latina sex trafficking victims.

Speaking of strip clubs ... in these tough times, underemployed people such as myself are taking all sorts of jobs just to pay the bills -- perhaps you have heard radio ads in your city, like the ones aired every day on one of Chicago's most popular radio stations, that lure desperate young women who suffer from debt and unemployment to "make it happen!" by taking a job dancing in bikinis at clubs -- not strip clubs, but normal dance clubs. I was troubled to see that strip club dynamics of having semi-naked women gyrate on display were being replicated in so-called "normal" clubs.

I was especially upset when I was out on the town one night at a regular dance club in Chicago, and suddenly women appeared in G-strings and neon fishnet stockings to booty-pop on little pedestals above the crowd. I was well-accustomed to seeing that sort of objectification in the strip clubs where I had done outreach, but I was disturbed to see the go-go club milieu becoming more widespread and normalized. I spoke with the women while they put on makeup and adjusted their fishnets in the bathroom and, sure enough, they said they were drawn in by the radio ad.

But who was I to judge? Some Census workers gripe about the discomfort of "invading people's privacy," and I've heard people respond to my crew of door-to-door enumerators with comments like, "Who do you think you are, coming to my door?" and with rants about how the Census Bureau is a waste of time and money. But I actually peddled something that destroys lives, something that eats at the innermost core of our privacy: our sex lives. At first, I was simply uncomfortable with being the gatekeeper to families' access to porn; it was one little extra question I had to ask, and if they said "yes," they did want porn channels included, I had to go ahead and "hook them up," so to speak. But I was not aware that Comcast and other telecom corporations profit immensely from porn. I'm talking about the same company that tried to buy Disney in 2004.

In fact, I did not fully realize how antithetical in nature my work with Comcast sales was to my efforts in anti-human trafficking until I attended a screening of a documentary about the American porn industry, The Price of Pleasure, followed by a discussion led by the Executive Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE). That evening, my entire perspective on Comcast changed. I went home, ranted to my roommate about the documentary, and did some research (thank you, Google and Wiki). I realized that I was worse than anti-government people working for the Census Bureau, or those green celebrities who fly to Earth Day rallies on private jets: I was living a lie.

The documentary, The Price of Pleasure, examines how pornography, once marginalized by society, now enjoys an unprecedented role in popular culture as well as unparalleled profits: the industry's estimated annual revenue is $10-14 billion -- that's more than the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball combined. As the porn industry has surpassed other industries in wealth, it has been accepted as "legitimate business" and has gained political and legal power, despite the fact that porn's content has become more extreme and more overtly sexist, racist, and violent. Telecommunication and media corporations, such as Time Warner, CBS, News Corporation, Verizon Wireless, and Comcast earn over $1 billion annually from pornography, either by direct distribution through video on demand or by producing pornographic material and promoting it. Celebrities such as Jenna Jameson legitimize and glamorize the porn industry, obscuring the reality that very few women sustain careers in pornography or become wealthy from it. In fact, it is overwhelmingly men, not women, who produce, distribute, and profit from porn.

After watching The Price of Pleasure, I realized that I could not in good conscience continue to sell the services of a company that profits from the exploitation of women and youth. I wrote a letter to Comcast executives explaining why I could no longer sell Comcast services. The porn industry, I explained, continues to expand into new, unprecedented markets, and it reflects our society's failure to challenge an economic system that rewards companies for profit-maximizing and endless market expansion, without taking into account their impact on our communities.

Before working in the anti-trafficking movement, I held somewhat conventional liberal beliefs about porn -- it represented free speech, liberatory sexuality, and "free choice," made by consumers and performers alike. Like many people, I was unaware that trafficked women and youth are frequently used in porn films; one of the easiest ways for pimps to make more money is to film the victims they traffic in action. I have interacted with survivors who said they were not only trained for sexual exploitation by being forced to watch porn and imitate it, but they were also made to participate in porn that would be watched later by countless men without the victims' consent.

Consumers of pornography usually do not see the off-camera exploitation and pain these women endure. Instead, as the content of porn has become more aggressive, more overtly sexist and racist, they see the unrealistic image of women who seemingly enjoy their exploitation and objectification. Furthermore, although our society has become more aware of racist stereotypes in the mass media, porn has not reflected the same changes. The images in mainstream porn of African American men and women and Asian women are incredibly racist, and the porn industry exploits other ethnic minority groups, as well. Although pornography is diverse, the "smut peddling" industry perpetuates the idea that women are objects to be used by and for men.

If you subscribe to a cable service, I hope you will reconsider your relationship with your cable provider. By rewarding companies that stand up to the porn industry (such as Omni Hotels, one of the only major hotel chains to stop offering pornographic pay-per-view movies in its rooms) and refusing to give business to companies that profit from porn, you can send the message that our society will not tolerate the objectification, exploitation, abuse, and enslavement of countless women, boys, and girls.

After quitting my job selling Comcast door-to-door, I was overjoyed to be hired by the Census Bureau, as it has afforded me the opportunity to engage with my fellow community members in a way that does not compromise my ideals. People may complain that some of the questions we Census Bureau workers ask are a little uncomfortable, but trust me, nothing I ask on behalf of the Census is more uncomfortable than asking a 40-year-old man whose six-year-old daughter is playing with Legos on the floor beside him if he wants to watch Playboy or the Jenna Jameson Channel.

*Note: I encourage you to watch "The Price of Pleasure" for more specific info. about the statistics referenced in this post.