I frequently get requests for guidance, mentorship, and insights from undergraduate and graduate-level university students. Though I can’t get to them all, I try.
Recently, I received a query from a student named P re the significance of language in framing sex-related crimes. P had many questions about the phenomena of “RP” and “CP” — two very real issues framed by extremely off-mark monikers, which are repeatedly spouted in the media.
This (language) is actually a really big deal as these ill-assigned terms serve to detract attention, awareness, and services from actual survivors of sexual abuse and/or privacy violations, while simultaneously further marginalizing and stigmatizing autonomous, self-directed sex workers
Below is my (relevant) correspondence with P – What do you think about the power of language in this context?
(And if you’d like to read more about my hot objection to the terms “child pornography” and “CP” — the logic behind which can also be applied to “revenge pornography” — check out Chapter 18 in Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment right here.)
In response to P and the significance of language in framing the initial query as “revenge porn:”
DrCT: I know you are just using the common vernacular, but I must reiterate – There is no such thing as “non-consensual porn” or “revenge porn.” Porn is a legal enterprise and a labor negotiation between consenting adults. When people/media use “porn” in conjunction with a illegal enterprises related to privacy violations, entrapment/coercion, sex-related crimes against minors, etc etc, they are muddying the issues and augmenting the harm experienced by survivors of illegal activity, as well as enhancing the stigma and marginalization experienced by sex workers in the adult entertainment industry.
Then our interview continues…
P: What do you think would be better terms to use when discussing “revenge porn/non-consensual pornography”?
DrCT: Blackmail? Entrapment? Some form of abuse? There is nothing “pornographic” – erotic or sexual – about the crime people are referring to when they use the phrase “revenge porn.” It’s similar to sexual assault in the sense that, because there are sex-related behaviors involved (penetration, nudity, etc), people think there must be something sexual about either crime. Absolutely not. RP, like rape/sexual assault, is about power and abuse. There is nothing erotic about either.
(I am not talking about rape fantasy here, which is obviously something different)
P: Do you think that the mainstreaming of pornography is why we now see sexting becoming a ritual within courtship?
DrCT: Sexting is an evolution of a collection human behaviors that’ve always been present – the pursuit of physical sexual interaction. Before people were sexting, maybe they were emailing, calling on the phone, visiting on the porch while parents peeked through the curtains, writing letters, sending messages by carrier pigeon, etc etc. What we are seeing is simply a modern, tech-evolved behavior that’s always been present.
P: You mention on page 109 how [*some* porn fans – not all] porn fans treat women performers. Throughout this passage I kept coming back to the word entitlement and then you mentioned that very word. Do you think that this entitlement is why law enforcement and other government officials fail to see the seriousness of this issue?
DrCT: Entitlement could be part of it. Slut shaming and gender inequalities related to sexualities come into play as well. Essentially, the exchanges we see between some porn fans and performers and some law enforcement and women who have had their privacy and rights violated are all variable products of a long-standing cultural practice/belief in the accessibility and commodification of women’s bodies (the intensity of which varies with race and class, among other things).
P: Do you think that the ability to reduce porn stars to body parts (James Deen’s penis or Sasha Grey’s vulva) contributes to the reduction of women in the minds of some men?
DrCT: Certainly – though I would say “…contributes to the reduction of some sex workers/porn performers in the minds of some fans/viewers/consumers.” This very much happens to men performers too, very frequently in the gay production industry.
P: How is/or do you believe that pornography is contributing to gender violence?
DrCT: Pornography, like all other media, is a fixed text that is then interpreted by consumers. As such, two people may view the same text in a very different way and the specific form of media in question (porn) has no more or less an impact than any other text (film, book, etc).
What I do see as a problem though is a lack of sex education (or even the ability to speak about sex) in our culture contributing to a massive tendency to misappropriate porn as educational. Porn is NOT a sex ed tool, but people look at as such because it’s the easiest option in a world that can’t speak about sex frankly. And when people copy what they think they see in porn, especially without having a conversation with their partner first, all sorts of problems can emerge.
P: Do you think that porn’s popularity is influencing sexuality more so now than in the past?
DrCT: I don’t think it’s porn’s popularity so much as it is porn’s accessibility due to technology. In general, what we see in our culture is a gluttonous demand for more – more food, more stuff, more news, more updates, more, more, MORE! As such, there is pressure in every corner of the world to satisfy. Porn is no different in this respect.
P: Do you think that adding the word pornography to actual crimes is a catch all that people are using to diminish the legitimacy of sex work and why?
DrCT: 100% absolutely. Porn is a mysterious industry people don’t know much about. And we as a culture are so puritanical about sex – porn’s basic operating principle (sex as a performance/work that can be monetized) – smacks against many of the embedded attitudes we have about sex. And when we conflate a person’s job with a crime, all it does is distract from an actual crime on one hand and marginalize workers (thus making them susceptible to crime themselves) on the other.
It is a vicious cycle that needs to be challenged if we are to ever make any progress towards sexual liberty and survival in general. Foucault spoke so much about the power of language and how the dominant narrative controls the lives of so many, simply by what words are chosen. I cannot emphasize enough how significantly this concept/discussion is at play in this situation.
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