WE HAVE fair-trade coffee and humanely raised chicken. So why can’t we create a market for ethically sourced pornography? A couple of decades ago, people didn’t give much thought to their food’s provenance. We didn’t care about carbon footprints or the working conditions of the poor Africans who sold us our coffee beans. Slowly, however, consumption habits began to shift under the weight of scientific evidence and cultural change. We’re becoming a little more selective in our consumer choices.
Yet not with that multibillion-dollar elephant in the room: pornography. We hear rumblings here and there about the sexual trafficking of women and children, and it’s always a relief when a criminal ring is busted for what’s euphemistically called “abuse.’’ For a majority of Americans, it’s reassuring to know that whatever was going on in the far reaches of a few sick minds has little to do with their own primitive - but relatively harmless - impulses.
But do porn consumers ever think about where their porn is sourced? What a downer. Most don’t want to hear about drug-addicted runaways or Albanian teenage sex slaves. They don’t want to know about the sexually transmitted disease infections on movie sets or the life circumstances that would impel a woman to engage in physically punishing sexual acts on camera.
Part of the problem is our reluctance to acknowledge the pornification of contemporary life. If we can relegate porn to the margins of our cultural conversation, we can pretend it only touches a small minority of adult men, rather than the vast majority of Americans. Yet porn has entered the cultural zeitgeist in ways that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago - for example, the presence of former extreme porn actress Sasha Grey in the popular HBO show, “Entourage.’’ Nearly half of children ages 10 to 17 have watched online porn, according to a study out of the University of New Hampshire.
Maybe it’s just too embarrassing to admit the extent of our obsession, but people of all stripes really like watching sex acts. For example, surveys of evangelical Christians report porn viewing rates similar to the general population. Utah leads the nation in per capita subscriptions to online porn, according to a report in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Technology has produced the ideal petri dish for the biggest sexual market in human history, providing easy access, affordability, and anonymity in one appealing package.
Adult pornography is, of course, legally protected, and calls for crackdowns are disingenuous at best. Even calls to regulate the content of pornography, like Tipper Gore’s ratings system for music lyrics, are missing the point. One person’s degradation may be another person’s kink, and we don’t need more Rick Santorums policing our fantasies. Moreover, sanitized desire, like a lot of so-called “feminist porn,’’ can be a buzz-kill.
But shouldn’t consumers have some context to evaluate what they are viewing? Labels on shampoo bottles and tuna cans assure us that animals were unharmed in the making of those products. Shouldn’t we know if porn actors are subject to out-of-control STD rates or are forced to do things against their will? At a minimum, a porn housekeeping seal of approval would tell us how, and for whom, the porn was made. It might make you think twice before downloading that random YouPorn video.
There probably are attractive, uninhibited people who are excited by the rewards of porn careers - people who are untroubled by the ethics or lifestyle limitations of making a living as sex actors, or who at the least may consider it the best of their uninspiring options. There are probably relatively few of these people, but consumers should know who they are so they can make informed choices.
Making such informed choices would have a few collateral benefits. If we knew for sure that porn production was free of coercion and desperation, for example, we might find there are fewer women willing to be gagged or choked on camera.
Fair trade porn might also finally allow us to call a moratorium on assertions that women aren’t aroused by visual imagery or don’t sometimes fantasize about anonymous, unemotional sex. And market forces could eventually affect the aesthetic standard of pornography, which might, in turn, shift the skewed gender balance of viewership. If you think this is a fairy tale, recall that a generation ago, no one talked about animal abuse or the case against corporal punishment. Cultural norms do change.
Pornography is a fact of life, and parental controls and moralizing spoilsports won’t make a dent in its exponential growth. But the bar needs to be raised. The sustainable food movement hasn’t eliminated factory farms or our inexhaustible craving for junk food. But it provides an alternative model of consumption that we can aspire to. Organic and fair-trade practices are leading us, gradually but inevitably, to a better relationship with food. Maybe fair-trade porn could reconnect us to a better relationship with the human body.Erika Christakis is an educator, public health advocate, and Harvard College administrator.