This week I had the opportunity to speak at FemSexNYC, a “sexuality workshop rooted in anti-oppression framework for all gender identities.” The on-going conversations provide a space for people to come together and discuss issues around sexuality that are often challenging to have among friends or in other settings. I was asked to speak about something which is rarely discussed in the sex trade: what does it mean to be an ethical consumer of the sex industry?
The role of consumers and clients in any industry is a powerful one in terms of changing and reforming an industry. Fairly recently, public divestment from the browser Firefox over the recently-appointed CEO’s financial contribution to homophobic policy change directly led to the ousting of that CEO. The sex industry is no different, and just like the criminalization of workers, the criminalization of clients only creates additional barriers to effective change.
(For purposes of audience, I’m going to be talking a lot more about consumption of porn than I usually do, but I am hoping these points will be relevant to all sex-industry audiences and consumers.)
Be an Ethical Consumer
One of the first challenges of this topic is that “ethical consumption” has become an umbrella term that means something different to each person who uses it, and one of the fastest pitfalls is assuming that it has a single, practical definition. The first step in being an ethical consumer is defining what that actually means for you, and realizing that just because something is labeled “ethical” or “progressive,” it may not reflect what your define as either.
There are many lines along which we can attempt to determine what “ethical” means. For some (myself included), labor and workers’ rights is primary and central to any kind of definition, and informs decisions about investment. Other considerations such as whether a business is LGBTQ-affirming, racially diverse, female-owned and run, environmentally sustainable, or vegan (yes, there is vegan porn) may also play a role in the decision of what “ethical” means to an individual consumer.
Be and Ethical Consumer
If you want to be an ethical consumer of the sex industry, you have to be a consumer. Labor rights don’t exist without a labor force, and that means a paid labor force. This seems like a silly point to make, but very often when we talk about the sex industry, lots of folks get stuck at the end of the ‘x’ and forget entirely about the business element. While a lot of us passively consume sexualized media in one form or another, it’s the informed, ethical, and proactive customer we’re talking about here, and our ability to participate as stakeholders in the sex industry wanes as we withdraw our capital. If you want to make changes as a consumer, purchase the porn that works for you, tip your dancer, and show your provider that you appreciate those services by contributing financially. The sex trade is about services rendered for resources, and so while you may not know your provider’s favorite flower or wine, you do know what they have asked for in exchange for their services.
Ethical Consumers are Informed Consumers
An ethical consumer is an informed consumer, regardless of the industry or product in question. Doing research to identify constituent and worker-led organizations will be your best guide for understanding the industry and its many nuances.
Once you have defined what genre or product you are looking for (again, perhaps vegan porn?), seek out those groups to inform your choices. In the same way that we can look to the Domestic Workers Alliance to make better decisions around home care, or the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to tell us where to buy our tomatoes, the sex industry has a host of organizations which are peer/constituency-led, and can support us in making informed decisions around our consumption.
Groups such as the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC), who recently released a Porn 101 video to link performers directly to those not in the industry, have been steadily working on advocacy and reform. If you are looking for expertise on the sex trade, look to those who live in it day in and day out and respect their expertise. Sex workers are going to be the most knowledgeable about their work situation including boundaries, decorum, and safety.
When looking at the larger picture a diversity of voices is essential. Everyone experiences the sex industry differently, and based on a lot of different characteristics, from where you work to what you look like to what kind of passport you carry, different policies, procedures and laws, impact workers differently. According to porn performer and advocate Stoya, “You need to listen to multiple workers, evaluate what their views are likely to be based on their pressures and experiences, and make your own mind up for yourself.”
Ultimately, if you have a question: ask. And then trust the answer. If you don’t know the split between what a dungeon gets versus what your Domme gets – ask management. If you don’t know how performers at a peep show or via porn are paid for their work, ask the owners of the website. Just showing interest in those issues will let workers know that their customer base wants to be informed, and that can help build the foundation for widespread change.
Ethical Consumers are Advocates
Being an ethical consumer, in the end, is about being an advocate and doing it with your wallet instead of a megaphone. (And when it comes to labor rights and capitalism, that’s actually, ultimately, more effective than any megaphone.) The sex industry is a wide, nuanced, complex, and expansive network of experiences and individuals, and though you may only interact with a small section of it, it’s important to put that experience in context. Beyond that, we should all be making efforts to create a space which supports the lives of those whose labor you access, or at the very least to not make it worse.
While it might sound glib, when folks ask how to support those in the sex industry, I often say “don’t tell dead hooker jokes.” What this really speaks to is how often people contribute to a culture which mocks, stigmatizes, and shames those who are employed in the sex industry. The first and last thing that everyone can do, whether you are a worker, consumer, client, advocate, academic or ally is to fight that culture, both by not participating in behavior that reinforces it, and by asking those around you not to participate. Asking your friends not to tell offensive jokes or to stop using the term “whore” may not seem like a lot, but it is actually the first step to creating a culture which seeks to advocate for and respect, instead of dehumanize, those in the sex trade.
-Kate D’Adamo, Community Organizer