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Friday, November 21, 2008

How Not to Do a Story About Porn

I just sent the following letter in response to an article in Philadelphia's City Paper. The original article is at http://www.citypaper.net/articles/2008/11/13/meet-south-phillys-stoya.



It's clear that Matt Stroud came to his assignment with a stick up his innards about pornography.

It's not surprising that Stoya got annoyed with him after a while. Sex workers are used to being approached by people with a judgmental attitude toward their work -- people who can't accept them at face value; who assume, if they seem happy, that they must be hiding something. I'm willing to bet that's what Stoya picked up on and got "mad" at.

Stroud makes his bias clear in innumerable small ways. There's his description of contract stars as "indentured," as if to remind us of the almost-slavery of some early American settlers -- while ignoring that "mainstream" actors, athletes, and other sorts of professionals have agreed to very similar arrangements up to the present time.

His ignorance is screamed again when he quotes someone at a porn confab who tells him many of the women he sees there are "fluffers." This looks like a case of natives-hoax-anthropologist; there's actually no such thing as a fluffer. Porn producers are far too cheap to keep people on retainer just in case someone has trouble keeping it up; they simply expect the male talent to have this ability.

Near the end of the piece, Stroud says, "I know [Stoya's father] doesn't like [her performing in pornographic films]. Stoya says as much." Unless Stroud has left something out, this too is false. What she told him is that her father works for a "mega-Christian" employer. It's Stroud who insisted that "almost any company would find that difficult to deal with." And he likewise projects that onto her father.

Then there are the quotes interspersed with the story, which are of dubious relevance when not from plainly erotophobic sources. One of these is a book whose title equates kink with "hatred"; another is from Susan Brownmiller and concerns the relationship between war and rape. The statement in itself is incontestable but has no bearing whatever on the subject of pornography; its inclusion could only have been intended to create a spurious association in the mind of the reader.

But none of this came as a surprise after reading the column by [publisher] Bruce Schimmel, who clearly shares Stroud's bias. He claims that porn "feeds on exploitation," without ever bothering to define this term. The only objective sense of the word of which I'm aware is that of one person's living off the labor of another by means of some sort of power imbalance, typically an unequal distribution of property. Under this definition sex work occurs in both exploitative and non-exploitative contexts, like most any other kind of work. But the stigmatizing attitude expressed in the article contributes to the conditions for exploitation.

Schimmel even cites Boogie NightsBoogie Nights as having shown us what the lives of porn stars are really like. Um, excuse me, Bruce, but that film was fictionfiction; it reliably showed not what the porn world is like, but how Hollywood is comfortable portraying it and/or thinks we want to see it.

If Schimmel, Stroud, or anyone else wants to get a more accurate picture of the porn industry, I recommend they subscribe to Spread$pread, a magazine by and about sex workers. Their URL is http://www.spreadmagazine.org/.

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