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If you spend any time in any forums where people talk about sex, it is a truth as inevitable as night following day that, sooner or later, someone is going to talk about porn.

And as soon as someone starts to talk about porn, a certain predictable conversation will come up.

"Porn performers are coerced and trafficked," someone will say. "Porn is bad because women are forced into it. It is a terrible meat-grinder industry. We need to rescue all the victims of porn."

The same narrative comes up around sex work as well. Sex workers, according to a certain kind of person, are victims, people there because they have been forced, threatened, or tricked into it.

The people who make these arguments, in my experience, almost certainly don't know any porn performers or sex workers. They will cite "studies" they read on the Internet, like the rather dreadful study that claims legal prostitution in the Netherlands has resulted in a huge increase in trafficking in that country. (I've read that study. Buried in the fine print: the study's authors define a "traffick victim" as any person who for any reason crosses national boundaries and then ends up working in any capacity in the sex trade. So a person who immigrates legally and voluntarily goes to work as a sex worker is a "trafficking victim" according to the study.)

A particularly pernicious variant on this "women-as-victims" narrative is circulating amongst folks who are generally politically liberal and see themselves as allies of women, but still face discomfort about porn and sex work: Well, yes, women can and do freely choose to go into porn or sex work, but, you see, not abuse porn like what you see at Kink.com. Those women go into normal mainstream porn, and then they get "groomed" to do abusive porn.

I've seen variants on this narrative turning up in places where people are otherwise open to the notion that not all sex workers or performers are victims--sure, "mainstream" porn (whatever that is--I would say there really isn't any such thing as "mainstream" porn; porn is, by its nature, niche) isn't inherently exploitive, but that kinky stuff? Man, just look at it! Sometimes the performers cry! That's clearly abuse!--and for a long time, I've simply chalked it up to standard, ordinary squicks about exchanging money for sex, cultural taboos about sex, ideas about what is "normal" or "not normal" around sex. You know, the ordinary soup of preconceptions, emotions, and cultural norms that oozes through the public discourse on sex.

But lately, I've started thinking there's something else at work, too. Something that lies rooted in a tacit assumption that those who hold these ideas about porn and sex work hold, but don't directly articulate, and an assumption that sex-positive folks who support the right of people to choose porn and sex work don't directly address: the starvation model of sex work.

The starvation model of sex work starts with the assumption that it is hard to find people who want to do porn or sex work. A reasonable person wouldn't make that choice, except through coercion or the most dire of necessity. Therefore, to feed the demand for sex workers and porn performers, there must be coercion and abuse.

In places where porn and sex work are criminalized, that makes sense. Production of porn and sex work becomes a criminal enterprise. The pool of people willing to work in criminal enterprises is small.

In places where these things are not criminalized, the equation is different. I personally know many porn performers and sex workers (yes, including performers for Kink.com). They report they enjoy what they do and choose to do it freely. I have no reason to doubt them.

And yet, whenever I ask the folks who criticize the porn and sex work industries, or cast sex workers as victims, if they've ever talked to sex workers, the answer is almost always "no." And when I say the people I know choose what they do, the response is almost always incredulity.

If we assume that it is true nobody would voluntarily choose to do porn or sex work, then it makes sense to think the folks who are doing it, aren't there by choice, and to look for coercion. If we assume there are lots of people who are willing to do porn or sex work, but nobody would choose to do "abusive" sex work, then the same thing holds--the folks who appear in Kink photo shoots must be being groomed, tricked, manipulated, or coerced.

If, on the other hand, we assume that there are actually quite a lot of folks who are totally okay with porn and sex work, the narrative falls apart. Why would I, as a porn producer, risk my business (and prison) forcing women to perform when I can simply put out a call that I'm looking for performers, and people will come to me voluntarily? Why would we assume that every sex worker is a trafficking victim, given that there are people who like the idea of doing sex work?

For the women-as-victims narrative to hold true, a necessary prerequisite is women wouldn't choose to do this voluntarily. But that premise is rarely stated explicitly.

So why would people make that assumption?

I spent some time asking questions of people who promote the sex-worker-as-victim narrative, and discovered something interesting.

Psychologists often talk about a quirk of human psychology called the fundamental attribution error. It's a bug in our firmware; we, as human beings, are prone to explaining our own actions in terms of our circumstance, but the actions of other people in terms of their character. The standard go-to example of the fundamental attribution error I use is the traffic example: "That guy just cut me off because he's a reckless, inconsiderate asshole who doesn't know how to drive. I just cut that car off because the sun was in my eyes and there was so much glare on the windshield I didn't see it."

We do this All. The. Time. We do it without being aware we're doing it. We do it countless times per day, in ways large and small.

The penny dropped for me that something similar was going on in discussions about sex work during a different conversation--not about sex work but about polyamory. There was a guy who was railing, and I mean railing, about polyamory. Nobody, he said, would ever truly be okay with it--not really. No guy would ever willingly share a woman with another guy. Sure, poly folks say they are okay with it, but that's just because they think it's the only way they can keep the one they love. You give any poly person the magical power to have absolutely anything they wanted, he declared, and nobody would choose to share a partner.

Now, this is a load of bollocks, of course. I would, in a perfect world, still be poly, and still not have any desire to have my partners be sexually fidelitous to me.

When I told him that, he flipped out. That's disgusting, he said. No man--no man, no man ever--would be okay with it. No man. If someone says otherwise, there's something wrong with him.

We see the same line of reasoning used in other arenas. No man would be okay with having sex with another man--if a guy fancies other men, there must be some kind of damage or trauma, as one example.

And then it clicked.

I would like to propose that there is another bug in the operating firmware of humanity, similar to the fundamental attribution error. Call it the fundamental construction error, if you will. We as human beings re-construct the world in our own image, assigning our own values, ideas, squicks, taboos, likes, and dislikes to the great mass of humanity as a whole. "Nobody likes," "everybody wants," "nobody would," "everybody thinks"--all statements of this class can most properly be understood to mean "I don't like," "I want," "I wouldn't," and "I think."

"You must be damaged in order to be gay" really means "nobody would want to be gay," which really means "I wouldn't want to be gay."

"All sex workers are victims" really means "nobody would want to be a sex worker," which really means "I wouldn't want to be a sex worker."

The fundamental reconstruction error makes it extremely difficult to realize that other people can be, on a very deep level, not like us. We assume that others are like us. This tacit assumption is the foundation of most of the models we build of the social world around us. It doesn't get explicitly mentioned because it's wired so deep it doesn't even get noticed.

Why are porn performers and sex workers victims? Because nobody would do these things voluntarily. Why would nobody do these things voluntarily? Because I wouldn't do these things voluntarily. Ergo, it must be--it follows inevitably that it has to be--that people who do these things are damaged, broken, victimized, or have no other choice.

And since it follows that these people are damaged, broken, victimized, or have no other choice, then the stories of people who work in the sex industry voluntarily can be discarded--because they are the words of someone who is damaged, broken, victimized, or has no other choice.

I would like, therefore, to propose a radical idea:

The world is made of lots of people. Some of those people are different from you, and have different ideas about what they want, what turns them on, what is and is not acceptable for them, and what they would like to do.

Some of those ideas are alien, maybe even incomprehensible, to you.

Accept that it is true. Start from the assumption that even if something sounds weird, distasteful, or even disgusting to you, it may not be so to others--and that fact alone does not prove those other folks have something wrong with them. If someone tells you they like something, and you have no compelling evidence that they're lying, believe them--even if you don't understand why.

How do you do it?

Awareness of the fact that your cognitive impulses are buggy is a good place to start. I started looking at myself any time I caught myself saying "oh, that driver is an asshole" or "oh, that person is obviously an inconsiderate jerkoff"--I would stop and say "huh. Have I ever done that? Is this an example of the fundamental attribution error?"

Doing the same thing when you find yourself assuming that all X are Y, especially if it's "all X are victims" or "all X are damaged goods," is probably a good mechanism for sorting out the fundamental reconstruction error. Is that really true, or are you just re-creating the world in your own image?


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 20th, 2015 01:48 am (UTC)
You might find the following a useful on this topic..

Jul. 21st, 2015 05:30 am (UTC)
Sermons?!? You do get around.
Jul. 21st, 2015 05:46 am (UTC)
I do :)

Been doing that gig for the better part of fifteen years now...
Jul. 20th, 2015 04:07 pm (UTC)
I usually hear the fundamental construction error called the typical mind fallacy, or sometimes the mind projection fallacy.
Jul. 21st, 2015 05:01 am (UTC)
Seconding that this is not a new idea. I've heard it called the "typical mind fallacy" as well as "typical psyche fallacy". It comes up in internet discussions occasionally, though it hasn't shown up on Wikipedia's fallacy or bias lists last time I checked, probably because it's not yet a professionally accepted term.

Hell, I came up with a very similar concept when I was about 10 years old, years before I first had internet access. Never made up a name for it, but I resolved not to fall prey to that particular form of "stupid" that seemed to plague everyone else. It's a double-edged sword sometimes... people are thankful that I'm extremely nonjudgmental about them, but some aren't happy about the fact that I'm also extremely nonjudgmental about people who aren't them.

Edited at 2015-07-21 05:03 am (UTC)
Jul. 20th, 2015 11:40 pm (UTC)
Adding religion to the mix
Franklin, you stated:

"You must be damaged in order to be gay" really means "nobody would want to be gay," which really means "I wouldn't want to be gay."

I would suggest that religion has an important influence on that kind of thinking.

From beliefs such as:
(1) "God says in the Bible that homosexuality is an abomination and must be punished by death"
(2) "I believe in God and the concepts of Heaven and Hell as taught by the church"

(3) "I must not sin by practicing homosexuality; it would go against God's word, and I'd be punished by eternal torment in Hell"

And then:
(4) "Nobody would knowingly sin in that manner, because the punishment is so severe"
(5) "Those who do sin in that manner are damaged. They are either unenlightened and need to understand the nature of their sin, or they have been corrupted by the Devil".
Jul. 21st, 2015 05:27 am (UTC)
I never thought I would be saying this, and to you of all people, but "Duh."

This might be the one example of something I've formed as an idea/touchstone/mantra over the years without sharing; but hopefully not. It just never came up in so many words, and so I just held the concept as a given.

Actually, now that I think about it, I've been throwing this in faces for at least 20 years now. When some co-worker rails against homosexuality as a failed choice, I asked her when she decided to be straight, ie. attracted to men. She defaulted to the "But I'm normal" non-defense. No self-reflection there.

Even longer ago, I remember asking a religious coworker why he was so threatened by evolutionary science, when the vast majority of evolutionary scientists have no beef with him or his church. (His church was one of those that would picket places that advocated evolution. Go figure.) Do the scientists need to picket his church? They know where it is, after all. This stumped him. He changed the subject.

Perhaps if more sex workers wrote for scholarly publications, this would not be the case. As it is, only those who are threatened by porn and sex work are motivated to do so. Could be wrong, but after reading your piece (which is very good, BTW) I don't think I am.
Jul. 21st, 2015 12:35 pm (UTC)
Well, there is this little problem of stigma and self-outing involved... So while motivation is definitely there, the fear is greater. I'd be out as a former sex worker doing scholarly research if I didn't think it would destroy my fledgling career as a mental health professional (and some other important family relationships).

Although these consideration didn't stop this journal from existing:
Jul. 22nd, 2015 12:58 am (UTC)
Consider that one of the oldest Internet acronyms is IMHO (In My Humble Opinion); separating opinion and fact has been important online dating back to early Usenet, even.
Jul. 25th, 2015 12:46 am (UTC)
this is an internal error i picked up on early in my time in the public kink scene - that one's own preferences do not in any way represent some kind of universal truth for all people everywhere.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )