Updated: Tuesday, 10th December 2019 @ 1:00pm

Porn and the battle for ownership of the #MeToo movement

Porn and the battle for ownership of the #MeToo movement

| By Joe Hadden

In 1997, a 13-year-old girl named Heaven opened up to social worker Tarana Burke about her mother’s boyfriend molesting her.

“I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper…me too”, Burke, a black woman from the Bronx, New York, writes on her website.

The website is Just Be Inc, an organisation she founded in 2006, aimed at improving the welfare of disadvantaged black and brown women. Burke harkened back to her conversation with Heaven nine years prior, and adopted the words Me Too as a slogan for her new organisation.

Eleven years later Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was seeing his reputation shattered by allegations of sexual misconduct. Upon recommendation from a friend, actress Alyssa Milano asked her followers to tweet ‘Me Too’ if they had ever been subject to sexual harassment or assault.

MeToo quickly became #MeToo - a more apt appearance for today’s digital world. While intended to be a universal rallying call, the current revelations surrounding Weinstein and a handful of other Hollywood heavyweights gave the slogan a strong association with the sinister goings-on of Tinseltown.

That MeToo’s target demographic had gone from working class black and brown women in New York to budding actresses and socialites in Hollywood was a testament to the movement’s fluidity. MeToo had established itself as a malleable force, that can be shaped and interpreted for any context.

Ten miles north of Hollywood lies the spiritual home of Los Angeles’ second favourite industry: porn. The proximity of The San Fernando Valley (dubbed ‘Silicone Valley’, or less imaginatively, ‘San Pornando Valley’) to Hollywood is symbolic of the close relationship between the film industry and the adult film industry. Budding actors trying to ply their trade in the film industry often find themselves in porn as way to make ends meet.

‘Casting couch’, one of porn’s better known formats, sees aspiring porn actresses requested to perform sex acts on a producer in order to score a gig, a narrative eerily similar to the encounters detailed during the MeToo saga.

The relationship between porn and feminism is a long and complicated one, and the debate over how porn serves women is unique in its polarising nature: porn is either bad for the welfare of women, or good for the welfare of women.

The feminist anti-porn narrative says porn is degrading, objectifying and humiliating. The feminist pro-porn narrative says porn is liberating, empowering, and gives women agency.

As a result, both sides of the aisle have found ways of utilising the MeToo movement at the other side’s expense, and both side’s embrace of the movement has been slammed by the other side as cynical co-opting.

Many anti-porn campaigners consider pornography to be another form of prostitution, albeit with a camera in the room. If you consider prostitution as simply sex in exchange for a monetary sum, it certainly fits the bill.

In Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence, psychologist and anti-pornography campaigner Melissa Farley asks “does this wonderfully expanding big-as-the-sky-sized basket of women's voices include women in prostitution? Is their "me too" welcomed? Is the prostitution of women in pornography included in #MeToo?

“Will we include prostituted women under the #MeToo umbrella as sisters who are both victims of male violence and survivors of it? Just like the rest of us.”

Whatever you believe MeToo fundamentally means, what’s clear is as a slogan it’s being pinned to an ever increasing list of things. For people such as Farley, who has been campaigning against pornography long before Alyssa Milano pressed send on her now infamous tweet, it’s a convenient way of shoehorning her activism into the zeitgeist.

According to web-traffic analysis company Alexa, Xhamster.com ranks as the third most visited porn site in the world and 70th most visited website overall. In November of 2017, Xhamster became the first porn website embrace the MeToo movement.

“We have been very vocal about supporting #MeToo, in and out of the industry, in a way that I don't think many adult companies have.

“We've launched campaigns directly about consent, have pulled down videos that we suspected were uploaded without consent, and banned search terms like ‘rape’, ‘R. Kelly’ and ‘Iggy Azalea’” (the latter of whom had naked pictures stolen and distributed online) says Alex Hawkins, Xhamster’s vice-chairman.

The campaign referred to is the #UsToo campaign, an attempt to partially repurpose Xhamster as a forum for sex victims.

Users can upload a video detailing their experiences, attaching the #UsToo hashtag, or a blank video with the story written in the description box below. “We’ll work to make this a safe space for people to share stories,” their blog post reads.

Hawkins is quick to dismiss Farley’s application of #MeToo: “Anti-porn conservatives have been quick to co-opt #MeToo to try and attack the adult industry.

“Many conservatives believe that sex workers can not consent to the work they do, or refuse to believe that a woman would have sex on camera for any reason other than coercion. So they don't believe that consent exists.”

Feminist criticism of porn is vast, and for years debates have raged on over everything from objectification to body image, but as far as MeToo is concerned, the language on both sides tends to focus on one thing: agency.

Are actresses independent agents, acting of their own free-will and desire? Or are they coerced, dependent, and at worst, raped?

“Contrary to the media stereotypes about porn stars, the women in this industry are largely smart and ambitious businesswomen. They could do anything, but they have chosen this,” says Hawkins.

If he’s right, these smart and ambitious businesswomen have certainly picked the right hustle. In a time where the gender pay gap is often heralded as the ultimate measure of gender equality, a study conducted by CNBC found that porn is “one industry where the balance of pay certainly leans toward women.”

A report by the Independent says it’s "universally known that women get paid a lot more [than men].”

The debate over what constitutes as coercion or free will isn’t going to be resolved any time soon, but what’s clear is that MeToo has found itself squarely in the middle.

When Tarana Burke dreamt up MeToo 1997, she probably never imagined that two diametrically opposed parties would be scrabbling over its ownership. In 2018, she told a TED conference that MeToo had become unrecognisable from the movement she created 22 years ago. It’s not hard to see why.

Image courtesy of Ali Velshi/NBC via Twitter, with thanks.