By David S. Prescott, LICSW, Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D., & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.
The past several weeks have seen many events in America that have the potential to influence the work of professionals in our field, both nationally and internationally. Many have been horrific, such as the rising tide of gun violence and the grief, anger, the outrage felt around the world in response to the murder of George Floyd and, despite the trial of Derek Chauvin and its historic outcome, the ongoing killings by police officers. Each new headline is a reminder that the people we serve often experience the world very differently than many professionals do. We all find ourselves in a dilemma: If we are to heal in the wake of world events, we need to be able to talk about them on the one hand, and on the other hand, many people are either too anxious to dialog and/or too exhausted to try.
With this in mind, a New York Times exposé appeared this week focusing on the porn industry. Where erstwhile journalistic investigations once examined the conditions of professional production of sexually explicit materials, the Times’ focus is on how the so-called “tube sites” of the modern era are run. These include Pornhub and several other sites that followed the YouTube example (readers might recall that YouTube’s original slogan was “broadcast yourself”).
In this article, Nicholas Kristof describes many examples of what until recently was commonly referred to as “revenge porn” (that term does not appear in this article, presumably because of recognition that there are other motivations than revenge, including profit and the perceived thrill in causing harm to others). These are situations in which (mostly) women are coerced or cajoled into producing sexually explicit media which are then uploaded to the tube sites. In many (but by no means all) cases, the person who is victimized in this way is underage. As Kristof observes, the video may be brief, “but the attack on dignity becomes interminable.” He provides numerous examples of people who pleaded unsuccessfully to have their videos taken down.
We need to be clear – as other professionals have noted – that the actions of the people uploading these videos are acts of violence; referring to it as pornography diminishes the experience of those harmed. It's important to note that posting “revenge porn” is committing an offense, it is not necessarily linked to a paraphilia or mental illness. We need to be careful about not pathologizing people when it's not appropriate. In many cases “revenge porn” speaks more to society's attitudes and understandings of sex, consent, and sexual harassment.
Many questions about these tube sites follow, which have implications for the ethics of sex, relationships, and business. As on many other occasions, we have more questions than answers. For example:
· When is consent truly consensual? How is consenting to sex being recorded different from consenting to sex?
· Can this consent be withdrawn as it can be with research, mental health treatment, or medical interventions?
· How should businesses account for the harm that they cause under these circumstances?
· What can we learn about human relationships from all of this? How many sacrifices do people make, in the moment, for their relationships that they will later regret? How do we raise young men to be more than the video equivalent of trophy hunters? And how to we raise our girls to remain attentive all the time and to be assertive, also towards boys who are older and whom they admire?
· How do we prevent violence while protecting free speech?
· How do we enable freedoms more broadly while keeping vulnerable individuals safe?
Another issue raised by this article is the apparent lack of empathy and concern in our society. The businesses are in it for the money; that much is clear. Nevertheless, one wonders who is running these businesses. Are all of these people as callous they seem? Do they only have an eye for the money? How can they look the other way? And what about the viewers?
The video of the rape of Heather Legarde, described in the article, has been watched by 200,000 people. One in eight videos on three major tube sites depicts sexual violence or nonconsensual conduct; hence, there is an audience for these videos. These figures should give us all goosebumps. This is not just a small fraction of society that seeks out these videos for sexual pleasure. It appears there is a double standard here, one worthy of examination. We are all repulsed by people downloading and watching images of child sexual abuse.; isn’t this equally serious? Shouldn’t society invest in preventing this cruelty through education, sanctions, and other means to give a clear signal that this is not acceptable? And finally, what about us? Where do professionals fit into this? What can we do?
The first author posted a link to this article in a number of places around social media and received only two replies in total. The article has not gotten the attention that Kristof’s first article did. Are we witnessing a process of desensitization to the harm that people experience? Is it all becoming part of the much-discussed ‘new’ normal?