In the wake of the Weinstein scandal and subsequent publicity of high-profile sexual abuse cases, questions about our society’s “sexual structures” are receiving greater public attention. Recent articles published by Public Discourse, Fight the New Drug, and the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy have drawn attention to research that links pornography and sex trafficking. The data increasingly show that many women and virtually all children featured in pornographic material are victims of sex trafficking. Consequently, demand for pornography translates into demand for trafficked girls and boys. The criminal underworld readily meets this demand.
While the existence of this direct causal chain between western consumption of pornography and sex trafficking is clear and relatively uncontroversial, I want to suggest that pornography may also be having a more elusive and indirect influence on the sex trafficking industry. In this essay, I will focus on pornography’s influence on both the demand and supply side of “sex tourism.”
Sex tourism is defined as the practice of (typically western men) traveling to countries where there are fewer restrictions against and penalties for purchasing sex. Often, they buy sex with children under eighteen, which is automatically considered sex trafficking under US law. These children are typically from impoverished homes, and pimps exploit their vulnerability with promises of food and money before selling them to foreigners. Child victims of sex tourism make up a significant proportion of the nearly two million children victimized by sex trafficking internationally each year.
What would it take for someone to reach such a degraded level of moral corruption that they could premeditatedly plan to travel across the world in order to rape child victims of sex trafficking? This heinous crime, which should elicit the moral outrage of any rational person, is the object of the sex tourist’s “holiday.” How is it possible to become so inured to this evil? We could ask the same question about the pimps whose entire business it is to sell boys and girls.
Could pornography play a role in inculcating this inertia? It is commonly held that pornography, and sexualized culture more generally, help to gradually transform our attitudes about sexuality to be more permissive of degrading and even violent acts. Obviously, people are complex—traffickers too—and so understanding exactly what causes any given person to act in a certain way is impossible. Yet I think we have good grounds to believe that pornography is an aggravating factor in enabling pimps and johns (those who buy sex) to act in such ways.
As sex tourism has flourished in our digital age, pimps have taken to platforms like Backpage, Craigslist, and even YouTube to advertise “their girls,” making it relatively simple for sex tourists to find them. These ads give us the briefest of insights into the minds of the pimps and johns that engage in sex tourism. While working in the Philippines during the summer of 2017, I was assigned to investigate a potential trafficker who was using YouTube to post videos of young Filipino girls with western men. He provided the following “argument” in defense of his work:
It is beneficial for these children to “go on dates” with foreign men. Since the girls would be having sex anyway with their boy-friends, by paying them, the “visitors” are in fact helping the problem of child poverty.
Based on the fact that his channel had nearly six thousand subscribers, this so-called justification was apparently widely satisfactory. Yet it should be obvious to anyone capable of basic moral reasoning that this argument is outrageously flawed. How is it, then, that traffickers and their clients appear to believe such twisted logic? I suspect that the answer lies, at least in part, in pornography.
Moral philosophers have been telling us for centuries that we become what we do. If we indulge in actions that are corrupt, we will become corrupt. By looking at the incredible justifications produced by the traffickers, we can see the truth of this moral maxim.
Commodifying Sex, Degrading Women
Trafficking radically detaches sex from the true nature of personal identity. By treating sex as a commodity that can be bought and sold, the pimp and the john distance themselves and their actions from the person whose body they are buying or selling. For if sex really is a detachable possession that someone owns, then the girls or boys who are sold are not really being hurt, since they generally receive some sort of desired benefit—food, money, physical protection—in exchange for what they give. The tradeoff is fair enough: since everyone involved “benefits,” there is no problem, especially since the children have often “consented.”
How might someone come to such a coldly utilitarian view of sex? Pornography’s influence and acceptance provide at least a partial answer. As research increasingly demonstrates, pornography functions as a “sexuality educator” that teaches its consumers what to consider realistic and normal in the domain of sex. It thus has the power to teach the errors that we find latent within the sex trafficker’s argument. Prostitution and pornography both teach that sex is merely a monetary transaction, focused on body parts and facilitated by consent.
If we understand sexuality to be an aspect of personal identity, and sexual intercourse to be the most intimate expression of that identity, this is deeply troubling. Buyers and pimps treat the women they buy and sell as the property of male sexual desire. The buyer has a “right” to the thing he pays for. This act of instrumentalization places the pimp and buyer in a relationship of ownership of their victim. Similarly, pornography gives viewers access to women’s bodies at all times, teaching them that such access is their right. This effect is compounded by pornographic depictions of female degradation and subjection to male force and violence, which—because porn is such an effective teacher of norms—shape viewers’ attitudes toward this inherently unequal sexual relationship. They begin to see it as normal.
Inadequate Conception of Consent
Yet what about the fact that the victims have often supposedly “consented” to be in this unequal relationship? This consent, insofar as it is obtained (which it legally never can be from minors), is understood in a very juvenile manner. Reduced to a threadbare notion of verbally affirmed non-resistance, consent becomes an almost meaningless benchmark that allows pimps and buyers to feel no remorse about their abuse. In reality, the willingness of victims to engage in prostitution is often so heavily influenced by financial circumstances, psychological coercion, and trauma bonding that their “consent” fails to reach any reasonable standard of morality.
What could lead someone to hold these impossibly inadequate notions of consent? Again, pornography likely plays a role. The view of consent pushed by the industry is regressive to the point of paradox: as long as the “yes” is obtained, anything goes, including depictions of violence against women, which appear in a staggering 88 percent of pornography. Even if consent is obtained in the production of the scene—which often it is not, as Fight the New Drug’s evidence shows—the effect of this education has been an increasing tolerance of deviant forms of sexual behaviour, including rape. By sensationalizing violent, non-consensual, degrading sex acts while claiming they are fundamentally consensual, pornographers send a deeply mixed message. This message comes through pornography so powerfully that it tends to reinforce rape myths in its viewers. The resulting notion of consent lacks almost any intelligible content.
Is There a Causal Link Between Porn and Sex Trafficking?
Three things are clear. First, traffickers and sex tourists hold erroneous attitudes and assumptions about sex, consent, and dignity, especially with respect to human trafficking. Second, these attitudes and assumptions inform their justification for carrying out horrific crimes against vulnerable people. And third, pornography is known to produce in its consumers exactly these attitudes and assumptions.
To draw from this the inference that pornography is enflaming trafficking through the sex tourism and prostitution industries seems logical and justified. It must, however, remain for the time being a prima facie inference. What we need—and what we presently do not have—is significant hard empirical evidence that pornography inflames the trafficking trade by instilling its values. We already have the evidence linking pornography with distorted sexual attitudes; now we need research to determine whether it is these attitudes that cause (and are not just correlated with) people to participate in sex tourism as either a buyer or a seller.
There is one last thing to consider. This essay began by crediting the work done by institutions such as Fight the New Drug in exposing the direct link between pornography and sex trafficking. The fact that so many pornographic performers are trafficked is one part of a much larger story concerning the lack of consent that appears to be ubiquitous across the industry. When one considers the frequency of the coercion and dishonesty that trick and pressure women into performing in pornography, one can see that a large amount of pornographic material depicts acts that are not in fact fully consensual.
On one level, this obviously entails that one ought not to watch pornography, because it will feed demand for an industry that systematically exploits women, girls, and boys. But a darker conclusion follows, for often these acts both are in fact rape and are depicted as rape. Regular consumers of pornography are thus routinely watching commercial sexual exploitation, indirectly participating in the rape and abuse of an innocent victim for the sake of their own sexual gratification. Even if we did not think that this could influence someone to act out and purchase sex, this simply ought to be the end of the question morally.
Thanks to Nathan Elvidge, recent PPE graduate from Oxford University, for his extensive help on this piece.