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A few days ago, I mentioned a hobby that has absolutely nothing to do with blogging, computers, or skeptical transhumanism to keep my head clearer and take my mind off work. To those of you who read the post and didn’t click on the link, the hobby is krav maga, a mixed martial art. If you think this is some sort of weird male nerd overcompensation, let me tell you that my wife goes to the same practice sessions and what I see her do on the canvas definitely makes me doubt her claim that she’s a lover not a fighter. So considering how much time I spend learning how to do what you’d see in a UFC fight, when a Facebook friend posted a link to an article about a high profile bout and the first comment called MMA a low point of civilization and base entertainment not unlike pornography, exploiting people for profit, I got a wee bit steamed. My reply was swiftly followed by assertions that MMA fighters are working class kids with no other job prospects who get savaged in the ring to cheering crowds and are then cast aside like porn starlets who simply aren’t keeping up with the pace of the industry anymore, ending up broke and alone.

Now aside from the fact that there’s no evidence for this assertion and my own experiences at the gym definitely contradict this (the vast majority of the people I see doing sport fighting have office jobs during the day or are college students), I was obviously riled up. What the hell was all this? Was the person making these sweeping statements and going by old stereotypes in boxing movies on the lookout for a victim to defend from an oppressive society? Did his visceral hatred of seeing someone take a blow to the head make him blind to the fact that some people want to fight and challenge themselves, and that fighting is an insanely complicated sport? Now, we did settle the discussion like adults, and one of the points brought up did make me think. Are UFC’s top fighters objectified much in the same manner as adult performers? Are they just kept around as long as they provide entertainment and then dismissed while those who watch them work are only interested in what they can do, not who they are as people? Well, yes. But who isn’t?

If you dwell in a cubicle farm for most of the day, especially in a large company, you’re reduced to the amount of work you do, just like an MMA fighter is reduced to stats, and porn stars are reduced to the amount of views and money they bring in from a certain demographic. Constant objectification lies at the core of post-modern nihilism that rejects the patterns of life we’ve been told we should follow and the documents that sum up who we are in a resume. And one big part of living in today’s society is coping with being objectified in one way or another, though we only really complain about it happening in public when the objectification happens in an area of life that we’ve been conditioned to see as base vices. The MMA critic on Facebook complained that fighters get pummeled for entertainment (wrath) and that porn stars become sex objects in adult videos (lust), but he probably didn’t even think to make a peep about HR seeing you as John Q. Public, employee number 1375-23J, cubicle 44B. If anything, this last type of objectification can be even worse, reducing a person to hours on a spreadsheet or burndown chart.

And that makes me wonder. If I am going to be objectified, is it really so bad that I was objectified when doing something uniquely human, something raw, emotional, and irrefutably alive than as lines of code, items in production, and hours billed? If anything, being seen as a unit of work on dashboards and charts is far more dehumanizing than having your technique for elbowing your opponent in the ring analyzed and trainers making sure you can execute a really painful block enough times? At least here you have a chance to excel in a way that lets people see your pain but also your dedication and the ability to control your aggression as a sequence of techniques rehearsed a thousand times to commit them to muscle memory. We can ask the same question about adult video performers. Yes they’re a gateway for someone’s sexual gratification but they get the benefit of being objectified in raw passion and emotion, uniquely human qualities that a slot on an office chart could never have. Having a personality is what we reserve for those who become famous by distinguishing themselves enough to be featured in the mass media…

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intense blue eye

It’s a frequent societal stereotype that women in porn must have been sexually abused as kids, otherwise they would never go into this line of work. You can hear it from social conservatives in their dire warnings about porn addiction and from feminists who find all porn to be merely an exploitation of women for the enjoyment of men, alike. So one would think that to put the idea of the typical porn star as dealing with molestation or abuse through hypersexuality to rest, all one would have to do is have them take a survey, right? It seems fairly straightforward and it’s just what one study has done. After a survey administered to 177 women being tested between their videos, it found that 36% report being molested as children. If that sounds rather high, a control group of women who presumably had nothing to do with pornography reported a stunning 29% rate of sexual abuse. Basically, when taking the small sample sizes into account, it looks like the stereotype is wrong and women in porn are not predominantly survivors of molestation.

Oddly, note that according to the surveys, nearly a third of all women have been molested and often cited numbers say that anywhere between 20% to 40% of women have experienced some sort of sexual abuse as children. That’s disturbing to say the least, but the matter if also rather problematic because nearly all of these studies are relying on self-reporting on surveys given to convenience samples of women, which is science jargon for "asking whoever’s first available to fill out the questionnaire." This could easily produce a skew because the samples are not a truly random slice of the population but more homogenous demographic groups and the answers will reflect experiences typical for their group as well as their interpretation of what it means to have been sexually abused. Some groups of women may report a very low incidence of abuse during one study and a totally different group would report a very high one in a later one. And while a sample of women will consider a particular episode in a gray area during their childhood to be abuse, others would have forgotten and never reported it, or considered odd but not abusive.

So what does all this mean? It means that this study is certainly not definitive and could well be skewed, especially because women in porn know that people are eager to stereotype them into their image of what a female porn starlet should be: a hapless victim degrading herself because she was denied a proper childhood and now suffers from self-esteem issues that manifest as an over-active sex drive. When they’re doing self-selection and self-reporting, a bias simply could not be ruled out. And this, as well as the comments on the results of this study on news sites, is the other result from this study I find extremely disturbing. There really seem to be people who want female porn stars to be "damaged" so they can rationalize their choice to have sex on film as something only a person who "has issues" would do. And I’ll bet cash money that those exact same people commenting on how those poor abused dears whose father figures had boundary problems would go on to watch porn with those poor abused women. It’s not just a few weirdos watching it; only social media use exceeds online porn viewing. And not by much at that.

There’s something fundamentally unhealthy and downright bipolar in how we view porn and sex in general here in the U.S., and even this small study and the issues it raises gives us a peek at that. We cannot be a society that promotes unrealistic, self-indulgent piety and prudishness, just as we also can’t demand that everyone must embrace every sexual position, arrangement, kink, and relationship with nothing less than an orgasmic grin. This is absolutely a case in which the golden median is not a fallacy but a good approach. Humans are wired for sex. We enjoy it, we enjoy watching it, entire areas of our brain are dedicated to lust and encouraging us to find new mates, and all this enjoyment evolved to coax us into reproduction. To stigmatize natural urges and demean those who we end up watching doing the very things we said only "damaged" people do, fueling an industry that pays them for doing them in the process to the tune of billions per year, is hypocritical at best. And it’s especially bad when it’s done for irrational reasons like the wholehearted embrace of cold, haughty, snobby prudishness as the social norm…

See: Griffith, J., et al. (2012). Pornography actresses: an assessment of the damaged goods hypothesis Journal of Sex Research, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2012.719168

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