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What Causes People to Choose to Go Into the Porn Industry?

By March 7, 2020 No Comments
This guest piece was written by Harmony (Dust) Grillo, MSW, a sexual exploitation survivor and founder of a nonprofit that helps women successfully exit the sex industry. 5-minute read.
Her choice

When it comes to those who work in porn, or any other area of the commercial sex industry for that matter, there is a common belief that they end up there and stay there solely by choice.

The mentality that every performer is simply a consenting adult who “knew what they were getting into” creates barriers that prevent people from seeing the complexities of the dynamics that lead people to porn or other areas of the sex industry. Through this lens, it is easier to withhold empathy—and even worse, it’s easier to judge. Some who hear of the atrocities a woman (or man) in porn experiences may hold the opinion that it was “her choice, and her fault.”

But is this an accurate way to look at things? The truth is, not everyone who is in porn is there by choice.

Related: If You’re In The Sex Industry And You’re Thinking Of Leaving, Here’s What You Can Do

As a survivor of sexual exploitation, and someone who has spent the past two decades helping women exit and recover from the commercial sex industry, I have seen this with my own eyes. I have personally known women who entered porn as minors, which is an experience that is, by federal definition, sex trafficking. I have also known countless women who were forced and coerced into porn by pimps and traffickers.

But, for the sake of this conversation, we will set the issue of trafficking aside and focus on those who would say that they chose willingly and freely to work in porn. While this article focuses specifically on women who enter the sex industry, because women are disproportionately affected, note that men can also become vulnerable to some of the issues I’m going to talk about.

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When a decision isn’t truly made freely

The reality is, when it comes to the “decision” to enter the commercial sex industry, the issue of choice is not as simple as it might seem.

Underneath that “choice,” we often see an interplay of individual vulnerability and environmental factors. Sometimes these are referred to as Push/Pull factors, respectively.

Related: This Anonymous Performer’s Reddit Post About The Realities Of The Porn Industry Is Chilling

On one hand, you have the characteristics of an individual that may make them more susceptible to choosing to work in the commercial sex industry. It is well-documented that women in the commercial sex industry, including those in porn, have higher rates of poverty, substance abuse issues, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and are more likely to have been in the foster care system than the general population. [1]

Each of these vulnerabilities contributes to the “choice” to enter porn:

One of the most striking vulnerabilities that a vast majority of women in the commercial sex industry share is a history of childhood sexual abuse. [2] This is not a coincidence. In some ways, for me, it felt like a history of sexual abuse and rape groomed me for the sex industry because being sexualized and objectified was normalized, and therefore familiar to me. In the sex industry, being a sexual object is a job requirement.

For those of us who know the sense of extreme helplessness and powerlessness that emerge as a result of sexual abuse and rape, the sex industry offers a false promise of empowerment—an opportunity that seems to take back control of our sexuality and use it to our advantage, right?

Related: How Shaming And Victim-Blaming Porn Performers Adds To Their Mistreatment

In my personal experience, it did not take long before that false sense of empowerment wore off and I was faced with the reality that the person with the money held the power—not me.

So, on one hand, you have these factors that contribute to an individual’s level of vulnerability, and on the other hand, you have the environmental factors that contribute to a person’s choice to enter porn.

Is “yes” a free choice if “no” isn’t an option?

When you place a vulnerable woman in the context of a culture that normalizes the objectification and sexualization of women, a culture in which there is a huge demand for her to work in porn, with porn sites receiving more regular traffic than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined, [3] it becomes easier to see how she becomes susceptible to “choosing” to work in porn.

Related: How A Popular Cam Girl’s First Mainstream Porn Shoot Turned Into An Abuse Nightmare

The heartbreaking reality is that, according to one study across 9 countries, 89% of women in the commercial sex industry want to leave, but don’t see any other viable options for survival. [4] A follow-up study examined women in stripping, brothels, and street prostitution and found no difference the number of women (89%) who want to leave. [5]

This begs the question, what is choice without options? Is “yes” still really a free choice if “no” isn’t a legitimate option?

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This leaves 11% who might say “I am here by choice, and I want to stay.” Even for that small percentage, the fact that they want to work in porn does not protect them from the extremely common, precarious, and even threatening situations where they are coerced, and sometimes forced, into performing acts outside of their boundaries.

Even in mainstream porn, there is an incredible display of violence against women. In a content analysis of the 50 top-selling porn movies, 88% showed physical aggression toward women, primarily spanking, gagging, and slapping.

The demand for this type of content sets the stage for women—even those who are there by choice—to be coerced and exploited in order to meet the demand.

What coercion looks like, even for those who choose

Here is what we often hear from the women we serve at my organization who have been a part of the porn industry. These scenarios of exploitation and coercion are so common in the porn industry, many performers may not know to be wary of them and recognize them as exploitation.

Bait and switch

In many cases, women will accept a role in a pornographic film based on a fraudulent description of what she is signing up for. For example, she might be told that she is doing a soft-core, girl on girl scene.  When she arrives on set, she discovers that she is not only expected to work with men, but that the scene will involve a sex act that is outside of her comfort zone or already established boundaries.

As I write this, I am doing my best not to share things that might be too triggering or explicit, so I am leaving out the details. But I will tell you that I have heard stories of things women I care about were required to do in porn that would cause any compassionate person to lose several nights of sleep.

Threats

In the scenario above, when a woman does not want to comply with what is being asked of her, she is often threatened with the loss of money or representation, or told that she will be sued for the time and money she is costing them by not doing what they want. (By the way, this is coercion, and by definition, is sex trafficking.)

Related: Award-Winning Porn Director Suspended After Sexual Assault Allegations Surface

Degradation

Often, agents will resort to degradation as a means to coerce women into doing what they want. Here is what one woman shared with me:

“Many agents will stoop to degrading their clients as a means of manipulating them to get what they want. They will call them names and tell them they are worthless. The worse they can make these girls feel about themselves, the more these girls are likely to do to win back their attention. The agent/client relationship is really not that different from that of a pimp/prostitute. Everything is great as long as you’re making them money.”

Even in cases where women are “choosing” to work in porn, there are times when her will is thwarted and she finds herself coerced and threatened into performing degrading or violent acts that violate her personal boundaries (even in situations that are off of the set). In these instances, a woman may go from being a willing participant in the porn industry to a victim of sexual exploitation.

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Regardless of the choice, they deserve better

Blaming a person for the exploitation they experience in the industry because it was “their choice” to enter is both unhelpful and uninformed. Consider the factors we discussed that make vulnerable people more susceptible to being pushed to work in porn, even under the guise of “choice.”

Related: Not All Porn Is Consensual. Don’t Believe It? Just Ask These Performers.

At the end of the day, whether a person chooses to work in porn or not, I strongly believe that every human on the planet deserves better than the objectification, violence, dehumanization, and degradation that the commercial sex industry is built upon.

My hope is that as a society, we will see beyond the fantasy and the façade and recognize the realities of porn and the inherent value and dignity of the people involved.

About the Author

Harmony (Dust) Grillo, MSW | Victim of exploitation turned UCLA honor student, in 2003, Harmony founded Treasures to help women in the commercial sex industry find freedom. Her story has been featured on NPR, Buzzfeed, and in Glamour. Her memoir, Scars and Stilettos, gives an account of her story going from working in strip clubs under the control of a pimp, to leading an organization that reaches women on a global scale. She can be reached at @HarmonyGrillo @TreasuresLA on social media and at www.HarmonyGrillo.com.

Citations

 [1] Bracey, D. H. (1982). The juvenile prostitute: Victim and offender Victimology, 8(3-4), 151-160.
Grudzen CR1, Meeker DTorres JMDu QMorrison RSAndersen RMGelberg L. Comparison of the mental health of female adult film performers and other young women in California. Psychiatr Serv. 2011 Jun;62(6):639-45. doi: 10.1176/ps.62.6.pss6206_0639.
[2] Bracey, D. H. (1982). The juvenile prostitute: Victim and offender Victimology, 8(3-4), 151-160.
Grudzen CR1, Meeker DTorres JMDu QMorrison RSAndersen RMGelberg L. Comparison of the mental health of female adult film performers and other young women in California. Psychiatr Serv. 2011 Jun;62(6):639-45. doi: 10.1176/ps.62.6.pss6206_0639.
Harlan, S., Rogers, L. L. & Slattery, B. (1981). Male and female adolescent prostitution: Huckleberry house sexual minority youth services project. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Melissa Farley, 2004, Prostitution is sexual violence. Psychiatric Times. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/sexual-offenses/content/article/10168/48311 
Norton-Hawk, M. (2001). The counterproductivity of incarcerating female street prostitutes. Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 22, 403-417.
Silbert, M. H. (1980). Sexual assault of prostitutes: Phase one. Washington D.C.: National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape, National Institute of Mental Health.
Weisberg, K. D. (1985). Children of the night: A study of adolescent prostitution. Lexington, MA & Toronto: D.C. Heath and Company.
[3] https://www.similarweb.com/top-websites/united-states
[4] Melissa Farley, from “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” www.prostitutionresearch.com
[5]  Farley, M., Cotton, A., Lynne, J., Zumbeck, S., Spiwak, F., Reyes, M. E., Alvarez, D., & Sezgin, U. (2003). Prostitution and trafficking in 9 countries: Update on violence and post-traumatic stress disorder. In M. Farley (Ed.), Prostitution, trafficking, and traumatic stress (p. 1100). Binghamton, NY: Haworth.

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